Three kayakers drifted past as my son and I strapped the last of our gear to the top of my paddleboard, which rested in eager anticipation along the shore of the St. Croix River. As it turned out, those would be the last people we saw until we reached the edge of William O’Brien State Park seven hours later.
Like any good wilderness adventure, our day featured a stimulating mix of peaceful solitude, surprising discoveries, playful rest time, and harrowing travel. After setting sail, we quickly paddled across the main channel and into a labyrinth of backwater passages that snaked through the floodplain forest. There, the water was shallow and clear. Balancing mother, son and dog, we maneuvered around sandbars and snags, over submerged logs, and through a series of quiet waterways, each one indecipherable from the next.
Though the air was warm, the water was still cold enough to make us glad for our wetsuits, especially when the dog unexpectedly leapt off to explore an island, flipping paddleboard and passengers in the process. We saw a swimming snake, three jumping fish, two sandhill cranes, and a white-tailed deer. We were also trapped in a literal quagmire that forced us to dismount and wade through knee-deep muck until we reached solid ground and could tromp over “land” (soggy, soggy land) until we found deeper water again. At the end of the day, we returned home victorious, with two people, three shoes, one very muddy dog, and an epic adventure to share.
The St. Croix River has been a federally designated Wild and Scenic River since 1968 and contains an abundance of natural treasures. It is home to 40 species of mussels, five of which are on the endangered species list, 111 species of fish, and 320 species of birds, 60 of which are species of greatest conservation need. Though it is close to the Twin Cities metro area, development restrictions ensure that river-users can enjoy a day on the water without houses or roads in sight, and often without the modern convenience and distraction of cell and internet service as well.
In addition to the river itself, there are dozens of other locations within the St. Croix Valley that offer a wilderness-like experience within an hour’s drive of home. Washington County is home to five Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) and there are several more in neighboring Chisago and Dakota Counties. SNAs protect natural features of exceptional scientific or educational value including populations of rare species, native plant communities, and unique geological features. Most have no trails or buildings and allow only passive recreation such as hiking, photography, and nature study. As a result, visitors can enjoy solitude and crowd-free natural splendor.
On the Wisconsin side of the river, there are dozens of lesser-known tracts of public land held as state wildlife management areas or established by community land conservancies. Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy, located just south of Osceola, is one of my favorite destinations for a hike in the prairie on a summer’s day.
Over the past two years, 15 local government partners in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Pine and Washington Counties have developed a shared 10-year plan to protect and improve natural resources in the Lower St. Croix Basin. Proposed activities include hiring staff or contractors to provide direct assistance to local farmers; expanding an existing water education program in Washington County to serve Chisago, Isanti, Anoka and Pine Counties; creating or restoring 1000 acres of wetlands in high priority locations; protecting 1000 acres of critical habitat in high priority areas; and using diagnostic monitoring, computer modeling, field investigations, and cost benefit analyses to identify the best value restoration projects to pursue in future years.
To learn more about the St. Croix River and download maps for an adventure of your own, go to www.nps.gov/sacn. In addition, the St. Croix River Association offers a wealth of opportunities to explore, enjoy and protect the riverway: www.stcroixriverassociation.org.
The Lower St. Croix “One Watershed, One Plan” draft plan is currently available for public review until June 3, 2020. Submit comments online at www.lsc1w1p.org.