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The River

August 25, 2014

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There it is… the St. Croix River where I spent many happy summers as a child… snaking south 164 miles from northern Wisconsin – a good bit of it as the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin – until it finally joins the Mississippi. I remember chanting “M-iss-iss-ipp-i” as we rolled along in a 1954 Ford Station Wagon bound for tiny Marine-on-St-Croix and a day of canoeing.

 We would spend the whole day on the river. We’d stop at an island or sandbar for lunch. I can see us kids now…sitting on the river bank eating egg salad sandwiches. We would dig our toes into the warm, weedy water, watching green clumps of weeds and grass float lazily past….

I haven’t been back in a long time. But the river looks the same….

The day is overcast and muggy and the mosquitoes are out. Water laps at the shore as kingfishers dip and swoop, looking for a meal. A creek burbles, unseen, down the hill, hidden under a tangle of grasses and trailing vines. Patches of duckweed dot the still pools along the shore. There is a unique smell that lurks in the still places of Minnesota lakes and rivers which I’ve never found anywhere else. I gaze out into the current… it looks like there are some fish out there…. My nephew, Alex, caught a good sized bass the other day.  

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In 1890 over 850 million board feet of timber floated down this river from the vast pine forests of the St. Croix Valley. The days of logjams miles long and nine feet high are long gone,  but the water is still brown…  presumably from the tannic acid in the wood pieces still floating near the shore.

 A little more than a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather bought a cabin in Marine on the river, built of red oak logs felled right there on the banks. My brother and his family still live in that cabin (significantly remodeled) today.

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In a tiny museum housed in an old bank vault in nearby Stillwater, Minnesota, there is an exhibit on old Marine – pictures of the men who settled it and examples of the tools they used hanging on the wall. But they were not only lumberjacks and barons; there were farmers from Sweden and Finland who built sturdy little cabins and raised large families within those neatly dove-tailed logs.

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This week Marine-on-St- Croix, one of the oldest towns in Minnesota, celebrated it’s 175th anniversary. The day featured a town picture, egg and gunny sack races, a picnic, and entertainment by local musicians.

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This river and this town are examples of those special places; places which have been preserved by people who understood their value – and were willing to fight for them.  Let us hope that our children and grandchildren will continue to preserve the heritage of all such places.

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