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Woven throughout our history are the tales of rivers and their people. As emblematic as any of our rugged waterways, the St. Croix and Namekagon are water trails to our past and future. Managed as the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, this unique park is a living testament to the vision of wild rivers forged by Senators Gaylord Nelson and Walter Mondale when these waters were included among the original rivers preserved in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, forty years ago. Nationwide as of 2006, Wild and Scenic River designation protects more than 11,000 miles of 165 spectacular free-flowing rivers in 38 states.
The two rivers form linear paths of blue and green stretching over 250 miles in length. The federally protected St. Croix flows for over 25 miles in Wisconsin before becoming a border river marking the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin for almost 125 miles. Almost 100 miles long itself, the Namekagon is solely within the borders of Wisconsin. Together, they keep alive a fading memory of the primitive and pristine waters flowing from the bogs and wetlands of the Northwoods.
The richness of this surrounding watershed contributes greatly to the unspoiled nature of the rivers and is the source of all water that flows into the riverway. Nourishing the St. Croix is an expansive basin covering over 7,700 square miles that connects an intricate network of more than 1,500 springs, brooks and 16 major tributaries in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Fed by these waters, the rivers pass through a midwestern tapestry of primitive Northwoods forests, scenic river bluffs, prehistoric archaeological sites, century-old farmlands, and thriving urban and rural communities.
Flowing past 13 counties, seven state parks and three state forests on its way to meet the Mississippi near Prescott, Wisconsin, the riverway is a unique partnership of planning and study managed by the National Park Service, with assistance from the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, local counties and communities. The riverway, home to 40 species of freshwater mussels, including two on the list of endangered species, is considered to be exceptionally clean, despite its proximity to the Twin Cities.
Rising in wetlands from small seeps, the Namekagon never gives the impression of being a "big" river due to the narrow nature of its watershed.
In the cool, clear waters that begin to flow together east of Cable, Wisconsin, the Namekagon is home to native brook and transplanted rainbow and brown trout. Farther down below Trego, muskies resembling submerged logs leisurely swim over the sandy bottom. Campsites dot the riverside, inviting the visitor to rest or cast a fly in pools below long abandoned logging dams.
In the fall and spring, the rivers become classrooms, as local fourth grade students venture out with park rangers to learn about water quality, aquatic habitats, insects, fish, birds and mammals. Amid the laughter, children knee-deep in moving water begin to appreciate that this is a special place to be preserved.
As in any watershed, water levels near the headwaters of the Namekagon can drop off after spring runoff recedes. So at different times of the warmer seasons, floating the Namekagon can be a treat for both beginning and experienced paddlers. The final 30 miles near Spooner is a primitive stretch of water meandering through high sand banks, quiet marshes and even quieter forests. As the river twists and winds its way through changing scenery other river users are out of view, already around the next bend and downstream. Human noise wanes, then vanishes as the river follows the course it began thousands of years ago. On this part of the river, water flow remains steady through the fall, and this lower sweep beckons to be floated when the neighboring trees begin their fall color change.
Once surrounded by an immense forest of white pine, the water is now shadowed by a second growth of oak, maple and red pine. The area was opened to logging by a treaty signed with the Ojibwe tribe in 1837, and the pineries of the upper St. Croix watershed were heavily cutover to build a growing country. From the 1830s through the early 1900s, more than 12 billion board feet of lumber floated down the tributary rivers of the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson, Wisconsin, and Marine-on-St. Croix and Stillwater, Minnesota.
The St. Croix
Rising on the south side of a natural divide that splits water north to Lake Superior (down the Bois Brule River) or south to the Mississippi River, the St. Croix is the shortest route between the two, as French fur traders learned from Native Americans when exploring the St. Croix area in the 1600s and 1700s. A small two-mile portage is still accessible to modern day adventurers who travel this historic route.
Protected below Gordon Dam near Gordon, the first 20 miles of the river can be a rowdy, almost whitewater adventure, or a grueling low-water struggle, depending on the time of year. When the water's up, fields of glacial stone are covered with small ripples, and rapids dot the river mile after mile. An abandoned dam known as Coppermine requires a portage in low water, and great skill during high flow. Eventually the last major rapid, Big Fish Trap, presents a passage of thought and ability: thewrong choice can lead to a quick flip and a necessary stop to dry off.
After merging with the Namekagon, the St. Croix begins to widen and slow. The river begins cutting down through native sandstone and limestone bedrock, to form ripples and small rapids in places. Smallmouth bass find home in this stretch of river well-known and beloved by anglers. Hiding among the rocks and boulders, the abundant smallies make an excellent opponent when captured on ultra-light tackle or a fly rod: a river trip can create memories to last a lifetime.
While stopped to contemplate the water, visitors are sometimes surprised by caravans of youth paddling canoes, loaded with gear and garbage. Scout troops and summer camps conduct service projects along the river cleaning campsites and learning skills that are not taught on the Internet.
Below a hydroelectric dam in St. Croix Falls, the river passes through the Dalles of the St. Croix, a unique gorge carved through an ancient basaltic lava flow. The site of numerous major logjams over one hundred years ago, the area today features some of the best rock climbing and one of the most scenic areas in the Midwest. Although not as remote as the upper stretches of the river, the high bluffs and wide water accompanied by numerous backwaters provide ample opportunities to see migratory birds in spring, summer and fall.
When the river reaches Stillwater, Minnesota, the location of numerous sawmills during the logging era, its current can become almost imperceptible. The final 25 miles of placid water before the confluence of the Mississippi River is used in summer by a wider range of recreational boaters, including anglers, houseboaters, water skiers and personal watercraft users.
Take me to the river
So that all Americans may enjoy our natural heritage, the National Park Service cares for more than 390 special places, from large parks to such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, to lesser known but no less significant places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Though protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and active management, the fate of the St. Croix and Namekagon, like other major rivers, is bound to what happens in the watershed. Development, soil erosion, and loss of wetlands in the surrounding basin eventually impair the riverway. Maintaining and enhancing the water quality in these rivers rests equally with the people who live and play there.
To increase awareness of this unique park unit, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will continue throughout this summer. The National Park Service, the University of Wisconsin- Extension and the University of Minnesota-Extension are collaborating to promote stewardship and understanding of the riverway. Support from the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of Natural Resources, county conservation departments and many local organizations will offer programs and community festivals to celebrate these rivers.
Children throughout the watershed are involved in service projects which range from repairing shorelines and litter cleanups, to stenciling town storm drains that lead to local streams. In Burnett County, 4-H members are monitoring water quality in local waters which merge with the St. Croix River. These citizen scientists measure water clarity, total dissolved oxygen, temperature, flow, habitat and macro-invertebrates. The data they gather will be entered into a growing database maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
To learn more about how youth can become stewards of the Riverway or to explore Take Me to the River events including Big Top Chautauqua performances and local events, call (715) 483-2272.
For additional information on trip planning, visiting or volunteering for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, phone (715) 483-2274, or visit the National Park Service.
Dale Cox is park ranger for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway headquartered at St. Croix Falls.