Writing about reading

Lighthouse Road cover

I recently unleashed my inner English major as I reviewed a new novel set on Minnesota’s North Shore a century ago, Peter Geye’s “The Lighthouse Road.” The book would a good read for anyone who loves Lake Superior and its history.

The review was published on the Minneapolis literary website, Mill City Bibliophile:

Fate and the Lake: Seven Ideas about “The Lighthouse Road”

I: Odd Rex

Fate and free will have been debated since the ancient Greeks believed that oracles, channeling the gods, could foretell our lives. Oedipus would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, no matter the actions of lowly humans. His parents heard the news and abandoned the child to die, but Oedipus clawed his way back. His exertions to avoid his own fate – and those of his parents – led him directly to that which the oracle promised.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (which I’ve massacred through summary) came to mind while reading The Lighthouse Road, Peter Geye’s newly published novel of northern Minnesota. Here, the biggest forces of fate have nothing to do with men or gods. Instead, at these northern latitudes, the seasons dictate our lives. They rule what we eat, what we wear, what we do. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending nets, for blueberries and for root vegetables, for snowshoes and canoes.

Odd Thiede, the orphaned protagonist forever searching for shelter from the storm, is subject to a profoundly Earth-bound destiny. His fate is specifically the harsh seasons of Lake Superior’s North Shore – not the gods’ will but the natural world’s ambivalence, the relentless cycles of the Earth. To take your boat out for its maiden voyage on the big lake during November (the month of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) is not to challenge the gods but to merely gamble your own life, weighing the chance of a storm against the chance for a future and a family. The odds of this bet are not made by any bookie, but by the wind and the water and love. It is not an affront to god, but to one’s own instinct for self-preservation.

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Stories of solitude and silence

Firegrate Review cover

In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, it has been stressed that you must be specific when you write — include details. The instruction is often misinterpreted as to include all the details, or as many as possible.

The writer’s work is to choose the details that tell the story. This idea and others are discussed in the introduction I recently wrote for The Firegrate Review, Volume 2, what you might call a Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness/Greg Seitz production:

Details from the Trail

In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.

My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.

A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.

Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.

One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.

We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.

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Buy The Firegrate Review here.


River of pine

A first draft of a fragment of a full story. A work in progress.

River banks and color

Normally, we take out of the river at Log House Landing, in the village of Copas, which is primarily marked by a kitschy garden store along the highway called Funkie Gardens, but which most people still refer to as “that place that used to be Crabtree Kitchen.” Crabtree Kitchen was a pancake place that went out of business more than a decade ago.

Pressed for time as we were, I still couldn’t resist suggesting we add a couple more miles to the float and take out at William O’Brien State Park, downstream of Log House Landing. I think it was because Rachel had never been on the river before and I wanted to show off the limestone banks and tall white pines clinging to the rock on the section of river bordered by the park.

I think the St. Croix is a gorgeous river, but its beauty can be quiet and require a lengthy process to get to know and love. Much of it flows through flat floodplain forests, the banks sandy or grassy, the trees homogeneous hardwoods. It is a wild river, with few houses in sight, and clean, clear water. But perhaps especially because it is so close to the Twin Cities, a rookie to the river would assume it is more subjugated by man, that it is as densely populated as any of our popular tourist lakes, that its water is fouled by cities and farms. There is no evidence to support those ideas, but I have found that sometimes people see what they assume, not what they actually witness.

There are spots, though, which can easily grab the attention of a first-time visitor. O’Brien is one of them. Green rock drops 10 feet straight down into the water. A popular walking trail runs along these banks, screened by stands of mature pines which grow directly up from the very edges of the drop-offs. From the path, those pines frame the river and the opposite shore perfectly, acting like windows to focus the eye.

River bluffs

It is interesting that the 2,200 acre park was created when the daughter of the old lumber baron William O’Brien donated his holdings to the state. It is interesting because men like him made their fortunes de-timbering the entire river valley and the valleys of its tributaries. Today, pine are the exception, not the rule, and they are at most 100 years old. There are beautiful stands of them all along this stretch of river; especially in the fall when the leafy trees turn red and orange and gold, and winters when the surrounding woods are brown and gray and muted, the pines’ color seems to take on a darker hue, and they are a feast for eyes hungry for the color of growth and life.

Because of how dry it had been all through late summer and early fall, experts on meteorology, arborism and leaf color (that includes nearly all Minnesotans) predicted a fast and disappointing fall. The trees would turn brown and yellow and then the leaves would fall. We were wrong. It had been a beautiful, luxurious season. It had started early, though, and I thought it might be past its peak by the day we got out there, but if it was I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t take my eyes off the bluffs.

As we paddled, we talked of what those old-growth pine forests must have been like. Think of trunks 12 feet across. Think of the forest floor covered in a thick carpet of soft red needles, muffling all sound. Think of the fallen trees, dead of old age, decaying into soil. Think of stretching your neck to look up toward the sky, those giants swaying in the wind blowing 150 feet above. If I could travel through time just once, I think it might be to the pre-European St. Croix Valley. Think of the silence.

White pine on limestone river banks



Looking for birds from the seat of a kayak

Originally posted on St. Croix 360.

The view from my kayak on the St. Croix River

Everybody else is able to see the Great horned owl that Elsa has just spotted sitting in a tree by the St. Croix River, except me.

“It’s in that tree there,” my fellow kayakers tell me. There are a lot of trees there.

Elsa is excited because in several years of being a professional naturalist, including a stint at Wolf Ridge on Minnesota’s North Shore where she carried a captive Great horned owl around for demonstrations, she has never seen one in the wild.

Finally the owl tires of our gawking (and likely my obtuseness) and swoops off its branch and across the backwater behind its perch. “Oh, there it is!” I exclaim.

Kayaking through the fog on the St. Croix River

Floating and Flying

Our group of 10 kayakers had only been on the water for 20 minutes when we saw the owl. That was doing pretty well – we were out there to see birds, but August is not typically known for seeing lots of birds.

That didn’t stop us from looking. The morning paddle was offered by the National Park Service in partnership with the St. Croix River Association as part of a 2012 effort to get more people out on the river with Park Service rangers (the St. Croix River Association is a St. Croix 360 partner). Elsa was one of our rangers for the birding kayak trip, accompanied by colleague Caroline and the rest of us.

The rest of the group was for the most part new to the pastime — eager for the chance to paddle and learn about the river from knowledgeable guides.

Morning sun, mist, and a kayaker on the St. Croix River

When we launched our kayaks at the Osceola landing, great clouds of fog were drifting across the water. The sun was only starting to rise above the tall bluff on the Wisconsin side.

The river was in fine form. Early morning sunlight filtered through the white and purple mist where the warm water met the cool air. My fellow kayakers drifted in and out of obscurity around me. I paddled slowly.

The St. Croix’s magic can be elusive, and it is deep as the water. Many thousands of people experience the river frequently, by driving across it on a bridge, or strolling alongside it in Stillwater or Hudson, or at one of the parks along its course. But only a handful know much of its complex nature, such as the varieties of swallows that eat the mosquitoes, the anonymous islands that host Great blue heron nests, the status of the young Osprey being raised at a nest on a 100-year-old railroad bridge.

To know the river’s little secrets is also to know its true grandeur.

Morning sun through the trees on the St. Croix River

River rangers

I have paddled the stretch we paddled on this trip a few times every year for more than a decade and I saw it with brand new eyes in the company of fresh companions and our passionate guides.

The rangers made a good pair. Caroline grew up along the river in Afton and was spending her fifth summer as a seasonal ranger on the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. Elsa was from Oshkosh, Wisconsin originally and had worked at National Parks in the western United States and Alaska over the previous few years – this was her first summer at a Midwest park. Elsa loved birds and interpretation, while Caroline seemed passionate about the idea of a National Park in her backyard.

As we paddled past the Great blue heron rookery, quiet and still with no sign our sound of the inhabitants (my theory was they were all sleeping in because it was Saturday), we spotted some long-legged shore birds dashing around muddy flats.

Kayaking St. Croix River backwaters

Elsa quickly identified the birds as killdeer. She said she had first identified them while paddling alone on the river above St. Croix Falls – it had taken her 20 minutes but now she would never forget. You always remember when you identify a new bird. When you see the bird again and recognize it, you recall where you were and who you were with that first time.


When we had introduced ourselves at the start of the trip, everyone had shared their favorite bird. As far as I’m concerned, that’s like trying to name your favorite Bob Dylan album, but I said “Osprey.”

As we approached the Cedar Bend railroad bridge, everyone’s attention turned to a nest situated on top of it, and two wide-winged birds wheeling in the air. They were Osprey parents, and we interpreted all the activity as them showing their offspring the wonders of flight.

A few of us dawdled in our kayaks just below the bridge, watching the big raptors fly and listening to their keening cries.

Kayaking and birding on the St. Croix River

As an aspiring angler, this unique bird which eats almost exclusively the fish it catches is an inspiration to me and my amateur efforts (they on average take 12 minutes to catch a fish). But as someone who also loves to travel, osprey offer an even more ambitious model: the birds are known to log as many as 160,000 miles migrating during their 15-20 year lifespan.

Perhaps it was the cool morning, but the Osprey seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about getting their young ones airborne for the first time. They would need strong wings soon for the journey south. We left them to their labors and paddled on.

When our group stopped on a sandbar just downstream to stretch our legs, the geese were the entertainment. Caroline and I were talking when we stopped to look up at a couple dozen of the birds attempting to fly in formation. I say “attempting” because before our eyes their shaky V completely disintegrated, each bird seeming to fly suddenly in its own direction. I’m pretty sure I saw a couple birds collide mid-air.

We agreed they had better get more practice before beginning their migration.

A beautiful view on the St. Croix River

Interstate Flyway System

The St. Croix has been used by people for centuries as a transportation route, but birds have been doing the same as long as there’s been a river. They travel by the thousands up and down the river in the spring and fall, en route between their wintering grounds and summer breeding areas in the north.

1981 paper by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Craig A. Faanes reported identifying 314 bird species in the St. Croix River valley. In the study, the author notes Osprey as endangered and uncommon, due to pesticide use. Today, the birds are plentiful and considered a success story once DDT and other harmful chemicals were banned in the 1970s.

Limestone banks on the St. Croix River

The day had become gray and overcast when we continued our trip downstream. There were no more significant bird sightings, but we did try to figure out the little swallows which flitted from bankside branches out over the water to snatch bugs.

The great mystery there is how a tiny insect can provide enough justification for the burst of energy required by the bird to catch it in mid-air.

When we pulled up to the landing where our trip ended, it was not yet noon. We had some time before our shuttle back upriver, so I stood in the shallows talking about the river with ranger Caroline and other kayakers.

Kayak and paddle on the St. Croix River

We had seen a few great birds during the trip, but only a tiny fraction of the river’s 314 species. Caroline and I got to talking about mussels, of which the St. Croix’s 40 species make it among one of the most notable rivers in the world, and then of course there are the fish and the frogs and the furry animals.

A few hours was just enough to scratch the surface of the St. Croix, and what shone through was misty and radiant and swooped from a tree limb across a still backwater and into deeper woods.


The right to remain silent

The sound of rushing water greeted us Friday evening as a friend and I launched our canoe on a small Wisconsin river which shortly downstream spilled into the St. Croix. We had fly rods and dreams of bass and muskies, and also my camera and thoughts of a summer sunset.

The birds sang their twilight songs and we paddled and waded, casting colorful streamers and poppers into fast water. When we reached the big river, it was in a place where the valley is a good mile wide, a multitude of channels weaving between islands.

The sun was not far above the Minnesota bluffs and the water was glassy. Although I’ve experienced such beauty and solitude on the St. Croix many times, it never ceases to amaze me when I can get to such a place an hour after leaving home.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beautiful summer night. From the Minnesota side, we could hear the roar of motorcycles on Highway 95, at least a mile away. They of course had no way of knowing that two men were paddling quietly through the backwaters below, though I suppose they could have guessed. There was no doubt in our minds that they were on the highway.

The intrusion of motorcycles is nothing new in my many trips on the river. The river is not wide enough to escape their sound and it is frequently the only impact from the outside world on otherwise quiet and solitary fishing trips.

When I tweeted out some thoughts about this issue over the weekend, another individual reported on his family’s trip to a popular state park:

It’s certainly not just canoeists on the river who are affected. As I drive around the St. Croix valley, I love looking at the real estate. There are many roads featuring many great houses — secluded amongst woods and hills and running water. I like to think about living in such a place someday.

But if the road is scenic and especially if a house is anywhere near a hill, I know I would never live there, putting up with the bikes gunning it up the hill everyday. Like homes near the airport, it must be aggravating to sit on your own patio and have to stop conversation every time an engine drowns you out.

The river was flooded when we were paddling around Friday night. We cruised right over what were normally high banks, wove between trees on sunken points and islands. The fish were a little hard to find, but the consolation was the incredible colors in the sky, reflected on the perfectly still waters, and the feeling of being far from the modern world.

These days near the summer solstice are made for evening paddles as the light lingers in the sky until 10 p.m. Almost as stunning as the sunset was the warm light it cast on the Wisconsin shore.

The St. Croix River is not just another pretty lake. It was one of the eight rivers included in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Anybody who has canoed, kayaked, boated, fished, or swam the river knows it’s special. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act included this defintion:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The legislation protected rivers from new dams, and also from most development on their banks. It essentially tried to keep them the way they are — to the extent that is ever possible with a river.

Enormous effort is put into keeping the St. Croix wild and scenic. Its stewards work to control invasive species like zebra mussels, asian carp, and buckthorn, invest in water treatment and agriculture practices that promote clean water, and argue for decades about building a new bridge. When passing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Congress probably did not consider motorcycles, and how they could degrade a river.

Loud motorcycles simply were not a big problem when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed. The organization Noise Off says 45 percent of motorcycles today use aftermarket exhaust systems, specially designed to make them extremely loud. In the 1970s, just 12 percent of bikes had the noisy exhaust systems — this is not some long tradition that we ought to honor, but rather a growing trend that needs our attention.

Federal law prohibits vehicle exhaust from exceeding 80 decibels, but most after-market systems hit 100 decibels. The problem is that in order to bust violators, police would have to have the time and special equipment to measure noise levels. Which they don’t, unless the public demands it.

The question is, don’t motorcyclists have a right to their noise? This is America, after all. But as is so often the case in our nation, one person’s freedom conflicts with another person’s rights. The history of America is filled with debating how to balance those conflicts. It’s a question with difficult answers, but America’s favorite neighbor had a simple one.

There is a 2001 episode of the radio show “This American Life” in which the great Mr. Rogers helped solve problems in the reporter’s neighborhood. The first issue he addressed was between a woman and her loud downstairs neighbor (who happened to be the reporter). The young man wanted to listen to his music loud, late into the night. His upstairs neighbor banged on her floor with a broom when she can’t sleep.

Mr. Rogers sided with the woman. He says the reporter should keep his music down. The reporter says his apartment is his space, and why shouldn’t he get to listen to whatever music he wants in his space. Mr. Rogers simply says, “We started with silence and I will always uphold a person’s right to silence.”

I like silence a lot, although it’s really more a matter of the “original state” as Mr. Rogers might say. As we made our way back to the car Friday night, it was anything but quiet. We had to pull the canoe up the last 100 yards because the water was too shallow.

As we waded upstream, the river pushing against as, all I could hear was the sound of the fast-moving water on the rocks, my legs and the canoe. Fireflies blinked on the banks, and great blue herons and bald eagles flew overhead, headed to their nests for the night.