Friday, September 07, 2007

St. Croix River: From the headwaters in Solon Springs, WI to the Somerset Landing near Stillwater, MN

You know I’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I biked around the USA and canoed across the USA from one ocean to the other and have seen amazing scenery in all parts of our country. All of which has reinforced my belief that the part of the country I live in, Northeastern Wisconsin, takes a backseat to no-one. Along Lake Superior is the Superior Hiking Trail, rated the number two hiking trail in the USA by Backpacker Magazine. Not far away is the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and Isle Royale, a primitive wilderness island in Lake Superior. Plus I can look out our living room window across Lyman Lake and have as nice a sunset every evening as any I’ve experienced. If you love the outdoors, whether it’s hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing, golfing, birding - you name it - and have never been to our part of the country, I encourage you to do a little research and check us out. I think you’d enjoy it.

Just a few weeks ago I experienced another great outdoor resource we have, the St. Croix River. The St. Croix River starts in a watershed area near Solon Springs, WI, only 12 miles from our house. On the west side of the watershed/spring area St. Croix Lake is formed which becomes the headwaters for the St. Croix River. The river runs partly through northern Wisconsin and eventually becomes the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota until it reaches the Mississippi River south of St. Paul, MN. On the east side of the same watershed is formed the Brule River, another nationally famous river known for its trout and steelhead fishing.
Looking for something to do one day, I decided to paddle the St. Croix down to the Somerset Landing which is just west of where our oldest son Dean, wife Erin and their children Liv and Rory live. It was about 150 miles and figured I could do it four days, which as always turned out to be less: two and a half days.

What a great trip. I’ve heard it was a nice river to paddle but I did not expect it to be as great as it was.

Day One:
My wife LuAnn gave me a ride to Solon Springs where I would hook up my trailer and canoe to my bike with the plan to pedal down to Trego, Wisconsin some 25 miles away and enter the Namekagon River which joins the St. Croix near Danbury, WI. As I was assembling my trailer, Charlie Sanford came by. Charlie is a former student from way back in the early 70’s who along with his wife own the White Birch Supper Club just down the road here in Solon Springs. One of our favorite places to eat and well known for its great food. Also, Bob Smith and George Vandeberghe from the county highway department stopped to see what I was doing.

At the time I was fixing a flat tire on my bike and told the guys that the fine wire off truck radial tires was the biggest problem in getting flats. Also that it was tough to find the wires in my tires when repairing them. Bob had a good solution. He said if you take a woman’s nylon and run it around the inside of the tire it would snag on the wire and your problem is solved. I thought that was a great idea, but later as I was riding down the road I wondered how I’d explain having a woman’s nylon stocking in my pack when I got home! Decided not to try it.

Well, I finally got on the road around 10:30 a.m. and pedaled down to Minong , WI and decided rather than go to Trego I’d turn west on highway 77 and catch the Namekagon where it crossed the highway some 15 miles from Minong. This was only to find out the water was so low that I’d be doing more dragging than canoeing.

So, to make a long story short, that 30 mile bike portage on a hot, close to 100-degree day turned into a 64 mile bike portage to Danbury, WI where I entered the St. Croix at the Minnesota - Wisconsin border. I arrived at 5:00 in the afternoon and even though I was tired I still needed to paddle to a campsite. Of course I couldn’t take the first good site I came to - I had to paddle 15 miles until dark!

Fortunately it was a great campsite as I found to my surprise that all the camping sites along this river are great. Most with a picnic table, fire ring, toilet and many with a pump for fresh water which this one had. A long day but a good one. A tough bike ride, but well worth it when I got on the river. The river was beautiful as it wound its way through a beautiful forest with numerous whitetails drinking water along the banks, beaver and otter playing along the banks and every once in awhile a hawk or bald eagle would fly overhead.
Nice full moon this evening and I’m tired. Time for bed.

Day Two:
I wasn’t feeling that good last night. When I lay down in my tent my head started spinning and I felt weak all over. This morning I feel better, but still weak. Must have pushed a little bit too hard in the heat yesterday, plus I never drink enough water so probably got a little dehydrated. It’s going to be hot again today so I will try and drink more water and take a couple of breaks.
Beautiful morning, great sunrise and there is only a slight breeze so it should make for a good day of paddling if the heat doesn’t get me.

At about 9:00 a.m. I came to a rapids and low water area that stretches out over what seemed to be 10 miles. I was in and out of my canoe for the rest of the morning, dragging it over one sandbar after another. Time consuming but also sort of fun. I was told earlier that a couple of weeks ago a man who was quite large was floating down the river in a rubber raft when he punctured it in this area and was stranded. He wasn’t capable of hiking out of this remote area so as the story goes they airlifted him out by helicopter.

It took me until about noon to get to highway 70 and the Grantsburg, WI boat landing. Still weak and feeling the heat I decided to stop on the MN side of the river where there’s an interpreter center about the St. Croix River. ( I’d only made about 15 miles so for me to stop meant I needed to stop) I spent a good hour here which is probably the longest rest I’ve ever taken, but I feel a whole lot better. Hopefully the afternoon goes better. My plan for the day was to get as close to St. Croix Falls, WI today as I can. Which means I have over 30 miles to go today.

Well, the afternoon was better. Fewer sandbars to pull my canoe across and I even took another 45 minute rest at about 3:30. I did paddle until dark and got to a campsite about 6 miles from St. Croix Falls. I should have cell reception sometime in the morning and I plan on calling my son and some friends who live in Stillwater, MN tomorrow morning to see if they want to meet me for breakfast in St. Croix Falls. I have to portage around the hydro dam at St. Croix and it’s only 25 miles for them to come so I hope it works out.

Great day on a great river.

Day Three:
I started a little later this morning in order to get to St. Croix Falls at around 9:30 a.m. I was able to reach both Dean and our friends Ann & Merald Nesji and both said they’d meet me at the boat landing.

It worked out perfect. As I rounded my last corner I could see the hydro dam and on the left, the boat landing. Just walking down to it were Ann & Merald. Ann & Merald are a part of a group of friends Lu Ann I have that goes back to our high school and college days. We all try to get together as much as possible and for many years now have taken spring vacations together - sometimes with 10 or more couples.

As I got closer to the landing I saw Dean pull up with his son Rory Ryan. All four were standing on the dock which made for a great picture as I paddled in. Rory helped me put my trailer and bike together and even found a stowaway passenger I was carrying: a huge toad!
We went to the only restaurant in town and had a great breakfast. Ann & Merald told me they were heading out west to see their daughter in a couple of days and planned on taking the same road I took over the Rockies at Lolo Pass. It will be interesting if they thought the area was as nice as I did.

After breakfast I thanked Merald and Ann for coming and wished them safe travels. I made plans with Dean for picking me up later in the afternoon. I figured I had 25 plus miles to go and should be at the Somerset Landing in the early afternoon and shouldn’t be any later than 5:00 p.m. In any case I figured I’d have cell reception and would call when I got close.
I had about 3 miles to pedal to the St. Croix State Park where I would re-enter the river below the dam. I got to a little canoe landing and took apart my bike and trailer and loaded everything into my canoe and headed out - only to find out that in my haste I was not on the river but rather a pond with no outlet to the river!

So I did it all over again, put my trailer and bike back together and went the 200 yards to the river. Anyway, after wasting 45 minutes I was back on the river. The St. Croix Falls (WI side of the River) / Taylor Falls (MN side of River) is a neat State Park area. Here the river is lined with high granite bluffs which have been a big tourist attraction for years. I remember back in my youth coming here many times swimming and climbing around on these bluffs.

This is a big recreational part of the river and for the next 10 miles or so, all the way to the Osceola bridge and boat landing, I would meet a number of people canoeing and swimming along the shoreline. Once some young guys wanted to test this old guy in a race. They were over on my left and I pretended like I didn’t see them and would paddle right with them for awhile then go ahead and then drop back. Then when I figured they were getting tired I took off, all along pretending I didn’t see them. You know, every once in awhile I have to revert back to my childish ways!

The rest of the day was a very peaceful paddle. I arrived at the Somerset boat landing at about 4:30 in the afternoon only to notice my son’s car pulling away and right behind him it looked like his wife was following. Sure enough it was, but she happened to glance over and saw me and came back to the landing.

They were leaving because they could not get cell reception so they were going back up to the highway to see if I’d called. Dean did not realize that Erin had came back so when he got to the road he thought she’d made a wrong turn and spent the next hour looking for her. Once he’d come back to the landing, but did not come all the way down and did not see Erin’s car so he left. (Sounds like his dad, too much in a hurry!)

In the end we got everything packed up and old Grandpa had finished another trip and was ready to tell Liv and Rory some good tales about his travels!

NOTE: Paddling the St. Croix River was more than I expected it to be. For those of you interested in paddling or river floating, both the St. Croix and the Namegakon are two rivers you need to look at. I know I will be at it again, if not yearly. At this time of the year the water is low but still manageable. Spring would be a great time, although you most likely would be fighting mosquitoes at that time. I think I’d prefer the fall when the leaves are changing. Also, this is a very dry year for us so I think the water level is lower than usual. You can find very detailed information about the St. Croix River at:

Thursday, September 06, 2007


It’s been driving me nuts since I got home from Astoria, Oregon.

What has? The 300 miles I still needed to do in Montana from Fort Benton to the Fort Peck Lake Dam.

If you remember, because of high water in the Fort Benton area and then high winds on Fort Peck Lake I decided to skip this section with the idea of possibly doing it with friends this fall or next spring. Well, I could not get anyone to bite on the idea and I knew sitting around until next spring just was not in the cards.

I even took a side trip on the St. Croix River which starts only a few miles from our house and connects into the Mississippi river just south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I paddled as far Stillwater, Minnesota which is only a few miles from our son Dean’s home in Somerset, WI. It was a great trip and as pretty a paddle as I’ve done. However, it did little to ease my mind about not finishing my Atlantic to Pacific adventure.

So, last Sunday, August 26th I drove back to Fort Peck Lake, got a shuttle ride to Fort Benton and connected the last dots of my paddle and bike portage trip across the USA! I am now officially done!

The following is a summary of the five and half day adventure.

Yes, I know one of the reasons to skip this section last June and come back later to finish it was because I wanted to enjoy the 150 miles of the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River from Fort Benton to the Kipp Recreation area. I had plans of only doing 30 or so miles a day, stopping early and fishing along the way. Ended up doing it in 2 and a half days and my nice compact fishing gear, specially bought for this trip, still has not been used. I figured there’s no sense changing my tactics now so I just took off paddling from sun-up to sundown and beyond because of the beautiful full moon.

This area of Montana is called the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and covers 375,000 acres of public land. The Missouri River which flows through it is called the Missouri National Wild and Scenic River in this area. It’s a very popular paddle in the summer. I was told there could be over 1,000 canoeists every year. On my trip I met only two paddlers and that was at my first day’s campsite. Other than that I saw only one other group stopped at the Judith Landing Recreation Area which is at the half way point.

My first day I got a little late start, but still ended up doing 55.7 miles to Eagle Creek Recreation Area. Nice campsite with two very clean enclosed bathrooms and a number of fire rings spread out for over 300 yards along the north side of the river. It was easy to tell this is a very popular site where many canoeists could camp.

Today there was just one other canoe and I did not see it until I took a walk. Ron Berndt and Lance Sateren from Bismarck, ND had set up camp at the far east end of the Eagle Creek Recreation Area. Nice guys. Ron is an engineer for the B&N railroad (I believe that is correct) and Lance is a pharmacist. They plan to paddle to the halfway point, Judith Landing, over a three day period, which means they are doing it the right way: taking their time and smelling the roses along their way.

I really had an enjoyable evening. Both Ron and Lance have done a lot of the same things I have. Ron has biked across the USA and both have been up in the Boundary Water Canoe Wilderness which is one of my favorite areas.

The next morning I pushed off at around 6:30. Ron and Lance were down by the shore so I paddled over. We said our goodbyes with the hope that maybe someday we’d meet again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as it turned out Lance and Ron would be the only people I’d meet on this trip.

The next four and a half days were spent paddling from sun-up to well into the evening. I was on a mission to get this done and get across Fort Peck Lake while the weather was good.
This 150 miles of the Missouri Wild Scenic River is very nice, especially the first half from Fort Benton to Judith Landing. Lots of great camping in this area for both group and solo campers. From Judith Landing to Kipp Recreation area the camping sites left a lot to be desired although the scenery all along this stretch of the Missouri is beautiful. Hopefully my pictures do it some justice. I will say, if you are into this type of adventure it’s worth doing.

Well, in short I made it to Fort Peck Marina in a total of five and half days, getting almost across Fort Peck Lake without any trouble. Fort Peck Lake has been the demise of many a paddler over the years for the winds can come up at a moment’s notice and blow for days, leaving one stranded for days.

Fortunately for me I hit it right. When I got to the big part of the lake there was no absolutely no wind. The lake was like glass and I was able to get all the way to The Pines Recreational Area under perfect conditions. Although, on my radio every hour the weather guy would say, “The temperature is stuck at 98 degrees!” Anyway, I only had 14 to 15 miles to go on my last day and I was finished.

Problem was on my last day the winds came up and I needed to paddle across the widest part of the lake and the forecast called for wind advisories all day on Fort Peck Lake. So I had a choice to try and make it or hook up my canoe to my bike and pedal 30 miles around the lake on a very difficult gravel road. Although I did not like it, I decided to pedal. If it had not been for the incident on Lake Sakakawea I probably would have tried to paddle, but that incident was enough to convince me maybe I’m not as invincible as I once was. (Is there a country western song that goes something like that?)

So, I hooked up my canoe and started off and wouldn’t you know it, the wind stopped. I almost decided to put back into the water, which would have been a mistake, for it wasn’t long and the wind was howling again. As I pedaled thoughts came back of when I started this trip on the Potomac River. There I spent much of the time pedaling alongside the Potomac on the C & O Canal pathway. I thought, as much as I would have liked paddling to the marina, it seems fitting to end the way I started.

I arrived at the Marina just after noon. When I started last Sunday, Tara Waterson at the marina said I could park my car for a dollar a day. At the time she mentioned it probably would take two or more weeks. I told her I planned to be back in no more than seven days. She said, “Oh, you don’t plan on stopping to smell the roses!” Seems like I’ve heard that more than once before.

I told Tara that I was a little disappointed that I had to bike portage in rather than paddle. She said it was the right decision. She told me that normally there would be over 100 boats on the water and that she knew of only three and they are up against the earth dam protected from the wind. Plus, in all the years she’s been working at the marina she had never seen anyone pedal a canoe in. She took a picture of me and my rig and said it will be a topic of conversation for years to come.

With that I packed up my gear, put the canoe on top of the car and headed home. Just as I got into my car I noticed this note in a plastic bag under my windshield wiper blades. I got out, opened it up and it said, “Congratulations, Coach. Ryan would have been proud!” Signed Ron and Lance. Neat, for they had to drive some 100 miles out of their way to do that, plus do some research about Ryan. Thanks, Ron and Lance. It meant a lot. See you down the road someday.
As I’ve said many times, the people I’ve met really made this trip. Ron and Lance are quality as are so many others I’ve met since I’ve started these adventures. It’s hard to explain how much good I’ve received from so many. I just hope I have given a little back along the way.