The skies didn’t just threaten rain, it was a promise. But even so, on this Saturday afternoon in early September, a group of U.S. military veterans was in good spirits as they gathered at Osceola Landing. The possibility of precipitation was not a worry.
Retired tank mechanic Art remembered a saying from his soldiering days: “It ain’t training unless it’s raining!”
This day was far from military training, a simple relaxing float down a beautiful river with a small group of people who had also served.
The veterans were signed up for a Vets on the River paddle, offered by the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Polk County Veterans Services Office. The National Park Service has organized river trips for veterans for several years — a way to thank veterans, and offer nature’s healing powers to those suffering the physical and mental wounds of war. The program has been supported by the National Parks Foundation and the St. Croix River Association, and frequently partnered with the Rivers of Recovery organization.
Even with dark clouds overhead, this trip would be a few hours to forget worries and enjoy what is good in life.
At Interstate Park in Minnesota, the group gathered around on the beach while the day’s guides spoke for a few minutes. National Park ranger Jeff Butler, an Army veteran and one of the forces behind Vets on the River, and retired Park Service ranger, current volunteer, and Army veteran Bob Whaley talked about why they think the program is important.
Their main message was that the military, veterans, and National Parks go back to the beginning of America’s federal park system. When the nation’s first National Park, Yellowstone, was designated in 1872, it was the U.S. cavalry who served as its first stewards and rangers.
When Yosemite National Park was created, many Buffalo Soldiers, African American troops, patrolled it and sought to prevent poaching, illegal logging and mining, and other destructive activities.
“I would submit the Army went a long way towards protecting an area that had very little protection and turned it into a place of relative tranquility, where tourists could enjoy it while also protecting its wonders,” longtime Yellowstone employee and historian Lee Whittlesey told Smithsonian.
It was 44 years after Yellowstone was designated that the National Park Service was created, taking over management of the lands. But Bob Whaley told the veterans standing on the banks of the St. Croix that many service members who had been working in the parks chose to leave the armed forces and got hired as some of the first National Park rangers.
After this history lesson and brief instructions to make the kayaking more enjoyable, everyone pushed off. There were first-timers, folks who had paddled a few times, and a couple who knew what they were doing.
There was also Duke, Bob Whaley’s four-year-old dog, who rode in Bob’s canoe, and watched over all of us, and let us pet him whenever wanted.
One paddler pushing off into the river happened to be responsible for the whole event happening. Andy Butzler is the Polk County Veteran Service Officer, and an Iraq War veteran. He was also expecting his first child in a matter of days, and his battle buddy Billy was visiting from St. Louis to see his old friend before the baby arrived.
The pair had served as paratrooopers in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. Both men deployed to Iraq twice in the mid-2000s. Andy had paddled a few times, Billy never had, and was possibly a little nervous.
But he had nothing to worry about, quickly finding his balance and cruising around the river. The whole group spread out or gathered in groups and pairs as they proceeded down the river.
It started to sprinkle, then stopped. Nobody seemed to notice, or care. The pattern continued for the rest of the trip.
The benefit to the wet weather was solitude, because there was hardly anyone else on the river. It was still and silent, the smooth flow of the river seeming to embody peace and tranquility on Earth.
I ended up paddling with Ranger Jeff for the first stretch. After his comments before launching, Butler mostly remained in the background. He watched the paddlers, and talked about the power (and limitations) of a river trip.
For the past two summers, in addition to day trips in kayaks, Vets on the River has been organizing multi-day fishing and camping trips on the Namekagon and upper St. Croix. In drift boats with fly fishing guides at the oars, veterans get an immersive experience on Wild & Scenic Rivers.
All the Vets on the River programming has had real benefits, but the country is still leaving many veterans without the support they need. Time on the river can offer a little “light” for many participants, but Jeff said some of them return to dark worlds. Up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while up to 30 percent of all Vietnam War veterans have experienced it in their lives.
Polk County’s Butzler says a lot of veterans need help connecting with their communities, and with other veterans, when they leave the military. That’s why, having just started in his position in January of this year, he jumped on the chance to schedule a paddle. It offered respite, and relationships.
As they settled into the river’s rhythm, the paddlers talked to each other, laughing as they got used to the feel of the boat under them. There was still quite a bit of traffic noise from Highway 95 where it runs next to the river, but the keening cry of bald eagles could still be heard.
It was about a mile downstream from the launch, when we came around the bend at the Franconia bluffs, that a sense of stillness settled over the small navy. Conversation slowed, and paddles stopped moving.
“Thats what I always look for,” Butler said to me. “When they put the paddles down, sit back, and look around.” He smiled because he could sense how despite a little rain, despite the difficulties of trying a kayak for the first time, weights were lifted. The river had once again carried everyone to a place of peace.