When I get a good look at the shoreline, I remember that the river was low when it froze last fall. There is a steep rocky bank between the forest and the ice. It’s almost vertical. I’ve come down some 200 feet in elevation since I started this walk, but it’s the last couple yards that seem impossible.
I want to get down there to stand in a lonely spot next to the wild river. I want to take photos of it without trees in the way. I don’t want to break my ankle in a very inconvenient location.
It’s been incredibly cold the past week, with lows -20º or colder every morning. Everything seems frozen solid. It kept me inside for the most part, but there is still a channel of open water running down the middle of the river.
With the temperature finally above zero I’m finally out of the house, venturing farther from a furnace than I would have dared a couple days ago. The air feels fresh and pure in my lungs.
My route down to the river included a side trip to a canyon carved deep into the bluff, where a spring at the head of the canyon trickles water out of stone. It slips under a shell of ice to rush down the steep slope below, into a little creek which tumbles to the river a quarter-mile away.
I walk up the gorge on a narrow path pressed against the vertical rock. I remember May days here seeing flowers like hepatica, bloodroot, and Dutchman’s breeches, when the chasm was filled with birds busy setting up new territories.
Today it’s warm enough to walk, and I’m content with that.
After pausing in the canyon to enjoy the rare sound of running water during this quiet season, I continue down the bluff. I want to see the river up close.
The deep river valley is an obstacle to public river access all year, requiring either challenging roads, long staircases, steep trails, or a boat. In winter, many of the roads that do exist are not plowed, and boating isn’t an option. One has to work a little harder to experience remote stretches.
So I soon find myself clinging to the bank, the river a stone’s throw away, my route to get there unclear.
Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360
I look at the ground in front of me. It’s covered in a loose snow that will barely hold my feet and there are no trees to use as holds. I plot an improbable course down to the shoreline, knowing it probably won’t work, .
Almost as soon as I move, I begin to slip, and suddenly I’m sliding down the bank, just trying to control my descent. My foot hits a heavy piece of driftwood that looks like it might hold me, but it smashes apart at contact. After that I quickly manage to arrest myself with the help of some other logs laying against the bank.
Once I’ve stopped, I notice that the vertical part of the bank above the water is a mass of ice, the effect of a spring seep. It’s dense and perfectly smooth, and hidden by overhanging tree roots. There would have been no climbing down that.
After scrambling across the driftwood and then snow-covered stone, I finally stand at the edge of the river.
There are 100 feet or so of ice, perhaps 30 feet of water, and then some more ice before reaching floodplain islands on the other side. The open water is black, the ice and snow are pure white, and the trees are pale gray. There is a very light snow falling, veiling the far bluff in a hazy form.
This stretch often has an open channel all winter, but I don’t know why. It’s down the middle, not along the bank, like the many places where spring creeks join the St. Croix and keep the water clear up for a short distance. The current looks powerful, swiftly carrying slushy floes downstream, so perhaps that’s it. Maybe there are springs in the bottom of the river.
The river is a purely deadly force at this time of year. The ice-cold current is a killer. Looking at it is somehow like looking at a fire, a destructive and beautiful element of nature. It commands respect by its simple existence.
There is a little breeze blowing off the river, and no sound. I only hear the Earth’s and my own breathing.
Then a pileated woodpecker calls from my left and I look to see it bob through the air across the channel from Minnesota to the island. The big bird lands in the tops of a silver maple and begins searching for food under the tree bark. It’s reassuring to know I’m not completely alone. Birds have always kept people company, ever present, visiting us and disappearing, companions who don’t share our tether to terra firma.
At the edge of the river, I take photographs and soak in the quiet and solitude for a few more minutes. The river and its valley seem so large compared to the confines of my house, or the small radius of my home range for the last several months. The St. Croix makes everyone feel small, which destroys our dangerous tendencies toward hubris, and replaces it with joyful humility.
When I’m ready, I just need to walk back up. The route is steep, cutting the most direct route possible up the bluff. It’s a commitment I made when I started walking downhill, and I must feel my legs and lungs burn, as much as I sought silence and solitude.
I got what I came for, but the climb back to the car might be what I need the most.