Interview: North Shore photographer Craig Blacklock turns lens toward St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers

A new book by the well-known nature photographer contains hundreds of images of the St. Croix River and its tributaries.




9 minute read

Craig Blacklock with his new book, St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift. (Photo courtesy Craig Blacklock)

This spring, renowned photographer Craig Blacklock released a new book of photographs portraying the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, as well as their tributaries.

Blacklock is best known for an award-winning career capturing the beauty of Lake Superior, but he is based in the northern tip of the St. Croix’s watershed, in the town of Moose Lake, Minnesota.

The book, St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift, also celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the federal law that protects the St. Croix and Namekagon. A portion of the book proceeds is being donated to the St. Croix River Association, and all images are being donated to both that organization and the National Park Service for use in promotion and programming.

With nearly 300 photographs on 204 pages, the book travels the length of the Namekagon to the St. Croix, and then the St. Croix headwaters to its mouth at Prescott. It captures the rivers in all their seasons. There are also quotes, poems, and song lyrics scattered on pages interspersed throughout the book (disclosure: I think I happen to have the shortest quote in it, at about 10 words).

Vice President Walter Mondale, who sponsored the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act when he was a Minnesota Senator in 1968, wrote a foreword for the book.

“No matter how we relate to the river, whether a Saturday float on an inner tube or kayak, fly fishing for smallmouth bass or trolling for walleye, swimming to sandy beaches, or boating on Lake St. Croix — these photographs allow us to share our stories as well as to discover places previously unknown,” Mondale wrote.

Books are for sale through and at a special events (see below for details).

Blacklock recently answered a few questions by email about his work and the rivers he got to know through the two years of exploring and photographing the wild watershed in his backyard. He also graciously shared some images with St. Croix 360.

What was your process like?

Sunrise above West River Landing, Namekagon River

After it was first suggested to me that I do a book on the St. Croix, I did an exploratory paddle with my family from the CCC Landing down to Grantsburg in July, 2015. The water was low, and we walked our boats nearly as much as we paddled them, but I was enthralled with what I discovered. There was much more diversity than what I had imagined I’d find, and bird life was everywhere.

I met with the St. Croix River Association, and learned that 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

In 2016 I kayaked every mile of both the Namekagon and St. Croix as quickly as I could, in order to fully understand the entirety of my subject. From then until the photography was finished in the fall of 2017 I re-paddled many stretches, some two or three times. I also spent a lot of time hiking in areas such as the Interstate Parks and the trail system near Osceola, Wisconsin.

From the beginning, I knew that photographs from drones would be an important part of the project. For that, I hired a friend and colleague, Jon Smithers. Jon flew the drones and I art directed over his shoulder. We prepared for those outings by my viewing the river via Google Earth’s satellite photographs. From them, I was able to select locations I wanted to photograph, what angle, what time of day, and from where we could launch the drones.

Most of my workweeks went from Sunday afternoon through Friday morning, so I could avoid the weekend crowds on the rivers. I’d paddle and photograph during the day, and select a campsite that I hoped would present a good early morning photographic opportunity. With the exception of two family trips, all of my paddling trips were solo.

Doing the design for the book was quite fun. The book starts with the Nam, and then goes back to the source of the St. Croix and works its way downstream to the Mississippi. Within each section, I was very careful to present book spreads that worked as a whole, with images relating to each other in colors, design, and/or subject matter. I wanted the book to have a cinematic feeling of sweeping landscapes interspersed with lots of details, including wildflowers and wildlife.

My goal was to have the reader get as close to the same experience as possible to the one I was having on the river, but from the comfort of their couch.

How was photographing the St. Croix and Namekagon different than your usual locales in northern Minnesota?

St. Croix, CCC bridge to Grantsburg 2015. below highway 70

My primary subject since 1988 has been Lake Superior. While this project was still dealing with the interface of land and water in a wild setting, that was about all they had in common. Superior’s shoreline is often bare rock, and so my photographs are often of rock, water, the horizon line and sky. Those images leave the photograph open to multiple interpretations by the viewer.

By contrast, the St. Croix is teeming with life, and the images are much more literal. It is hard to interpret a deer or an egret other than what they are, which is magnificent critters we share the planet with.

From a practical point of view, photographing the rivers presented the challenge of a current, which is often rather powerful. It was sometimes hard to stay in place to make photographs, and even harder to paddle back upstream if I decided, too late, that I wanted to make a photograph of something I’d just passed by.

What is something you learned from the St. Croix?

Sandstone cliffs and St. Croix River, William O’Brien State Park

The river’s history of exploitation of its resources has a clear environmental lesson: The planet is finite.

I look at the St. Croix as a metaphor for so many environmental battles that we have “won”. We put a boundary around it, declared it a National Park, and sort of checked it off as “safe”. What we are now realizing is that like every environmental battle ever fought, whether to save a species or specific place, it requires ongoing vigilance to preserve those protections. We never permanently win an environmental struggle. The best we can hope for is to prevent losing the current one.

Now, we must not only be good “river stewards”, but in the light of overpopulation and its offspring: climate change, ocean acidification, runoff pollution, and a host of other threats, we must also become good global citizens. If we don’t, everything we love, not just the rivers, will be lost.

I’m asked what I mean by “good global citizen”. There are lots of specific things I could list, but the easiest way to answer is this: With every decision you make, from whether or not to have a child, to what kind of car you drive, to if you ever fly in a plane again, ask yourself one simple question, and really research the answer.

The question is: If every one of the 7.6 billion people on the planet made the same decision, what would be world be like in 50, or 100, or 1000 years?

What kinds of techniques did you find useful in shooting the St. Croix? What’s the best way to capture the river’s unique beauty?

Sandhill cranes

I paddled with my camera with a 150-600mm lens on it, between my knees. That way I was always prepared for any wildlife that I might happen upon. I made sure that my settings were always correct for the current lighting, so all I needed to do was raise the camera and compose the image.

Most of the photographs were made from a tripod. Sometimes, when the water was shallow, that was in the middle of the river, as I would get out of the kayak and tie it to myself, so I was free to make the image without worrying about the boat drifting away.

The biggest piece of advice I’d give people is to get up about an hour before sunrise. Most of the magic happens pre-dawn and in the first hour of light. This was really important when we photographed from the drone, looking down on the fog rising from the rivers.

Was there a “photo that got away?” An image you sought but for some reason couldn’t capture?

Earl Park Landing up and downstream

I saw a lot of kingfishers, a bird I really love and named my kayak after, as like the bird, I’m always making short trips over the water and then back to land again. But I never was able to get a photograph of one. It would have taken floating down the river in a portable blind, and other priorities won out.

As a professional photographer, what is important about protected wild areas?

Hot air balloons rise over St. Croix Crossing Bridge

I don’t think protected areas are necessarily any more important to photographers than for anyone else. We all need access to natural areas to be healthy and happy.

I think nature photographers (especially those of us who are over 60) are more aware of the demise of our natural areas, and beauty in general. We also feel an obligation to use our artistry to try to bring about an awareness regarding what we are doing to our natural world.

What do you feel is your overall message in the book?

Canoe ready to launch from 50th Avenue Landing, St. Croix River

The book has three messages. The first is a celebration and acknowledgement of what people like Gaylord Nelson and Walter F. Mondale did in 1968 to create the National Scenic Riverways and give National Park status to the Namekagon and St. Croix.

The second theme is to bring about an awareness of what the rivers offer and what they mean to us, and in many cases have meant to several generations of those who live near and recreate on the rivers.

Lastly, the book requires us to look to the future and take stock of how we must each adjust our lifestyles, in order to pass on not just the rivers, but a healthy planet.

Why did you feel it was important to support the St. Croix River Association with this project? How did they help you?

Blue flag iris along St. Croix River

The SCRA is the official “friends” group of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. As such, they are the interface between the river users and the resource, providing education, building awareness, and looking out for these amazing rivers, often in ways the Park Service cannot.

These rivers have an intrinsic value, as well as a value to the many people who use them, including members of my own extended family. I want my photography to give back to the world, helping in any way I can to strengthen the bonds people feel for the natural world.

Without stakeholders, without a public that understands and values nature, the protections that places like the St. Croix now enjoy, will quickly be taken away.

Upcoming events

Stillwater Public Library
May 29, 2018 – 6 to 8 p.m.
224 3rd St. N.
Stillwater, Minn.

Live, original music by Stillwater’s own Peter Mayer accompanying Craig’s videos. Peter provided all of the original music for Craig’s video that is available with every book purchase. Reservations required.

Fitzgerald Theater
June 6, 2018 – 5 to 9 p.m.
St. Paul, Minn.

Premier showing of Saving the St. Croix Riverway, a film by John Kaul (with still photography by Craig Blacklock). Craig will have a books available for sale at the event. Tickets required.

Marine on St. Croix Library
July 16, 7 p.m.
121 Judd St.
Marine on St Croix, Minn.

Book signing and presentation. Note that this event is sponsored by a camera club, and much of the discussion will be around the photography, which will include some time explaining the technical photography and digital editing techniques I used to create the images for the book.


It is well worth seeing these photos printed large and hung on a well-lit wall. They draw you in. Here is where you can find them:

  • Mill City Museum, 704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN, April 12 through June 23, 2018
  • Watershed Cafe, 99 N Cascade St, Osceola, WI, April 24 through June 23.
  • Weiss Library/CHARAC Art Center, Hayward, WI, June 27 through September 7, 2018
  • The Phipps Center for the Arts, (group show) Hudson, WI, September 14 through October 21, 2018
  • Minnesota Marine Arts Museum, Winona, MN, October 24, 2018 through January 20, 2019
  • Watershed Gallery, National Eagle Center, Wabasha, MN January 22, 2019 through April 30, 2019


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Interview: North Shore photographer Craig Blacklock turns lens toward St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers