It’s just me and the dragonflies at first. They are spaced out across the water in overlapping territories which they patrol for the right to eat anything that enters, chasing each other when their flight paths cross. This slough is rich with flying bug life, hatching from the water, feasting on the thick vegetation and fertile bottom. It makes for a hot breakfast spot.
The dragonflies are of several shapes and sizes but that’s about all I can say. They don’t stop moving long enough for my camera or basic identification skills to pick out a species. So I simply enjoy their company as I paddle my kayak across the water.
It’s a bright June morning on the St. Croix and the river is alive.
The shores are draped in heavy green limbs, and the sun is already high above the Wisconsin bluff. The solstice is almost here, and this place never feels more abundant and fertile. Everything is growing during these warmest, most humid, longest days of the year.
It’s my first such paddle on this stretch this year, delayed for multiple reasons. I’m in a new-to-me kayak and am free from obligations of home and work for a morning. Summer is in full swing. I’m here for it.
I paddle away from the landing and south to reach the main channel as I have many times, but I barely make it.
The weather has been dry and the water level is low. The channel between the slough and the river proper is shallow, with mudflats and sandbars showing. My paddle touches the sandy bottom on each side, and I feel my way through the water, steering whichever way my paddle goes farther down. It’s good to go slow, pick my path carefully.
I’ve seen a green heron here previous years. I look for it like an old friend at a class reunion, and then, there it is. It’s skittish and keeps its distance, but it’s good to see.
A female red-winged blackbird, which shouldn’t be stuck with the male’s name because her feathers are neither black nor red, but possess their own subtle beauty, hops along a muddy shoreline. She pecks at the ground, another bird with hungry little beaks waiting.
Robins guard the channel, chasing each other back and forth across the water. I weave through the gauntlet.
Most of the birds I see today aren’t very friendly. The nests I know about are occupied with chicks right now, this is the sweet couple weeks when parents feed gaping mouths. Baby robins and many other songbird species are confined to the nest for perhaps 14 days after hatching. Their parents defend the territory around the nest where they feed, fighting any competitors who encroach.
I am scolded and chastised by several moms and dads as they patrol and procure, and I remember how it is having a baby. I don’t hold their bad temper against them.
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My plan is to exit the backwater, go upstream around an island, and then paddle up another side channel. But plans are pointless, and I can’t get through.
As the side channel meets the main channel, it widens, slows, and drops sand suspended in the moving water. It has formed a bar here. I could walk my kayak through, but it might not be much better upstream, so I go up the main channel instead.
I scrape the bottom in all-new places during this outing. I only have to get out and wade once, pulling the kayak across a sandbar. The water, which comes up to my knees, is clear over clean sand.
There is already a stiff south wind which pushes me upriver against the relatively weak current of this low water level. Even in its currently depleted state, more than a million gallons of water pass each minute.
There are two gray-haired men fishing against the far bank, and the shallow water pushes me within speaking distance as I pass.
“Catching anything?” I ask, my oft-repeated inquiry for any angler I meet.
“Not yet,” one replies, “but we will.”
I admire the confidence. They’re friendly and we talk while I make my way upstream, a slow-motion meeting.
Another quarter-mile upriver, I’m nearing the point where I’ll turn back downstream and enjoy a well-earned float with the current. There is a man fishing from a kayak at the point, and once again, I inquire.
“No,” he says. “It’s frustrating.”
I can certainly sympathize. But now I turn into another side channel and put down my paddle, let the river catch and carry me along.
While the sun is blazing on the western shoreline, it’s still morning over here on the Wisconsin side. I paddle next to a steep bank adorned in big old oaks, enjoying the shade they cast. This is National Park Service property called Rice Lake Flats, and features this restored woodland and a broad prairie above.
Up until a few years ago, this bank was covered in buckthorn and boxelder, but has been brought back to its natural glory by the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway with chainsaws and prescribed fire.
The healthy landscape is too lovely to admire from afar. The view from the water is lovely, but its beauties are also small. I decide I’ll hike up the bank and see what there is to see on this peaceful piece of public land.
The first 20 feet of bushwhacking is through tall grass growing in the muddy bank seeping with springs. Frigid groundwater mixes with stone and soil that I slop through in my sandals. I admire the ragged remnants of blue flag iris blooms, petals faded or already fallen.
Then it’s up the precipitous rocky slope where the oaks grow. I pull myself up with the help of their stout trunks, stopping to see harebell, fleabane, foxglove beardtongue, and yarrow. These are summer flowers, purple and white proof that spring has succumbed.
My muddy feet slip around in my Tevas, I stop to tighten straps, and come out on top to an expansive view of many shades of green.
Compared to the river, with its springs and saturated banks, this is a desert. Here it’s sunny all day, and wind carries away moisture. But on this mid-June day it is still a lush paradise exploding with life.
I wander briefly among the oaks and observe my first and only warbler of the trip: a common yellowthroat that perches briefly enough for a blurry photo. It moves on quickly, probably looking for something to feed hungry mouths. Other unseen and unknown birds sing from the tree tops, two seeming to argue, flying around out of my sight. The places where different types of habitat come together is often rich in life.
Here, within the span of a hundred yards, there is flat dry prairie, steep oak savanna, the spongy banks, and the flowing river. Much to see. The scramble up the slope was well worth it.
Now I slip and slide back down the bank to my kayak, and push off once into the current again.
A little ways downstream I pass a big silver maple tipped over into the water, with a huge wad of roots and soil sticking up from its base. It appears a pair of song sparrows have a nest in a nook or cranny, likely feasting on the spiders and other bugs crawling around the new apartment building.
Finally, I find the perfect float, my kayak turned sideways to the current, pushed along perfectly by the current down a winding stretch. I am facing the bank, watching it scroll by slowly, a moving panorama of scenery. It’s a few minutes of bliss.
In short order I spot both a juvenile brown-headed cowbird and a tree swallow perched on standing snags, preening in the sunshine. The drift ends right after I see a map turtle sunning on a log, and watch it drop a foot into the water at my approach.
Then I turn up another short channel that will point me home. I see the kayak fisherman again, and again ask if he’s caught anything.
“No, but this looks like a good spot, doesn’t it?”
I agree it looks like a good spot. I admire his resilience.
I’m almost back to the landing when I see the two older fishermen again, as they motor slowly upstream. We pass near each other and they cut the motor. Both are smiling, and I don’t have to ask.
“We didn’t catch anything!” One of the guys says.
“We’re heading back for lunch!” The other guy says.
And that’s what I’m doing, too.