Meandering in the woods

Last weekend, I sat on the swing in my backyard and read a book for five hours. That might not sound like a newsworthy event, but for me, it was nothing short of incredible. I sometimes feel like I’ve been running a race for 40 years. There are sporting events – my own and my son’s – parties with friends, volunteer activities, work in the day, work in the evening, work on the weekends, vacations to far-flung locations – the list goes on. As hard as I try to pare down my schedule, it always seems to fill back up like a leaky canoe with a hole in the bottom.

Fifteen years ago, while in graduate school, I spent a summer in Costa Rica. I arrived ready for high adventure with a clear vision of how I would spend my time, chasing monkeys down rainforest trails by day and partying in tree-house cabins with other travelers at night. Then I arrived and realized that nothing ever happens in a rural town on the edge of a rainforest, especially during the rainy season. At first I was disappointed, but eventually, I realized how beautiful it was to lie in a hammock, watch the rain fall down, and do absolutely nothing all day.

Nothing ever happens in rural Costa Rica, and usually that’s just fine.

Last week, my son and I took an afternoon trip to Afton State Park in the middle of the week. On our way down to the river, we stopped to dip our toes in Trout Brook and let the dogs cool off. The stream originates east of Manning Ave. and passes through rolling farmland and the Afton Alps ski area before winding its way through Afton State Park and down to the St. Croix River. Though small, it sustains native brook trout, turtles and frogs, migratory birds, and even fox and badgers.

Join me for an afternoon at Afton State Park. Dip your toes in Trout Brook and relax by the St. Croix River. How many tadpoles will we find?

Over the years, people ditched many stretches of Trout Brook to make way for parking lots, roads, and straight farm rows. Where the stream was straight, the water flowed fast, carving soil out of the streambanks and washing sediment downstream to the river. Last fall, South Washington Watershed District worked with Great River Greening and Vail Resorts to complete a large-scale restoration project that re-routed Trout Brook from an artificial channel back to its natural, meandering course as it passes through the Afton Alps property. The goal was to slow the water down, reduce erosion, and improve habitat for fish and other aquatic life. The project received funding support from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund and Outdoor Heritage Fund.

There is an art to meandering in the woods. For Trout Brook and other naturalized streams, the “wiggles” allow for different types of habitat that fish need: deep pools with slow-moving water; shallow riffles with fast, turbulent water running over rocks; and runs with deep, fast water and little or no turbulence. This gives trout and other native fish like sculpin, white suckers, creek chubs, brook sticklebacks, and pearl dace places to feed, overwinter, migrate, and lay eggs.

Sometimes people need a pause to wander in the woods as well. When our feet slow, our eyes and ears perk up. We hear bird songs that were always being sung and notice flowers in the woods that have always been blooming.

Wild geranium

When my son and I finally made it down to the St. Croix, we waded across a small channel and strung a hammock between two trees on a sandy island between the river and a backwater swamp. He swam. I read. An eagle flew overhead with a giant fish in its talons. Ten thousand tadpoles swirled through the clear brown water. The sun shone, the breeze stirred, and nothing else happened. It was absolutely beautiful.