I am getting too damn old not to have a proper toilet close by when I’ve got to get up in the middle of the night to pee. Last night I cursed silently when I saw that it was only 4 am; knowing I could not wait the extra hour for daylight. There had been three sounds in the night: the drone of mosquitoes, the almost constant splatter of rain, and the repeated short groan sounding call of something in the distance. I unzipped my sleeping bag and pulled on a t-shirt and fumbled with the zipper on the tent. I slipped in the mud and almost fell on my arse as I tried to rezip the closure. The inevitable cloud of mosquitoes descended upon me before I even had the chance to get a hold of myself. I reluctantly resigned myself to being eaten alive. An old man with bum prostate can only empty his bladder so fast. I swore then and there that this would be the last time I do anything as stupid as this.

The first day on the St. Croix began relatively benignly with the canoe launch under a small highway bridge. Eric gave me a 2 minute tutorial on canoe handling before turning it over to us. I should have been suspicious after he ended the lesson with a quiet, ‘you’ll learn’; which implied either a too wise Yoda view of the universe or an over assessment my non-existent boat handling skills. But either way, learn we did.

The river, or so I thought, started out a respectable 30 feet wide which seemed appropriate for what was the headwaters kind of area, or so I thought, of a river. After an hour of paddling the river expanded into something like a half mile wide and I thought, ‘that was quick’. We didn’t have a guidebook of the river (is there one?) nor did we have a proper published map. The only thing that we had was contained in the two pdf files that Sarah downloaded from the National Park Service website which showed general information with mile markers like landings, camp sites, portage points, and rapids. So we didn’t know until we got to the Gordon Dam that for the last 2 or 3 hours that we had been paddling across the rather immense St. Croix Flowage. We did a portage around the dam then quickly hit a set of rapids and we both did a collective, ‘oh shit’ as we realized that I should have asked Eric that very critical question of how do you keep the ass end of the boat straight while dodging rocks in a rapids. We got through that one by the skin of our teeth only to face yet another rapids, then another, then another. The boat handling skills weren’t happening very quickly for either one of us but thankfully Sarah eventually caught on.

We knew the river was running very high due to the rains; the National Park Service website said so. We also knew from the website that the NPS had recently closed a bunch of landings because of the high waters. Landings? – what were they; specifically what kind of infrastructure did they have? And what did closed mean; like as in how long? And my naivety assumed that high water was good because the boat would float over rocks and boulders and that high water meant that the resulting current would hasten our journey. (It turns out that I was wrong on both counts.) We were both a bit shocked at the frequency of the rapids. Our nascent boat handling skills were exacerbated by the misleading words from a guy at Marine General back in Duluth that the St. Croix was ‘a big gentle kitty’ with only a couple of easy portages and no rapids.

The ass end of our boat started to seriously come around on the second or third set of rapids, we banged up against a boulder that was until that very moment hidden and before I knew it I was tipped out of the boat and upside down in the water. I heard Sarah shout ‘grab the bag’! I blinked the water out of my eyes just in time to see the bag full of our electronics go floating by. My heart did a flip flop as I watched the bag with our phones, my netbook, backup hard drives, and other stuff drift 10 feet out in front of me. My data! I finally caught up to it and grabbed it and then I snagged the paddle drifting next to it. Sarah managed to grab the boat and together we swam the 30 yards to the Minnesota side of the river.

It was most fortuitous that the actual land where we drug up was at the first campsite (as shown on the NPS map) and in as much was elevated, manicured and included a gentle bank and wasn’t part of the greater wetland bog that made up most of the landscape. Moreover it was also most fortuitous that Sarah had properly tied off the garbage bag that held our electronics so that no water got in. As it turns out these were only the first of God’s many small miracles that were bestowed upon us as we made our way down the river.

We drug up the canoe just as the heavens opened up and it began to pour. I propped up the canoe off a stack of cut logs and we took shelter under it. Thunder and lightning rattled the skies as we crouched freezing cold and wet under the canoe. The storm finally abated after 40 minutes and we took the moment to erect the tent and put our stuff in before the next storm cell erupted more rain upon us. Needless to say that my confidence, boat handling and wilderness skills were at an all time low and I thought, ‘You just don’t look at a state map, see a river on it, then decide to canoe it.’ But that is exactly what I had done. Unfortunately my naïve enthusiasm had served to bind other innocent and gentle parties into what was starting out to be a survival scene straight out of ‘Deliverance’.

We waited in the tent for an hour watching the weather, watching the black sky turn gray before breaking up into individual clouds with a peek of blue before deciding to chance it and go on. It was 2:45 pm and it had been just an hour and 45 minutes since our mishap.

We paddled for two and a half more hours before calling it a day but not before when finally exhausted we blasted through a demonical white-capped rapids that twisted and turned and seemed to stretch out for city blocks; while blinded in a pouring rain before we could battle the canoe into another primitive camp. And thus ending Day One on the river.

It is both fair and necessary to say at this point that our journey by river wasn’t all scrabbling about trying to keep our craft afloat and pointed straight down the river. The river was beautiful. Trees came down to the water’s edge and there was numerous species of birds that were engaging to watch. We saw 3 bald eagles aloft on the St. Croix Flowage. There were kingfishers, swallows, great blue herons, and flycatchers to watch as we made our way down river. The most breathtaking event was shortly after leaving the Flowage there was an osprey who wheeled low to the water off our port bow a mere hundred feet away with a fish in its talons; meanwhile pursued by 2 much smaller birds as in the typical fate of other predatory birds.

Before Day Two was out we knew that we, or rather I, had bitten off way more than we could chew. We were making on average only 2-3 additional knots on a 1 knot current and both the landmark mile markers as well as the NPS map bore witness to the simple fact that Stillwater/Minneapolis were just too far away even if we had 5 or 6 more days to paddle and not 3. So the plan was to terminate at the St. CroixState Park on the morning of Day 4 and pull the canoe out of the water and by hook, nook or crook find our way the remaining miles overland to Stillwater/Minneapolis to return the canoe to Eric’s family.

Day 3 was a short 12 miles unlike the 25 miles we pulled on Day 2. We holed up at the last primitive campsite at mile marker 109 just a mile upstream from the St. Croix State Park. The wind was blowing fiercely from the north which made casting from the shore between two trees problematic. I had already managed to lose 2 lures on the previous day casting in similar circumstances. Fishing from the canoe hadn’t really been an option as I was too busy pulling an oar and keeping my eye on the horizon watching the weather to bother. I was casting a nice little Rapela swimming lure that I was only able to spot in the water when it began to breach as I reeled it in close. It seemed the water was either too black or too turbulent for the fish to bother with it. This was too bad as the river was reputed to hold some fine fish like everywhere from large northern pike down to smallmouth bass and the tasty little panfish called bluegills and sunfish; both of which were part of my earliest fishing memories which I remembered catching and having my grandmother fry up when I was a little boy.

I built a fire while Sarah prepped our only hot meal of the day. We managed to get the tinfoil wrapped package of sliced up yams, onions, beets, and onions on to the coals just seconds before the skies opened up and we had to take to the tent to wait out the rain. The rain was a brief furious lashing before subsiding a mere 15 minutes later. With it the wind dropped and the mosquitoes came out in such dense cloud that kept us in the tent except to snatch the package of food off the coals and then only once later to duck out long enough to pee.

We drank McAdams Canadian Whiskey mixed with river water that had been purified with germicidal tablets. Somehow the cheap whiskey worked well with the iodine flavor.

It rained all night but had subsided around 4 am when I went out to pee for the second time and expectedly the mosquitoes descended like a plague. Before loading the boat we both completely covered up the best we could including putting on the face nets for the first time that I bought earlier. We paddled the remaining mile to the St. Croix State Park only to find the same cloud of mosquitoes waiting for us when we landed. Thus began Day Four.

We pulled up the boat and seeing nothing but an asphalt road that wandered uphill we left the boat and scouted ahead to find the ranger station. The boat landing at the state park turned out to be a couple of hundred yards from the main lodge. We humped all our gear up in two loads before returning to carry up the canoe. We were grateful for the shelter of the lodge where we could finally get some relief from the mosquitoes.

It was 7:30 am and the park was just beginning to wake up. We took the first few minutes of our arrival to wash up a bit and brush our teeth. We sat at a table across from one another with the map out and began to assess our situation; we had literally a boat load of stuff, not to mention the boat itself and I had to find a way to get it and us the 70 or 80 remaining miles down to Minneapolis. Improvisation 101.

Without going into all of the unnecessary details, two and a half hours later I finally found a man with a pick-up truck who was willing to drive us and the stuff there for the very reasonable price of $200. A very kind mention here to the affable Devon who did us a great service, played classic rock the entire way and shouted ‘Hell Yes’! every few sentences to punctuate his point.

Another kind mention to the beautiful and radiant Willow Shields, the DNR person we chatted with while waiting for Devon to show up. Possessing a warm smile and boundless cheerful enthusiasm she was totally not the image you get when you first think of the DNR. The product of hippie parents she grew up in a DIY environment and was a food canner, deer hunter, and forager of the first order. Her father was an amateur archeologist so she possessed those skills as well in addition to a fine collection of local artifacts some dating back 3000 years to the copper age. You are an amazing woman Willow and I hope everyone loves and appreciates you as much as you deserve.

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