Jeff Butler was wearing waders when he got out of his canoe at the Marine on St. Croix canoe landing on Wednesday, testament to a morning spent dragging his canoe through shallow water. His beard looked bushier than last time I saw him. His face was tanned.
But more than anything, he carried the river in his presence. A week and a half floating down the St. Croix by himself had soaked in Jeff’s bones. He moved at its pace wherever he went.
His arrival was greeted by a dozen or so well-wishers, as well as the masterful painter Kami Mendlik standing at her easel, finishing a canvas she had been working on all morning, only needing the lone canoeist’s arrival to complete it. The bright yellows and greens on the banks shimmered in reflections on the glassy water.
The “St. Croix 11 a.m. breeze,” as Kami called it, was just starting to roughen the surface of the river.
The river has a certain power that can only be felt after following it for several days. The St. Croix is a National Park 250 miles long, including the Namekagon, and its scale must be experienced at its own pace. Days of watching the banks and the river go by, moving at its pace, will begin to merge the person and the current.
This was visible in Jeff’s face and his walk, his voice and his thoughts.
Ten days after launching in Solon Springs, 100 miles to the north, Jeff was nearing the end of the trip. He would enter the busier stretch of the river near Stillwater that night. He will arrive in Prescott tomorrow morning, Saturday, May 15, when there will be root beer floats at Freedom Park, starting at 10 a.m.
There were several members of Jeff’s family, representatives of the North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area, and others on hand to great Jeff, hear stories, and share the moment. The Mill Stream, which once powered the first sawmill on the St. Croix, rushed down its last feet to the river nearby.
After Kami wrapped up work on her painting for the time being, the group walked up to the Brookside Bar & Grill, where they found food and drink, the Mill Stream still within earshot. Conversation ranged from the magic of rivers to old family stories.
Jeff’s trip is in honor of his brother Dick, who passed away in January, and had hoped to join Jeff on the trip. All the surviving siblings had met Jeff that morning at Osceola Landing, traveling from as far as Northfield and Bemidji, and paddled down the river with him to Marine. It was a beautiful, calm morning, and they had all been reconnected like only the river could.
The effect of the river on Jeff was best understood through the stories he told from his time on the river. There had been many mornings when he paddled near shore to enjoy the reflection of bright green trees. Close encounters with swans. Rapids and side channels. History and memories.
The river is uncharacteristically low for this time of year, and he’d had some struggles, but each day was filled with moments of beauty and adventure. Jeff will share some of those stories with St. Croix 360 after he compiles his notes and journals from the trip. He will also hopefully share the tale of the whole trip in some form soon.
After lunch, the siblings wished each other a long goodbye on the river bank. I pushed off with my kayak to wait, planning to paddle a short ways down the river with Jeff. The river banks have been a glorious green all week, the sky was blue, and even though it was afternoon, it felt like morning.
I’ve paddled with Jeff once or twice before, spent time along rivers with him, particularly as part of his past work organizing river trips for veterans. This day, we got to follow the St. Croix for three miles, leaving Marine on St. Croix behind, entering the broad valley where the Apple River enters. It’s not a stretch Jeff knows as well as the upper rivers, and I tried to give him pointers for things to see, shallows to avoid.
A shared a few more stories, about near misses and minor mishaps, about the previous night on Peaslee Lake when beavers slapped their tales all night, scaring off any fish that might have been there, and punctuating Jeff’s sleep.
We talked a little more about the power and magic of the river. It puts a person in perspective.
When it was time for me to turn off and head home, we talked another minute, a few feet apart in our boats in the middle of the channel. He planned to paddle into dusk that night, enjoying the special feeling of being on the water as darkness fell.
I wished Jeff well and said goodbye, and he turned and headed downstream again.