The village of Barnes, Wisconsin is about as far north in Wisconsin as you can go and still be in lands that eventually drain into the St. Croix River. Here, the forests and bogs seep toward the Eau Claire Lakes — Upper, Middle, and Lower — and then down the 20-mile Eau Claire River to join the St. Croix at Gordon.
The Eau Claire is the uppermost river that flows into the St. Croix. Above its confluence, there are only creeks coming in.
The small settlement is more storied than one might expect, incorporated more than 100 years ago, and with evidence of human habitation in the area that stretches back centuries. Much of the action has taken place not in the village but its surrounding 120 square miles, which includes most of the Eau Claire Lakes.
The long human history is what brought me to Barnes a beautiful Saturday morning in September. The historical society was celebrating the return of archaeological finds in the area that seemed to have raised just as many questions as they answered. A pair of presentations were scheduled at the town hall, and I decided to go and learn the latest.
Clues and questions
In 2005, kids swimming in Middle Eau Claire Lake found elk antlers and other bones on the sandy bottom. Elk had once lived all across northwestern Wisconsin, but were driven to disappearance by overhunting and habitat loss more than 100 years ago. Then the kids found a stone spear point, and that’s when someone called archaeologist Dr. Jean Hudson from the University of Wisconsin.
Hudson specializes in studying prehistoric relationships between people and animals, like hunting. After a decade of study, she was ready to share her findings.
The town hall was nearly full this morning. Carol LeBreck of the Barnes Area Historical Society, who had also helped arrange my visit, introduced Dr. Hudson. In the front row were Quentin and Helen Ruprecht, whose grandchildren found the skeleton and point at their resort on Middle Eau Claire Lake.
The previous night, more than 50 folks had shown up for a presentation by DNR elk expert Laine Stowell about the ongoing effort to reintroduce the animals to the region, which began with a small herd some 40 miles east at Clam Lake in 1995.
Starting shortly after the initial discovery in 2005 and for the next several years, Hudson, her colleagues, and at least 30 students worked to understand the elk’s and the point’s places in history. They conducted systematic surveys, butchered deer and elk with stone tools to study the marks left on bones, performed radiocarbon dating, pollen analysis, and much more.
In the end, a big question remains: how did a stone point made about 10,000 years ago end up in a butchered elk skeleton from 500 years ago? It made for a lively discussion.
Read more about the Silver Beach Elk in this recent article by Carol LeBreck and Julie Sarkauskas, and hopefully someday in a longer form based on many insights offered in Barnes that morning.
After the presentation, the crowd headed a mile down the road to the new Barnes Area Historical Society Museum. Completed in 2016, it was built largely to provide a suitable home for the Silver Beach Elk skeleton, meeting the standards of the Wisconsin state archaeologist.
There, Hudson showed the bones in their new display cases, and talked with everyone from neighbors to trappers about the elk and the spear point — and how it might all be connected.
I wandered around the museum for a few minutes. It also boasts a display of items related to the writer Gordon MacQuarrie, a well-known outdoors writer of the first half of the 20th century. From his cabin on Middle Eau Claire Lake, he documented the region’s rich natural resources, especially the ducks he loved to hunt, the people he shared the outdoors with, and fishing on the nearby Brule River.
There were resources for researchers, displays about logging that had occurred in the area, floating the logs hundreds of miles down to Stillwater, and more. But I had to go.
Twenty miles west in Solon Springs, some other people were canoeing around Upper St. Croix Lake to celebrate National Public Lands Day. I had missed the paddle, but wanted to join them for a hike on the North Country National Scenic Trail.
Crossing the creek
My drive took me straight across the sand barrens. This flat country which comprises much of the headwaters area is largely county forest, and planted with pine for future lumber. The county highway cut through orderly sections of trees, all the same sizes, as well as recently harvested areas with stumps and slash.
I lost count of the number of animal burrows I spotted that were dug into the sandy sides of the ditches.
At Palmer’s Landing on the north side of Upper St. Croix Lake, the paddlers were just carrying their canoes up from the boat landing when I arrived. The plan was for a potluck lunch (I brought cookies) and then an approximately five-mile hike on the Brule Bog Boardwalk section of the trail.
The event was co-sponsored by the Brule-St. Croix Chapter of the North Country Trail Association and the St. Croix River Association to celebrate recreation on lands owned by all Americans.
The canoes everyone was using were from the Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters organization, which operates its “Canoes on Wheels” program mostly so local students can get out on the water. Local river steward and organizer Scott Peterson was on hand to provide the paddlecraft.
Volunteer trip leader Terry from the local chapter then told us that our hike today would cross the bog that is the source of the St. Croix River — and the Brule River, which flows north to Lake Superior. Both emerge from this mile-wide valley where creeks cut through sphagnum moss and white cedars.
Foot travel through such terrain is not a possibility for most people, but the boardwalks built mostly by volunteers in the mid-2000s provide unprecedented access to such a wild and beautiful ecosystem.
It was not long after we started walking that we crossed St. Croix Creek on what one might say is the uppermost bridge across this iconic waterway. We were told it was a favorite spot for wasps to nest, much to the detriment of volunteers who maintain the structure.
Beyond, our route took us through shady cedar groves, where one walker pointed out there are no young cedars to be seen. He blamed the increased whitetail deer population and wondered what other tree species could replace the beautiful cedars in this wet and acidic soil.
In a few places, trickles of water flowed south, but mostly the landscape was the strange blend of water and forest.
At Catlin Creek, one of several small streams that also flows into Upper St. Croix Lake, we turned around and went back. Boots thumped the boardwalk, birds cheeped from tree branches, and the rhythm of the hike settled in. This section of trail provides an excellent experience of the lovely land where the St. Croix starts.
While Upper St. Croix Lake receives water from St. Croix Creek, Catlin Creek, and several other streams, the river itself starts at the lake’s outlet.
The outlet is visible — sort of — from an overlook on the south end of town at Leo Creek Wayside. Scott Peterson told me the mayor of Solon Springs wants to publicize this as the official source of the river, and promote the overlook, which is 100 yards off U.S. Route 53, as a place to enjoy the view.
Peterson mentioned there are two or three trees that block much of the view, though, and a simple bit of chainsaw work (perhaps with new plantings nearby) would increase the appeal.
My travels continued for the next 24 hours, visiting more natural areas, exploring more back roads, hiking more trails, and talking to more people, but those stories will have to wait until I have the time to tell them.
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