I am firmly of the opinion that hills are meant to be climbed. The pile of boulders on the edge of a lake and the tiny deer path winding up a wooded bluff call to me incessantly in voices that cannot be ignored. With a sigh, my husband sits down on a rock along the path and waits for me to return with tales of the amazing, or sometimes mediocre, view from the top. This time it was my son who sighed and told me, “No mom. You go to the top with Molly. I’ll wait down here for you.”
In the world of hills, it was a rather short one. It took me no more than a minute to climb to the top, as the dog led the way through dry, crackling leaves. At the peak, I paused a moment to catch my breath and then, I put a hand to my ear. I heard a sound rising up from the valley. It started in low. Then it started to grow. A tiny Who down in Whoville was singing a song and his little voice rose up through the trees. My son was literally singing the Who song, Welcome Christmas, as I (the Grinch) stood at the tip-top of Mt. Crumpit with my dog Max (aka. Molly). Needless to say, my heart grew three sizes that day.
Beautiful as the view from the top of the hill may be, valleys are where the magic really happens. It was down in the valley that we found a flowing stream, still filled with emerald green watercress in the middle of December. Walking across a floating boardwalk, we paused to watch three ducks playing in the open water of a still unfrozen wetland. Deep in the bottom of a ravine, we scaled down to touch the soft velvet of moss on rocks. Ice was frozen in the pockets of a granite slab, even as fresh water bubbled out of the hillside and through a culvert under the path.
At a recent gathering of St. Croix Valley artists and scientists, Jim Almendinger, a senior scientist with the St. Croix Watershed Research Station was asked what makes the St. Croix River such a unique place. “Part of it,” he said, “is that the river lies in such a deep gorge. That makes for scenic views from above, but also ensures that people on the river enjoy a greater degree of wilderness and solitude, protected from the insults of land use above.”
Speaking metaphorically, there is a real benefit in learning to recognize and enjoy the magic of a valley, even as you’re striving to reach the top of a hill. I think that the St. Croix Basin is fairly unique for the number of people and organizations working to protect and improve the river, as well as its lakes and streams, forests and prairies, and patchwork of unique communities. The goals are lofty, but attainable: a healthy river without harmful algae blooms; safe and clean groundwater for drinking, and enough for future generations; vibrant communities with small town charm; intact habitat for birds and wildlife; scenic views and hidden valleys to calm and recharge our souls.
The work to achieve these goals is rewarding in and of itself. There are annual canoe trips down the St. Croix, organized by the St. Croix River Association as a way for people to connect with and learn about the river. Construction of the new Brown’s Creek Trail, now a beacon for bikers and walkers, created the opportunity for the Brown’s Creek Watershed District to reduce stormwater runoff to the river and restore a highly impacted stretch of the stream. Local artists worked with youth and community partners to craft unique benches at natural and historic sites, local businesses, and parks along the St. Croix as a way to build community, bring new people to the region, and highlight hidden gems. Each new landowner who plants a tree, a raingarden, or a prairie breaths in the smell of damp earth and waits with anticipation for the magic to happen, marveling every year at the flowers in bloom and the birds that come to visit.
Standing high on a hill above the St. Croix River, whether a basalt cliff at Taylors Falls, the historic Boom Site north of Stillwater, or the lookout at Carpenter Nature Center, you can gaze out at the beauty of a Wild and Scenic River, flowing through our communities like a ribbon of blue. And, if you stand very still and cup your hand to your ear, you just might hear the song of the valley rising up through the trees.