A first draft of a fragment of a full story. A work in progress.
Normally, we take out of the river at Log House Landing, in the village of Copas, which is primarily marked by a kitschy garden store along the highway called Funkie Gardens, but which most people still refer to as “that place that used to be Crabtree Kitchen.” Crabtree Kitchen was a pancake place that went out of business more than a decade ago.
Pressed for time as we were, I still couldn’t resist suggesting we add a couple more miles to the float and take out at William O’Brien State Park, downstream of Log House Landing. I think it was because Rachel had never been on the river before and I wanted to show off the limestone banks and tall white pines clinging to the rock on the section of river bordered by the park.
I think the St. Croix is a gorgeous river, but its beauty can be quiet and require a lengthy process to get to know and love. Much of it flows through flat floodplain forests, the banks sandy or grassy, the trees homogeneous hardwoods. It is a wild river, with few houses in sight, and clean, clear water. But perhaps especially because it is so close to the Twin Cities, a rookie to the river would assume it is more subjugated by man, that it is as densely populated as any of our popular tourist lakes, that its water is fouled by cities and farms. There is no evidence to support those ideas, but I have found that sometimes people see what they assume, not what they actually witness.
There are spots, though, which can easily grab the attention of a first-time visitor. O’Brien is one of them. Green rock drops 10 feet straight down into the water. A popular walking trail runs along these banks, screened by stands of mature pines which grow directly up from the very edges of the drop-offs. From the path, those pines frame the river and the opposite shore perfectly, acting like windows to focus the eye.
It is interesting that the 2,200 acre park was created when the daughter of the old lumber baron William O’Brien donated his holdings to the state. It is interesting because men like him made their fortunes de-timbering the entire river valley and the valleys of its tributaries. Today, pine are the exception, not the rule, and they are at most 100 years old. There are beautiful stands of them all along this stretch of river; especially in the fall when the leafy trees turn red and orange and gold, and winters when the surrounding woods are brown and gray and muted, the pines’ color seems to take on a darker hue, and they are a feast for eyes hungry for the color of growth and life.
Because of how dry it had been all through late summer and early fall, experts on meteorology, arborism and leaf color (that includes nearly all Minnesotans) predicted a fast and disappointing fall. The trees would turn brown and yellow and then the leaves would fall. We were wrong. It had been a beautiful, luxurious season. It had started early, though, and I thought it might be past its peak by the day we got out there, but if it was I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t take my eyes off the bluffs.
As we paddled, we talked of what those old-growth pine forests must have been like. Think of trunks 12 feet across. Think of the forest floor covered in a thick carpet of soft red needles, muffling all sound. Think of the fallen trees, dead of old age, decaying into soil. Think of stretching your neck to look up toward the sky, those giants swaying in the wind blowing 150 feet above. If I could travel through time just once, I think it might be to the pre-European St. Croix Valley. Think of the silence.