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


Making miles

It’s a silly thing to drive to the North Shore and back in a day. And it’s sillier when it’s snowing. But Ryan was in town for the first time since January and had not seen the big lake in too long. So we pledged ourselves to coffee, music and conversation and drove on up the road.

We turned off the road some miles past Duluth and then drove up to a Superior Hiking Trail trailhead Ryan was familiar with. The parking area, next to some sort of wastewater holding tanks, not far from giant taconite tailings basins, was not exactly the idealized version of the scenic North Shore, but we just needed a little patch of woods to wander in.

We left the trail not long after setting out. We dropped down to the river and made a small fire in a stand of cedars on its banks, only burning enough wood to make a cup of tea. The snow was falling ever silently, the river was half-frozen.

After the tea, we hiked a mile or two down the river to a series of falls that crashed through cataracts in the rock. Our timing was good and we hiked back out in the dwindling daylight and got back to the car as the world disappeared into swirling snow and early wintertime darkness.

The drive to Duluth and another 30 miles past was slow-going. The snow was at times heavy; we were driving Ryan’s capable four-wheel drive and he knew our best bet was to keep our speed down. We stopped for refreshments at Fitger’s in Duluth. When we arrived back at my car at his parents’ house hours later, all was windy and frozen.

Warming up with a cup of tea
Warming up with a cup of tea
Big snowy country upriver
Big snowy country upriver
I told Ryan this is sort of my trademark shot. Incredible numbers of big old cedars on this trail.
I told Ryan this is sort of my trademark shot. Incredible numbers of big old cedars on this trail.
At the head of the falls. Water sounds different when it's cold.
At the head of the falls. Water sounds different when it's cold.

High water

I returned to a favorite stretch of the upper St. Croix last Sunday for a short paddle with our friends Kristin and Andy and their Boston Terrier, Bender. The trip was their idea, as they’re planning to take Bender to the Boundary Waters in a couple weeks and wanted to see how he would do in a canoe. He did fine. He and Lola played hard at the first island we stopped at, and then they both struggled to stay awake for the rest of the float.

The river was still up very high. Really weird for the first day of August. The water was much clearer than when Wade and I paddled near Wild River State Park on July 18, but just as high. It makes for challenging fishing, and it also hides most beaches and other good landing spots. But, we were paddling a stretch where I remember walking the canoes a few times on our last trip, this time we floated right over the riffles.

We got on the water about 10 a.m. Radar had shown a line of storms heading almost right for us, but I theorized that as the morning warmed, they would come to nothing. It sounded logical enough to get us on the water, anyway. That and we’d already driven an hour to be there.

The storms never did materialize. But the skies stayed moody and every mile or so as we proceeded downriver, we’d get hit with a few raindrops.

I fell in love with the river all over again as we drifted down it. I guess I do every time I visit. It was humid, buggy weather and there must have been some sort of bug hatching because we were frequently accompanied by swallows maneuvering the skies 20 feet above our heads, furiously gobbling up whatever was being served for breakfast. There were many islands to navigate amongst, but they were generally smaller than the long, skinny ones downstream and the water in all the channels moved rapidly past the banks.

There was not another person on the river. And we didn’t see a single structure until about a mile before the take-out. Then we passed what looked like a very old cabin on the Wisconsin bank. It looked old, but kept-up. It had green wood siding and seemed as much a part of the lush shoreline as the basswood trees and the white pines. I wish I would have taken some photos.

A short way downstream, we spotted a campsite and decided to have lunch. Strangely, we noticed a van driving up along the top of the bank. As we got ready to eat, he came back by and stopped for a moment to tell us the last people to visit the site had left garbage everywhere and he had spent 20 minutes cleaning it up. Fish guts and food scraps in the weeds right by the picnic table. We found a plastic shopping bag of garbage down by the water. He also told us that the cabin was his, that it had been his grandfather’s. He looked about 60 himself, and mighty proud of that place.



This is definitely the best photo ever taken of my dog.

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.