A blustery beginning

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior
Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

The temperature was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind was gusting out of the northwest at 15 mph. The current in the still-flooded Minnesota River was clipping along at 31,700 cubic feet/second (some 20 miles upstream at the nearest gauge). With these unchangeable natural conditions, Corey Mohan set off this morning on a canoe trip from St. Paul to Madeline Island on Lake Superior.

As a crowd of 30-40 wind-whipped well-wishers clutched Bloody Marys and Mimosas, Corey thanked his supporters and his wife, and read a bit of poetry:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

– T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Seeing them off

Corey, and his wife Lois, who will join him for this first day, left from Sibley House, a Minnesota Historical Society site where previous explorers of the upper St. Croix — Schoolcraft, Nicollet and others — also departed in centuries past. His Mad River Canoe had been dubbed the “Elizabeth Pelagie,” in recognition of a Wahpeton Dakota woman who was given Pike Island, an important Indian site across the river, by an 1821 treaty.

Corey and Lois would only be on the Minnesota River for a few hundred yards before it joined the Mississippi. If all goes well today, they should get to at least Grey Cloud Island, but with the current and the tailwind, I’d be surprised if they don’t make the St. Croix, some 17 miles downriver. Corey hopes to make it the some 300 miles to Madeline Island by about May 31.

Route map:

In an e-mail, Corey told me:

I’ve been thinking about this particular route for 5 years and then some. The idea came from James Taylor Dunn’s, The St. Croix – Midwest Border River. Early chapters on Native Americans and early Euro-exploration caught my attention and inspired some “what ifs”. In partcular, Schoolcraft, Nicollet Carver among others made the same or close to the same route and I enjoyed Dunn’s re-telling of their story… At the end of Dunn’s book, he writes about his trip down the the river from Upper St. Croix Lake to Taylor’s Falls. I wondered about how much may have changed – or not – from the 1960s to the present. Also, my first canoe trip on a Minnesota river was on a stretch of St. Croix in or near Wild River State Park or St. Croix State Park. I had just moved up here from Illinois, 1982, can’t recall exactly where we were but it was July, buggy and and lovely.

Cory’s Mad River canoe, with a Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt:

Corey's Mad River canoe with Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt

Off they go:

I hope to have more about Corey’s trip as he blogs from the river and as I share some more from an e-mail interview I recently conducted with him.


Once more to the river

Sam on the St. Croix River, November 2010

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.

St. Croix River discharge at St. Croix Falls, Oct-Nov 2010
St. Croix River discharge at St. Croix Falls, Oct-Nov 2010

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.

Sam at the Osceloa landing

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.

Sam at lunch

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.

Sam standing next to "Knob Creek"
Sam standing next to "Knob Creek"
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


Live and in-person

Navigating a bog in the BWCAW
The BWCAW in fall

I will be talking about canoeing the St. Croix River, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and who knows what else tomorrow morning at the Midwest Mountaineering Spring Adventure Expo as part of a panel discussion about “water trails” organized by Dave Simpkins of MN Trails magazine.

The discussion will be from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and will be held across the street from the store at the University of Minnesota’s Hansen Hall, Room 104. All the details are available here.

On a related note, I am very happily sporting a small blister on the palm of my hand today from paddling on the St. Croix last night, much of it upstream, while pursuing white bass.

Although my companion brought a good number of fish to the boat, I did not. But, we did hear raucous sandhill cranes, geese, turkeys, and more. We also fished until almost dark and I watched one bright planet’s reflection on the water over the silhouetted reflection of the white pines on the Minnesota shore as we paddled.

The St. Croix as the sun sets over the bluffs.
The St. Croix in spring
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.