The season is somehow slipping by quickly, proving that time waits for no one. Even in a health crisis, the clock keeps ticking. It’s important to take every opportunity to get on the river.
This week, I had a meeting in Wisconsin, nearly due east from my house. I could either drive 25 miles each way to cross the St. Croix on a bridge, or paddle and hike about four miles.
I chose the river route. No surprise. I’m pretty good at committing myself to things I might regret later.
It was midday when I left, hot sunshine beating down. Things were quiet, the dog days of summer slowly settling in. I paddled away from shore and started soaking up the silence, scenery, and wildlife.
Birds have mostly raised their broods by now, and are busy building up strength for their flight south. Monarch butterflies fluttered between swamp milkweed and ironweed, but their orange seemed duller. They are getting older, too.
The water is a few feet higher after recent rains. That meant I could get through channels that were too shallow last time I was out, and I floated over a sandbar where I had gotten out to stretch my legs a couple weeks ago.
My route took me through a web of channels and floodplain islands, woven together in a tapestry of water and life.
The tall grasses on the banks nearly concealed some wildflowers. I maneuvered my kayak to get photos through gaps in the vegetation.
I only saw one other boat on my entire journey. A couple had beached their Lund on a sandbar and were standing in shallow water, throwing a ball back and forth. I couldn’t see a better way to pass the time.
Other than them, I was surrounded by a wild river and the creatures who call it home.
On the other side of the river, I paddled slowly along the bank, looking for a good place to land and leave my kayak. In the calm little bay where I ended up, water lilies bloomed. There is something special about those flowers: their porcelain appearance, their floating leaves like swim platforms for frogs. Unlike the flowers at the top of tall stalks designed to reach above the late summer growth, which wave in the slightest breeze, lilies convey a sense of stillness and calm.
I surprised myself by successfully getting my hiking boots on while sitting in the boat, and then stepped ashore. I dragged my kayak up, secured everything, and set off on foot.
A bluff more than 100 feet high stood in front of me, and there was no trail to follow. I was armed with a topographic map, GPS, and a necessary amount of stupidity. My plan was to avoid going straight up the bluff, which was vertical in spots, and very steep elsewhere.
Instead, I would follow the ridge of a ravine, where runoff had carved through the bluff. The climb was still the same height, but shouldn’t involve too much scrambling. Once I got above the floodplain, big white pines stood like cathedral pillars.
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More than halfway up the bluff, sweat was pouring off my body. My head was down, eyes staring at the ground, as I focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s how I saw some interesting organisms on the forest floor. There were many bright orange chanterelle mushrooms. If I had been prepared, perhaps I would have harvested some.
Then I saw pale, almost translucent stalks sticking up from the soil. It was Monotropa uniflora, sometimes called Ghost pipes or Indian pipes. I knew these “flowers” from photographs, but this was somehow the first time I had laid eyes on them.
Ghost pipes look like a strange fungus, but are actually plants. Unlike most other plants, they have no chlorophyll and don’t generate energy from sunlight. This is how they can grow on the shade of lush summertime in thick woods.
Instead of generating energy from sunlight, the plant feeds on other fungus which are connected to trees. Ultimately, the energy it uses comes from photosynthetic trees.
These strange plants are relatively common, but it wasn’t until this sweaty summer stomp up a steep bluff that I had seen them. I was reminded that sometimes it pays to stare at the ground.
Finally I reached the top of the bluff, and stepped out of the woods into a prairie. Bergamot and black-eyed Susans bloomed, butterflies and dragonflies patrolled, and invisible birds called from among the grasses and thickets.
I walked through the waist-high grasses to the edge of a cornfield, where the stalks were probably 10 feet tall. Walking through more prairie at the edge of the field, a female turkey flushed from a hiding spot just a few feet from me, and even after my eyes and brain registered what it was, an involuntary shout of shock came out of me.
I arrived at my meeting drenched in sweat, my shirt completely soaked. What an impression I must have made. We sat at safe distances on a deck and talked about protecting some of the land I had just wandered. More about that in the future.
After two hours, our discussion wrapped up and my shirt had dried in the breeze. I turned and retraced my route, enjoying the descent.
Paddling along the Wisconsin shore again, a brilliant red flower peeked out from the shadows, behind waving grass. It was the first cardinal flower I had seen this season, always a harbinger of late summer. I had been looking for it the whole way, but this single stem was the only one I spotted.