Big waves were rolling upriver toward the Boom Site boat launch as about 40 people climbed into five big voyageur canoes, preparing to paddle down past Stillwater to Lakefront Park in Bayport.
A steady wind blew from the south, a common condition on the St. Croix, but it was nothing the 24-foot boats with eight or nine paddlers couldn’t handle.
In the middle of one canoe, Rep. Betty McCollum sat next to Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway superintendent Julie Galonska. In front of and behind them sat two of the founders of nonprofit Wilderness Inquiry, which organized the outing, and Deb Ryun from the St. Croix River Association. In the bow were two young women from Harding High School in St. Paul.
All their paddles were needed to get five miles down the river against the wind and waves, where lunch awaited.
The paddlers were on the water to celebrate two milestones: the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the 40th anniversary of Wilderness Inquiry. The short trip featured a lot of what makes the St. Croix River so special, and showed why Wilderness Inquiry has a reputation for adventure and inclusion.
It was supposed to the “last nice day of the year,” a warm and sunny day before cold air and rain returned, perhaps to stay. It was a Monday, and starting the week by going out on the river seemed like success. That was probably most true for the students from Harding High School.
In our boat were two young women, one who had never canoed before, and one who had paddled many times. In the bow was their teacher, Sinthang Has, who races canoes and said this was probably his 100th time on the St. Croix this season. His shoulders may have been wider than the boat.
As we embarked, I said loud enough for the sky to hear that it would be nice if the wind would slow down. Then, it did. Or maybe it was just the deceptive power of a big, long boat pointed into the gale, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t thanks to our paddling, which was often interrupted by conversation.
The group made good progress, first crossing the bay in front of Wolf Marina, then past the Aiple Property, which will soon be a new public park. The Wisconsin bluff was almost unbroken oak and white pine forest.
Behind our canoes were the tall sandstone bluffs across from the Boom Site that draw the eye upriver.
It wasn’t long before we paused paddling to regroup, which became a regular method to keep the canoes somewhat close together and on the same track.
We operated under the direction of our bourgeois, the canoe commander who sat in the back, ruddering and telling us when to stop and start paddling. Our boat’s bourgeois was Meg Krueger, Wilderness Inquiry’s Education Program Manager and trip guide to the core. She smiled and chatted as she leaned into what she called the “easiest job in the world.”
In front of me were Rep. Rick Hansen and Joshua Straka. Hansen represents South St. Paul in the legislature, farms in southern Minnesota, and is a champion of environmental causes at the Capitol. Straka is Rep. McCollum’s district director.
In front of them were John Kaul, the Afton filmmaker who made the recent TPT documentary about the St. Croix River, and Jack “Jacques” Driscoll, who has a voyageur’s spirit and serves on Wilderness Inquiry’s board of directors.
In another boat were Mike Pohlena, Stillwater city council member, and in another, Stan Karwoski, Washington County commissioner. And scattered throughout, teenagers enthralled by the river and the experience.
I knew a few of these folks before getting into the canoe, but there is no faster way to make a friend than paddling together. It’s the purest form of teamwork I know.
It felt like we were all out there for the same purpose: experiencing the river, preparing for the next 50 years of its protection.
And I was reminded: rivers make relationships. Riding the current with someone inevitably creates a connection.
I swear, there were times that Harding teacher Singhatha Has pulled our canoe along by himself. The crew frequently got lost in conversation, or stared slack-jawed at the beautiful banks, but somehow we still moved down the river.
Later, voyageur reencator Jack Driscoll said Has kept up a pace of sixty strokes per minute, one per second, which was the voyageurs’ pace. They would do 50,000 strokes in a 16-hour day, and then get up in the morning and do it again. Has is the first person I’ve met who might have been able to keep up.
In the five miles between the Boom Site and Bayport, the St. Croix River goes through a lot of changes. It leaves the steep walls of a gorge, passes through Stillwater, slips under both the old Lift Bridge and the new St. Croix Crossing, and flows in the shadow of the Allen S. King power plant’s 785-foot smokestack.
It also offers a little something of almost everything people love about the river. There are the wild bluffs, peaceful clean waters, historic sites, restaurants and marinas, a quaint river town and noisy industrial sites.
We passed through the Lift Bridge, where a span is still removed while workers repaint and restore the bridge, before it’s opened for bikes and pedestrians next year. Following Highway 95 down the Minnesota shore, we could hear the traffic, and then the sound of a highway crew cutting and chipping brush next to the road.
It was a reminder of how the St. Croix spans everything from remote upper reaches all the way to bustling cities at the edge of a huge metropolis.
It was also a reminder how this more developed area can be surprising, as you see people fishing, boating, swimming, and enjoying the river in other ways next to residential neighborhoods and busy roads.
As we neared the end of our journey, a bald eagle flew in front of the power plant’s smokestack. No trip on the river is complete without an eagle sighting, but the bird’s backdrop of the concrete monolith drove home the juxtaposition of nature and industry on this stretch of the St. Croix.
The waves were larger as we approached our landing at the beach. The canoe rolled gently as they passed under us. We came backing into the beach, then landed with the waves rocking the boat and slapping the hull. Everyone disembarked and found sandwiches — elected officials and river bums alike.