By Bruce Claflin, Scuttlebutt Magazine
A seemingly short 50 years ago, then President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which established a national system to protect our rivers and the land immediately adjacent to them. The Namekagon and the St. Croix rivers were among the first of 8 rivers to be brought under management by the National Park Service. As stated, the Act was created so that those beautiful and culturally rich rivers could 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.”
The legislation became law in large part as a result of the efforts of Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson as senators of Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively. It protects a total of 252 miles of river and adjacent shoreline of the Namekagon river in Wisconsin, and the St. Croix river along the Minnesota and Wisconsin borders. In 1972, 27 miles of the St. Croix river below Taylors Falls, MN was added to the park, and another 25 miles below that became state administered in 1976.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time on either of these rivers would have the ability to testify to their scenic beauty, but the richness of their cultural history is another story. History is rich on these waters as it has been called home by native peoples for thousands of years. There is a bison kill site in Washington County (MN) that is said to date back 4000 years, and archaeologists have studied an Oneota village they believe to be circa 1400 A.D.. Well documented in the last 300 years is the history of the Old Ojibwe highway that utilized the Namekagon, Brule and rivers as hunting, trade, travel (and battle) routes between Lake Superior and the St. Croix. Later, fur trappers, traders, and settlers used the same routes for many of the same activities.
Upper Lake St. Croix (Solon Springs,WI) is the source of the St. Croix river. From there it flows south about 15 miles through the St. Croix Flowage where it becomes significantly wider. The river continues on to a dam at Gordon, WI. where it turns southwest. This represents the headwaters of the St. Croix. From the dam in Gordon the river is subsequently joined by its tributaries the Namekagon, Kettle, Yellow, Sunrise, Snake, and Kinnickinnic rivers. Tributaries enter from east and west, all along the way to the mouth of the St. Croix in Prescott, WI. where it meets the Mississippi.
I spent much of my youth exploring these areas in Northern Wisconsin and lived only a handful of footsteps from the Old Ojibway highway there. Like me, many of us enjoy this beautiful river and spend as much time as we can either on or near it. It might become easy to forget that it is one of a handful of waterways in our country to be set aside with the National Park label. At the headwaters of the river there is a sign at the dam in Gordon that reads, ”Stand atop the dam and as you look over the edge, you are looking at the beginning of national recognition. The St. Croix River is protected as a national park and one of the first wild and scenic rivers in America”
Cherish your time on this beautiful piece of water, introduce your children to it, and take friends boating there. Protect it. Fifty years ago this summer, some folks who realized what an incredible and amazing piece of water it was fought to have it set aside for generations to come. We should all be thankful that they did. Enjoy it as you would a national park–after all, it is one.