St. Croix, Wisconsin, other rivers run through our celebrations
If I didn’t have my day job of being an academic, I’d want to work in a park, and the July 4 of July weekend always provides the chance to do that during one of Stevens Point’s best events.
It’s Riverfront Rendezvous time, our country’s birthday, and another opportunity to count our outdoor blessings. So this week’s column is about Boy Scouts and walking tacos, the BoDeans, water, art in the parks, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, ice cream, volunteer work and full-time employees, and other good American stuff.
The Milwaukee-based BoDeans, one of my longtime favorite bands, return to Point as Friday’s headliner at the Rendezvous, when I’ll be working with Boy Scout Troop 293 to sell walking tacos and other food items in Pfiffner Pioneer Park.
It’s a major fundraiser for the troop, allowing scouts to earn money toward their weeklong summer camp (which I hope to write about next month). I love working this event because I get to hear great music while helping the troop and, of course, our own family.
There’s nothing like our annual fireworks over the Wisconsin. Every year my family is awed by the fact that we can walk out our front door, amble down Clark Street for 15 minutes with our lawn chairs, and find a prime viewing and listening spot on the riverbank.
Friends and neighbors appear out of the dusk; we share a beer and a few laughs, and it’s another beautiful time in the City of Wonderful Water. Like the BoDeans sing: “Ain’t this what dreams are made of?”
Reflections on a state of water
When traveling through Wisconsin after spending the majority of my formative years and early career in Texas, I am constantly reminded of how fortunate our state is to have one or two or a half-dozen bodies of water as strong focal points of community life in virtually every town, village and city.
Other places have water, but not as much of it and not as accessible. Parks and walkways along the water can be developed, but maybe that’s the difference: special efforts are needed to highlight and reach the water in those places, whereas in Wisconsin, life and water always are just there, together, in a much more natural way.
Locally, we have the Wisconsin, the Plover, the Little Plover, McDill Pond, Lake Joanis and Springville Pond, and that’s just a start.
Water’s role in Wisconsin life is no more important, but it’s much more central, as an art exhibit I saw in St. Croix Falls reminded me.
I had gone there at the tail end of my recent Minnesota trip for some initial scouting of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, one of our three National Park Service units in Wisconsin (the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail being the others). The exhibit at the park’s visitor center, titled “Watershed: What We Need is Here,” was the clinching factor, as it would end in mid-June, and I wanted to see it.
The art resulted from a series of seminars related to water, but focused on what artists can do to effect change and increase understanding of sustainability. The effort explored everything from food to recreation, and there’s no doing it justice in a single column, but I saw some excellent ceramics, sculpture, textiles and multimedia work by regional artists examining the dual meanings of a watershed: an area drained by flowing water or a time when important change happens.
One of my favorites was dozens of photos of people active around water, doubled over into teardrop shapes and placed together concentrically to form a multidimensional spiral of color named “Reflections,” about how water brings family and friends together over the years.
As we come together on the river this weekend, that idea is worth remembering and celebrating. We’re fortunate to have our own Riverfront Arts Center in Pfiffner Pioneer Park, our recently expanded Stevens Point Sculpture Park in Zenoff, our outdoor concerts, and other art- and nature-centric offerings.
Center, city, rivers great to visit
The national riverway actually comprises two rivers – the St. Croix and the Namekagon – that run for more than 200 miles from near both Cable (at the head of the Namekagon) and Gordon (where the St. Croix River arises from its flowage). They merge about 80 river miles north of St. Croix Falls and run to the Mississippi at Prescott, across from Hastings, Minn.
There are 100 river miles to explore on the Namekagon proper and about 20 on the St. Croix before those two join and continue as the riverway’s namesake for the next 130 or so miles. The park is open year-round, although winter limits access to landings, trails and campsites.
Each river has its own visitor center, and each is open only for part of the year. That is from around mid-April through October in St. Croix Falls, which also serves as the park headquarters, and from the end of May through Labor Day for the Namekagon, whose center is located in Trego.
I only saw the former, an impressive structure undergoing an outdoor interpretive-area renovation to more accurately reflect native landscaping. Its river- and wildlife-related exhibits, gift shop and public-meeting areas are well planned and attractive, and the center offers numerous activities during the primary seasons, such as guided water tours, Sunday morning “coffee walks” with rangers and a variety of others.
Center staff will return calls year-round, so it doesn’t have to be open for visitors to get information, and the riverway’s website is the best place to start planning a visit (www.nps.gov/sacn).
There are myriad state, county and city parks, state forests and natural areas, and other designated recreation spots along the riverway, including Minnesota and Wisconsin Interstate State Parks. Wisconsin state parks on or very near the riverway include Kinnickinnic and Willow River, while Minnesota features Wild River, St. Croix, William O’Brien and Afton State Parks.
Because my visit was really only a pass-through, I spent time only in the center itself and the area immediately nearest it, including St. Croix Falls’ Gaylord Nelson Riverwalk area above the now-impounded series of cascades that make up the town’s “falls.”
Having exited I-94 East on the Minnesota side to drive up the beautiful St. Croix Trail, which runs through the very busy tourist town of Stillwater, I was happy to pass about an hour walking around St. Croix Falls’ much more peaceful downtown area.
While there were a few places open to eat, including a very tempting ice-cream and sweet shop, as well as a number of stores ranging from clothing to antiques, St. Croix Falls could rightfully be termed “sleepy” in comparison to Stillwater, which was bustling to the point of my inability to take much in from the car because of the heavy foot and vehicle traffic.
Both have their charms, as do other towns I’ve passed through along the St. Croix. There’s definitely no shortage of both civilized and more rustic activities along the riverway, and I hope for a return relatively soon to the Wisconsin side of Interstate State Park and to more fully explore the “City of Trails,” as St. Croix Falls bills itself.
With more than 200 river miles to explore, more isolated areas of the riverway itself are also on the to-do list.
Like so many of our recreational offerings, the riverway is the perfect example of government employees, local volunteers, businesses and agencies at all levels from federal to local – among others – who work together to provide wonderful things that benefit everybody.
Here’s hoping that on our country’s birthday weekend, we remember those things that make America a great place, like our National Park System, as well as Wisconsin’s own role in helping keep it that way.