Folks who live near the St. Croix River like to brag that when their river flows into the Mississippi, it makes the Mississippi cleaner. The St. Croix runs 150 miles along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border before it joins the Mississippi near Hastings.
The condition of many waterways around the state has Minnesotans wringing their hands over pollution and blighted scenery. But for most of its length, the St. Croix is clean, quiet and is rich in spectacular views, wildlife and history. Yet Twin Cities commuters are pushing east in search of an improved quality of life. The St. Croix now winds through one of the fastest-growing parts of the state. Those who care about the river are trying to keep their good thing going.
Soderbeck Road runs a few miles west of Grantsburg, Wis. If you head toward the river off Soderbeck Road, you can get as far as Soderbeck Landing. And on some days, looking out over the water from Soderbeck Landing, you can find Bill Soderbeck.
"This would be about the same thing as it was back then. This landing exactly the same. Except the river's wider, it's shallower."
Bill Soderbeck was born on the Minnesota side of the river in 1915. When he was seven, his father started the Riverdale Ferry, right at this point where the Snake River joins the St. Croix from the west. For 50 cents, Bill or one of his 13 siblings could guide a Ford Model A on its way from Pine City to Grantsburg.
"A steel cable went across to keep it from going downriver. And it had big pulleys on there that the cable hooked into, and when you left the shore you angled the ferry so the water would push it across," Soderbeck recalls.
In 1945, when new bridges went up, the ferry shut down. It was one of the last on the St. Croix. Today, all traces of it are gone. So are the family sawmill, and any clues that this shoreline once teemed with cars and picnickers. Just an interpretive sign and a boat ramp.
This kind of "backward development" is in keeping with the overall goals of managing the St. Croix. In 1968, the St. Croix became one of the first eight rivers to receive the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Today, aside from a half-dozen cities and a few remaining landowners, the National Park Service controls a strip one-quarter mile wide on either side of the St. Croix and the Namekagon River, one of its main tributaries to the north.
Downstream from Soderbeck's Landing, Jerry Cummings and Jean Schaeppi of the Park Service show a visitor where a dozen cabins stood along the river just six years ago. Soon it will look like wilderness to a traveler in a passing canoe.
"You can see - once you get the houses out of there, the trees and the native brush start coming back immediately," says Cummings.
"People who grew up here, and then were denied the opportunity to continue to live here, they hurt," says Schaeppi. "We do get people who visit us who...were children along the river, and they talk about the good old days."
Many remaining cabin owners hold 25-year leases from the federal government. As these leases expire in the next few years, their cabins may also be turned back into forest and campsites.
But perhaps the greatest advantage the St. Croix has is that hundreds of miles of riverfront were never built up at all. Many acres wound up in public hands during the Great Depression, when the sandy soil proved poor for farming, and owners owed taxes they couldn't pay.
But the real windfall came later. Through the early 20th century Northern States Power, now Xcel Energy, bought river land in Minnesota and Wisconsin. NSP envisioned hydroelectric dams up and down the river. But nature and politics conspired against those plans.
A few dams were built, but NSP eventually sold 25,000 acres to the states and the National Park Service, after holding and hardly touching it for decades.
Few rivers have been given such a head start. But where the park land ends, the rest of the world begins. Dozens of cities, counties, and agencies from two states share responsibility for the St. Croix watershed.
One of these partners is Tom Delaney, county commissioner for Chisago County. He leads the way through a damp forest to a spot hanging over the river, south of Taylors Falls. He gets distracted once by a bald eagle, but starts again to describe the scene looking out toward Wisconsin.
"Right over here where you see the tower is Osceola, and there...are a couple of our honkers taking off. We have a lot of geese that nest in the spring," says Delaney. "It's very difficult to put into words. I think I'm fairly articulate, but the beauty of the St. Croix River is impossible to capture with words. You have to see it. It is situated in a valley - you've got deep cliffs on each side of the valley that in some areas are almost vertical."
Chisago county grew 35 percent between 1990 and 2000, as growth and housing prices pushed more people toward the St. Croix valley. Seventy percent of residents commute to the Twin Cities. Delaney says many new residents become passionate advocates for the river. But they also bring increasing demands for the comforts of urban life.
"About three years ago some guy called me and said, 'I'm one of your constituents and I'm from St. Paul, and I want to know, why don't you have metropolitan mosquito control? I'm getting tired of the mosquitos.' And I said, 'How long have you lived here, sir?' And he says, 'Oh, about four months.' And I said, 'We don't have metropolitan mosquito control, and as a result of that we still have birds and frogs and snakes, and all this beautiful wildlife that you moved up here to enjoy.'"
Chisago County established its own protected zone around the river. The whole eastern edge of the county, where Chisago meets the federal land, is buffered by a four-mile "scenic overlay." Delaney says fiercely guarding the river has protected the bluffs from power lines and cell phone towers that would interrupt the view.
Developers rushing to meet the demand for homes must clear new hurdles, as local laws spring up to protect the river. Bill Derrick has been building homes for 35 years in St. Croix County. He says one irritating regulation prohibits building where the grade is more than 20 percent. The idea is to halt runoff into the St. Croix River.
"It's wasting a certain amount of land," Derrick says "In North Hudson, we lost four beautiful lots because of the 20 percent slope."
Derrick says he remembers in the recent past, when it took 60 days to get a development approved. Now he expects to wait about a year.
The historic lift bridge at Stillwater is the best-known example of development needs butting up against the scenic riverway. Transportation officials say the numbers of commuters make a new bridge a must. The Park Service and others say the old bridge has scenic value, and a new one would damage the environment. The discussion is going nowhere fast.
Lovers of the St. Croix got some bad news last fall, when budget cuts forced the Wisconsin Legislature to drop funding for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission. It disbanded in November.
Biologists keep a wary eye on the river these days. It looks like efforts to contain one foreign invader, the zebra mussel, have been successful. But another one, Eurasian watermilfoil, may be moving in. Biologists aren't yet ready to administer the dose of poison it takes to beat it back.
The magic of the St. Croix is that bureaucracy and the battles over the ecosystem seem a million miles away just a little ways upstream, near Grantsburg, Wis., where outfitter Jerry Dorff is dusting off 100 canoes and kayaks for the summer.
For him, the river just keeps getting better. He can't wait to send a new batch of city-folk out onto the cleanest, most pristine water around.
"We have people inquiring about our business and our trips from all over the country, so I'm thinking that it should be another good year. The last three years have been banner years," says Dorff.
You get the same sanguine sense from Dorff's upstream neighbor, Bill Soderbeck. After 87 years by the river, he is as well-placed as anyone to say whether the St. Croix is in good shape.
Looking out where his ferry used to cut across the current, Soderbeck pronounces that things are "good. And it'll stay this way."