In the in between

We’re in the season of in between, both literally and metaphorically. The leaves have fallen but the snow has not. A crisp layer of ice coats the corners of the lakes and rivers, not yet thick enough to support our weight, but cold and sharp enough to keep us from impulsively leaping in for one last swim. In the larger world around us, transitions are underway as well – a new presidency coming and vaccines on the horizon, though still achingly far away.

In previous years, this season has sometimes slipped by nearly unnoticed, amidst a flurry of family meals, holiday parties, frantic shopping, and bustling streets. This year the in between is longer and so quiet that it sometimes hurts your ears.

The in between time of year is sometimes bleak but can also project a soft beauty.

Over the weekend, my son and I took the dog for a hike along the river at William O’Brien State Park. Located just north of Marine on St. Croix, the park has 1,653 acres of pine forest, seepage swamp, and upland prairie along the St. Croix River. It is the end-point of our paddle-boarding trips during the summer, and one of our favorite places for cross-country skiing in the winter. This, however, is the season of in between.

Luckily for us, the St. Croix contains both beauty and hidden surprises in every month of the year. After scrambling down to a sandy beach along the river, we found shards of ice piled along the shore and a coat of glass upon the water. With a smile, I grabbed a triangle of ice and flung it onto the river. Shatter, tinkle, smash! It was like dropping a pane of glass onto the ground, without the guilt or arduous clean-up afterwards. Then, we were both nine years old, picking up pane after pane and flinging them onto the river with manic glee.

Like the seasons, the world around us, and the river itself, the people who work to protect and restore the St. Croix River watershed have entered an in between as well. A little over two years ago, fifteen local government partners in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Pine and Washington Counties began working to create a 10-year management plan for the river and its watershed. On October 28, the finished plan was officially approved by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, with $1.2 million earmarked to support projects and programs outlined in the plan, beginning in April of next year. In the in between, partners sign contracts, draft budgets, and wait.

Like the seasons that change from fall into winter, year after year, the coming transition is just one of many that the St. Croix River has experienced over time. 500 million years ago, it was an ocean; 14,000 years ago, a rivulet of melting ice from a vanishing glacier. Three hundred years ago, it was a natural oasis that fed and nurtured the people and wildlife of the region; 150 years later, a highway for timber and the industrious dreams of men. In 1968, the St. Croix was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. In 2008 and 2009, Minnesota and then Wisconsin declared Lake St. Croix (the section of the river that runs from Stillwater to Prescott) impaired due to excess phosphorus. This year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency extended the impairment designation north to Taylors Falls.

The St. Croix River is a National Wild and Scenic River but has also suffered the effects of farming and development within the watershed. State and local partners have been working together for nearly two decades to reduce phosphorus levels and protect the river from further damage.

As in any transition, change is already underway, even when it feels like nothing is happening. Small cities along the St. Croix River have re-designed their roads to shed less stormwater. Afton replaced failing septic systems with a more effective community wastewater treatment structure. Stillwater has built hundreds of curbside raingardens, and Marine on St. Croix is working with Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District to complete a dramatic retrofit of downtown roads to better protect the river. Local farmers are beginning to use cover crops to protect their soil from erosion during the winter, and families are planting prairies and trees. This is a time of in between, but it is not a time of nothing.

After an hour in the pines at William O’Brien, my son and I turned to head back to our car. Along the way, we stopped by a giant boulder that was swept in by glaciers, 14,000 years ago. Its surface is worn smooth by the many hands and feet that have grabbed the rock and scrambled to the top, yelling “Mommy, look at me!” Smooth like a slide, we climbed up as well and slid down the boulder at least a dozen times. Once again, we were both nine.

In the time of in between, look for the simple pleasures in life – a quiet morning with a good book, ice that shatters like glass, or a boulder by the river that is smooth as a slide. The magic is still happening, just a little bit more quietly.

Visiting William O’Brien State Park: The park is located off of Hwy 95, 13 miles north of Stillwater. A vehicle permit is required ($7/day or $35/year), as well as a ski pass to use groomed trails in the winter ($10/day or $25/year). There are 12-miles of groomed trails in the winter and a 1.5-mile snowshoe and winter hiking trail along the river.