Sometimes it is easy to make assumptions, frequently incorrect, based on common knowledge and not first hand experience. It can be an eye-opening experience when you learn something new, that turns your previous assumption upside down. That happened to me recently with an updated geography lesson about the upper Midwest. Growing up in Iowa, the Mighty Mississippi, was the grand daddy of all rivers and forms the eastern Iowa border. Sure, I had heard of the St. Croix River, but just knew it was “up north” somewhere. I didn’t realize that a large portion of the Wisconsin and Minnesota borders are defined by the St. Croix River, which joins the Mississippi further south, almost to the Iowa border in Prescott, Wisconsin. So many “flatlanders” like myself, just make the assumption that it is mostly the Mississippi that carves out the pathways in the Midwest. Yes, this is true, but the St. Croix has an impressive presence north of the 45th degree latitude.
A visit to the National Park Service Visitor Center of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is a great way to learn how the St. Croix and the Namekagon rivers have had an incredible influence on this area of the upper Midwest. In addition to learning about the fascinating geologic and historical information of the area, one can also get information here on hiking, canoeing and fishing these beautiful waters. The rivers have provided commerce, recreation and also abundant resources to support a diversity of wildlife. The rivers of the St.Croix and Namekagon together make up 252 miles of protected waterway in the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.
The geologic history of the area began millions of years ago when the glaciers carved out the river valleys and rugged bluffs overlooking the flowing rivers. The first human inhabitants of the rivers were the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwe (Chippewa) that found this area to have plentiful resources for an abundant life. The next to explore this area were the French and later the English fur trappers. The logging industry in the area took the St. Croix river valley by storm and the pique of the logging industry was the 1890’s. Log jams in the river frequently occurred, not only hindering the progress of lumber to the mills, but also damaging the fragile ecosytems of the rivers. The life of the lumberjacks was challenging on the river, to say the least, and many lost their lives in this profession. They built small shanties that floated in the river to help carry supplies and were sometimes used to sleep in as they were “steering” the lumber downstream. The shanty was called a Wannigan as shown is this photo. The last major log drive was in 1914. It is interesting that in St. Croix Falls, WI. and Taylors Falls, MN. the lumber industry and the rich heritage of the river is still celebrated today with “Wannigan Days”. Now that is neat! I learned that new tidbit of trivia when moving to this area….I bet not that many people know what a Wannigan is, well know you know.
When at the Visitor’s Center, be sure to check out the 500 gallon freshwater aquarium. It is stocked with great examples of the kinds of fish that anglers in the area are fishing for. The displays are great in learning all about the wildlife and the plant life near the river. Be sure to take a few minutes (only about 20) to view the film about the rivers and how the National Park Service established protection of this waterway thru the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Visitor’s Center is also a great source of information for planning camping, canoeing and/or fishing trips. They can provide maps, educational materials and answer any questions about the area. The St.Croix River Visitor Center is easily found at 401 N. Hamilton Street, St. Croix Falls, Wi. It is just off the main road (87), 2 blocks north of the St. Croix Overlook Deck.
Put your traveling shoes on. JES