Gypsies on the St. Croix

It was approaching midnight last Thursday as I finished strapping my very large canoe to my very small car and glanced at my weekend packing list one last time. Canoe, paddles and lifejackets? Check. Sleeping bag, propane and s’more fixin’s? Check. Flowing scarves, bangles and ruffled skirt? Got ‘em. A gypsy always travels in style, especially when she’s camping.

By one o’clock the next day, we were gathered in a Maplewood front yard, surveying the expanse of camping paraphernalia strewn across the lawn and trying to figure out how to stuff it all into four dry bags. A passing car slowed to a crawl, then returned from the opposite direction only minutes later. Neighborhood children hovered, looking perplexed. “Where are you going?” asked the girl next door. “Camping on the river,” we replied. “Want to know why we’re dressed like this?”

Girls weekend camping has become an annual tradition for me and my friends, and each year we choose a new destination and a new theme for travel. One year, we stormed the north woods as lumberjills. Another, we brandished pirate flags as we paddled across Lake Winnibigoshish. This year, there would be gypsies on the St. Croix.

We set up camp at Sandrock Cliffs, a rustic National Park Service campsite near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. The beauty and solitude of the location was marred somewhat by the ravenous mosquitoes and the drunken hoodlums that arrived at the only other campsite later than evening. By late Saturday morning, however, those hung-over young bucks trudged back to their cars, leaving only the mosquitoes and us to fight for the territory. With a twinkle in our eyes, we donned our gypsy garb and headed up the road to Norway Point landing.

The upper St. Croix River is often too shallow for canoeing in late August, but this year consistent rains throughout the summer have kept the water flowing. It took us little more than five hours to paddle from Norway Point back to our campsite, including a long and leisurely lunch break at the Nelson’s Landing picnic area. We navigated several stretches of rapids along the way, which I had read about on the Park Service website but forgot to mention to my fellow gypsies. Mild panic ensued, but we negotiated the whitewater successfully, without losing a single bracelet or charm. During our canoe trip, we saw soft shell and painted turtles on rocks, an eastern hognose snake crossing the river and a merganser that ran on top of the water like a cartoon character. We basked in the sun of a cloudless sky and watched bald eagles soaring in the wind. We saw only two other boats on the river and not a building, house or road in sight.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968, has preserved the natural beauty of the upper St. Croix River for us and our children, our grandchildren and theirs. Restrictions have ensured that the river’s banks still run wild, providing a visual screen from the outside world and a home for countless species of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. In the cool waters of the St. Croix, fish spawn and flourish and endangered mussels perform mysterious dances. Because boaters are not allowed to travel upriver from below the Stillwater High Bridge, invasive zebra mussels have been kept at bay. The river corridor is a slice of wilderness, less than an hour from the Twin Cities metro.

If you would like your own St. Croix adventure, be sure to visit the National Park Service website for camping information, maps, and descriptions of the different river sections. You can bring your own boat or rent one from an outfitter. There are also several Minnesota and Wisconsin State Parks along the river, with campgrounds, hiking trails and other opportunities for enjoying the St. Croix on dry land. Whichever way you decide to visit, be sure to bring a camera, and if you have a colorful headscarf, you may as well pack that too.