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Paddling the St. Croix: Group encounters history and headwinds as six-day run begins

Rain fell for 11.75 miles of the first day’s 12-mile run, and the truly interesting feature was a headwind gusting in the upper 20s.

Earth Journal writer Ron Meador will be posting daily this week from the St. Croix River.

Field correspondence should have a dateline, I feel, not just for verisimilitude but also for the benefit of those readers who, like this writer, tend to keep an atlas at the elbow.

But in actual fact I can’t say quite where I am in dateline-translatable terms.

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It’s a campground, a nice one of the commercial variety, and for some it might suffice to say it that is situated near Thayers Landing, Minnesota. And that Thayers Landing in turn is located somewhat to the west, slightly to the north and across the St. Croix River from Danbury, Wisconsin.

Two hundred plus a dozen years ago, it would have sufficed to say our group of 60-odd paddlers was in close proximity to Forts Folle Avoine, the famous if short-lived fur post of the XY Company, itself an encroachment on an earlier establishment of the North West Company. More precisely:

To find us, you must put your boat into the Yellow River and head downstream to the confluence with the St. Croix, then follow the big river to the northwest until it bends back toward the southwest, then tie off to a tree root and fire a musket. A guide will be along shortly.

Days 1 and 2 of the journey. Click the map to download a PDF showing the full week’s route.

* * *

A bit over a year ago, more or less on a whim, I took a week-long paddle trip down the Namekagon River with a group slightly larger than this one, at least at the outset, both trips under the sponsorship of the St. Croix River Association.

It was quite the fine journey in many ways, with the spectacular scenery and isolation not necessarily the most important of its features.

Because it was earlier in the year, the weather demanded constant attention, and preparation. So did the river, which was in flood the whole time. The daily count of out-of-boat experiences ranged from noteworthy to mildly alarming.

Last year we did 120-some miles in six days, and my inability to recall the exact number may say something about how unimportant such statistics became in an unfolding story of personal challenges faced and usually met.

More than a few folks bailed out early; all who remained seemed to grow a least a little in skill and self-regard by the time we hauled out at Riverside Landing, where the Namie meets the Croix.

Sunday morning this year’s group picked up where last year’s left off, on another six-day run that will take us nearly to Stillwater, after which this wild and scenic river system — one of the first to be designated as such under federal law — becomes urbanized, development-flanked and motorboat-laden all the way to the Mississippi, at Prescott.

The weather is warmer this year, the river is wider, and the water is still quite high — not a bad thing at all in the St. Croix, whose shallow reaches and sandy bottom will add a fair number of groundings and draggings to this course in another few weeks. 

About two-thirds of the contingent is making their first trip in the series, according to the association’s executive director, Deb Ryun, which is good news for the organization’s mission of protecting, restoring and celebrating the river as a resource.

On the other hand, about a dozen in this year’s group have been on all three of the previous paddles, and that says something about the enduring appeal of the St. Croix, which truly is never the same river twice.

* * *

Saturday night we spent in a primitive encampment at Forts Folle Avoine, as it is now styled by the Burnett County Historical Society, which has restored the grounds to an an interesting vantage point on the era of the voyageurs.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Old-style shelter and new at Forts Folle Avoine fur post.

I am carrying along on this trip “The St. Croix: Midwest Border River,” published in 1965 by James Taylor Dunn, then the chief librarian of the Minnesota Historical Society, and en route to the old post I read this:

Most of the information we have today about fur company activities along the St. Croix comes from the diaries and reminiscences of three men — George Nelson, Michel Curot, and Thomas Connor — who spent the winters of 1802 to 1804 trading among the Indians in the valley.  The daily journals kept by two of the these men, Connor and the hapless Curot, are vivid and fascinating on-the-spot records of fur trade in the valley.Nelson was a sixteen-year-old apprentice clerk from the Montreal area when in the fall of 1802 he joined XY Company traders under the leadership of William Smith and traveled into the Folle Avoine country — the wild rice region of the upper St. Croix Valley. Leaving Lake Superior by way of the Brule, Nelson portaged to the source of the St. Croix where, according to the reminiscences he jotted down many years later, he “glided gently down its placid bosom, but little obstructed by rapids.”

… The traders soon moved up the Yellow to a spot sixty yards from an encampment of the North West Company. There the XY men built a house, and from that location, during the winter of 1802-03, they trudged valley trails on fur-collecting trips to [Ojibwe] Indian camps along other tributary streams, principally the Chaudiere (or Kettle River) and Coquille (now the Clam).

Throughout their stay on the Yellow, the traders heard frequent rumors of possible Sioux forays into this hotly contested Chippewa country. For this reason they were glad to leave the area early in April and “escape from danger & be relieved of so much anxiety.” 

On Saturday night, the more recent history of the St. Croix and its protection were outlined by Peter Gove, a driving force in modernizing and empowering the river association into its current form, and Steve Wierschen, director of the Folle Avoine historic site.

Peter was eloquent as always in describing the vision of Gaylord Nelson and Walter Mondale in having the St. Croix/Namekagon added to the national scenic river system in its first year; he said it retains the distinction of being the system’s river closest to a major metropolitan area, which was news to me at least.

As smoke from the campfire — and wood-fired clay pizza ovens — drifted over our group, Steve told a more personal story of growing up on the Yellow River, where he took up fur trapping at the age of 11 or 12 and had days of wild-rice gathering when “you could knock 200 pounds a day” into your canoe.

He remembers, too, the tremendous fight required to set aside the riverway that today is so easy to take for granted, and forever, reminding us that if things had gone differently, there would be a house every 150 feet along the route of this year’s paddle.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Fiddler Tommy Ludwig at Forts Folle Avoine.

The speakers then yielded the earthen and unsheltered floor to Tommy Ludwig, a fiddler who favors old-fashioned tunes from the Scottish and Irish canons of centuries past, with occasional turns toward Doc Watson’s reading of “House of the Rising Sun” and the odd scrap of narrative about Appalachian scales or the uses of flatted thirds and sevenths.

We watched and listened as his music drifted overhead, accompaniment added by wind in the towering white pines, all of it carried aloft and then away over the palisade by wood smoke.

We’ll carry the music with us this week along the St. Croix, of course, but I had a notion that it was also rippling back into the past in some way, and that others unseen might be enjoying it, too.

* * *

With the end of the music came the start of a drizzle, which grew into a pelting rain overnight and left many of us with damp gear for the start of our trip down river.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Breakfast prep on a soggy morning Sunday after pelting rains overnight.

We shuttled from the fort back to Riverside Landing, then launched into a riverine day that was to prove … interesting for those, myself included, who expected a week of leisurely floats down a tame St. Croix.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
At Sunday morning’s briefing, SCRA Executive Director Deb Ryun predicts headwinds gusting to 30 mph for the day’s 12-mile leg.

The rain continued for 11.75 miles of the day’s 12-mile run, and though the river was carrying us along at a little over four knots — five if you put a blade in the water with any effort at all — the truly interesting feature was a headwind gusting in the upper 20s.

If there was a shallow place to pull over the river for a comfort stop, I failed to find it, and most folks skipped the usual lunch stop to keep plugging along toward the takeout.

And then, with the landing in sight, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Before long we were pitching tents and rigging clotheslines, and the breezes that had recently been vexing were now serving as a highly efficient clothes dryer.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The sun comes out at the end of a 12-mile battle with headwinds Sunday afternoon.

Soon the smell of camp cooking was rising from scores of little stoves, and the talk turned to days of adventure to come.

Next: Lower Tamarack to St. Croix State Park.