Wow, what a week! My artist residency here on the St. Croix river began on Monday, but I moved in to the historic Dunn cabin Sunday night. Love happens fast. As Bill Holm put it once, “good thing arrive in your life sideways, always.” I’m smitten with the place, the pace, the pines, the St. Croix River, the serene nights, and the amazing morning light. As a night owl, my natural impulse is to work past midnight — while the real owls are out there hunting — but my terrific old cabin perches on the edge of the ledge, overlooking a quiet channel of the river. This means the screen porch faces due east, a full wall of light, starting at 5:30 am! Who needs a large screen computer? My circadian pendulum doesn’t know which way to swing. I’ve been rising very early. When I work late at my table on the screen porch, with a light overhead, I attract midges, gnats, mosquitoes and moths, drawn by the light, until their bodies cover my window. Good thing I’m not here to write a horror novel or it would be called THINGS FROM THE SLOUGH.
This week I’ve been paddling, sketching, keeping a weather log, and meeting the researchers at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, amazing and friendly folks. I’ve looked at the historic photo albums of the Dunn family, and I’ve been reading through several of the books and guidebooks in my cabin. I’ve paddled up to William O’Brien State Park, and walked down in to the village of Marine-on-St. Croix’s post office. I’ve sketched from the old Marine Landing, where the old ferry route is still visible. As William Least Heat-Moon suggested, in his book River-Horse, one can squint, looking up a river valley, and easily imagine that river in a time long before one existed, and long after…. the river “scours existence, pulls solidities loose…”
Yesterday, I spent a wild weather day in the river valley with Brenda, Byron and Brian, ecologists and researchers working for the National Park Service. Byron and Brian are based in St. Croix Falls, while Brenda works from the St. Croix Watershed Research Station and has a series of NPS research projects in waterways around the Great Lakes. We launched the NPS pontoon boat from Hudson, and took it downriver almost to Prescott. Our goals were two-fold: we stopped for water sampling and water quality observations at various levels and locations along the way (they are especially interested in nitrogen levels in Lake St. Croix), and Brenda and Byron suited up and went scuba diving at five or six locations, collecting zebra mussels. The zebra mussel invasion has really progressed to a point FAR beyond what I’d imagined: in some spots, underwater objects were completely covered with zebra mussels (they require a substrate to attach to, something like a stone, timber, pipe, dock, etc.) Alas, they also glop onto the shells of native river mussels, including endangered mussels, competing for nutrients, weighing down the mussels, and eventually killing them, if they keep them from opening and closing. Brenda admitted that she always tries to remove clinging zebras from the shells of native species, while she’s underwater. Between gathering zebra mussel specimens and sampling water, we kept a constant eye on the weather, as four different storms moved over or around us. Near the mouth of the Kinnickinnic, we were driven off the river altogether, quickly tying up at a public landing and running up to the very top of the river bluff, where Bryon knew there was a picnic shelter. Just in time!