Field Notes
Field Notes

River people: The St. Croix's human side

Monday, December 19, 2016
Posted by
Greg Seitz

It can take a whole lifetime to get to know a river. The St. Croix is no different – from its wild headwaters in northern Wisconsin to the broad reaches below Stillwater – except it’s probably not even possible to become acquainted with its full personality in the course of an average lifespan.

The river has its own parallels to the people who love it. In fact, if the river is defined by its water (and it’s much more than that), the average life of the river is about the same as a human’s.

In work studying Valley Creek, a spring-fed St. Croix tributary in Afton, Minn., research station senior scientist Jim Almendinger has learned a lot about how water moves from rain to the river.

One of his findings was about how long it takes for a drop of rainwater to reach the mouth of the St. Croix at Prescott. Ask anybody how long they think it would take, and you’ll get guesses from one week to one millennium. In fact, there is truth in these guesses: some water in the St. Croix fell a week ago, and some may have come from glacial meltwaters 10,000 years ago.  

However, Almendinger found that on average it takes 50-100 years, about the same as a human lifespan.

“No matter what your age, there is a parcel of water passing by Prescott at this moment that fell as rain or snow within a few days of your birth,” Almendinger says. “Every day of your life, a little water the same age as you passes by Prescott.”

That also means some rain or snow has fallen recently that will not complete its journey through the St. Croix until after you are gone. What we do now has long-lasting effects on future generations.

This concept came up at an event this fall that featured Research Station scientists, a former Pine Needles artist-in-residence, and the premiere of a new piece of music dedicated to the St. Croix River. This “River Salon,” organized by Karen Hannah and hosted by Jay and Gail Lund in Hudson, sought to connect human experience and scientific knowledge in fostering a greater sense of stewardship for the river.

“Those attending took time to deepen an emotional and intellectual attachment to this very special river in our very special valley,” Hannah says. “By being together we mutually concluded that we shared some responsibility for the care and the life of the river going forward.”

Speaking to the assembled St. Croix lovers, Almendinger shared the finding about the time of a drop of water’s travels, and other interesting human dimensions of this natural system.

When Almendinger passed out an odd assortment of objects to the crowd, it was anybody’s guess what they meant. There was a mousetrap, ice cube tray, toy tractor, and a mussel shell with holes drilled out of it. There was also a bottle of laundry detergent, and a Magic 8 Ball.

Each item made a particular point.

The mousetrap alluded to the arrival of European fur traders in the 17th century. The ice cube tray referred to the glaciers which filled the valley down to about Hudson, only receding 18,000 years ago. The toy tractor symbolized the arrival of modern mechanized agriculture in the 1950s, and the mussel shell represented another human use of the river – pearl button factories which operated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

All the objects represented past changes in the St. Croix, which the research station studies by analyzing tubes of mud from the bottom of Lake St. Croix.

But the Magic 8 Ball, a novelty toy that answers questions about the future with vague answers of questionable reliability, represented the other end of time travel, and much of Almendinger’s expertise. He works with complicated computer models to predict the future of water bodies, simulating potential positive and negative actions and how they would affect the health of the river ecosystem.

Those models can be very useful to government agencies, environmental groups, and anyone who wants to be a good steward of the St. Croix. It’s part of getting to know the river intimately – necessary to repair past damage and protect it in the future. Like the great Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum wrote in 1968, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

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