Free as a flowing river

Days and nights on the St. Croix supply a stream of spring sights and sounds.

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Moon and maples. (Greg Seitz St. Croix 360)

“This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four mile an hour. We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885

I spent a couple nights and a few days on the river this week. Although I wasn’t floating downstream on a raft all night, instead camping on shore, I still stared up at the stars and experienced some of Huck’s “solemn” dark hours.

I also witnessed the delights of dusk and dawn, the sights and sounds of spring sunsets and sunrises. When the light is fading, everything rushes home and offers their prayers. Sandhill crane calls echo endlessly around the valley, coyotes yip and howl on the bluffs, a few scattered frogs call, holding out hope. When the sun comes back, the wildlife sing its praises and stake out their feeding and breeding grounds.

My vessel was a pontoon boat with a small kayak on board. I saw some 20 miles of river, camped on islands, and felt free as the flowing river. My third and final day on the water, I docked the pontoon and kayaked several miles downstream.

I couldn’t help thinking about Huck.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is considered one of the first “Great American Novels.” The Mississippi River, hundreds of miles below where the St. Croix enters it, plays an important part in the epic story, which takes place in the 1840s or 1850s.

Huck’s life is inseparable from the river. It’s his muse and his refuge, his known world and his path beyond.

That’s always been the case for humans around here. It still is.

Sunrise at Cedar Bend. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

“I sat down there on a log, and looked out through the leaves. I see the moon go off watch, and the darkness begin to blanket the river. But in a little while I see a pale streak over the treetops, and knowed the day was coming.”

– Huck Finn

Rivers make for natural stories, with a beginning and an end connected by a wandering line between.

Huck’s writer Mark Twain grew up on the Mississippi in the years before the Civil War, where settler life was slightly farther along than the St. Croix River region. The St. Croix opened up to European immigrants in 1837, two years after Twain was born in Missouri. While towns from Prescott to St. Croix Falls were being founded, Twain was finding his own stories to the south.

Franconia bluffs. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

“America is a great story, and there is a river on every page of it. Rivers run through our history and folklore, and link us as a people,” wrote Charles Kuralt.

I was turning 40 years old in a strange time, and the river was the right place to do it. I felt transported back in time to antebellum America, when the Mississippi felt like frontier. I also went back 25 years or so to when I was Huck’s age, another boy coming of age on another stretch of river.

The stars and other mysteries of our world often occupied my thoughts.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.”

– Huck Finn

Awe and wonder continue to keep me busy, and keep me happy, to this day. Kuralt knew a river’s value, too. “They nourish and refresh us and provide a home for dazzling varieties of fish and wildlife and trees and plants of every sort,” he wrote.

I sought that nourishment and refreshment, the dazzling varieties of plants and animals, to celebrate a milestone birthday during a very strange time. The St. Croix provided.

With the boat anchored at an island campsite the first night, I sleep under the stars as an almost-full moon travels between the bluffs. The temperature drops into the 40s. I toss and turn, and when I wake up to roll over, I’m awash in white light and silence.

I have long been a fan of dawn on the river. As hard as it is to drag myself out of bed at 4 a.m. and paddle out to see the world wake up, summer sunrise brings beautiful warm light, a chorus of birds, the glory of a fresh world.

Spring nights are another sort of special. Hearing is your only sense of any usefulness, and there are many unfamiliar sounds.

“The moon was so bright I could a counted the drift logs that went a-slipping along, black and still, hundreds of yards out from shore. Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late. You know what I mean—I don’t know the words to put it in.”

– Huck Finn

Throughout the night, I wake to fish and beavers splashing, strange bird calls, crunching branches on shore. Barred owls are always within earshot, hooting “hoo, hoo, hoo, hoooooo.

I can occasionally hear distant vehicle traffic, and there are anglers and other campers around. But the St. Croix River can offer an illusion of solitude that is unique.

It starts getting light not long after 4 a.m., with sunrise before 6 a.m. I roll up my sleeping bag, make coffee, and push off, headed upstream.

Red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows sing out as I pass. I rarely see them, but can almost always hear them.

Other, larger birds are seen but not heard, riding the morning air rising out of the valley as the sun starts to hit it.

When I tie up and walk the bluffs, the light filters through the first leaves of the season, the canopy about a quarter closed. Flowers stretch toward the sun, and bugs buzz around them.

The days are long now. I spend the second night at a campsite in a side channel, where little flocks of palm warblers flit through the maples during late afternoon.

As I’m heading back to the landing on the last morning, I see two birds on a log which is pressed against the head of an island by the strong current. They are spotted sandpipers, little shorebirds with long legs that like to fly low over the water, looking most like oversized swallows with wings that arc full of air.

I bring the boat around to watch them for a minute, and notice odd behavior. One is standing up as tall as it can, legs, body, and neck stretched high, and pacing back and forth. The other stands squat, watching, unmoved.

I believe this is some sort of courtship. Female spotted sandpipers typically have multiple male mates, and leave most incubation and brooding of chicks to the males. The older females typically have the most mates, average more than two per year.

The river is cold and flowing powerfully to the south, the last of spring’s high water slowly making its way downstream. A place where the current is pushing into an immovable object (like a snag or island) makes me naturally nervous. It’s a risky place.

I watched the sandpipers dancing on this log, inches from the dangerous current, sure of their footing and their wings, focused on some ancient ritual. I turned the boat back around and headed home.

“So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.”

– Huck Finn

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The Earth’s sole natural satellite, and a pair of white pines. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

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One response to “Free as a flowing river”

  1. Rose Gag Avatar
    Rose Gag

    What a wonderful commentary. You made the river come alive. Thanks.

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Free as a flowing river