Two weddings and a river

Cross-posted from my blog.

The St. Croix in May

In mid-May, I attended my cousin Samantha’s wedding in Mondovi, Wisconsin. The ceremony was in a small Methodist church. The minister stood before the couple and talked to them in a casual yet thoughtful tone, as if we were all gathered around a dinner table. He said that when he was growing up, living on a nearby farm, they had used baling twine for many purposes. He had learned that you could braid three strands of twine together to make strong rope, but you couldn’t braid two strands. He likened those two strands to the couple, and the third strand to God.

A couple weeks later, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. Katie and I have been paddling on the St. Croix for years. I don’t remember when we first went, but it’s been several times a year for at least the six years we’ve been married. And I’ve been canoeing the river since I was a junior at Stillwater Area High School, when biology teacher Jeff Ranta took a group of us that spring to see a Great Blue Heron rookery near Copas.

Back channel

Memorial Day weekend, the water was high and the current moving fast. Weaving amongst narrow islands, we drifted and talked about that metaphor the minister had spoken of at the wedding, of the twine braided to rope. It came to me that the St. Croix River is a third strand, braided into our lives. There are surely other strands, too: our families, friends, compassion, words. But the river possesses a mysterious combination of constancy and fluidity. And when there is just the two of us and the dog in the canoe, and the river carrying us forward, I sit silently in awe and wonder at it.

We went back to the river last Saturday. This time there were eight people: four couples, two married, two not, split amongst three canoes. And, of course, the dog. We happened to float the same stretch of the river as Memorial Day weekend. The water was down a couple feet from May, and warm for swimming, but still high enough that beaches and sandbars were few. We let the current carry us, we saw eagles and osprey, a musky was caught and released.

Drifting downstream

On the trip was myself, fretting about logistics, safety, sandwiches; Katie, gracefully duffing in the middle of the canoe, eating cherries most of the way; Wade, making a sombrero look sensible; Audrey, her fingernails painted red, white, and blue; Slim, often reclining, face to the sky; Nel, not only smart enough to bring coffee but generous enough to share it; Gabe, who dedicated the day to his fly rod; and Liz, steering the angler downstream with a saintly smile. And there was the river, the third strand of twine.

At another wedding this summer, in the woods of Afton, my friend Sunday delivered the sermon for Doug and Heidi. Sunday spoke about what Spiritual Humanism has to say about relationships. It came to mind again as I traveled down the St. Croix on Saturday, in the company of three other devoted couples. Sunday spoke of Plato, and said, “In searching for and recognizing the divine within your beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same.”

St. Croix scene

That might call to mind the words of Norman Maclean, at the end of his famous story, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It also makes me think of another concept in that story (which is arguably about relationships more than fly fishing): that to love is to seek to understand, though we can love fully without fully understanding.

The skies last Saturday were blue and clear. A mile from the take-out, we stopped at a small beach and swam and sat in the water as the sun dropped toward the trees on the western bank. The water was perfect and the silence absolute. I said I thought I might just stay there. But then I figured the mosquitoes would be bad and my own bed sounded better than sand. We got back in the canoe — a wedding gift from our friends — and headed on down the river.

Don't go


Sunset in St. Croix country

The river in winter

We were lulled by a mid-February thaw last week, but winter exerted itself once more this past couple days. The temperature brushed 50 degrees early Wednesday and one began looking for buds on the trees, and then ominous forecasts began and increased as the weekend drew near.

About noon on Sunday, tiny flakes started falling as if one at a time from the clouds. It quickly became thick, and has been waxing and waning ever since. I think we got 15″ at our house; it didn’t stop coming down until after 6 p.m. today.

Late Friday afternoon, on the precipice between thaw and blizzard, still making pretend it was spring, I was driving back toward home from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. I took a scenic route on Wisconsin Highway 35 down the St. Croix River valley. I spotted a road sign between Osceola and Somerset, pointing west for both a Wisconsin “Rustic Road” and a river landing. I turned right.

Edge of the light

The road went through upland fields for a while, some cultivated or used for pasture, some prairie and scrubby woods. Occasionally, I saw small homesteads set back from the road.

Just as the road dropped over the crest of the bluffs, it narrowed and became rougher. Soon it started to twist down toward the river, though thick hardwood forests, the almost-down sun beaming through the leafless trees.

Down the frozen river

I drove through the woods along the base of the bluffs for another mile, forks occasionally branching off, me always choosing the westerly branch. I came around a bend and there was a parking lot and an outhouse and there was the river. I had never been to this landing before. After a few minutes, I figured out that I was directly across from Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. I had once eaten lunch after canoeing on the deck of the restaurant right across the channel.

Down by the river, the sun was already just over the trees to the west, silhouetting white pine trees against a yellow and orange glow. The river ice, laid bare and warped by a week of thaw and wind and freeze, shone purple and blue.

Up the ice

It was 20 degrees and there was a steady breeze from the north. I didn’t stay long at the landing, but retraced my path to the top of the bluffs and then wandered downstream via more back roads.

As I followed roads that zig-zagged between upland and river bottom, I got pretty turned around. I was fine as long as I kept the river close to my right. The daylight was fading, but when I reached high points on the landscape, the sun was still in this hemisphere.

Go down to the river


Roam rhymes with home

This path was made for walking.
Near the 1850s Point Douglas-Superior Military Road, Wild River State Park

There is a concept that I’ve struggled to state clearly in the past about home, but I have come to this: It is home because I love it; I love it because it is home.

The author and theologian Tony Jones lives in Edina, Minnesota, two blocks from his childhood home. He has always lived within five miles of it. In a recent blog post titled “Why I’m Staying Put,” he offers a defense of the well-rooted. (And yes, we have a tendency to be defensive.)

Why have I stayed put?  There are several reasons:

First, I like it here.  Minnesota is a beautiful, fantastic, seasoned place, filled with genuinely good people.  I like the culture, and I know it.  And the Twin Cities makes just about every list for best places to live, bicycle, run, etc.

Second, the land.  My family owns some woodland about 120 miles north of my house.  I want to spend the rest of my life within a couple hours of that, my spiritual home.

Third, influence.  Because I know this place and I know these people, I’ve been invited to serve on some youth advocacy committees, I was a volunteer police chaplain for ten years, and I hope to run for public office (probably school board) some day.  Of course, none of this is only available to someone who stays put, but it seems a lot more natural to me since I’ve been rooted here.

It should be said that the fourth reason is his divorce and the subsequent shared custody, but it’s a long story and, fortunately for me, I don’t have that aspect to relate to. Those first three are compelling, though. I would add that, in addition to the influence aspect of knowing the place and its people, there is also simply the joy of the relationships one can build with family and oldest friends.

This is not to say that I don’t admire people who move away. I love to travel, and almost anywhere I go I enjoy thinking about what it would be like to live there, maybe just for a while. Sometimes I’m envious of the nomadic for choosing the place where they want to live the most, and living there. To me, it feels like the place chose me.

The Hjelmar Road

Over at Minnesota Trails magazine, editor Dave Simpkins writes about walking an old farm road that runs through the property in western Minnesota where he grew up and where he still has a cabin today.*

I put on an old pair of waterproof hiking boots, a war-torn rain jacket, and a big ugly hat and I headed out on the Hjelmar Road.The Hjelmar Road leads to the Hjelmar land, that old Hjelmar Huff, a Norwegian, homesteaded in 1884. My grandfather, a Norwegian married farmer, bought the little six-acre patch of land from his son August in 1922.

I’ve hiked, skied, Jeeped, cut wood and hauled hay on that old road most of my life. I shocked wheat and oats in the Hjelmar Land, camped in the summer and dug a snow cave in the winter. I shot my first deer here and picked blackberries by the quart.

The whole thing is worth a read: Roaming through our legacy | Minnesota Trails.

Dave goes on to say that every child, every person, deserves to have such a place, and to experience all their lives the mystery of what that attachment means. I agree, but I also agree with the second part of what he gets at: that not every kid can have a 300 acre family farm to grow up on and grow old on, but we can all have attachments to nature through public lands and waters.

A great-great-…-great-grandfather of mine rode a boat over from near Trier, Germany in 1851. I visited the village when I was traveling in Europe in 2003. The thing I remember the most was the bus ride to it; how the rolling farmland looked so much like the Wisconsin where he would ultimately settle. Even he, who was willing to leave everything he knew behind, must have found comfort in the landscape.

* Disclosure: I am currently doing some writing, Web and social media work for Minnesota Trails magazine.


Stay together, learn the flowers, go light

Me and Gary Snyder, City Lights Books, October 24, 2004
Me and Gary Snyder, City Lights Books, October 2004

A new documentary features Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison wandering around California’s Central Coast talking about poetry, art, Zen and God:

This film, borrowing its name from one of Snyder’s most eloquent non-fiction books, revolves around a life-long conversation between Snyder and his fellow poet and novelist Jim Harrison. These two old friends and venerated men of American letters converse while taking a wilderness trek along the central California coast in an area that has been untouched for centuries. They debate the pros and cons of everything from Google to Zen koans. The discussions are punctuated by archival materials and commentaries from Snyder friends, observers, and intimates who take us through the ‘Beat’ years, the years of Zen study in Japan up to the present — where Snyder continues to be a powerful spokesperson for ecological sanity and bio-regionalism.

You can keep up-to-date on the film (and hopefully showings around the country after its premiere in San Francisco in May or at least a DVD release) by becoming a fan on Facebook.

It also appears that there is a book coming out to accompany the film, The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild.

And here are some excerpts from both authors:

— Jim Harrison, from The Road Home

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
stay together
learn the flowers
go light

— Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island

Read about the time Katie and I met Gary Snyder on our honeymoon in San Francisco.

Katie and me with Gary Snyder
Katie and me with Gary Snyder


Dancin’ in the moonlite

"Dancin in the moonlite" written on a chalkboard

I went to a city an hour-and-a-half from home yesterday evening for work. I fulfilled my duty and was on my way back by about 9 p.m. It wasn’t long before I was on the Interstate, cutting east across a big flat part of Minnesota, listening to Retribution Gospel Choir loud and driving a comfortable speed in the right lane.

It is the darkness outside my headlights that I usually think of when I think of driving down a highway at night. I like doing that. I like the narrow cone of light in front of me and the vast blackness outside of it. Last night though, I had been driving along for a while when I noticed that it was not black outside the light of my headlights.

The moon will be full on Saturday night, but it was already big and bright in the sky. And it was a cold night, maybe -3 or -4°F, and the air was extremely dry and clear. So the big flat expanses outside my headlights were illuminated in this moonlight. Trees cast shadows on gentle hills a quarter-mile away, the snow was blue.

I thought to myself then that maybe this is a benefit of winter. I believe that to make it through winter you must find things you enjoy that you cannot do during the other parts of the year. Cross-country skiing is one example. And now I thought maybe such moonlit nights were another thing to look forward to. But then I remembered similar experiences on bright summer nights when a full moon throws its light on the lush landscape and you are on your way to and from swimming in the river. Alas.

"January Moonlight," by Marc Hanson (painted last night, too!)
"January Moonlight," © Marc R. Hanson '10 (painted last night, too!)

When I got home, I just caught Katie before she retired to bed. I asked her if she wanted to go walk on the lake in the moonlight with me and Lola and no, she would not, but she told me she did it last night when I wasn’t home and it was wonderful and I should be safe.

I put long underwear on and a hooded sweatshirt and then boots and hat and gloves and my warm jacket. Lola was surprised when I asked her if she was interested in a walk. She is a creature dependent on habit and walks at 10:30 at night are not her habit. But she quickly got on board with the idea.

We walked down to the lake and then I slid on my butt down a path to the water. It has been cold lately and everything is very frozen. Out on the lake, the wind and sun have conspired to wipe the snow clean off big patches of ice, leaving a surface so hard and slick that you really can’t walk on it. Lola neither. So we picked our way along paths on the snow-covered patches, where the walking was really quite good, with just enough snow to give firm purchase.

It was beautiful out there. The moon was almost directly overhead, with Mars right next to it. I could see the whole lake and I could see Lola running to and fro in front of me, scouting our path through the ice, occasionally coming back to me when she went down a dead end.

I felt very good. I was enjoying winter. And I was doing something that I couldn’t do during the rest of the year. It was very cold, but it was also very still, and with no wind, a few degrees below zero is really nothing. I saw the landscape with eyes that seemed anew, and I felt deeply appreciative for the experience.

It is something else to walk across a frozen lake under a full moon. But you grow up in Minnesota and you maybe take it for granted. It was just another frigid night to many folks, and such nights have been nothing more than that to me, too. But tonight, I was warm and safe in my choices of clothing and just walking across a city lake felt like an adventure.

It occurred to me that to survive a Minnesota winter, it is necessary to maintain a childish sense of adventure. You must enjoy the very act of survival. You must want to prove your worth against harsh elements. And you must never tire of remarking on a cold night to anybody: gas station attendant, waitress, friend, family, coworker.

There’s no denying, though, as the frozen days stretch into weeks and months, that maintaining that youthful perspective can be pretty hard to do. But one should just think of a childhood hero like Will Steger, spending months crossing Antarctica by dogsled, just the gear in his sleds and thousands of miles of ice and snow, uncertain outcomes, a historic journey, and remember what it was like to dream those kinds of dreams.

The almost full January moon