August 7, 2005—Once, when driving back from Ely, Minnesota, the road crossed over a narrow twisting river set close with pine. I want to go there! I thought as we flashed over the small bridge.
“There” turned out to be the St. Louis River, a wild coniferous lined stream that has its headwaters in Seven Beaver Lake in northern Minnesota. The river was named for Louis IX, (king of France when the area was explored), and this 160 mile ribbon of water flows slowly, then suddenly swiftly in the last ten miles, into Lake Superior. I read that impoundments and pollution plague the lower section but the upper reaches are said to be gorgeous—so off we set to find out.
Our traveling day turned sweltering by 11am. Sun pounded down and the still summer air did not even stir the roadside dandelion puffs ready to set sail. The map showed that the take-out was off a small road that ended at a lake. Experience has shown that this might make finding a ride to our stashed canoe difficult.As a back up
measure we had stowed Ian’s bike in the car if this proved true.
Well, you guessed it. Despite our paddles and our sign, the first car whizzed by us. After half an hour’s wait (and only three cars later), we considered driving back to the city. After an hour in the heat Ian decided to drive me up to our canoe hidden at the put in, come back, hop his bike, and peddle the seven miles of sweltering road to join me.
And that’s how I found myself studying The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry in the shade while Ian did the work! But even he agreed that the river proved to be worth the sweat. The water was late-summer low, tannic brown, and running clear and lazy. The views reminded us both of the tree-lined lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area just north of us, except this was a river version.
Both of us were weary from a hard working summer—I was nearing the end of a new book, A Birthday Cake Is No Ordinary Cake, and my eyes were tired from cutting and gluing hundreds of tiny dashes out of paper. Ian had been busy sanding and finishing wood for his show in San Francisco and maybe it was because of all this inside, focused work that the river seemed particularly
beautiful. Once we rounded a bend and there, in the distance, sat the most perfect tiny, grass green, luminous mound-of-an-island I have ever seen. I took a dozen pictures of it as it grew larger upon our approach. The still water offered a perfectly green reflection of the perfect island, like something from a perfect dream.
A riffled falling spot brought a little white water, a circling bald eagle, and a picnic spot. The quiet, the food, the rest, and the glowing island flowed around us like a blessing, a summer blessing, punctuated by the eagle, who accompanied us for hours, all the way into the dusk.