Connecting St. Croix River Art, History and Nature

Oneota pot found near La Crosse, Wisconsin could hold 15 to 20 gallons, with walls that were one-third of an inch thick.

All thanks to clam shells.

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History Hike at Wisconsin’s Newest State Park

Originally posted on the blog of the Heritage Initiative, one of my partner-clients:

It was a half winter, half autumn day last week when I joined a friend on a hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail where it passes through Straight Lake State Park. We met at a friendly café in Lucky, Wisconsin and drove a few miles out of town to the trailhead, where we found the woods and parking lot covered in light snow, which had fallen a few days before.

We wound through the hardwood forests for a short while, passing by a 10-foot high boulder next to the trail, indicating the glacial nature of this path. Such boulders are a common sight throughout our region: A glacial erratic, it was carried here by glaciers and dropped as they melted.

The Ice Age Trail follows roughly the edge of where the glaciers reached into Wisconsin during the last Ice Age. Later, I learned that Straight Lake State Park is shaped by a rare and significant glacial event. More on that in a bit.

When we emerged at the west end of Straight Lake, the sun was dipping toward the horizon. A stand of tamaracks in the boggy area next to the lake glowed orange as only tamaracks can glow in fall.

Straight Lake is easy on the eyes. One tiny island juts out of its middle, no more than 50 feet across and topped with bushy white pines. Ridges rise up from both sides of the lake, covered in oak and other hardwoods. On the other end, a clump of nice pines on a point stood out in their greenery.

As we walked along the north shore of the lake, the narrow path soon joined the historic Clam Falls Trail, a historic road which once carried settlers and loggers from St. Croix Falls to Cumberland. According to the Luck Historical Society, one story of how the town got its name is that travelers on the trail were said to be “in Luck” if they made it there in one day from St. Croix Falls. From there, they would have followed the trail, including the section we now trod on, to Cumberland and Spooner, many of them looking for jobs in the logging camps and mills.

Our route continued along the lake to where the Straight River pours out of it over an old dam which is basically a pile of rocks. We hopped across on stepping stones, much like people do at the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.

When we reached the pines at the east end of the lake, we followed the trail a little farther to Rainbow Lake, where the contrast between the north shore – orange, brown, and autumn – stood in stark contrast to the south shore – which was white and wintry.

Cutting over a ridge, we came to the Straight River where it flows down its valley. This is where it is said one can witness a significant glacial feature. A “tunnel channel” forms the valley which contains Straight and Rainbow Lakes and the Straight River.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a tunnel channel is created when “meltwater erodes sediment and/or bedrock beneath the glacier.” Later, the river under the glacier moved slow enough to deposit a ridge of sandy sediment, creating an esker down the middle of the valley.

The sun sets early these days so we were soon our way back through the dimming woods. Straight Lake State Park is known for its solitude and beauty, but it was also a unique experience to follow both a logging-era road and a glacial channel.

I first heard about the park from Gregg Westigard of the Inter-County Leader at one of the Heritage Discovery Workshops last year, and was glad to finally make it here and experience the stories it has to tell for myself.



Another nail in the canoe

Originally published on my blog.

First stop
Our Royalex Wenonah Spirit II on the Cannon River

First it was kayaks. Now it’s stand-up paddleboards. Canoeing just can’t seem to compete. Therecent news that a popular material for canoes will no longer be manufactured is perhaps a sign of how far the once-dominant watercraft has fallen. If not a symptom, it could very well push the canoe further to the margins of paddling.

Tough, lightweight, and inexpensive, Royalex has been used in many a fine canoe during the past 30 years – including my Wenonah Spirit II. The Minnesota company uses the material in 50 percent of the canoes it makes on the banks of the Mississippi River.

All-purpose perfection

Our Spirit II has taken us deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down many miles of Minnesota rivers. Sure, I have envied my companions’ super-light Kevlar boats when carrying it across BWCAW portages, but love the durability on the rivers during low water, when scraping gravel is unavoidable. It’s the ideal all-purpose boat.

Royalex is best known for its use in whitewater boats. I don’t paddle rapids much, but I love the stories of canoes wrapped around rocks by hydraulic forces, only to snap back to their original shape when pulled out of the river, often with a winch.

Apparently this position as the preferred material for the hardcore fringe of an increasingly marginal pastime doesn’t make manufacturing the stuff economical any longer.

Rise and fall

Canoes were once made out of birch bark and then wood and canvas. After World War II, airplane manufacturers converted their plants to making the ubiquitous aluminum canoes (and many war pilots turned to flying those craft into remote lakes with vacationing paddlers).

The vortex of baby-boomers and post-war industry and a national passion for the outdoors defined canoeing’s peak.

Then along came Royalex and eventually the premium Kevlar. And then came the meteoric rise of kayaks in the late 1990s and 2000s. People – including myself – love the indepence, the ease, the intimacy of a kayak. Stand-up paddleboards are the latest and greatest thing – it looks fun, and boasts the simplicity and closeness to the water to which all paddlecraft aspire.

But you can’t beat the connection between boat and water and people as you can achieve while paddling a tandem canoe. To make it swing and pivot in the current as you descend a river, or to pull it against a headwind stroke by stroke, brings you close to each other, and to the canoe’s history as an efficient means of transportation – loved by indigenous people, voyageurs and explorers.

Uncertain future

The big question with Royalex is what will happen next? Will someone buy it up and keep the stuff available? Will some other material replace it? Either way, I suspect it will be a more expensive future, recognizing the smaller niche market it supplies.

Hardcore canoeists will probably point to cedar strip, wood-canvas, fiberglass, or Kevlar as indication of thriving canoe communities, but those aren’t materials for the mass market. People will always canoe, but it’s likely it will either be in heavy, noisy aluminum, or one of the expensive and precious  materials.

Royalex is dead. Long live canoeing.


Paddle punditry

strib-commentaryPeople should go canoeing more. That was the basic argument of my commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Saturday. Minnesota’s rivers are amazing and largely ignored, go paddle them.

I feel like that is a solid suggestion. And it’s was satisfying to see my words in ink and paper on something that goes out to 300,000 people. Without further ado:

Get to know Minnesota waterways up close

They’re something to behold. So find a canoe and get to know them up close.

In a 1963 edition of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the magazine published by the Department of Natural Resources, Gov. Karl Rolvaag wrote that canoeing on Minnesota’s streams and rivers was a “recreational sleeping giant.”

It still is.

In the same issue, editor John McKane wrote: “Aside from a small and dedicated fraternity of canoeists who know the secret of recreation at its best on state streams outside of the Arrowhead, the majority of Minnesota rivers remain ‘forgotten rivers.’ ”

Those same words could describe the state of paddling today.

That edition of the magazine introduced what would become Minnesota’s network of Water Trails. The idea was to inspire folks to explore our 15,000 miles of streams and rivers.The legislation turned 50 years old in 2013. Today there are 33 designated rivers, marking 4,500 miles of routes. But paddling in Minnesota is still largely invisible, besides the exceptional opportunities in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Personally, I return often to favorite stretches of my home river, the St. Croix. Too often, probably, but it’s a marvel of a waterway — so accessible, yet so wild. Earlier this month, as soon as eight friends and I got on the water east of Pine City, we could hear rapids ahead. The fast water quickly transported us to a very different state of mind. We spent the afternoon slipping by cedars and stopping at sandbars.

A week later, I took my kayak to a familiar landing closer to the Twin Cities for a Friday afternoon solo outing. I first paddled upriver through a side channel, pushing against the current a couple of miles to a sandbar, where I got out to fish. Then I floated back down the main channel past limestone banks seeping spring water, and past white pines and sandy beaches, letting the current carry me home.

It’s hard to ignore the river I love, but I’m resolved to explore more of the designated trails. By my figuring, I could see all 4,500 miles of water trails if I paddled a new river six days a year for the next 50 years.

The Conservation Volunteer recently published an appreciation of the water trails by Keith Goetzman and Javier Serna, with lyrical narratives of paddling three of them. It’s worth reading for inspiration and useful information. The DNR also has released online tours of some water trails, with videos, photos and descriptions of river sections.

In 1963, Rolvaag championed our state as the “Voyageur’s Highway.” Fifty years later, it’s time to recapture our voyageur spirit, pull away from computer screens and busy schedules, and explore a river. The words of Conservation Volunteer editor McKane hold true today as in 1963: “The canoe provides an ideal outlet from tensions; of escape from the coldness of concrete and steel.”

For Minnesotans, getting in a canoe is a way to connect with the place we call home — its history, its nature, its beauty. For visitors, a day spent paddling shows them Minnesota’s heart and soul, and is an experience they’ll tell their friends about.

Our rivers are more than just a sleeping recreational giant — they are a slumbering identity for our state. They are more than waters moving across the land — they are part of Minnesota’s, and America’s, story: Nothing represents freedom quite like a river, a canoe and a paddle.

Our state’s rivers have carried Ojibwe and Dakota, explorers and lumberjacks, settlers and missionaries, timber and steamboats. Our cities are built on their banks, and take them as their trademarks. We paddle them, but not enough.

Minnesota’s rivers are asleep. Let’s go wake them up.


Art Afoot

Cross-posted from my Star Tribune blog:


There are people everywhere, all the time, in New York City. On the sidewalks, at the parks, in the bars and restaurants. It’s a city defined by swarms of humans as much as skyscrapers or famous streets.

I was reminded while visiting recently that how those millions of people experience the city is a complex thing: They coexist relatively peacefully, mostly minding their own business. They search for companionship in the crowds. They make micro-refuges of miniscule apartments. They drink.

And they make art.

The city’s major art institutions – the Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, etc. – are world-class. But this time, we saw what you could see without leaving the street.

High Line hike

High Line hiking

Sunday morning, we took the E train to the 23rd Street stop, got coffee and pastries, and walked a couple blocks to the High Line, a nascent park built on an old elevated railroad. Grasses and flowers grow up from gaps in the pavement where the old tracks still lay, reminding you this was once a way to get dangerous freight trains off the streets of Chelsea, and it then sat abandoned for 25 years. Now it is a bright ribbon of green, threading a mile-and-a-half through the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan.

The first part of the High Line opened in 2009, a second part in 2011, and another section is due to open next year. The park feels like something that could only have been created in the last decade. The design is thoughtful, confident, and informed. People move along its length smoothly, conveyed by a constant shifting of scenery.

High Line Tracks

At every turn, art asks you questions. We sat on a bench and listened to an automated male voice recite the names of animals. I wonder, will this be the outcome of one extinction after another? In the future, will our kids go outside with only a list of that which once lived here? What beasts once wandered the Manhattan wilderness? Fine questions to consider in a park reclaimed from industrial use.

It was a sunny and hot morning and for these Minnesotans it just felt good to be walking outside. We beheld creations big and small. Variations on busts, a wall of pressed tin and broken mirrors, billboards of baseball moments, gardens carefully curated for beauty and wildness.

Framing the city

The art and the gardens and the structure fit together in perfect harmony. An amphitheater over 10th Avenue, with a long view uptown through windows where a stage or screen might be, lets you sit and rest your feet and consider the city as a play or a movie: a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, and a drama, all at once.

Gallery of the sidewalk

Happy Faces

After our walk on the High Line, I took the subway out to Brooklyn. When I stepped out of the Morgan Street station, I immediately noticed two things: it was a lot dirtier than Chelsea, and there was art everywhere.

Street art, an evolution or an expansion of graffiti, is often vandalism, and illegal. But in blighted neighborhoods, especially industrial areas, it can improve one’s experience of the place. It states that people live here, and says a little about who they are, and it adds color and depth to the landscape.

Mattress art

The Bushwick neighborhood is full of good examples. The sort on display there isn’t your typical tag, and most of what I saw seemed intended to to delight, beautify, or challenge.

Its very nature is a statement about contemporary art. These are not artists content to work in a studio, hoping a curator will one day decide their work is worthy enough for a gallery or a museum. These artists go directly to the public. They also create knowing that their work is impermanent, that it will last at most a year or two, and often much less.

Wall of Wonder

These artists do not work so that the paintings will hang in a climate-controlled environment for centuries, viewable with a ticket. They work so that many, many people see it now.

The secret sound of Times Square

Our hotel was only a few blocks north of Times Square, but I had no intention of going there this trip until a friend told me about Max Neuhaus’s sound installation. It was worth fighting the hordes to experience.

You have to go looking for the piece, which is simply called Times Square, at the tip of the pedestrian triangle in the middle of this famous intersection. We found it surrounded by two people dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and a Buzz Lightyear – hokey impersonators who take photos with tourists in exchange for a couple bucks.

The large, unmarked grate in the sidewalk was unnoticed by the crowds. They walked over it quickly, perhaps assuming the weird drone from beneath their feet was the subway or ventilation or perhaps not thinking about it long enough to assume anything.

Neuhaus first installed the piece in 1977, when Times Square was one of the seediest places in New York, and possibly America. How the work has remained relevant as the square has evolved into a highly-commercial tourist destination is an interesting question worthy its own article.

The experience of the piece today is fascinating. If you stand on the grate, you are suddenly in a bubble. For the most part, people do not congregate on the grate, so you have rare space around you, and the droning emanating from beneath has the effect of white noise, blocking the cacophony of the area. You are surrounded by more activity than just about anywhere, and you are suddenly very alone.

Then you step off the grate and back into the fray and you walk as fast as you can past neon signs to escape the area. A museum like the Metropolitan has peace and quiet going for it, but none of the works we enjoyed last month would have had anywhere near the same impact in a traditional museum setting. I came home feeling I had a better sense of New York than before – not the accumulated art of our world found in the big museums, but the city itself.