The sun is high and the river is low. Old wing dams, built by loggers to direct water toward the middle of the channel, are obvious above and below the boat landing. The shallows seem to extend forever from the bank, launching the canoe means finding those few inches of water that will float us, following it to the main current.
When we nose into the channel, the flow pushes the bow south and we are on the river. Friends and I have embarked on a paddle down 10 miles of the upper St. Croix, through a stretch of riffles and islands, surrounded by wild country. It’s a quiet Monday and a perfect 80 degrees — the river is irresistible.
It was a busy morning of preparations and coordination, dealing with slow drivers that delayed our arrival at the river, with shuttle logistics, with food and drink. The stress disappears the second we push off.
For a while, we just float. The boats drift closer together and farther apart. There is only an occasional breeze, so the water makes a mirror, reflecting cumulus clouds, and our paddle partners appear to be adrift among blue sky and white cottonballs. We paddle occasionally to keep our momentum, follow the channel, or get closer to our companions.
Then, looking to stretch legs and cool off, we poke into a narrow channel between two little islands. The channel is only two feet deep in the middle, so I walk back and forth across it, checking out the vegetation growing on the banks, studying the riverbed.
The low, clear water lets me see everything on the bottom. There appear to be sawed-off logs stuck in the sediment, perhaps remnants of logging drives. Mussel shells are scattered among rocks and sand. Baby smallmouth bass flee ahead of my feet. A fly bites my lip, which swells up for a while, only serving to silence me more.
After food and drink and conversation, we push on. From here, we must zig-zag down the river, following the water deep enough to carry us. The river is a series of riffles and flats — in the riffles you can at least read the water a little, looking for concealed rocks. The flats are deceptive, shallow as a rule, with little indication of where sandbars or rocks lurk and where might allow passage.
But the stakes are low, running aground would just mean another pleasant walk in the water. Luckily, with some navigation cooperation, we descend the river without being caught by its claws. At one point, we paddle through what must be a kingfisher territory. Several of the birds are seen near the banks, perhaps parents and offspring recently released from the confines of a nest.
As the afternoon advances, the river and time seem to slow. Spit out of the fast water, we float on sheets of glass. There is no sign of other people, we just two parties earlier in the trip. It is miles to any asphalt, so we don’t hear a single car or motorcycle. The banks are unbroken walls of green forest.
We’re on the final stretch when we decide we better pull off once more. We push the boats into the mouth of a creek and I step out onto the sandbar that has formed there. It swallows my leg up to the knee, and when I try to step forward, I just sink deeper. The soft sand deposited by the moving water only looks like a solid surface. After a few struggling steps, leaning on the canoe, I make it to firmer ground.
The creek water is cool and clear, a good place to stand and wash away one’s worries. The conversation ebbs, the river slips by silently, the sun slides toward the horizon.
Our final stretch of river, we don’t paddle much. The end is near, the world awaits, and we don’t want to let go of the water. When the canoe bumps into the landing, and it is over for now, I feel my blood pump through my veins like current, my muscles loose from heat and water, my mind calm like glassy water reflecting the clouds.