Five days of reflection on the riverway brings the
author peace and a whole lot of paddling.
When the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway calls
He answers with 180 miles of solo paddling in an aluminum canoe.
Story and photos by Bruce H. Manske
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was a historic travel route of the Ojibwe, the Dakota, explorers and loggers. Its pathway then, and now, consists of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers and the riparian setting through which the rivers transverse on the way to the Mighty Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
The riverway is a natural wonder and has a rich and extensive history. Recognizing its significance, the federal government in 1968 established the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Today, recreation enthusiasts like me get their turn to enjoy this exceptionally rich riverway. Here is my story of traveling the riverway — solo and in an aluminum canoe — constantly reminded of Leif Enger's best–selling novel, Peace Like a River.
When I began my trip, though, the Namekagon River was anything but peaceful.It was running high, fast and cold due to the above average spring rainfall; yet, it was time to travel. My goal? Paddling Hayward to Stillwater. It was time to let the past school year drift away, self–reflect and take in history.
After the Hayward landing, the river became rocky and narrow, with a few small rapids. I found Peace Like a River along with herons and good fishing opportunity. Eagles made their homes in 100–year–old white pines that were left behind from the logging days. Songbirds made for a pleasurable morning: woodland music, quirky flybys and colorful flashes kept this solo paddler alert and tuned in to nature.
After Big Bend Landing, a couple of miles south of Springbrook, the river widened and time seemed to slow. I witnessed white–tailed deer and an occasional black bear frolicking on the river's edge — finding their own Peace Like a River. It was also prime time for turtles including wood, snapper, painted and soft–shelled that were making their nests in the sand. Although the river was high, these turtles were not to be denied a prime nesting area…persistence wins; nature wins.
The Trego Flowage was a disappointment with mucky water, motorboats and a long pull to the Trego Dam. The Trego Flowage portage was a welcome sight. It featured a well–marked portage path and a well–deserved rest stop.
The Namekagon River and its primitive and reclusive glory were back, along with Peace Like a River. As night settled in, the wilderness erupted with a new set of sounds.Surrounding the evening camp I heard owls on the hunt, nocturnal mammals on the prowl and thunder in the distance. Of course, mosquitoes also made a showing and drove me into the tent to read, write and watch the sun slowly set over the glistening riverway.
A new day saw me traveling downstream from the Trego Dam. Here, the river narrowed and I discovered a variety of downhill riffles. According to the map, sandbars and islands are frequent, but during the high–water season the river flows with reckless abandon. Ah yes, Peace Like a River.
Morning also brings river sunrises, which are spectacular as the mist dissipates. The solitude of morning offers time to reflect on history, change and new beginnings. I joined the St. Croix River in the Upper St. Croix flowage in Douglas County. From here, the St. Croix River flows 164 miles to its confluence with the Mississippi River near Prescott, Wis. The majority of the river creates the state boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin; whereas, the upper St. Croix River flows past heavily wooded banks and islands.
This is a breath–taking stretch punctuated by second growth forests of birch, maple, oak, aspen and basswood in the valley. But stands of white pine forests that once cloaked the riverbanks are nearly gone, felled by the lumberman's ax. Still, eagles, osprey and falcons make their homes in the few left standing — giant lookout posts for magnificent birds of prey.
The Namekagon River joins the St. Croix River in northern Burnett County and it is at this point where both rivers become significantly wider. This river–joining is a special location on the riverway. It's where two powerful rivers grasp hands.
It is not difficult to imagine the fur trading industry excelling here, for beaver and otter are still prevalent; although, most likely not to the extent of the 1700s. It's also not difficult to imagine loggers of the past finding success here.
Heading south, the names of various canoe and boat landings, as well as other historical points of interest help to preserve history and provide insight into past river eras: the Soo Line Railroad Bridge, Thayers Landing and Norway Point Landing.
St. Croix State Park in Minnesota and Governor Knowles State Forest in Wisconsin have kiosks to inform travelers of travels gone–by, including the history behind settings such as Old Railroad Bridge Landing, Sunrise Ferry Landing and Nevers Dam Landing.
Continuing south, past meets present as motorboats hum along the river, power lines are visible overhead and automobile traffic parallels the river.
The Taylors Falls area was an adventure. Excel Energy has a hydroelectric dam here and one must portage meandering 1½ miles through the streets of Taylors Falls. But I was reminded that if I was patient, I would be rewarded. Curiously, the portage was not as daunting as I imagined. It was a 2–hour trip, a quick tour of town and then into new canoe territory. I soon discovered glacier cliffs and Class II rapids that helped me forget the rigors of the urban portage. Peace Like a River.
After portaging, I found the river wide, fast and cold — all factors that kept the average boater to a minimum, and, ah yes, the power of a "no wake ordinance" to keep boaters at bay.
The St. Croix River south of Taylors Falls also featured many islands, bayous and subtle pathways through flooded forest islands. It was easy to avoid motorized boats.
William O'Brien State Park on the Minnesota side and the St. Croix Island State Wildlife Area were amazing and canoe– and kayak–friendly. The pathways were narrow and intriguing with abundant wildlife. It was an urban wilderness, only accessible with small, non–motorized crafts creating Peace Like a River.
The High Bridge marked a significant change in St. Croix National Scenic Riverway life. Here, boats of any size are allowed in the river, but they are not allowed to cross the High Bridge line traveling north.
And my trip came to an end. It was a fast, furious and reflective five days on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. It brought me Peace Like a River.
Bruce H. Manske writes from Stillwater, Minn.