Father’s Day fell on one of the longest days of the year, the apex of summer, the peak of productivity, so I spent six hours covering nine miles of the St. Croix in my kayak.
That’s a pretty slow pace — I was barely paddling, drifting with the current, dodging sandbars, taking lots of photos. I didn’t stop long anywhere, but just took my time, soaking up summer on the river.
I have two little kids at home, and this was a great day to celebrate being their dad. Rather than paddling upstream and then floating back downstream, as I often do on solo adventures to make a shuttle unnecessary, today I treated myself by going downstream the whole way.
The St. Croix is very low right now, which meant there were a lot of beaches and few motorboats on the stretch between Osceola and William O’Brien.
There were plenty of other paddlers, but also a great deal of peace of quiet.
Not long after launching, a spotted sandpiper trying to chase me away from its nest only succeeded in getting my attention. I really like these little birds, although they can be drab, as they swoop over the water’s surface like oversized swallows, and run around on sandy beaches.
I stuck around long enough to get a few of the best photos I’ve ever managed of this species, then left it in privacy.
In slack water and out of the way corners of the river, huge swarms of damselflies fluttered and mated. These relatives of dragonflies aren’t as strong of fliers, but offer iridescent color and a certain soft beauty.
I was almost ready to give up on spotting a prothonotary warbler this year. This is another favorite river species, as it’s the only warbler that lives in the floodplain. I’ve only ever seen them from the seat of a canoe or kayak — even a pontoon boat is too noisy and limited to get within viewing range.
After spending quite a while tooling around in an area I’ve seen them before, quite certain I was hearing one, I gave up and paddled away.
I had no more than turned a corner than one of the beautiful yellow birds suddenly appeared, and perched helpfully so I could get my photos. I saw more of the birds later in the day.
Birds were everywhere, defending territory, finding food for hungry nestlings, and otherwise busying themselves in their breeding habitat.
A male Baltimore oriole entertained me with some singing as I tried to get a photo (pretty much unsuccessfully) and then flew right at me, swerving away 10 feet from my head.
With the water so low, all the spring creeks that pour out of the bluff and tumble down to the river had longer journeys. The sound filled my ears intermittently, along with oak leaves up the bluff being rustled by occasional breezes.
The stretch I was paddling including passing by a great blue heron rookery, where countless big birds were gathered in a big colony to raise their young.
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That meant I saw a lot of herons, out hunting for food. As I approached the rookery, I could hear their chuckling and chattering from at least 300 yards away. It is always a raucous spot.
Halfway through the trip, I strung up my fly rod and occasionally cast toward logs and other structure along the bank, hoping for a smallmouth bass.
I was not successful. Fishing seems tough in such low, warm water. I think a lot of the fish are hunkered in deep holes. If it’s not that, I have other excuses.
A kayak lets you get places on the river that nothing else does. Some of the best moments of my day were skimming along in just a few inches of water over a sandy bottom.
Sometimes I would go too shallow and get grounded. That meant climbing out of the boat and dragging it to deeper waters. It felt great.
My friend and St. Croix 360 supporter John Goodfellow had paddled this route the day before and alerted me to a cool sight to watch for. I’m glad he said something because I could have easily paddled right past.
On a backwater beach, there was a story in the sand. Turtles had crawled ashore recently to bury their eggs. You could see their tracks, with skid marks where their plastron (the bottom shell) had dragged across the sand, with prints from their feet lining the whole way.
As I approached William O’Brien State Park from the north, dark clouds crept up from the south. A few flashes of distant lightning were even visible.
It was time to get off the water, for now. Birds and bugs kept flying, while the surface of the river became flat and calm in the quiet before the storm.
Even a slow day on the St. Croix can go too fast. I was thinking about my next trip before I even hit the landing.