Barking dogs from distant farmyards made for restless sleeping last night. Finally, shortly after midnight, the dogs apparently grew weary of their vocal communications as cold clear air descended upon the St. Croix River valley. At 4 a.m., I was startled from my sleep by the howling of nearby coyotes. This haunting intrusion of the foggy dawn stillness re-started the dog communiqués from last night. I dozed off for another hour until it was light enough to commence breaking camp in the cold morning fog.
I departed in moderate fog at 5:50 a.m. and descended in sight of the right descending bank. On my departure, I noticed a nearby campsite closer to the river that was more open and contained a picnic table. Apparently previous campers did not like the official Park Service campsite that was further inland and surrounded by trees and shrubbery which also offered better habitat for mosquitoes. Fortunately the strong winds last evening and cold 50-degree damp air this morning have kept these biting insects at bay.
A peculiar set small round rocky islands marked the former site of the old Nevers Dam in the upper portion of the pool formed by the more recent St. Croix Falls Dam. The human made archipelagos are artifacts of the original control structure that was used to regulate the flow of logs destined to downstream sawmills during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The operation of Nevers Dam created considerable controversy in its day as a result of its owners shutting off the flow of the river which would leave downstream areas nearly dry which greatly impeded navigation between Stillwater and St. Croix Falls. This problem continued with the construction and operation of the Minneapolis Electric Company's hydroelectric plant (NSP, now Xcel Energy) which was built 10 miles downstream in the early 1900s. This navigation problem was the focal point of the early St. Croix River Improvement Association, which had supported earlier plans to create a waterway between Lake Superior and the Mississippi via the Bois Brule and St. Croix Rivers. Flow regulation concerns at this dam continue to this day.
"In mid-1915 the association (St. Croix River Improvement Association) asked the Chief of Engineers (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to stop the illegal practice now in vogue at the power dam of shutting off the facility for many hours at at time… During this time, thousands of fish are stranded in little pools on sand bars and if there is any water in them it becomes so hot the fish are scalded and die by the thousands."
In the late 1960s, col. Richard J. Hesse proposed a 120-foot dam be constructed at the Nevers Dam site that would create a "114-mile lake and cover 75,000 acres of woodland". Col. Hesse believed this impoundment and others "would produce a wonderful opportunity for power boating and water skiing in that area comparable to those opportunities enjoyed by Texans, where certain rivers had been so dammed by the Corps." Fortunately, the inclusion of this portion of the St. Croix in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and substantial citizen opposition prevent this "improvement" to this waterway.
Several fishermen in boats glided across the calm waters in search of walleye and smallmouth bass as I descended the left bank towards St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. The river's shoreline is still largely undeveloped and covered by hardwoods and grass openings. The current velocity has slowed noticeably due to the approaching dam and has facilitated the development of phytoplankton and zooplankton, which add turbidity to the reddish-stained waters. Water clarity was lower than that observed upstream but light penetration was still sufficient to promote occasional submerged aquatic plant beds in shallower water along the banks.
At 10 a.m., I landed on the left bank at the National Park Service's Visitors Center's dock a few hundred feet above the large hydropower plant at St Croix Falls. A short circular walk from the river took me to the Visitor's Center located in the basement of the Park Service's St Croix offices. The Center provides an array of environmental and cultural resource information on the St Croix River. Two Park Service attendants greeted me as I entered the facility and asked if they could assist me finding anything. I explained my desire to portage the downstream dam and they quickly produced a map illustrating a portage route on the opposite bank through Taylors Falls, MN. I asked if was possible to make the carry on the Wisconsin side since I was already here and pre-trip discussion with other Park Service staff indicated a Wisconsin-side portage was possible. They offered no knowledge of this, thought it would be too difficult due to the steep banks and would still require portaging the dangerous rapids upstream of the Highway 8 bridge. Further, they again reaffirmed the "designated" route was on the Minnesota side. I left disappointed and headed across the channel to the take-out immediately upstream of the dam. Access to the "official" take-out on the right bank was difficult due to large boulders and logs. By carefully aligning the canoe along a dock-like log, I managed to unload the canoe onto Northern States Power Company property without getting my shoes wet. A quarter-mile walk down a gravel service road took me to a chain link fence and locked gate. I managed to find a well-worn fisherman's trail through the shrubbery on the right side, which led to a narrow gap in the fence.
Over the next two hours, I transferred packs and my canoe along a north-south one-mile long corridor through the eastern portion of Taylors Falls in 500-ft increments. This usually allowed me to be in sight of all gear during the carry and rests. The most difficult and embarrassing portion of the portage occurred while ferrying the equipment down the busy sidewalks of downtown Taylors Falls where many window-shopping vacationers blocked my passage like moving boulders in a narrow stream. At times I had to enter the street and face oncoming traffic in order to avoid the congestion on the sidewalks. Interestingly, not one person asked where I was coming from or going and generally provided skeptical smiles as I passed by.
"Be prepared to find canoeing a rough sport. There is plenty of hard work about it, a good deal of sunburn and blisters. You will be obliged to wear you old clothes and may not be overpleased to meet critical friends in the river towns you visit…"
At noon, I dropped off my load at the town's veteran memorial near the west end of the Highway 8 bridge and walked to a nearby bakery/café for muffins and milk. I had lunch outside at the store's street-side tables and watched a steady stream of traffic pass through town.
At 1 p.m., I re-launched my canoe into the St. Croix a few hundred yards south of Highway 8 at Minnesota DNR's river boat dock at Interstate Park. The St. Croix Dalles were full of visitors with hundreds of young rock climbers ascending and descending the towering reddish-brown basalt outcroppings on Minnesota's side of the river's gorge. High school aged male and female cliff divers were leaping into the deep black-colored water from rock perches 30 to 50 ft above the water surface on Wisconsin's shoreline. A paddelwheeler ferrying dozens of tourists was negotiating the strong turbulent current below the igneous palisades as I progressed upstream to view the base of Taylors Falls, the last rapids on the St. Croix. Strong eddies, swift current and extreme turbulence eventually halted my upstream ascent just below the Hwy 8 bridge. After fighting the river for several minutes at the base of the falls and taking the requisite photos of the rapids and gorge, I let the current swing the bow around and send me swiftly downstream.
I stopped at Wisconsin's Interstate Park on the left bank to use the restroom and obtain potable water for the next several days. Just as I was arriving, a 34-canoe flotilla full of grade school aged boys and girls was leaving the landing and heading to Osceola, Minnesota located several miles downstream. Most of these canoeists were quite proficient and were generally heading in the correct direction. However, a few canoes showed considerable difficulty overcoming the moderate headwinds and were heading upstream or swung in circles when tired of paddling. Adult leaders were quick to relieve the frustrated novice paddlers and tied a line to the bow of the wayward canoes and towed them downstream.
I reached Minnesota DNR's William O'Brien State Park at 5:30 p.m. Steep rocky banks prevented access to most of the park's eastern border with the St. Croix. I searched in vain for a campsite along the park's eastern shoreline but found none. I headed down a secondary channel along the right bank to reach the park's boat landing below Lake Alice, an isolated floodplain lake just north of Marine St. Croix, Minnesota. A campground was found northeast of the landing, but it was more than a quarter mile from my takeout. I returned to my canoe and headed down river into the cool, calm evening hoping to find an island campsite. Camping on islands is not permitted on this section of the St Croix but is allowed below the Apple River inflow. During my early evening descent, many springs were found to enter the river from the rock outcroppings or conglomerates along the wooded Minnesota bluff.
"At 9:45 we are four miles beyond our breakfast stop, or thirty-eight miles from the Mississippi; reached the junction of the Wabizipinikan emerging from the left bank, Wabizipin is a kind of fruit produced by a very prolific aquatic plant on the Mississippi. This fruit is very useful to the Indians who eat it and call it swan potato. Wabizipinak indicates the region where the fruit is to be found, hence Wabizipinakan Sibi, the river (Apple River)."
At 8 p.m., I secured a campsite on the northern end of a large island just upstream of the towering railroad bridge which spans the St. Croix River valley east of Arcola, Minnesota. The run down from William O'Brien was peaceful, although boaters seemed to ignore the slow-no-wake zones placed in this section of the river to reduce shoreline erosion. The Park Service's house boat converted patrol boat rested unoccupied on the left bank above Arocla. The vacant outpost was placed at this location to stop the spread of boat-clinging zebra mussels into the upstream reaches of the St. Croix. Who stops this exotic species migration upstream when the patrol has left for the evening?
Above St. Croix Falls - Remenants of the old Nevers Dam
Minnesota's Interstate Park at Taylors Falls
Zebra Mussel Patrol Boat near Arcola, Minnesota