Birds sing to river,
I finally stop talking,
And hear the song too.
Balancing in the water on one leg, I push off and climb into the kayak behind him. He is a bundle of movement and energy, never resting and never quiet. His child-sized paddle bumps mine on almost every stroke, splashing water into our laps. “Let’s stop there and explore!” “No, we just stopped ten minutes ago.” “Let’s stop there and explore!” “No, we just stopped eleven minutes ago.” Then, we round a bend into a backwater channel and suddenly he is calm. He tucks his oar into the nose of the kayak and leans back against my chest. A great blue heron flies up from the tall grass along the river’s edge, barely clearing our heads. “Is this an ancient place?” he asks dreamily, “Did people live here long ago?” I tell him about the American Indian tribes that still live near the St. Croix, and how they once moved from place to place with the changing seasons, catching fish from the river and harvesting wild rice in places where it grew. I tell him that the river is ephemeral – it existed before glaciers covered the land and it exists again today. Finally, I stop talking too and only birds’ sweet melodies dance in the summer air.
What does it mean to be a federally designated Wild and Scenic River? What does it mean to be a National Park? Certainly both titles come with a degree of authority and implied importance. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968, sought to protect “selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Our St. Croix River was one of only eight in the nation selected for this honor when the act was created (at first only the Upper St. Croix, north of Taylors Falls was designated, then the Lower St. Croix was added in 1972.) Now, the national system protects 12,709 miles of 208 rivers, which may sound like a lot, but is actually less than one-quarter of one percent of all rivers in the United States.
Our National Parks Service is celebrating a centennial anniversary this year – 100 years since the agency was created to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Yellowstone, the world and our nation’s oldest National Park was created even earlier in 1872. Today the system covers 84 million acres and 410 sites, including parks, monuments, preserves, recreation areas, and seashores. National Parks have been called America’s best idea and writer and historian Wallace Stegner said that, “they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” The five National Parks in Minnesota include the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Voyageurs National Park, Pipestone National Monument and Grand Portage National Monument.
But, what does it actually mean that the St. Croix is both a Wild and Scenic River and a National Park? Is it merely a bureaucratic designation for the government to manage? I think most people would agree that the river’s value is so much more than just words written on a piece of paper by congressmen long ago. The river brings life to fish and wildlife, fragile ecosystems, and local communities. Also, it is a place where we can leave behind the busyness of modern life and experience the song of nature. It’s a source of inspiration for poets and artists – a place where mysteries still exist. Thousands of years ago the St. Croix River flowed and thousands from now it will continue to flow. That it is designated as a Wild and Scenic River and National Park means that we have the privilege to visit and enjoy this ancient place while we are here.
Learn more about the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway at: www.nps.gov/sacn.
Learn more about protecting, restoring and celebrating the river at: www.stcroixriverassociation.org.