“Sometimes you have to go look for your life”
Jeff Butler ate lunch on Wednesday on an island in the St. Croix River downstream of Danbury, Wis. He happened to have phone service, so he called me after he finished eating and told me about his trip so far. As we talked, he said he was standing amid the spring greens of ramps and leeks, with a full river rushing around him.
The river was in great shape, he said. Having recently passed the mouth of the Namekagon, he said it was running fairly high and he had felt the large tributary join the St. Croix, the additional current turning his canoe slightly.
On Sunday, Jeff departed Palmer’s Landing on Upper St. Croix Lake for a two-week journey down the whole 170-mile river to Prescott. He’s making the journey in memory of his brother Dick, and to celebrate the river’s past, present, and future as part of the North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area.
There was a small gathering at the landing to send Jeff on his way. Friends and family were there to wish him a safe and meaningful journey. After words, offerings of tobacco, and an eagle’s blessing, Jeff began his trip.
Photos of send-off celebration at Palmer’s Landing on Upper St. Croix Lake, Solon Springs, Wis., May 2, 2021. (Gary Noren)
It was the Wisconsin fishing opener weekend, so the lake in Solon Springs was busy with boats full of hopeful anglers. But once Jeff got to the river, he said he hadn’t seen another person on the water in more than 40 miles.
But, he hasn’t been alone. Jeff has met up with a few folks along the way, either for a chat or fresh water and batteries. He has seen signs of the many generations of people who have lived along the river. Trumpeter swans flying low over his tent woke him up one morning. And his brother, Dick, who passed away in January, and was hoping to join Jeff on part of this trip, has been there the whole way.
“I was just asking him, I just want to know you’re here. I need to know if you’re with me on this,” Jeff said. “When I looked down next to the canoe, there was a white stick in the shape of an L. His middle name was ‘Leo’ and I used to call him that. I put the stick in the canoe, and I said ‘now we’re together.’ Now I know he’s with me.”
As he follows the St. Croix south, Jeff says he is always talking to himself, to Dick, to people he hasn’t talked to in a while, and singing. Each days is full of surprises, even as he follows a pre-planned itinerary.
“I always know what campsite I’m headed for, I just never know what’s going to happen during the day. It’s just amazing,” he said.
When we spoke, Jeff was in the middle of his third full day of the trip, and immersed in the rhythms of the river. He says day three is usually when the magic happens.
“That’s when you’re in tune with the river, with everything going on around you. You’re not thinking about anything else except what’s going to happen during the day,” he told me.
This mindset has helped him notice the hints of humanity along the river. In the slow, winding St. Croix between Upper St. Croix Lake and the Gordon Flowage, where wild rice grows and waterfowl find food and refuge, Jeff saw dilapidated duck-hunting blinds.
Below Gordon Dam, he saw two striking stone wing dams that were probably built by lumber companies to increase the river’s capacity to carry logs.
“The wing dams we see down below, they just put rocks on the ice,” Jeff explains. When the ice melted, the stones fell to the bottom and created an effective wall to push water toward the center of the channel. “But, those up there are like a retaining wall. They were made by hand, laid in place like tile work,” he says.
Old logs along the river’s banks and bottom have also suggested human hands, possible leftovers from the logging era. He marks the presence and roots of Ojibwe people on the river: the fine campsites surely used for centuries, places and names, stories and ceremonies.
One of his guiding texts is a book called Cecilia: The Trials of an Amazing Ojibwe Woman, 1834-1892, published in 2006 by Lafayette Connor. The book recounts the life of a Cecilia, who lived along the St. Croix much of her life during a period of massive change as Europeans arrived in large numbers.
Just before stopping for lunch, Jeff had passed a site that Cecilia had known as Hip Bone, the last rapids on the Yellow River before it joined the St. Croix. There was a small village there during her life, and it was where Ojibwe had long caught spawning redhorse.
“You’re literally paddling with time,” Jeff says. “You think of a lot of people who have done the full St. Croix River, from way back. I’m just one of many that’s doing it. You really feel their presence.”
Duck blinds and campsites. (Photo by Jeff Butler)
This continuum of culture, history, nature, stories, and more are why the region is being considered for designation as a National Heritage Area. Jeff’s trip is intended to raise awareness of the proposal, which would seek to enhance appreciation and promote the region.
Another one of Jeff’s stops also connected with the Heritage Area concept. He took a break at historic Gibson Cabin, perched on the edge of the upper river. It is considered an excellent example of the lives of early European settlers, and the later “north woods” recreation heritage that began in the 1920s.
At the cabin, a man walked up to Jeff and said, “Hey, are you the guy paddling the whole river?” His name was Kevin Smith, of Solon Springs. They talked a while and then Smith recorded some video of Jeff setting off again down the river, which Smith later shared with St. Croix 360.
“Had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Butler today. Talked for a bit at the historic Gibson cabin before he continued on. He is paddling the entire St.Croix River from it’s headwaters in Solon Springs to the Confluence of the Mississippi. He had a little rain to deal with yesterday but is doing great. Camped at Gordon Dam last night.”Kevin Smith, May 3, 2021
So far, Jeff has stayed on schedule. He generally is on the water by 6:30 or 7 a.m., pulling into camp in the afternoon. He’ll be paddling the lower river next week, with stops scheduled around Marine on St. Croix and Prescott.
Jeff’s battery was getting low, and the river was calling. We wrapped up our conversation and he got back in the canoe, pointed it downstream, and set off.