A rope hangs from a butternut tree—I swing out, cut through the water. I smell wildflowers: sweet clover, wild rose and geranium, goldenrod. Cardinal lobelia, my favorite, brightens shady riverbanks. Named after the robe worn by a Catholic cardinal, it blazes red in August, arresting red, like the deep cochineal dye of a Navajo Indian blanket.
Thousands of years ago, in the last ice age, it rose: a small spring, narrow and shallow, in a channel created by glacial melt-waters. Joining other streams, it carved, through volcanic rock, a wide valley. It grew deep. The Ojibwe and the Dakota in wigwams and lodges along its banks held the sounds of bird songs, reeds in the wind, animal runs and calls. The Indians canoed the water, rich with game, fish, and rice.
My cabin sits above the main channel of the river near Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. Looking out from any window or deck—imposing sky, water, shores. The house also overlooks an island; that view is more contained, intimate. I come to the river to both wonder and touch. In the spring, I watch light rise and fall on terraced bluffs. Swamp maples cede to oaks, waive to soft white pines. The woods brim with jack-in-the-pulpit, skunk cabbage, bloodroot, cowslip, trillium. Birds and animals, fragile and fierce, showy and secluded, sing out, call. I rejoice in deer, wee shrews and skinks, fat toads in horsetail reeds, skinny tree frogs, osprey, hawks, hummingbirds.
Hundreds of years ago, the river served as an important trade route, first for the Native Americans, and then the French, English, and American fur traders. Voyagers paddled the canoe highway from Lake Superior, down the Bois Brule, across the St. Croix to the Mississippi, singing lively rowing songs, ballads and laments. They built fires for meals and heat. Smelling of smoke, sweat and beaver pelts, they met in teepees and trading posts, lodged in forts or in the open air, surrounded by sounds of white or still waters.
I pontoon in the summer to waterfalls and gorges, dalles and cliffs. I canoe to marshes and meadows, to swamps. On beaches, I plant my feet, feel the swell of sand, sink in my heels. I pick pebbles from the shore, spin some into the St. Croix River, plunge rudimentary rock into sedimentary sand. Ripples in concentric circles. Sparkling grains of quartz whirl, twirl, submerge with the swiftly flowing current. I wade into the channel from sedged sandbars and feel the shore shear off. Peering into clear water, bronzed by tannins, I follow underwater trails to observe rare mussels with lustrous linings. I explore islands, discover stones and bones.
Fir trade followed fur trade. With stovepipe hats and long poles, loggers drove huge log rafts down the river, cursing, carousing. They lit dynamite to break up jams, built dams and iron flumes to float the logs over falls, through narrows, to mills where turbine wheels turned the logs to lumber, lath and shingles. In 1890, a peak achieved: 450 million board feet of lumber and logs. A forest sea.
Autumn arrives in yellows, rusts and oranges. I happen upon a flock of wild turkeys following a path into the village. The gobblers eye me, strangely uncurious; they saunter over dead bent grasses, chew khaki plants. I look up to see an eagle circle in widening arcs around a dead birch. Down below, the blue heron bends a gangly-poled leg, holds steady, old as the river.
Pioneers—French, Yankees, Scandinavian, German—with names like DuBois, Pepin, Allen, Lee, Hanson, Bjornson, Krueger and Mueller—settled states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, founded towns on either side. Women with bonnets strolled plank board sidewalks, their children casting hoops alongside. They progressed down to the general stores, up to the wooden churches. Everyone bustled to the booming landing when flags flew and folks shouted, “Boat’s a-comin!” Steamboats churned. Paddlewheels slapped. From those floating wedding cakes, deep-throated horns hooted and calliopes whistled. Dark smoke trailed.
I cross-country ski on the river in January and February. Grateful for a flat trail, I glide along in a great, white, silent space. I trek onto land, examine paw prints and scat, muskrat holes, beaver dams. Frozen waterfalls cast magical colors; minerals leached from rock walls streak the ice emerald, turquoise, copper and golden.
At the turn of the century, new machines started up with a roar and sputter. Motorboats. Later, speedboats, pontoon boats, jet skis and snowmobiles ran alongside canoes, kayaks, sailboats, and skates. The different explorers sought the same pools and rapids, swamps and lakes, the same tumbling waterfalls and gorges.
For fifteen years, in all seasons, I revel in the river. Like a child who fills and empties a pail of sand, I sieve out the city’s work and worry. Aware that the sand is ground from ancient basaltic rock, I’m attentive to breaks, days—my tiny time—spent in this vast valley. At my spot on the river, I try to filter in the grand, to join those before me singing whole body notes, buoyant on the waterway.