Wave Train

The St. Croix River from the Gordon Dam to Danbury, Part I

The sun was already low in the sky when we pulled up to the outfitters office. It was the week before Memorial Day in northern Wisconsin and they had just seeded the freshly turned dirt in front of the newly built office cabin. Why is it that in some parts of the country everything looks like a log cabin? My brother and I had been planning this trip all winter. It was going to be our first chance to be on the water that year. It was something I had wasted countless hours daydreaming about at work. Staring at the same maps on the park service website every day for weeks on end.

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway begins in northwestern Wisconsin at the St. Croix Flowage and runs 154 miles to the Mississippi River. It was one of the first two National Scenic Riverways designated by Congress in 1968 and is maintained by the National Park Service. We were coming up from Chicago to paddle the first 32 miles in three days, from the Gordon Dam to the town of Danbury, WI. It was no Herculean task but a good distance to paddle in kayaks. This stretch of the river is the least traveled and also has the most stretches of whitewater. Nothing too crazy, mostly Class II-III rapids depending on the rainfall. Nothing too technicalmost of the drops were stretched out over hundreds of yards. Some of these long gradient drops created eddies that stretched on forever, wave trains you could follow for what seemed like miles.

Our plan had been to get to the outfitters at about 3 p.m. It was now 6 p.m. My brother and I were slightly delayed in part because my dad needed our help getting a car started at our farm/base camp about 100 miles away. That’s a situation I would not suggest repeating: trying to start a “farm car” that has been sitting outside dormant all winter long, knowing every minute that passes is one less minute of sunlight you’ll have to travel. Suffice to say it was a bit stressful, but it was the last week in May so the sun wasn’t going down until 8 p.m. We had a few hours of daylight left. Neither of us was too concerned; we just wanted to get in the damn boats.

Our outfitter’s name was Jerry; an affable retired teacher who ran the business with one of his sons who was also a teacher. They ran boats on the St. Croix and Namekegon Rivers in the summer and we were their first clients of the year. Most folks would wait a few weeks until the weather warmed up, but we needed to do this stretch of the river early so the water levels were high enough.

I had debated whether or not I was going to need a wet suit to make the trip. The rapids didn’t sound too hairy but one ass-deep dip into 50-degree water is all you need. In retrospect it will go down as one of the best purchases I have ever made. Buy one. Now.

I mean it.

We changed into our suits in the back room of Jerry’s unfinished office. As we walked out Jerry cracked, “You plan on falling in the water?” Jerry was used to running canoe trips on the river, fishing trips with big coolers of beer and Coleman stoves. He usually didn’t shuttle kayakers, especially to the headwaters of the river, so he charged us accordingly. We signed the Jerry-is-not-responsible-if-we-die form and were on our way.

We put our boats onto the trailer and hopped in Jerry’s Samurai. (The Suzuki Samurai: Why won’t it go away?) We pulled into the gas station to fill up before we left town. As Jerry hopped out of the Samurai I noticed the 9mm sitting in the leather gun bag next to the parking brake. As we rolled through the glacial hills of northern Wisconsin Jerry talked of how he just came from a funeral of a very close family friend. It was a longtime friend of one of his sons, an Indian from the nearby reservation with whom he and his whole family were very close. He had watched this boy grow up alongside his son and had been on countless hunting and fishing trips with him. This boy that he watched grow into a man had committed suicide a few nights earlier. It was an Indian funeral, the first he had ever witnessed.

What do you say to a person when this is the first conversation you have ever had with them? I’m sorry? Everyone sat speechless in the Samurai and watched the forest go by. The sun was slowly sinking, turning the whole world golden. The countless rivers and lakes we passed exploded with beams of 24-carat light. I couldn’t wait to get in the boat, to get out in it.

Jerry went on to tell how he had spent some time in Chicago when he was a young man. He worked on building the expressways. A country boy looking for adventure. Why is it that whenever you hear these stories it always seems like these innocent country boys eventually find themselves in the worst parts of town? Don’t get me wrong, there are some really rough parts of Chicago but how do these country boys always find them? Are they thrill-seeking or trying to get a glimpse of something they can’t see up here?

Jerry also loved horses and worked for a while as a wrangler on treks out west. He told us about the last horse trek he was on few years back. It was organized by an area politician who pleaded with Jerry to come along even though it had been years since he had led a team of horses. A local man in his 80s was also part of the party traveling through the highlands of Montana. The old man was something of a legend who had worked in the northern Wisconsin office of the park service for the last 70 years. He had started working in the area when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the ‘30s surveying. He was celebrated for setting down most of the bronze coordinate markers in the area. Paddlers, fisherman, and hunters still used his markers to this day and they were rumored to be as accurate as any GPS.

Jerry was leading the trek along a trail on a high ridge. The old man’s horse got stuck in some mud and started to panic. The old man didn’t really know how to control the horse. He couldn’t calm the horse down as it tried to vault out of the mud and violently threw the old man around. All of this was taking place on this very high ridge and the horse could have thrown the old man over the side. Jerry acted quickly and got the reins of the frightened horse. As he held on to the head of the jerking horse he was surprised when he saw the expression on the old man’s face. He did not look afraid. He had a look of resignation on his face as if he was completely fine with going over the side of that ridge to his death. He seemed fine with it, figured it was good way for an outdoorsman to go out. It was obvious that Jerry had mortality was on his mind. We all did at that point.

It was going on 7 p.m. when we pulled up to the Gordon Dam at the St. Croix flowage. The sun was at the top of the trees and we had about an hour of daylight left. There’s always a sense of anxiety when you get dropped off in the middle of nowhere and somebody says, “See ya in a couple a days.” Even though I’ve done this several times in more remote places I always catch myself thinking, “I hope so.”

We took our gear out of the back of the Samurai and loaded up the boats. After we pulled everything out Jerry asked, “Is that all you have?” I couldn’t tell if that meant, “Where’s your cooler?” Or, “Where are your sleeping bags, you morons?” My brother and I had made a decision at the truck not to bring our sleeping bags. I’m not quite sure what we were thinking but what do you expect from two brothers on a camping trip?

“Are you bringing your sleeping bag?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“Well if you’re not gonna bring it…”

You can sense where this goes.

It was only supposed to get down into the 40s that night. We did have a tent and some fleece blankets. We weren’t complete morons, but we were concerned about over packing the boats since we really didn’t know what to expect from the river. You never really do until you get there. If the water was high a heavy boat would be harder to maneuver in the rapids. The rapids we had never seen. If the water was low a heavy boat would bottom out in the shallows, forcing us to get out and walk. Either way we were paddling 32 miles so the lighter the better. In retrospect I really regretted not taking that sleeping bag. Dumb.

We packed the boats and slid them down the muddy banks of the river. This was where we had our first contact with the water and fuck was it cold. Painfully cold water that caused my feet to ache after a few minutes. In those first few minutes I found myself looking all around, trying to take it all in. Processing what was similar and what was different from the river in my imagination, that river I knew so well. That river that I’d traveled down a hundred times in my cubicle. I had to let go of that river and experience the river that I was on. I had to accept that things on the map never look the same in person. Those things on the map were just an abstraction. A diversion.

After the first leisurely moments of taking it all in, it was time to get our asses moving. We had to paddle seven miles to get to the first designated campsite at the mouth of Buckley Creek. We agreed that we were going to try to make that site but that if it got too dark we would just bushwhack it and set up camp along the shore. Either way we were finally on the river. We were out there.

The problem was that “there” was becoming darker and darker. There still was more than enough light to paddle. The real problem was going to be finding the marker for the campsite in the dark, a wooden marker on a wooded shoreline. My brother and I were moving along at a pretty good pace. We paddled swiftly in silence, putting all of our energy into setting a fast pace. I can always depend on my brother to keep up the pace. I think it’s best to go on trips like this with somebody you don’t have to ask, “Are we going too fast?” or “Do you want to stop or keep going?” My brother I and have similar boundaries. He’ll always agree to go further for better or worse.

The river was about 50 feet wide when we started. As we moved away from the Gordon Dam the river gradually got thinner and thinner. The water quickened, moving us faster towards the first set of rapids at Scott Bridge about two miles in. Scott Bridge was one of only three bridges we went under in the entire 32-mile trip. Along with the handful of campsites they are the only manmade structures you will see on this stretch of the St. Croix. That’s why we were here, because nobody else was. It was late May and we had the river to ourselves.

The rapids were a little two-foot drop just past Scott Bridge. After the rapids the river slowed down and started to meander through a flat grassy plain. The grass growing on the sides thinned the channel down to only about 15 feet wide. The river snaked silently but powerfully through the tall grass. The surface of the water was black and still.

We passed several beaver lodges and dammed-up pools, but didn’t have time to investigate. Some clouds had rolled in and it began to rain off and on. We had been paddling for about an hour and a half and had traveled about 5 miles. If we could have seen the sun it would have been setting. All there was now was a steel gray sky. Luck for us it was still filled with ambient light. We had to keep moving. There was no way we could stop and spend the night here. There was no solid ground, just varying degrees of grass and water. We were still a few miles away from the campsite at Buckley Creek. The sun may have been down but the sky still had some light left in it. We decided to push on.

We were paddling now as fast as we could. We knew that once we saw the next set of rapids we would be only one mile away from the campsite. Now our attention turned to those rapids and running them in the dark. The Coppermine Rapids were created by the remnants of an old dam. I’m going to guess that it was used to mine copper. There were rumored to be large timbers mixed in with the rocks and the remains of the dam and these timbers were supposed to have big rusty spikes still in them. As with any rapid it’s always best to pull out and scout out the structure before you run it but there didn’t seem to be much of a point in scouting it out in the dark.

The rain stopped and the clouds busted up, giving us a little more light. That’s when we finally heard the Coppermine Rapids. The rapids ended up having a bigger roar and reputation than their bite. Even with the rain, they were Class II rapids. Maybe Class III after a big rain but at this point they were pretty tame. I had no complaints because there were no beams or rusty spikes to be seen. Once past the dam the river widened into a large gravel bed. The water was only about eight inches deep over the granite gravel, so we had to follow the paths of the deepest water so we didn’t bottom out. Kayaks are much more fun to paddle than to pull. We followed the deep water by trailing the movement in the water in the reflection of the night sky. As we moved through the shallow water I noticed some eddies that seemed to be moving upstream. These moving waters were large trout swimming against the current, their backs sticking out of the water. I regretted not bringing a fishing line.

The tough part now was finding the marker for the campsite in the dark. After a few phantom markers and a few tributary mouths that were mistaken for Buckley Creek, we spotted the marker for the campsite. We had been moving through leftover ambient sunlight for about an hour. We had traveled seven miles in about two hours, a 3.5 mph pace, which is cookin’ for a kayak. That’s the thing with paddling. If you keep your paddle out of the water and just float you can go 1 mph. If you paddle leisurely you can go 2 mph. If you kick it into high gear you can go 3, maybe 4 mph, but you really can’t go any faster than that. It’s still one guy with a paddle and a river.

We landed the boats and started quickly to make camp. I set up the tent while my brother made a fire. He could have the task of gathering fallen wood in the dark. I’ll put up the tent any day; at least you know where it is. With the tent up and the fire going we cooked up our favorite camping meal, which my brother and I have named “Bear Bait”. It is made of rice and beans mixed in with some stinky tuna or salmon. Yeah, I know. A bear will go after a pack of gum in your bag so the smoked fish really isn’t that much worse. We keep a clean site and hang all of our food, but the stinky fish always seems like we’re asking for late-night camp inspection. It had happened to us two years prior in the Apostle Islands but we couldn’t blame “the bait”.

After I we ate I went down to the river to get some water to wash the plates. We were on the east bank of the river facing west. When I went down I saw a blood-red band of light stretch across the western horizon. It’s amazing how long it takes the darkness to squeeze all of the sunlight out of the sky.

We had built up a good amount of internal heat paddling and the wet suits did a great job containing all of that. We were in our dry clothes but now were sedentary. The temperature was dropping quickly. It was going to be in the 40s that night and the water we had been sloshing around in all day was in the 60s. When we started to feel ourselves wind down we put the rest of the wood on the fire and busted out the flask of bourbon. Not too much but enough to warm up our insides. Starting to feel the aches of the day we watched the wood turn into bright pile of coals. We sat and stared at the dying fire in silence, occasionally looking up to take it all in and smile. I love to hear my own voice. My brother is much more introverted and quieter than I am. He has taught me to appreciate silence. It took me a while to figure out that just because he doesn’t feel like talking it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong. It means that everything is all right.

When the fire went out we crawled into the tent for a restless night of shivering.

Why the hell didn’t we bring those sleeping bags?

It began to rain…

To be continued in Part II: The Other Guy on the River

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.