The other day I launched a solo expedition to explore the very headwaters of the Saint Croix River. It was, I’m afraid, a far more modest endeavor than Orellana exploring the Amazon, Speke exploring the Nile, or even Schoolcraft exploring the Mississippi. All I did was have an extra pancake and an extra cup of coffee at breakfast, and then drive on up to Solon Springs, where I parked at the north end of Upper Saint Croix Lake. Then I started hiking.
A confession: Although I did hike in on a January morning when it was below zero, that’s actually because I’m a wimp. In the summer I’d risk becoming trapped in hip-deep mud while being attacked by bloodthirsty mosquitos. Plus, with no leaves on the alders, it was much easier to see what was going on out there.
Once I hiked down the trail for a hundred yards or so, the human footprints stopped. Given the timing of our recent snowfalls, it appeared that no one else had been wandering these headwaters for at least the past few weeks. Now it was feeling more like a real expedition. But not quite.
So here’s a brief geography lesson. (Don’t worry. Short version.) Near Solon Springs, Wisconsin, the Saint Croix River begins as a small creek flowing from a wetland area just north of Upper Saint Croix Lake. From this same wetland, another small stream flows northward toward Lake Superior. That trickle eventually becomes the Brule River, a world-famous destination for paddlers and anglers.
Imagine a single raindrop that falls precisely in the center of this headwaters area and strikes the edge of a certain alder leaf. After the raindrop splits in two, its northern half travels down the Brule and through all of the Great Lakes before eventually ending up in the Atlantic. Its southern half travels down the Saint Croix River and the Mississippi all the way to Gulf of Mexico. (In theory. In reality, of course, it’s one big sponge that leaks from both ends.)
I planned my “expedition” carefully. The North Country Hiking Trail crosses Saint Croix Creek a ways north of Upper Saint Croix Lake. That’s where I turned and headed upstream. The snow wasn’t very deep, and at first I made good progress by clawing my way through the spruce and cedars that lined the creek. But soon the alders became more and more impenetrable.
Eventually I reached a stretch where the Saint Croix River was less than a foot wide. Although I was still curious to see its very beginning, I knew that further progress would be difficult. So that’s where I decided to turn around. Sometimes you just have to respect your alders.
For more photos from my “expedition,” just scroll on down. For a short video, visit my wife’s YouTube channel at Jean Hedren, Your NW Wisconsin Realtor.