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Trip Reports

Trip Report: Camping, canoeing, and fly-fishing at St. Croix State Park

(Cross-posted at Minnesota Trails magazine.)

To get to the Little Yellow Banks canoe landing at St. Croix State Park, you first drive five miles of paved road from the highway to park headquarters. Then you drive another five miles of gravel road to the landing.

By the time you get to the landing, you feel like the hustle and bustle of modern life is pretty far away. The river–wild, undeveloped, beautiful–does nothing to dispel that feeling.

I left the Twin Cities last Thursday afternoon with my dog Lola and drove an hour-and-a-half north to the park. My buddies Eric and Gabe had spent the previous two nights in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and were going to meet me to camp that night and float a few miles of the St. Croix River in the morning and do a little fishing for smallmouth bass.

Big park, big adventures

At 34,000 acres, St. Croix State Park is Minnesota’s biggest state park. It contains 217 campsites, 127 miles of hiking trails, and large swaths of unbroken woods that are home to wolves and bears.

It also includes 21 miles of the federally-protected St. Croix River and seven miles of the Kettle River, a state-listed wild and scenic river and also a popular paddling destination. It is surely on many peoples’ list of top paddling destinations in the state. (View a PDF map of the park.)

When I finally arrived at Little Yellow Banks, it was about 4:00 p.m. The landing is named after the tributary which joins the St. Croix at that spot. It was where, during the 1890s, a logging railroad dumped timber into the river to float down the river to mills downstream. Today, the backwater at the confluence is a quiet, remote place.

And the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel of mosquitoes.

The bow of my canoe and the St. Croix River

The dog and I had no interest in sitting around feeding malnourished insects, so we hopped in the canoe and pushed off into the river to wait for our companions. Away from shore, the mosquitoes subsided and I was able to really relax and soak in the silence and beauty of the river.

A night in the woods

When the other guys got there, we drove back out the five miles of gravel (spotting deer, grouse, and a fox), then a bit further down another one of the park’s long roads to the Sand Creek Landing. There, we left one car to spend the night, and we returned to Little Yellow Banks.

The landing doubles as a campsite for river canoeists. We figured that we were within the guidelines, even though we hadn’t actually paddled up to the site, as we would be paddling away from it in the morning, and we parked our other car 100 yards up the road at the parking lot. Then, we set up the tents and otherwise made ourselves at home for the night.

Little Yellow Banks landing

Once it got fully dark, the mosquitoes subsided but a more welcome insect appeared. The flickers of fireflies began to pop up around us. Some of them blinking on and off, others fading in and out. If you looked closely, you could perceive at least a couple different colors of luminescence.

As we prepared dinner of New York Strips over the fire and couscous, a park ranger drove up and we talked fishing for a few minutes. He told us that in a night of fishing on the river, it’s possible to catch a sauger, catfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, and maybe even a muskie.

Recently smitten by smallmouth bass on the fly rod, I have kept busy the past couple years seeking out new stretches of the St. Croix to pursue the fish, once said to be “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.”

In the morning, I was hoping to get a fish or two on a new fly rod I had recently acquired. A heavier weight than my usual trout rod, it could cast in the wind of the open river and throw the big, non-aerodynamic flies that seem to sufficiently antagonize smallies to convince them to attack it.

Paddling on the St. Croix River

A wet and buggy start to a great day

It rained most of the night, but we were warm and dry in our tents. It was just me and Lola and the hope that the rain would taper off by morning. It did, though when I crawled out of the tent, the skies still looked threatening. Weather worries quickly dissipated though, as I was attacked with renewed gusto by the site’s mosquito population.

I rousted the other fellows, expressing my rather urgent need to know where they had put the bug dope. As soon as they opened their tent door, they suddenly found the motivation to get moving, too.

While the tents were taken down and camp otherwise deconstructed in surely record time, I made a pot of coffee. We were on the water very shortly, seeking relief from the swarms. And then the rain picked up again.

Getting ready to launch the canoes, in the rain and mosquitoes.

Despite appearing to be the type of rain that sticks around all day, the skies actually dried up pretty soon and we were able to relax. And the morning got steadily better. There was not another soul on the river, it seemed, and the banks were wild, without a cabin or any other sign of human visible.

The early June river-bottom woods were as lush and green as anything ever is in Minnesota. A steady chorus of birdsong rang out from the banks, the soundtrack to any good St. Croix excursion.

Going with the flow

The great thing about floating a river like the St. Croix truly must be the relaxed pace of the trip. You don’t need to worry about paddling much if you’re distracted by fishing or conversation; the steady current will keep you moving just fine.

While Gabe casted at every possible fish holding spot to no avail, Eric and I caught up on each other’s lives, while also finding time to solve many of the problems of the world and admire the scenery.

The seven miles down to the Sand Creek Landing passed pretty uneventfully. The clouds slowly broke up. We saw some folks on shore doing trail work. A very big bald eagle soared out of trees overhead a couple times. A couple fish were briefly waylaid.

The Unabomber catches a fish.

A nice smallmouth.

After a few hours, we arrived at our take-out and the end of our short trip. We had only seen about a third of the river the park contains, not to mention the other 250 miles of federally-protected river, including the St. Croix’s biggest tributary, the Namekagon.

Below our takeout, the river splits into two channels for about five miles, with the Kettle River Slough containing some reportedly fun rapids as the St. Croix approaches the mouth of the Kettle. There’s a big ledge at the end of the Slough where it rejoins the main channel.

As the epilogue to his 1960s history of the river, the writer, conservationist and historian James Taylor Dunn wrote of paddling the length of the whole river with a friend. Here’s what he wrote about paddling St. Croix State Park’s rapids:

“…[We] stopped for lunch just below the mouth of the rocky Kettle River on one of the three large islands which divide the stream. These islands, which extend through the seven miles of rapids, are high-banked and crowned with magnificent century-old pines.”

We drove back up to Yellow Banks, retrieved the other car, and then loaded the canoes and gear and headed for home. Mosquitoes sneaked into my vehicle while we loaded up, and my drive was occasionally punctuated by swatting one of the little pests.

See for yourself!

  • Canoeing 101  – On June 12 and August 14, St. Croix State Park is offering “St. Croix Canoe Cruise” programs. A naturalist will provide paddling basics, and then lead a 2-hour, 5-mile trip down the river. Visit the park website for more details.
  • Rentals – Pardun’s Canoe Rental rents canoes and provides shuttle service in the park, as well as at its location in Danbury, WI (approx. 15 miles from the park). They can offer advice on trips of different lengths, and handle the logistics of transportation.

Canine canoeing companion

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Trip Reports

Morel hunting

A delicious foraging find.I spent much of Sunday afternoon and evening traipsing through various woods in the St. Croix River valley, alternating between scanning the forest for standing dead elm trees and studying the detritus of the forest floor. My reward was a handful of morel mushrooms, and several photos which fail to do justice to what a beautiful, peaceful Sunday it was.

The few mushrooms we found were the leftovers at a spot that had already been visted–and harvested–by another hunter. Not a surprise, as it’s a popular spot for such foraging. Whoever it was got quite a haul; there were lots of big broken-off stems that we could only admire enviously.

After this first fungus foray, I see there are a few strategies for successful mushroom hunting:

  1. Get to a well-known spot before anybody else
  2. Discover an unknown spot and keep it secret
  3. Make friends with a landowner that has a good mushroom spot–share your bounty

I also came to understand just how finicky these mushrooms are. They like to grow at the base of dead elm trees, but the trees shouldn’t have been dead too long. They like a little bit of sun but not too much. The soil can’t be rocky. It should be moist but not wet. And so on. All the conditions coming together is a rare thing and I get why people post boastful photos of their bounties when they hit the bonanza.

After  collecting what we could at the well-known spot, we pursued strategy #2. We walked about four-miles along some railroad tracks, investigating every dead elm we saw, and a lot of other shroomy-looking spots. Our biggest obstacles seemed to be that the railroad embankments were too steep and thus too well-drained, or the plentiful springs coming out of the limestone bluffs made for vast boggy areas that were also unsuitable.

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conservation Trip Reports

Defined by life

Eaarth, by Bill McKibben

This morning, Bill McKibben stood in the pulpit at the church that Katie and I have been going to for a few months. The author and climate change activist gave a brief talk–not a sermon–about where things stand with climate change and the work to do something before it’s too late.

McKibben is the founder of an effective and respected advocacy organization called 350.org. Last October 24, they organized what CNN called the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” comprised of 5,200 actions in 181 countries. McKibben’s 1989 breakthrough book, “The End of Nature,” was originally published serially in the New Yorker when he was a staff writer there.

One thing I learned was the origin of the “350” thing. It’s quite simple. In 2008, NASA scientists published a paper saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the breaking point for global warming:

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.

James Hansen, et al, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?, 2008

McKibben briefly covered much of what has been most widely discussed: the big, noticeable effects of global warming, like the melting Arctic and the vanishing polar bears. He warned that the climate bill that will be introduced in the U.S. Senate in 10 days by Sen. Kerry and others might as well have been written by the electric utility industry, is full of loopholes, and simply will not arrest the accelerating progress of global warming.

As far as President Obama’s actions, he paused at length and then said that Obama has done more on climate change than any previous President. Then he said that he had also drunk more beer than his 12-year-old niece.

I have lately been frustrated that the problem with a lot of environmental work is that there simply are too many humans. Other efforts can feel like treating the symptom, and not the cause. I got a kick out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign of handing out condoms on Valentine’s Day with illustrations of endangered species printed on them.

Polar Bear condom package

The question of population growth was the first question put to McKibben after the service and he responded with some surprising information. He said that fertility rates are dropping and the planet’s population is expected to top out at about 9 billion in 20 or 30 years, I think. He said that obviously 9 billion is beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, but there is a bit of a fertility bubble right now and birth rates will soon start to slow.

McKibben then repeated something that I’ve been hearing more and more about lately, which is that programs that seek to educate and empower women in societies around the globe are proving remarkably effective at slowing population growth. Once women have options beyond just having a bunch of kids, they go from having six to maybe two. He also said that he is the proud parent of one child.

The population argument is also somewhat inconsequential because people in countries like the United States where birth rates are relatively low consume so much more of everything–including energy–than people in developing countries where birth rates might be higher. An American family uses as much energy between midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 as a Tanzanian family uses in a year.

People forming "350" in India
Hundreds of students at "Tiger Fest" in India call for 350 in order to protect endangered species like the tiger. (350.org)

There’s a lot of hype out there regarding climate change. McKibben impressed me as someone who had given a lot of information and theory and science a long, dispassionate examination, and was now very passionate about spreading what he had learned. He was in Minnesota for less than 24 hours, landing last night and catching a flight right after the second service. He speaks again tomorrow night in Portland, Oregon and the next night in Seattle. In fact, his touring schedule would put just about any rock and roll band to shame.

McKibben has a new book out, which also explains the furious tour. It’s called “Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet” (the second “a” in “Eaarth” is not a typo, the author said to “channel your inner-Schwarzenegger” when pronouncing it).

Wooded pasture

Our friends Brian and Rachel joined us for the service and we had breakfast afterward, then Katie and Rachel left to do some “crafting” and Brian and I ran an errand or two and then went back to our house, where we had a few cups of Oolong tea and played a game of chess. The sun was spilling in the bay window and the view to the lake was starting to be obscured by the burgeoning green on the trees.

We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves and the beautiful afternoon and decided to try to the samurai method we had been discussing earlier, which was that any major decision can and should be made in the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea. We had a few cups of tea–I recently read that Oolong is considered to be best after three or four steepings (it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!)–and considered our options as we played.

Red pines on the banks of a lake

We talked about the game a bit, again visiting on the idea that it is so enjoyable and endlessly complex, and also that it is a perfect distillment of war. But later I got thinking and realized it’s completely inaccurate in regards to war because in chess, the two sides start out perfectly equal, as far as numbers of soldiers, equipment, and resources.

What war has ever been fought between two perfectly equal forces? Underdogs can and often do win, but the very imbalance of the opposing forces and how their leaders respond to their own and their enemy’s strengths and weakness is the true test of a strategic mind.

Birch tree branches and pale spring leavespale

About the time we were drinking our third cup of tea and finishing up the game, I decided that some part of me wanted to get into Wisconsin. We packed up the dog and some provisions and pointed the car east. The iPod provided the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and lots more, but the music had to compete with the wind rushing in open sunroof and windows.

When we crossed the St. Croix, I figured out where I wanted to go and we navigated to a little county park with a lake where we had gone to swim and canoe and fish a few times in the past.

Speed limit 10 mph sign with wooded bluff in the background

The gate was locked across the road when we got the park, but that actually proved to be fortunate. There were a few other cars parked there so we joined them and set off walking up the road and into the park. It’s not a big park and if we’d driven in we might not have gotten much of a walk. And, in this season of so many ticks, walking on the road was frankly sort of relieving.

The road climbed a big hill through dry grassy hills and I felt like we were walking in some parks I remember in western North Dakota. Lola ran ahead, checking out the tops of the hills on both sides of us. After reaching the top, we were able to see the valley to our right where there were a couple horse farms nestled in between the ridges and not much else around. It exceeded my arbitrary aesthetic standards. It looked like heaven, really.

A horse grazes on a Wisconsin farm with budding and blooming trees around it.

Although I thought we would just walk on the road down to the lake where Lola could swim, we spotted a trail that headed that way and decided to check it out. It was a beautiful trail which wound down the hill through woods, primarily planted red pine, which I can’t help having a fondness for.

The trail was beautifully-constructed; often it was inexplicably carpeted in moss. Rocks and timbers had been well-placed and erosion-preventing waterbars had been placed generously. The trail slowly cut down the hills sideways and soon, the lake began to appear shimmering through the woods. It is a cold, clear lake not open to motors and is home to stocked rainbow trout and the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever caught.

Turquoise water in a Wisconsin lake

Down at the lake, Lola finally got to swim. She had been driving for the water from the moment it came in sight and one could feel her happiness when she finally plunged in.

There were some other folks fishing around a bend, but otherwise there was no one around. We took a break at a picnic table in the shade before heading back up and a loon splashed around on the lake and called one short call while we sat and watched the water.

Wooded hillsides

Perch Lake seen from above on a hill

A moss-covered hiking trail


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Trip Reports

Canoe trip report: 2010 Waterfowl Harassment Tour

The annual early spring canoe outing has been thus dubbed with its name because the most consistent memory from year to year is pairs of ducks fleeing the canoe every hundred yards or so. The group this year was my lovely ladies Katie and Lola, Katie’s good friend Emily who was visiting from Madison for the weekend, and Gabe, who kayaked solo, seeking out the white bass which are decent early spring fly fishing targets, but difficult to locate.

The shy wood ducks are particularly vexed by our presence, and they burst from their hiding places near the bank, sometimes making quiet keening cries as the mated pairs fly low and fast off down the river. In comparison, the Canada geese stay put as long as they can stand it, swimming slowly ahead of us, honking mightily, until finally taking flight in a great loud event with water splashing and the big birds rising laboriously into the sky, only to circle overhead until we pass, and then returning to the water, and most likely their nests concealed on the bank.

The capable craft waits patiently for us to take back to the water after a pit stop
The capable craft waits patiently for us to take back to the water after a pit stop

Gabe pointed out that in addition to the birds’ protective instincts for their nests at this important time of year, the last time they passed through was in the fall, and they probably got shot at much of their way through here. I can understand the skittishness.

    Gabe drifts with the current, scoping for elusive spring top-water fly fishing opportunities.
Gabe drifts with the current, scoping for elusive spring top-water fly fishing opportunities.

All the birds were out en masse, including a never-ending chorus of warblers, wrens, sparrows and what all from the banks. This day there weren’t quite the number of avian voices that I’ve heard previous years, but with how abnormal the spring has been, it’s a miracle that any of these typical seasonal events and experiences were occurring normally.

Green haze on the backwater bluffs.
Green haze on the backwater bluffs.

The highlight of the trip is always the Great Blue heron rookery about half-way down. If the timing is perfect, the birds are on their nests when the water is still really high and you can actually paddle right through the island, the big, gangly herons flapping and flopping on their nests, far up in the crowns of the trees. That wasn’t possible today, but we still got a great view as we drifted past the island. There were probably 50 or more nests visible.

Great blue herons nest in colonies. A bald eagle flew slowly over the island as we passed, and one understood why strength in numbers might be desirable.
Great blue herons nest in colonies. A bald eagle flew slowly over the island as we passed, and one understood why strength in numbers might be desirable.

A heron sits on its nest in the top of a tree.The water was up a little bit still, but only a foot or two above its usual summer levels. It made finding places to get out of the canoe a little challenging, but otherwise it was ideal for paddling. The current was still moving pretty good and we actually paddled very little most of the time, just doing so when we needed to maneuver around a tree in the water or some other obstacle.

My canoe full of two ladies and one bitch. All of whom I love.
My canoe full of two ladies and one bitch. All of whom I love.

Besides the steady background birdsong, the day was remarkably quiet. At various points, conversation, paddling and the wind died down and we drifted in wondrous silence, the kind that makes you feel healthy and whole. During those moments, I was reminded why, despite paddling this stretch at least a couple times a year, I never tire of coming back to it.

Lola rests her tired head on Katie's leg.Just below the rookery, the backwater we had been traveling re-joined the main river and we proceeded down a long straightaway with a pretty limestone bluff on one side and the railroad swing bridge ahead. A few boats were fishing under and around the bridge.  We stopped on a beach a hundred yards downstream and ate sandwiches, looking back upstream at the valley we had already come through.

The railroad swing bridge in spring, with leafless hardwoods and dark green White pines on the bluff behind it.

From that point, it wasn’t far down to the take-out. The river winds through a narrow channel with rocky banks that is a favorite spot for us to target smallmouth during the summer. Then it opened up into the broad valley again and we paddled steadily, moving with the current past the sunny banks.

Sun through leafing out tree branches.

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Trip Reports

Rebirth

It is once again possible to leave the house to go for a hike at 3 p.m. and have plenty of daylight left and then some. That’s what we did on Saturday. The last leg of the drive out toward the St. Croix valley had five humans and two dogs in the station wagon “Apollo.” There were three or four other vehicles at the usually empty parking area, the warm spring sun and the cool spring breeze had drawn many of us today.

We hiked across the top of the falls and then down the top of the valley to near its bottom. We paused there on top of the ridge as it dropped, a big valley on either side of us, each with sandstone cliffs and waterfalls at the top of each. The one on our left was a much shorter gully and the ledge where its water would fall has been dry for a long time, but its valley remained.

We dropped over the edge to our right, the falls back a half-mile. We had walked across them at the beginning and would now walk back up in the valley. Little flowers, more delicate than egg shells but of similar color, here and there sprouted from underneath the leaf litter at the base of the sandy cliffs.