The right to remain silent

The sound of rushing water greeted us Friday evening as a friend and I launched our canoe on a small Wisconsin river which shortly downstream spilled into the St. Croix. We had fly rods and dreams of bass and muskies, and also my camera and thoughts of a summer sunset.

The birds sang their twilight songs and we paddled and waded, casting colorful streamers and poppers into fast water. When we reached the big river, it was in a place where the valley is a good mile wide, a multitude of channels weaving between islands.

The sun was not far above the Minnesota bluffs and the water was glassy. Although I’ve experienced such beauty and solitude on the St. Croix many times, it never ceases to amaze me when I can get to such a place an hour after leaving home.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beautiful summer night. From the Minnesota side, we could hear the roar of motorcycles on Highway 95, at least a mile away. They of course had no way of knowing that two men were paddling quietly through the backwaters below, though I suppose they could have guessed. There was no doubt in our minds that they were on the highway.

The intrusion of motorcycles is nothing new in my many trips on the river. The river is not wide enough to escape their sound and it is frequently the only impact from the outside world on otherwise quiet and solitary fishing trips.

When I tweeted out some thoughts about this issue over the weekend, another individual reported on his family’s trip to a popular state park:

It’s certainly not just canoeists on the river who are affected. As I drive around the St. Croix valley, I love looking at the real estate. There are many roads featuring many great houses — secluded amongst woods and hills and running water. I like to think about living in such a place someday.

But if the road is scenic and especially if a house is anywhere near a hill, I know I would never live there, putting up with the bikes gunning it up the hill everyday. Like homes near the airport, it must be aggravating to sit on your own patio and have to stop conversation every time an engine drowns you out.

The river was flooded when we were paddling around Friday night. We cruised right over what were normally high banks, wove between trees on sunken points and islands. The fish were a little hard to find, but the consolation was the incredible colors in the sky, reflected on the perfectly still waters, and the feeling of being far from the modern world.

These days near the summer solstice are made for evening paddles as the light lingers in the sky until 10 p.m. Almost as stunning as the sunset was the warm light it cast on the Wisconsin shore.

The St. Croix River is not just another pretty lake. It was one of the eight rivers included in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Anybody who has canoed, kayaked, boated, fished, or swam the river knows it’s special. The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act included this defintion:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The legislation protected rivers from new dams, and also from most development on their banks. It essentially tried to keep them the way they are — to the extent that is ever possible with a river.

Enormous effort is put into keeping the St. Croix wild and scenic. Its stewards work to control invasive species like zebra mussels, asian carp, and buckthorn, invest in water treatment and agriculture practices that promote clean water, and argue for decades about building a new bridge. When passing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Congress probably did not consider motorcycles, and how they could degrade a river.

Loud motorcycles simply were not a big problem when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed. The organization Noise Off says 45 percent of motorcycles today use aftermarket exhaust systems, specially designed to make them extremely loud. In the 1970s, just 12 percent of bikes had the noisy exhaust systems — this is not some long tradition that we ought to honor, but rather a growing trend that needs our attention.

Federal law prohibits vehicle exhaust from exceeding 80 decibels, but most after-market systems hit 100 decibels. The problem is that in order to bust violators, police would have to have the time and special equipment to measure noise levels. Which they don’t, unless the public demands it.

The question is, don’t motorcyclists have a right to their noise? This is America, after all. But as is so often the case in our nation, one person’s freedom conflicts with another person’s rights. The history of America is filled with debating how to balance those conflicts. It’s a question with difficult answers, but America’s favorite neighbor had a simple one.

There is a 2001 episode of the radio show “This American Life” in which the great Mr. Rogers helped solve problems in the reporter’s neighborhood. The first issue he addressed was between a woman and her loud downstairs neighbor (who happened to be the reporter). The young man wanted to listen to his music loud, late into the night. His upstairs neighbor banged on her floor with a broom when she can’t sleep.

Mr. Rogers sided with the woman. He says the reporter should keep his music down. The reporter says his apartment is his space, and why shouldn’t he get to listen to whatever music he wants in his space. Mr. Rogers simply says, “We started with silence and I will always uphold a person’s right to silence.”

I like silence a lot, although it’s really more a matter of the “original state” as Mr. Rogers might say. As we made our way back to the car Friday night, it was anything but quiet. We had to pull the canoe up the last 100 yards because the water was too shallow.

As we waded upstream, the river pushing against as, all I could hear was the sound of the fast-moving water on the rocks, my legs and the canoe. Fireflies blinked on the banks, and great blue herons and bald eagles flew overhead, headed to their nests for the night.