The creek crashes through the canyon on my right side, a hundred feet below. The concave topography amplifies the sound so it is carried to my ear almost as if I’m standing streamside. There are a couple feet of snow on the ground, but the combined forces of gravity and groundwater keep the creek open all year, a lively and welcome song in these long frozen months.
This unnamed creek is unique in my knowledge of the St. Croix Valley. I know nowhere else that a stream of such size makes so fast a descent. In the span of a mile-and-a-half, the water drops about 130 feet, cutting through the sandstone bedrock, tumbling over glacial cobble. Then it slips into the St. Croix.
I am pulled along the trail by the sun slowly sinking ahead of me. The path is packed hard by everyone else who has gone this way already this winter. Each snowfall stomped firm by feet, layers of compaction creating a solid surface. If I step off the trail, my leg goes in up past the knee.
There have been years that I’ve been out paddling by this time. I have photos from first forays on the water as early as March 9. Not this year. The river is starting to break up in places, but there is a ways to go before it lets loose. When it does, and the snow starts to really melt, it will be wild.
The forest is mostly hardwoods, oaks and maples, basswood and cherry. The trunks are widely spaced, so the sun often shines through, looking a little like a campfire, where perhaps friends wait and I can warm up before walking back. But I’m alone out here, surrounded by the sunset and silence and the soft song of the rushing water, which is way below me now.
I can begin to see the river valley opening ahead. The air is hazy, the light golden. Above, the clouds are painted purple and pink. My pace accelerates as I hurry toward the bluff before the sun slips over the horizon.
When the trail finally reaches the top of the steep slope down to the river, I am greeted with shimmering ribbons of open water flowing between snow-covered banks. This part of the St. Croix is broad and braided, with numerous channels carving through soft ground. I can see places I have swam in summers past.
A new sound enters my ears. The slow-moving waters below and the muddy shallows are full of birds, the vanguard of migration. Sandhill cranes, Canada geese, and trumpeter swans raise their voices as if competing to be heard by the setting sun. The valley is full of their cacophonous calls, it echoes off the wooded walls.
I can do nothing but stand and listen and look. Winter may seem to still have hold, but there is life and energy that will not wait.
I slowly make my way down the trail. Every bend seems to reveal another overlook where I can’t help but stop and soak in this sublime sunset. The birds below only seem to get louder. They’re almost impossible to see through the trees, obscured in the shadows, but their cries and calls and honks dominate the entire area.
The sun is behind the bluff now, and the light is fading faster. I start to realize how slowly I’ve been going. I realize I don’t really remember how much farther I have to go. I’m not sure if the distance equals the amount of light left. The idea of stumbling along the trail in the dark, finding the hardpacked path by feel, stepping off into the deep snow, is unappealing.
So I force myself to walk right past several precipices where I might have stood to see and hear the show. I’m not really worried, just done dawdling. The trail keeps going and going, darkness slowly descends. Every time I notice it’s darker, my pace picks up. I’m disappointed to run out of time to ramble and observe, but a harder hike serves me well. I warm up, my thoughts focus on my feet, and the outside world is obscured as the walls of night close in.
Finally I hear the creek again and I’m retracing my steps to the trailhead. There’s just enough light left, my pace is steady, the trail is firm.