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.


Sand storm

Cross-posted from my blog.

I visited the St. Croix Watershed Research Station last week — a Science Museum facility near Marine on St. Croix which hosts 20 or so scientists studying how land use affects rivers around the world.

At the entrance to the main building is a display of the couple dozen kinds of mussels that were once found in the Minnesota River. The Minnesota used to be home to more species of mussels than the St. Croix, although it’s now the St. Croix that is known for mussels, including some of which are rare and endangered.

The Minnesota River flows through primarily agricultural land, and it is nearly devoid of mussels now, largely due to excessive sediment. Some of the species of mussels displayed on the research station’s wall are extinct, others have disappeared from the river but can still be found in other rivers.

The health of the St. Croix’s mussels has been on many people’s minds recently because of the incident in April when  a containment berm burst at a sand mine along the river near Grantsburg, WI. The mine spilled fine sediment into the river for five days before a hiker noticed it and alerted authorities. (The ultra-fine sand mined at the site is used in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”)

What’s the harm of a little more sand?

The impacts to the river from the sand mine spill are still being analyzed, but this is not just a matter of a little more sand in the river. The Wisconsin DNR has acknowledged that the type of ultra-fine sand which got into the river is not “native” to the river.

Photo of contaminated stream taken by hiker who reported the issue.
Photo of contaminated stream taken by hiker who reported the issue.

Suspended in the creek which flowed from the mine to the river, the water gave the appearance of “coffee with a lot of cream.”

That is bad news for the St. Croix’s native mussels. These highly-specialized creatures depend on clean, fast-moving water and firm river bottoms to survive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that as little as a quarter-inch of sediment covering a stream bottom can kill 90 percent of the mussels in an area.

What mussels are there and why should I care?

The map below is pulled from the Minnesota DNR’s rare species inventory database, showing where rare mussels and fish have been found in the vicinity of the Grantsburg sand mine incident. The stream carrying the sediments from the mine enters the river just below the Highway 70 bridge.

The blue dots on the map represent vertebrae species, such as fish, which could include gilt darter, southern brook lamprey, and lake sturgeon.

The orange dots are survey sites where mussels have been found — each dot represents an inventory site where up to seven different species have been found. Mussels include:

Note: All species of mussels are protected by law, and it is illegal to take live mussels or even dead mussel shells from the St. Croix River.

Endangered Higgins Eye Mussels (USFWS photo)
Endangered Higgins Eye Mussels (USFWS photo)

Mussels are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for healthy rivers. They need specific habitat, certain fish species present which they depend on for reproducing, and clean water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the 38 mussel species that live in the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers put it “among the world’s greatest mussel watersheds.”

But it’s just one incident, how big of a deal is that really?

Tiller Corporation, the Maple Grove, MN-based mining company behind the Grantsburg mine, is currently trying to get approval for another mine next to the river — this one a gravel mine downstream in Scandia.

Local residents have been fighting that mine for a couple years, both because of its location, proximity to the river, and the heavy truck traffic that will transport material from the mine and through the small community.

Photo taken on property adjacent to Tiller/Zavoral proposed mine site
Photo taken on property adjacent to Tiller/Zavoral proposed mine site

The Scandia mine proposal is nearing the end of its environmental review. When the draft Environmental Impact Statement was released in April, local writer Laurie Allman published an in-depth article about it on St. Croix 360. She listed many concerns about the proposal and the adequacy of the environmental review, and then poetically described what is at stake:

Along most of its perimeter, the mine would abut land held in scenic easements by the St. Croix Scenic Riverway: the National Park we are privileged to enjoy and serve as citizen stewards. It is, without doubt, one of the most lovely, most vulnerable places along the St. Croix: a place characterized by the sounds of bird song, wind moving through the needles of towering white pines, and the trickle of spring water bound for the river. Continue reading …

The city’s plan does not currently allow mining at the location due to its scenic and natural character, but the mining company is seeking a variance. In comments on the draft EIS (PDF), the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway declared its opposition to the mine being permitted, specifically referencing the Grantsburg mine accident:

Soils at the proposed mine site are sandy and the area immediately to the east of the site down to the St. Croix River has very steep slopes and bluffs that are at a high risk of erosion. Portions of the proposed mine site discharge to three different creeks that run down the steep slopes to the St. Croix River. The DEIS correctly acknowledges that the potential for erosion exists after the start of construction when soils are exposed for overburden removal or other activity …

… The NPS, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), and Burnett County have been involved in responding to a significant sediment discharge to the St. Croix River from Soderbeck Pit (frac sand mine) near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, that occurred in April 2012. Because the Riverway runs through the City of Scandia and the City has zoning authority that can help protect the Riverway, the NPS believes we have an obligation to inform you of this event. Soderbeck Pit is also operated by Tiller and was to be internally drained … Given the vulnerability of the sandy soils and steep slopes at Zavoral site, the potential for a similar sedimentation event exists, brought about by rainfall rather than wash water.

The Grantsburg mine — currently the only of its kind along the St. Croix — had been operating since just last July. In less than a year, the mining company built a containment berm out of the wrong material, didn’t monitor it, and didn’t notify the DNR when it failed.

So they will fix the problem and pay the price, right?

A settling pond at the Grantsburg mine, photo taken before the containment berm failed.
A settling pond at the Grantsburg mine, photo taken before the containment berm failed.

By all accounts, the companies involved have been very cooperative so far. The DNR just sent the case to the Wisconsin attorney general for prosecution. By my calculation, they could face total fines of up to $50,000. Perhaps a big enough fine will be incentive enough to mend their ways, but the Wisconsin DNR’s recent history suggests they won’t be punished severely.

Governor Scott Walker has made loosening environmental protections one of his top priorities. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that inspections by the DNR had declined significantly from previous years. In one notorious incident, one of Walker’s appointees gave a slap on the wrist to a company which was illegally treating farm fields with human waste at three times the legal limit — bad enough to contaminate nearby drinking water wells.

The Grantsburg mine? It hadn’t been inspected since last fall.

Thinking downstream

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry (via Dan McGuiness)

I have canoed the stretch of the St. Croix around Grantsburg several times. We’ve gotten out and swam in the little rapids below the Highway 70 bridge where the contaminated stream flowed into the river.

The river is a paradise for me and a lot of people. I can’t wait to share it with my new daughter. The silence, the sandbars, the fish. And the mussels. I can already see the hot summer day several years from now when she will canoe, swim and fish it with us.

In April, a hiker saw a muddy stream flowing into the St. Croix River and said, “That isn’t right.” The only question which remains is if his government will agree.

The St. Croix downstream of Grantsburg
The St. Croix downstream of Grantsburg

On your mark, get set, paddle

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first canoe race, on the Snake River near Mora, MN. I borrowed a friend’s GoPro video camera to play with, and ended up making this short video:

The Snake River Canoe Race is about 14 miles long and has been happening for 32 years. It includes about 175 canoes ranging from hardcore racers who do the trip in less than two hours, to folks out for a good time, like my friend Slim and me.

You can read a bit more about the race and our experience at St. Croix 360. Bottom line is, I thought it was a blast and plan to do it again next May.