We thought we would dip into the backwaters like usual. It’s always nice to get out of the main channel and, in spring, a lot of life is found in the sloughs and side channels.
So, shortly after launching, our captain steered us through a little opening in a floodplain island to get into the backwaters — and quickly retreated. The backwater was covered in ice, geese standing on it honking. Water moves slower in the side channels, and so does spring. We remembered the ice had only gone out on the river about six days earlier.
Besides the abundance of wildlife, backwaters are usually less crowded. But today, with cloudy skies, air temperatures in the 40s, and water temperatures just above freezing, we didn’t have to worry about solitude. While it was possible much of the side channels were open, we didn’t want to get stuck somewhere downstream, faced with a frozen blockade.
So we rode the main channel downriver, which was flowing at about 14,000 cubic feet per second, a moderate spring crest.
It was the first river trip of the year, always auspicious. I was with two friends in a drift boat, an oar-powered craft preferred by fly anglers. It has seats for three people, and is very safe and stable for such an early season trip, when capsizing could be catastrophic.
Bumping ice floes, I was glad for this craft and not my usual canoe or kayak. I’m careful and have never had a problem, but this boat let me relax a little more.
At lunchtime, the captain backed into a beach and deployed a small propane grill to cook brats. Wandering into the floodplain forest, mostly silver maples, I saw that there were countless stumps of trees three or four inches in diameter. Each one was bright yellow against the drab surroundings, and gnawed to a point. No evidence of the cut timber could be seen.
A beaver had been at work here. Or more likely, beavers. Although they usually stay below the ice and in their lodges all winter, maybe this crew had worked all winter, pulling the trees out over the snow.
After eating, we pushed off and shortly went around a bend. There, on the bank, looking like a large brown rolled-up rug, were three beavers snuggled together. I believe they were napping. It took a second for the sight to register, and I think they were also surprised. It appeared to be two adults and a juvenile. The adults watched us warily while the youngster cautiously moved toward the water, and then dropped in, disappearing below the surface.
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The parents considered us carefully. Beavers are usually skittish, and I hardly know what I’m seeing before they’re gone underwater. I theorized that we were the first people these beavers had seen since last fall, having had a relatively remote stretch of frozen river to themselves.
The creatures looked dry, like they’d been basking in the occasional sun that broke through the clouds. Our captain quit rowing and we let the current carry us past, and left them alone again. The unexpected and unique encounter gave me a chance to get the best photos of beavers I’ve ever managed. To me, the images almost look like a still life diorama, like those at the Bell Museum. A textbook illustration of a beaver clan.
The river carried us along. I sat in the bow sideways, watching the bank scroll past. Clumps of ice clung to the bank in places. North-facing slopes were still dusted with snow that fell last night, while south-facing aspects were bare and brown. With the leafless trees and high-angle light, the topography off the bluffs was as easy to see as ever.
One spring highlight of this stretch of river is a large great blue heron rookery. Easily 100 nests populate the tree tops on a large island. During the breeding season, it’s an incredible experience of squawking birds balancing on branches and flapping in and out of the nests, carrying sticks to reinforce, bringing food, tending eggs and then chicks.
But the rookery was silent. Not even the herons found the river hospitable yet.
There were no plants growing yet, either, except perhaps some skunk cabbage secreted away in the wet areas, generating its own heat. Dogwood bushes glowed scarlet red, their bark inflamed as their buds swelled.
Geese occasionally berated us, but even their numbers made me think they were only the vanguard. Trumpeter swans with a much more pleasant voice usually stood their ground just a little longer than the geese, before taking to the air. There were a few mallards around, but we saw no wood ducks.
On the drive to the launch, I saw my first red-winged blackbirds of the year staking out territory from the top of cattail stalks.
A few days earlier, along a back road in Scandia, I came across a pair of sandhill cranes in a field. One was leaping in the air with its wings out and strutting, bobbing its head on its long elegant neck. The other one was ignoring the antics. Sandhill cranes mate for life, yet they perform their courtship rituals every spring. A good reminder for any couple.
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The rest of the float was uneventful. I found I had to frequently stop and breathe and soak in the setting. It was a long winter, and difficult, but we were back on the water. It was quiet and calm, and I was with friends in the open air. It was enough.
Later in the week, Josh Leonard, the education director at Belwin Outdoor Science in Afton, emailed me with an alert about some interesting action on the river, courtesy his friend Eric Danielson. He told me to head to the Boom Site boat launch, where numerous types of water birds were gathered.
“There are dozens of eagles, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, and about 60-70 gulls feasting on shad,” he wrote. “The action doesn’t stop! Apparently it’s been going on for several days in a row.”
That sounded interesting, so I picked up my third-grader after school and we stopped by the Boom Site. I’d say there were at least 100 gulls, and in the distance, a pair of bald eagles. The gulls screamed and cried, reminding me of an ocean coast, or maybe Duluth. Many rested on the water, while others seemed to be following schools of bait fish around, swooping down to snatch them.
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Not much else was happening and we were about to head home when the gulls on the water suddenly took to the air and the whole huge flock wheeled over the river. Then a few came quite near, flying into the wind, almost hovering 20 feet above the water, occasionally dropping down to snatch at the surface with their beaks. We saw at least one bird succeed.
It was a busy wildlife week in the St. Croix Valley, and it’s not even spring yet. There is life at the end of the tunnel.
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