Before last Saturday, I had never paddled a canoe in November. But, with Sam in town from Bozeman, MT for a visit, and the forecast calling for sun, we took the opportunity to go canoeing for a few hours on the St. Croix River.
I drove out to Stillwater, stopping at Dunn Bros. for a warm-up of my coffee, and then to Sam’s parents’ house on the North Hill, where he was staying. We then proceeded in a two-car caravan north out of town, gently angling toward the St. Croix.
When we drove down the hill to the landing where we’d leave his car to await our return, the river looked exciting. There was a stiff wind blowing upriver, while the water was still dropping down from recent record high flows and was currently at about 12,000 cfs. Strong current flowing south, strong wind blowing north, standing waves and roiling eddies in the middle of the channel.
We drove another 10 miles upriver and put in at the landing there. Sam is not a frequent canoeist, though an accomplished long-distance backpacker, but he picked up the routine pretty quickly. We were confronted by the wind as soon as we launched and had to push a bit for the first 1,000 yards to where we slipped into a backwater and out of the wind.
In the backwater, I noticed that flood plain islands I had only seen once before completely covered in water such that a person could paddle through the trees if desired were so flooded this day.
I also noticed a splash of blaze orange back beyond the islands, at the foot of the bluffs, and remembered that the morning was the first of Minnesota’s two-week firearm whitetail deer season. We hoped for sober hunters who didn’t make assumptions about ungulates learning to paddle.
In the wider spots of the channel, we were usually pushed by the wind. We would paddle against it and I kept us close to the bank, often within ten feet, where the waters were calmer. We saw hunters stationed along the banks every couple hundred yards, but no one else.
After a mile or so of paddling, the wind abated and we stopped our labors and our conversation and drifted downstream for a time in silence. It was a beautiful, wild setting. With the leaves off the trees, you could see into the woods. The tall sandstone bluffs were easy to admire. The occasional stands of white pines, their dark green matching their towering statures, stood in stark relief to the gray and brown of the late autumn forest.
Sam, who has hiked many of the great wilderness areas of the northern Rocky Mountains, later talked of scheduling a trip home next summer to canoe the length of the river.
We passed two hunters sitting in tree stands and then neared a spot where two spring-fed creeks spill into the river, with a flat, wooded point at their outlet that might be the result of thousands of years of sedimentation. There, two deer crashed out of the brush on the bank near us. One was a buck, the other was the doe he was chasing. The buck had a big rack–I couldn’t count the points–and would have been a trophy.
As we rounded the point, we could see another group of hunters, it turned out to be four in total, not 100 yards from the deer. I wondered how the deer had survived the morning. I thought they might have gone up the draw in the bluffs where one of the creeks came down. I also thought such a draw would be a natural ambush point for a smart hunter. But we heard no shots and watched as the group of hunters got back in their boat and motored off, evidently calling it a day.
We stopped from lunch at The Spot, a “secret” campsite featuring a spring-fed creek that tumbles down to the water through a notch in a ridge which otherwise conceals the site from the river. It is named after a similarly excellent backcountry campsite in the mountains near Bozeman.
We sat on a flat, grassy spot in the sun. Sam had brought two bottles of New Glarus Spotted Cow which we drank with cheese and venison sticks and toasted our arrival and our departure with a bit of Knob Creek (Sam thus imaginatively dubbing the campsite’s creek “Knob Creek”).
When we pushed off into the river we had one-and-a-half miles of paddling on the wide open river ahead, with that wind still blowing hard. I was feeling the effects of sun and food and beer and whiskey and paddled eagerly. It was good to pull against the water and the wind and to navigate delicately under overhanging trees just along the shore. Hours later, I could still feel the healthy warmth of my windburned cheeks.
Sam and I communicate a fair amount online, whether via Twitter, Facebook, our respective blogs, and instant messaging. I enjoy the photos and other reports from his many weekend and longer adventures in the mountains, and he has shown appreciation for my escapades on his own home river, as he too grew up in Stillwater.
We have often talked about paddling the St. Croix together “someday.” Saturday was that day, and I felt especially positive knowing that now we’ve done it once, we’ll surely travel together again.