A significant span

This is the second post for my new blog. All historical photos are from the Minnesota Historical Society’s John Runk collection, used with permission.

The High Bridge under construction in 1911
The bridge was built simultaneously from each end, and had to line up in the middle. 1911.

On June 1, 1911, construction was completed on a half-mile long, 185-foot tall railroad bridge near Stillwater. Two days later, the first train crossed the bridge. About four still do so every day.

A small group of people visited the bridge on the Minnesota side Wednesday evening, its 100th birthday. The gravel pull-off on the road where the trail leads down to the river was otherwise empty; no other well-wishers had come. But the bridge sees plenty of revelers — mostly 80 or more years younger than itself — on a regular basis. They make circles of rocks in the woods and light fires inside them, then they drink beer and leave the cans as offerings to the bridge or the river or their own self-centered youth.

The place was quiet Wednesday evening, but perhaps the bridge didn’t want a party.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge on the St. Croix River under construction in 1910
Looking from the Wisconsin side, 1910.

The walk down the bluffs to the foot of the bridge follows an old road that was once a driveway for some cabins, which the bridge has outlived. Stretches of concrete and asphalt reveal its history, but today it is just a scenic trail through thick green woods.

Wayside rests include a stand of cedars overlooking a deep ravine with a spring-feed creek at its bottom; a massive white pine, which probably has the bridge beat for years; and a short set of stairs from the road to the site of a former cabin, where a small ring of rocks encircles charred logs.

Walking to the Soo Line High Bridge near the St. Croix River

When the trail reaches the bottom of the bluff, it crosses the spring-fed creek on a little wooden footbridge, which was askew when we walked across it, tilted at a precarious angle toward the water. That bridge was probably only 10 years old.

The St. Croix River was still up high — the normal pebble and gravel beach underneath the bridge was submerged. A muddy flat spot on the banks featured a circle of rocks with the remnants of a fire inside. And there it was.

The Soo Line High Bridge over the St. Croix River
June 1, 2011

The High Bridge was designed by C.A.P. Turner, six years after he designed Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and 15 years before designing the Mendota Bridge over the Minnesota River. It rises out of the wooded islands of the river as if to inspire the trees.

The bridge was there during both World Wars, during the Depression, during Prohibition. Many generations of teenagers have come here to drink beer and make fires, to see the broad valley painted in moonlight, and to look down on eagles soaring over the river.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge, November 2007
November 2007

The most authoritative page on the Web about the bridge is probably John Weeks’ site. Weeks has documented in photos, history, and statistics all of the bridges on the St. Croix, as well as on several other major rivers, including the Mississippi. He is fond of the High Bridge:

“The Arcola High Bridge was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1977. Experts have called this bridge the most spectacular multi-span steel arch bridge in the world. Others compare the magnificent steel work to that of Eiffel’s creations in France.”

Wednesday night, nobody sang “Happy Birthday.” Everyone pulled out cameras or phones with cameras and snapped photos exactly like the ones we have all taken there before, the bridge identical to itself all these years. The only changes are the color of the trees, the clouds in the sky.

The Arcola High Bridge in autumn
Looking from the Wisconsin side, October 2006. Photo by Jim Brekke, used with permission.

The walk back up to the car was a good reminder of our own years — or at least our years of sedentary living. One’s legs burn climbing those 200 feet back to the top of the bluffs. You try to conceal how hard you are breathing.

Later, over Burgermeisters, French Fries, and 12 oz. mugs of cold, light beer at Meister’s on the South Hill, a disagreement erupted about whether a new restaurant in town was going for a “Colonial” or “Revolutionary” America feel. The two holding conflicting opinions were once students of Advanced Placement U.S. History at Stillwater High. Their teacher, my mother, would have been very proud.

The High Bridge shortly after it was built in 1911.


Star Tribune blog: Nowhere else but here

I am very excited to share the first post on my new blog. I will be writing about once a week there on familiar topics, such as conservation, the Boundary Waters, the St. Croix River, and more. I will cross-post everything here, and also continue posting other words occasionally.

Nowhere else but here

Greg Seitz headshotIn 2009, I decided to write every single day for the month of June, as a way of celebrating what many consider Minnesota’s finest month. To add to the challenge, I decided to write in the old Japanese form of haibun, which is just a fancy way of saying a few paragraphs of prose, combined with three-line haiku poems.

This ended up meaning a lot of late nights, tapping away at the computer when I wanted to go to bed, faced with a midnight deadline. But I finished the month with 30 short essays, a document that is both a record of a specific period of time, and an impression of the season and what it brings year after year.

The collection of writing spanned the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the St. Croix River, from riding the bus through the heart of Minneapolis to walking my dog on the shores of St. Paul’s Lake Phalen, and all the journeys in between those places.

Also in those essays were perennial summer events: watching a field full of fireflies; canoeing to a campsite along a cold spring-fed creek, then paddling to a sandbar perfect for swimming; Ely busy with canoe parties ready to head out into the wilderness.

St. Croix River canoeingJune is here again. I don’t plan to repeat my “June Haibun” project, but I am eager to enjoy this month known for the beauty, joy and sun that we deserve after another long winter. This past weekend, as summer hesitantly arrived in the North Star state, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. It was sadly the latest in the year that I can remember taking our first canoe trip in a long time.

We put the canoe in near the mouth of the Snake River and floated downstream 11 miles to a landing near Rush City. The sky was overcast, but summer skies are never boring. The clouds were dimpled, showing that there was a bright sun shining above. The early summer air was heavy with moisture, thick with the smells of new growth and alive with a constant chorus of birds.

A friend once said the solstice, the longest day of the year, should be an official state holiday in Minnesota. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I’d suggest June 21 would be a very good day to use some vacation or call in sick, and celebrate summer in this beautiful place we live.

Sunset canoe beach


Twenty-three paragraphs about fishing

It was hot Sunday, and humid. The air was heavy. At the urging of my amazing partner, who said that summer only seems too short when you pass on opportunities to get out and enjoy it, I went fishing, though my primary purpose was to stand in a river.

My secondary purpose was to get some stand-up fishing time in with my new Sage 9-foot, 8-weight, 4-piece fly rod. So far, it’s been used on a couple canoe trips on the St. Croix. The water on the Croix has been particularly high all summer and those canoe trips haven’t presented many opportunities to get out and wade fish. You can only get so much of an idea of a new rod while casting it from a canoe.

In addition to the rod, I loaded the car up with a small kit of smallmouth bass fishing gear, and a cooler with three beers and a bottle of ice water in it. I left the house about 1 p.m.

Looking upstream

Then I drove to a tributary of the St. Croix about an hour north of the Twin Cities. About the same time you cross into Pine County, you notice that there are more pines in the landscape. And it is no wonder that the spot I would be fishing at is in a state forest named after the Ojibwe word for white pine.

There was a big white pine on the bank next to the riffle above which I started fishing. There was a fair bit of water coming down the river, but it was wade-able. I thought I would wait to get in the water until I got rigged up, but while I put a new leader on and tied on some tippet material, the mosquitoes started to attack, focusing on my legs. The water suddenly looked a lot more inviting. I stepped into it and walked out to knee-depth.

It’s worth noting two pieces of apparel at this point: the bugs were really attacking my bare legs, but did leave my torso alone, which happened to be clothed in a Columbia long-sleeved shirt I got this spring. It’s treated with some of that anti-bug stuff that seemed to work. It also has a couple Velcro chest pockets which held a small fly box and my forceps and nippers no problem. It has a back vent and is very light and breathable and has become my favorite summer paddling and fishing shirt. Katie says it looks nice on me, too. The river, like most of them in these parts, is very rocky, with its bottom being made up of a lot of rocks six inches to 24-inches in diameter. Death for toes and ankles. But as I scrambled in, fleeing the biting insects, my toes were protected by my Keen Newport H2’s rubber toes, and my feet felt sure on the tricky river bottom. Smallmouth like this kind of rocky river and these shoes have proven perfect for the environment. I actually find them to be a little hot and uncomfortable when my feet are not regularly being submerged, but for canoeing and fishing, perfect.


So there I was standing in the river, all by myself even though I had parked in the state forest campground and climbed down the banks from there. The campground was all but empty on this Sunday afternoon. Around a bend upstream, four kayakers came into sight, two men and two women. As the guy in the lead reached me, he asked how far to the campground landing and I assured him it couldn’t be far at all and he shouted back to the rest of his party that they were almost there. I asked if they’d had a good trip and he said yes but they were ready to be done.

I fished unsuccessfully for a while. The trick about wade fishing for smallmouth is that you want to keep moving, covering new water. The fish generally live solitary lives, and if you don’t entice one out on the first cast to a spot, you’re probably not going to get one on subsequent casts. But, not being in a canoe, and the river being fairly large, it was a bit of work to move around. After covering every piece of water I could from where I was standing, I walked down to the little rapids below me and then out to a big flat rock I thought I’d stand on while I tied on a new fly.


Standing on the dry rock meant my legs were exposed. The mosquitoes and flies renewed their attack. My legs were pulverized. I am not ashamed to admit I didn’t quite know what to do and didn’t have a good feeling about the fishing here either so I fled back to my car.


Wear pants next time. Hot when not submerged, yes, but worth it for protection from poison ivy, nettles and other flora when hiking the banks, and protection from those little biting bastards. And besides, the point is to be submerged as much as possible.

I left the campground and drove a mile down to the St. Croix River landing here. There is no bridge, but directly across the river on the Wisconsin side is another landing. You can imagine the ferry that ran across the river back in the 1920s and 30s. The ferry’s first passengers on opening were a circus, a sign at the landing informed me.

Rain-speckled stone

My thought had been maybe I would walk up from this landing 100 yards or so to where the river I had been fishing joined the St. Croix. But the water was high and the beach almost nonexistent and thus not enticing for the walk. And there were lots of other folks around, some young guys sitting on folding chairs with lines out in the water, fishing for catfish. This was not my scene, so I went back to the campground.

At the campground, the four kayakers were just finishing loading the boats into a trailer. The two guys were, I should say. I asked them how it had been and they said it was good. One guy went to get into his white Mercedes sedan and his wife opened her door to tell me “except for all the rocks we hit our butts on.” I laughed and said at least the water is still up relatively high so it was probably less rocks and she said “I guess” and closed the door. The other guy said “well, I had a ball” and then muttered something about the damn bugs and got in his vehicle.

I went down to the river. Here the river slid down a little incline, the water quickening into little standing waves. I positioned myself near the tail of the fast water and started casting to what was probably a good place if it had been a trout stream. I’m still trying to figure out where the bass hang out. But then as I retrieved my fly across the surface, a fishy form appeared underneath it and I pulled up on the rod but there was no resistance and no fish. The lack of any resistance meant the fish probably hadn’t felt the sting of the hook, so I casted to the same spot again and did the same retrieve and just like deja vu the fish struck again. This time I felt a brief tug as I struck back, but then it was gone again.

This time the fish had felt the hook. Any smart fish would use reasonable caution and forget about eating for an hour or two.

I casted back to the same spot. The fish struck. So did I. And it was on.

Boy can those smallmouth fight. It zigged and zagged around the pool. And it wasn’t like sometimes fishing in a river where the fish runs downstream and you’re fighting it back up the current. No, this fish stayed in front of me if not upstream. And just when it seemed to be slackening, it renewed the fight. My rod bent well against it.

I failed to mention that as I had started fishing, two tubes had drifted around the bend upstream and were slowly approaching. I pictured a contingent of the Swedish bikini team. Not long after I caught and released the bass–which was as dark as I’ve ever seen, deserving the name “black bass” which is sometimes applied–the tubes descended the little rapids, their occupants paddling weakly with their hands. The occupants were two men in their mid-fifties, sneakers and t-shirts. The first to go by had a head-rest on his tube and a beer in his hand. He asked how I was doing and he said they sometimes brought fishing rods along on a float.

As they continued on down the river, I casted again. My fly was a yellow popper tied up special by Gabe for my birthday. It’s curved foam body caused the most ridiculous wiggling motion as I retrieved it across the water surface. Apparently the fish loved it. Another one slashed at it, I struck too eagerly and not only missed the fish but my entire line went flying back behind my head. Fearing a tangle with streamside vegetation, my reflexes caused me to snap the rod forward again. I heard a tell-tale little snap from back where my fly should be and knew I had just snapped it off.

I spent the next hour trying other flies to no avail, not even a sniff by a fish, and wandering around the bank behind me trying to find the missing yellow wiggler. Also to no avail.

My day at the river ended with a very cold Miller High Life consumed on the banks. Again, not in the water, my legs were exposed and were viciously assaulted. For the first 30 minutes of my drive home, it felt like someone had taken a bag of hot embers and sprayed my legs with them. Little bastards.

Hay bales

I took backroads south through Pine and Chisago counties before finally rejoining the Interstate at Forest Lake. I listened to Dawes’ “North Hills.” Often there wasn’t a car in front of or behind me for a half-mile or more. Not bad compared to the angry Sunday evening southbound traffic heading home on the freeway from “up north.” A bruiser of a thunderstorm was rolling through and I caught the ragged back edge of it once I was on I-35.

Summer storm


Peace in the valley

There’s a river running through the city
Gently reminding me what’s what.

Dawes, When You Call My Name

Dawes at Taste of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota July 2, 2010I’m heading out fishing in a short while, whenever Gabe gets here. The river is up high from a wet stretch of weeks and in fact the tornado sirens reportedly went off briefly out in Stillwater an hour ago when a fierce line of storms blew across eastern Minnesota. I swam in the St. Croix yesterday, no better way to beat the heat on such a muggy day. I want to get back in it today, though I’m afraid I may be confined to the canoe with the good beaches all underwater.

This is the first weekend in perhaps a month in which obligations have been outnumbered by unplanned hours. It was a busy June and I just need to accept it and acknowledge that the commitments were positive: a wedding in Portland, my mom’s retirement party, a successful canoe trip with journalists for work.

Katie and I took Friday afternoon off work to go to the Taste of Minnesota where we saw Retribution Gospel Choir and Dawes play. We wanted to stick around for the evening when Minneapolis hip-hop stars Atmosphere and P.O.S. were playing, but we had a sick dog that we didn’t want to leave at home too long.

The two bands we did see were worth the vacation time, the ticket price, and any effort of getting ourselves to Harriet Island. Retribution Gospel Choir (featuring Alan Sparhawk [and Steve Garrington] of Duluth band Low) was typically face-melting, as the kids say. Melody climbing out from under noise, masterful guitar work, chaos coalescing into harmony. It was an atypical venue, a tent at a family-friendly event on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. When we arrived, folk-country singer Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve Earle, named after Townes van Zandt) had recently finished, and the seats were full of middle-aged couples and others who didn’t look much like the crowd the last time we saw RGC at the Triple Rock Social Club on Minneapolis’s West Bank.

It felt strange to sit down and take in a show by a rock band like them, but I honestly couldn’t complain. We scored a couple chairs at a table and I drank my Summit EPA and enjoyed the craftsmanship–even though I’m not sure everyone else did; several folks found it not to their liking and excused themselves from the tent.

We went right up to the front for Dawes and I don’t think many people stayed sitting. The band from Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon then proceeded to defy my expectations. As most good electric alt-country-folk-rock acts do, they turned up the volume from their album recording (“North Hills”) and really put on a show. The crowd returned the favor.

The guys in the band seemed genuinely blown away by the audience reception–wild cheering and big smiles. They even played an obviously unplanned encore, which is really the only good kind of encore. We got our hands on a vinyl copy of the record afterward and shook hands with the lead singer, who enthusiastically autographed it.

If I don’t find peace in the valley
I’ve got no place else to look.

Dawes, Peace in the Valley


Bluegrass and bagels

St. Paul Farmers Market

Listening to Jazz 88’s program “Bluegrass Saturday Morning” is a weekly tradition for Katie and me. It’s often the soundtrack for coffee, breakfast, reading. The easy start to the first day of the weekend. Host Phil Nusbaum‘s pleasant voice and steady delivery is matched by his enthusiasm and deep knowledge of decades of bluegrass and Americana music.

I turned it on in the kitchen this morning when I got up and then I started the coffee. We didn’t listen long, though, because once the coffee had brewed we left the house to head down to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market; our first visit of the season.

The first stop for us at the Market is always the bagel stand, where we get bagels with egg for breakfast while we strategize our shopping. This morning, a bluegrass duo playing in a tent nearby grabbed our attention. With bagels and coffee in hand, we wove through a stand of beautiful flowers and took our positions to eat, drink and enjoy the music.

When the first song ended and the banjo player said “thanks” and introduced the next tune, we realized that he was none other than Phil Nusbaum himself! Even though Bluegrass Saturday Morning was still on the radio (it goes from 7 a.m. to noon every Saturday), I had known that it was generally pre-recorded. Nusbaum was both on the air and in-person, a critic and a creator.

He and his guitarist then played a whimsical version of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Merle Haggard’s “Wine and Roses,” and another tune or two while we stood watching. They weren’t playing anything very fast, but rather just easy-paced tunes where both instruments and the vocals could have the time they needed to really be appreciated. The combination of a seasoned banjo player (playing what appeared to be a very seasoned banjo) and a guitarist with a relaxed singing voice was perfect for the mellow, cloudy, cool morning.

When our bagels were gone, I threw a couple bucks in the open guitar case in front of them, and we wandered off to shop the market. They were taking a break when we left an hour or so later, our arms laden with flowers, flats of herbs for the garden, and other goodies. When we got in the car to drive home, Bluegrass Saturday Morning was still on the air and Nusbaum was narrating a review of bass and baritone singing in bluegrass music.