Hiking to the headwaters on a prehistoric path

A spring walk on a trail traveled for thousands of years takes us to the source of the St. Croix.

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We left a nearly leafed-out world and drove back in spring, traveling one degree of latitude north to the headwaters of the St. Croix River. While the trees around the lower St. Croix were already wearing layers of foliage, here the green haze still hung on the wooded hills, the buds and earliest emerging leaves glowing chartreuse, the understory still open.

An orange haze was in the air when we set out, smoke from fires burning a thousand miles or more upwind in Canada. But by the time we reached the trailhead in Solon Springs, the sky was blue. We had sought to hike the trail after the snow melted and mud dried up, during migration and the spring bloom, before flies, mosquitoes, heat, and humidity — by some good fortune we got all we wanted. Blue skies were a bonus.

My companions were my mom and a friend of hers, two retired teachers I hoped wouldn’t leave me in their dust on the trail. This was a belated birthday and Mother’s Day gift, but more, a chance to share a special place with people who love the river. The drive was punctuated by memories of campgrounds and cabins in northern Wisconsin, stories from decades at Stillwater Area High School, and stands of pure white trilliums along the road.

Trail time

When we stepped out of the car at Palmer’s Landing, a small park and water access on upper St. Croix Lake, a cool breeze blew from the west. It was quiet otherwise, a lonely place except for the ghosts. People have been passing through here probably for as long as humans have lived in the region, some untold thousands of years.

Somewhere around here, countless generations have loaded and unloaded canoes, camped, and certainly, some must have stared across the narrow lake feeling the same awe that strikes me today. Some also must have measured the changes in the land and their lives since the last time they hiked the two-mile trail to the Lake Superior basin.

As we filled water bottles and put on sunscreen, there was one other person at the landing and the three of us — but that only counted the living. We set off among this company of Paleo-Indians, Ojibwe and Dakota, Métis people, European explorers, fur traders, and many more.

A mosaic of sunlight and shadow on the the forest floor broke through the mostly bare branches. It fell on last fall’s dead leaves and the spring’s green shoots, and every so often, soft petals. Almost as soon as we started walking, we saw the delicate flowers of hepatica scattered across the ground, diminutive jewels only seeking the sun’s attention.

The trail starts with a steep climb up a deeply incised trail to get on top of a ridge above the St. Croix. That was enough to warm me up.

We were now on the southeast side of a wide and shallow valley, with tiny St. Croix Creek flowing through a bog below, hidden by cedars and spruce. Steep slopes dropped toward the water. We could see the other side more than a mile away, over a valley about 80 feet deep.

This valley was carved about 10,000 years ago. Walls of water released by melting glaciers that had held back Lake Superior cut a trough cut through the height of land between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

Sights and sounds

Like any good spring hike, it was hard to know whether to look up or down. Birds sang in the tree tops, while flowers and other delights were found underfoot. I mostly listened to the birds and watched the ground.

The songs were almost all those of warblers, many in the middle of long migrations between the tropical and boreal forests. Their chorus comprised a Cape May warbler, blue-headed vireo, Nashville warbler, red-breasted nuthatch, northern parula, rose-breasted grosbeak, ovenbird, and pine warbler. I only got a decent look at the Nashville warbler, as the birds seemed happy to forage among the birch catkins high in the treetops.

Among the hepatica along the trail were many other small flowers, including a couple that were new to me. Standing tall was bright yellow Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), which is not actually a strawberry. A flower of eastern forests, it’s on the fringe of its range. Relatively common in Wisconsin, it’s considered rare just across the border in Minnesota.

A little farther down the trail, hiding under a clump of grass, was Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), a delicate early spring bloomer also at the western edge of its existence. Also known as Plymouth Mayflower, this was the first flower to greet the surviving Pilgrims in the spring of 1621. According to one text, it is also the tribal emblem of the Forest Potawatomi people, and it’s the state flower of Massachusetts.

History hike

This botanical connection to American history was appropriate for our adventure. Not only was my mom a U.S. history teacher during her career, and her friend a French and social studies teacher, but the Brule-St. Croix Portage is considered one of the oldest known historical sites in the state of Wisconsin, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Every few hundred yards, among the flowers and fiddleheads, were stones with small plaques on them, bearing the names and dates of different European explorers who traveled the portage. The stones were placed decades ago by the Superior Garden Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Solon Springs Garden Club.

The first European to cross the portage was Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, in 1680. That was just 60 years and 1,000 miles west after the Plymouth colonists enjoyed the early blooms of Trailing arbutus.

“For nearly two centuries there after it was one of the most heavily traveled routes between Lake Superior and the Mississippi, used as a major fur trade route during the entire period of French domination and well into the period when the English were in control,” the National Register nomination says.

Today, the trail is maintained by the dedicated volunteers of the North Country Trail Association’s Brule-St. Croix Chapter. The group is organizing a hike and picnic on the trail on June 3.

Spring in spring

For future reference, a hiker seeking the source of the St. Croix should depart the portage trail near the stone dedicated to Jonathan Carver, who crossed it in 1766. There’s no official path from that point, so you just scramble down a short steep hill to the bog below, and then find a way through the tangle of trees.

The St. Croix rises from springs in this bog under a thick canopy of white cedar trees. The ground is like a sponge — safe to walk on, but soft and lumpy. It is constantly squeezing out water into the trickles that form the headwaters.

We spent a half-hour carefully walking around the wet ground, finding the spot where water bubbled up from below, and nearby places where the creek was already five feet across. The water was clear but already red with minerals leached out of the bog. All was quiet except for wind blowing through tree tops far above.

In the dark black peat near the source, a single marsh marigold bloom stood above the mud, glowing yellow like the sun in an otherwise dim and gloomy place.

Before the first Indigenous people, before the French, before the National Register of Historic Places, the water rose here, flowed south. It gathered other streams and grew into a river. It was flowing when the nearby trail was first trod by moccasins and boots and it was flowing this day.

We turned and retraced our steps and those of so many before.


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2 responses to “Hiking to the headwaters on a prehistoric path”

  1. Brian Finstad Avatar
    Brian Finstad

    The high ridge of the portage trail is of course within the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape, which was largely a “barrens habitat,” frequently swept by wildfires due to the drought prone nature of the sands. I was reading one fur trade era journal last year and it described the portage trail as going over a hot, barren, heath and mentioned the far distant views of the landscape one could see, including over to a small lake to the east (now known as Lake of the Woods). As a “barrens” aficionado, I wonder when hiking the portage trail how many people understand that the forest there was historically open barrens habitat. My guess is that probably not many do.

  2. Barbara McAfee Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful writing! I plan to make a pilgrimage to the source of my beloved St. Croix River soon…..maybe after the jet-sized mosquitoes diminish a bit?

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Hiking to the headwaters on a prehistoric path