This is the last of Ron Meador’s posts from the St. Croix River paddle that began June 15.
And then it was over.
The 50 or so paddlers remaining at the end of our six-day trip down the St. Croix pushed through a final marathon stretch of 22.5 miles on Friday. It was the highest-mileage day by a good margin, untroubled by headwinds or rain, going with the flow and a good bit faster.
Just after the midpoint there was a nice box-lunch picnic on the village green in Marine on St. Croix, with music, cold soda — and ice cream! On any other day we might have lingered in this comfortable oasis, but with 80-some miles behind us and 10 more to go, there wasn’t much dawdling.
Only moments after launching, it seemed, the historic Soo Line High Bridge just upstream from Stillwater came into view, and moments after that came the takeout at Andersen Scout Camp on the Wisconsin side.
The boats were hauled out one last time, onto a muddy bank and then up a steep stone staircase, then a half-mile down a gravel road that a camp staffer was grading with a Bobcat to repair washouts from the week’s torrential rain.
We were back in the everyday world now, where heavy rains and high water were not just a challenge to campcraft and boat handling but also to infrastructure — sources of mudslides, flooding and road closures, with dire forecasts of worse perhaps to come.
There were brief goodbyes, bold talk of next year … and within 90 minutes or so, most were scattered to the four winds.
Moved by the river
Looking back over last week’s columns I realize that I didn’t write about people as much this year as last, and I’m not sure why.
If anything, this group was more varied than last year’s, perhaps even more inclined to an easygoing sociability that you don’t always get in large groups in the outdoors.
Likable, too. I’d be delighted to do another trip with all but a small handful from each mob — and those others, well, I could suffer them gladly enough.
There are people who come to a river trip with the same conversational habits that carry them through daily life, and you can hear them talking amid the most breathaking beauty about car shopping and going to Vegas and the best place to buy mulch.
Which is fine, but I prefer the company of people who are distracted from all that — and muted a bit, too — by the river, the woods, wind in the pines, birdsong.
We aren’t necessarily silenced by these things, and I admit that sometimes we yammer on about gear shopping, and going to the Apostles, and the best place to buy JetBoil accessories. But the continual experience of the river is one that resists being wrapped up in words, whether spoken or written.
The better material is in stories about how people come to the river, are moved by it and changed by it, tested and bested and uplifted by it.
Last year’s trip was more challenging in that it took place on a smaller and more difficult stream that happened to be in flood, its waters unusually high and fast, and the daily count of mishaps and recoveries was often substantial.
Stories about capsizes and rescues, bear sightings and such are ready for telling right away. Others are subtler, deeper, and don’t find their true and lasting form for a while. They need reflection, ripening.
In dozens of homes across several states, they are taking shape right now.
Going in by going out
Many of them will resonate with John Muir’s oft-quoted observation, recalled for us Thursday night by park ranger Dale Cox:
I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
I think it’s true of most people who love to trek with a paddle or a pack — certainly it’s so for me — that its greatest rewards and deepest meaning are found in moments of moving closer to one’s soul by way of traveling farther from the roofs and the ruts of one’s home.
Our first night out, at the old fur post of Forts Folle Avoine, the clouds overhead were illuminated now and again by distant lightning.
It put me in mind of the Diamond Sutra and its urging to see the world from moment to moment in all of its particularity:
So you should see this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.
Hard to do that and do interviews at the same time.
One durable backpack
Gathering food for this trip, I renewed acquaintances with a much-loved piece of gear: the No. 574 Yucca Pack issued me by the Boy Scouts of America when I was 10 or 11 years old, I don’t remember exactly.
I do remember, however, one particular trek I made with this pack.
It was a three-day hike, in early spring, on a section of the Appalachian Trail near Clingmans Dome, along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. That last part I know for sure, for we were giddy with happiness at the chance to stand in one state and pee into another.
As I look back on this trip from a lifetime of outdoor travel, and parenting, it seems to me we were woefully unprepared and perhaps dangerously underequipped for a route that took us from baking heat up into a heavy snowstorm and back down through rain.
We wore jeans and cotton sweatshirts, flimsy hiking boots, gym socks. I had a thin, kapok-filled sleeping bag my well-meaning but inexperienced parents picked up at a garage sale; struggling to stay warm, I slept in all of my damp clothes.
As he planned the trip, our scoutmaster realized that we couldn’t possibly tote all of our gear in our soft-sided Yucca packs; we would need pack frames, extending above and below the packs, with additional lashing points for sleeping bags and air mattresses and tarps.
So we built some, out of 2×2 oak, with lawn-chair webbing stretched taut between the uprights. Heavy? You bet.
It was difficult trip for all of us boys, and my route was longer than most. I had a paralyzing fear of heights in those days, so I walked extra miles to avoid those stretches of narrow trail with a rock wall to one side and a long fall to the other.
But the places I saw and the passages they required changed my life for the better — and forever — in some ways I could tell you about and others, I’m sure, I’m still to discover.
The Yucca measures 7 inches by 14 by 17, and is built of sturdy canvas with a dozen brass D-rings for lashing on canteens and lanterns and such. Through careful planning and packing, I managed to fill it completely and neatly with the fixings for a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.
I ate with gusto all week and still brought it home half-full.
Out of practice, I guess — need to be getting out on the trail more often.
* * *