Riverine perfection – A memorable day on the St. Croix

One man’s words about a sublime evening canoeing and fishing the river.

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Note: Thanks to Jeff Willius for allowing St. Croix 360 to republish this recent post from his blog, One Man’s Wonder.

I’ve been a river rat since I was nine. That’s when I fell in love with the beautiful St. Croix River, a Natural Scenic River forming the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota for most of its 169-mile length.

I can’t simply run down to the St. Croix and hop in our boat or canoe as I did most summer days as a kid. Nowadays it takes a bit more effort, including a 50-minute drive. But I still manage to tote my gear up there to my put-in spot at Franconia five or six times during the summer.

These river outings in my little 13-foot Mansfield/Stowe Osprey have always been good for my soul, a close connection with Nature and a cherished expression of
my independence. But today’s paddle is extraordinary, on as close to a perfect afternoon as I can remember.

By about 6:30, the sun’s slipping on
its golden-hour filter, bathing everything
in honey light.

A slough of nature

First, the weather’s ideal: upper 70s, sunny with scattered cotton-ball clouds and light breezes. The water level is a bit high. That means very little of the landing’s sand beach is exposed, making embarking and disembarking a bit challenging. And it usually means poor fishing.

But high water also means I can access my favorite slough, a flowing backwater that meanders through the woods on the Wisconsin side for several miles, and which becomes accessible only by portaging once the river drops to its usual summer level.

Going on a weekday, there are fewer people out; I see just a few small groups kayaking and a couple of polite power boats in the main channel.

As usual, I head out at about 2:30, since those five or six remaining hours of daylight are always magical, coaxing out all kinds of wildlife, from orioles to ospreys, muskrats to muskellunge. And by about 6:30, the sun’s slipping on its golden-hour filter, bathing everything in honey light.

Bird talk

So that’s the setting. Perfect enough, right? But today several other factors contribute to the magic.

One measure of my joy during my river paddles is how much wildlife I get to see. Today, here in the slough, the sense of oneness with Nature is just extraordinary. An eagle soars past at the treetops thirty yards away, a great blue heron flies close enough so I can hear the whisper of the wind on its wings.

Muskrats crisscross the stream, busily tending to their lodges. I don’t see deer this time, but I can hear them in the woods.

I’m far from a bird expert, but I love seeing them, listening to them, trying to imitate them. Today I hear unfamiliar birdsong coming from a dense grove of big trees along the bank. Sifting through memory, I rule out a few bird calls I know well, and come up with a guess: must be orioles. Now I haven’t spotted an oriole for years and have forgotten what they sound like.

Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360

I start replying, and within a minute a dart of orange emerges from the shadows, coming toward me…and then two…and finally a couple more pipe in from deeper in the woods. What a privilege not just to see these spectacular birds, but to communicate with them (saying who knows what)!

Later, I try for another conversation. Nearly always on these evening paddles, I start hearing barred owls’ evocative eight-note incantation in the woods about an hour before dark; most often there are two or more trading calls.

This evening, emboldened by my success with the orioles, I try reaching out to any barred owls who might be within earshot. It’s not perfect, but my low-pitched coo-like whistles do the trick. One of them replies…and then another. I have chills.

Seven up

I enjoy fishing. I like catching too, but that’s not essential to the mystical connection with Nature fishing evokes. Most days on the St. Croix the effects of current and wind make bait casting from a canoe quite challenging; I get one, maybe two, quick casts before I’m either turned completely around or barreling toward the rocky shore.

Today, though, the light breeze and moderate current are in near-perfect balance, managing to hold me in place or even move me gradually upstream—a perfect pace for covering a new spot along the shore with each cast.

This spiny, mauve, shark-skinned beauty
is thought to have appeared in the biota
some 100 million years ago.

Usually, my fishing time on the river is punctuated with little, under-my-breath curses when I’m struggling with stronger winds or when my little Mepps Spinner snags on a stone or log, or, worse, catches an overhanging tree limb. Today, incredibly, I do all the usual target practice on submerged structure all afternoon, and without a single snag.

Now here’s the most amazing part. My average day fishing on the St. Croix might produce a few small fish, usually pike or smallmouth bass. Today, despite the high water, I catch seven fish, each a different species. Exactly one each of sunfish, crappie, yellow perch, rock bass, smallie, northern pike and sturgeon. Do you know how extraordinary that is?

Of those, the perch is one I seldom see on the river. (I worry that, since they love aquatic weeds, maybe that means the St. Croix’s waters are warming.)

But the most exotic by far is the sturgeon. This spiny, mauve, shark-skinned beauty is like a living fossil, thought to have appeared in the biota some 100 million years ago. Catching one—even a 20-inch youngster like this—always leaves me in awe. 

Better than DEET

Finally, I can’t recount a summer evening on the St. Croix without mentioning our Minnesota “state bird,” the mosquito. We’ve had plenty of rain lately and temperatures are ideal for mosquito procreation. And, with little wind, I’d expected to be mobbed by the little assassins.

Ken Slade/Flickr

But not today. Whatever this magical spell that seems to envelop me, it’s working better than 100 percent DEET. Nearly all afternoon I’m surrounded with a squadron of dapper dragonflies using me as bait and gobbling up the skeeters before they can land. I ask you, is that not a perfect example of synergy?  

I allowed myself the lightness of being
that allows wonder.

Distilled spirits

Serendipity is, by definition, elusive, impossible to replicate. We’d love, wouldn’t we, to be able to catch it, bottle it and open it another time. Alas, we can’t make it happen.

Like so many of Nature’s small wonders, it’s not all about what you actually see or do or even what happens to you. A big part of serendipity is about how and where your spirit is when you’re there. As I’m wont to say in these jottings, you see pretty much what you expect to see.

The spirits of some folks I know are like magnets for wonder. They seem always to be in a place that’s wide open to curiosity and awe…and, yes, serendipity. For me, it can be a little harder. Too often I get stuck in my routines; I impose limits on myself when I needn’t; I’m too serious.

So today, this magical, near-perfect day on the St. Croix River, only happened because Nature and I happened to be on the same page. My worries were few; my filters were turned off; my senses were tuned in; and I allowed myself the lightness of being that allows wonder.


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4 responses to “Riverine perfection – A memorable day on the St. Croix”

  1. Everett (Bud) Fuchs Avatar
    Everett (Bud) Fuchs

    This is the best nature article I can ever remember reading. Jeff, you are a truly gifted writer. Thank you for sharing. Reading your article almost gives me the feeling that I am there with you.

    1. Jeff Willius Avatar

      Many thanks, Bud. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You inspire me to keep noticing and celebrating life’s small wonders.

  2. Penny Avatar
    Penny

    Thank for taking us along.

  3. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Nice

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