SPECIAL LIVE PRESENTATION WITH: Craig Blacklock Photography
Saturday, September 15
Black Box Theater
Co-hosted by the Western Wisconsin Photo Club, this presentation is part of the Heart of the River: Celebrating the First 50 Years of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
An excerpt from the book ST. CROIX & NAMEKAGON RIVERS — The Enduring Gift
“Both my career path as a nature photographer and my ties to the St. Croix watershed started in 1930, when my father, at the age of nine, bought a box camera and started stalking wildlife along the Moose Horn River. As Dad described it, when he returned home with his stories of crawling along on his belly to get close to ducks, nobody cared—but when he started showing them photographs, that got their attention.
Sometimes accompanied by my grandfather, Dad spent countless hours of his youth photographing, fishing, and hunting along the Moose Horn. Throughout my childhood our family made a spring canoe trip down the river from the town of Moose Lake, where Dad grew up. When my parents were traveling I sometimes stayed with my grandma Blacklock. I spent most of those days fishing the Moose Horn. When I was lucky, I’d bring home a stringer of panfish for Grandma to fry up.
I’ve lived in Moose Lake since 1976 and have paddled both the Moose Horn and parts of the nearby Kettle River many times. This year my wife and sixteen-year-old daughter joined me—a chance for them to experience a landscape that has now been a part of our family for four generations. Similarly, every few years for decades, my wife’s family has gathered from across the country for a paddle and inner-tube float on the Namekagon.
For this book, I was invited to photograph a river cabin built in 1912 near Marine on St. Croix. The current patriarch of the family spoke of his grandfather having built the cabin and of the generations that have since learned to swim and fish there. I could easily imagine the hundreds of family gatherings held in the cabin. These rich traditions binding families to a place through shared experiences struck me profoundly. I realized how important it was for me to honor these connections to the rivers with my photographs.
Just as I know to avoid individual rocks in the Moose Horn’s rapids, many river users become intimately acquainted with particular sections of their river. They know the best fishing holes. They no longer must think how to approach rapids they’ve navigated dozens of times.
The flip side to this is few people know much about the rivers beyond their favorite stretches, and a very small number of river users are acquainted with the entire lengths of both the Namekagon and St. Croix. Getting to know the whole waterway was my Herculean task for this photography book.
Soon after I decided to take on this project, I paddled every mile of both rivers. These trips produced some images for the book, but more importantly, they gave me a good overview of the watershed and which areas had the most potential for future photography trips. What I discovered during that first summer of paddling was a tremendous diversity of both geology and ecosystems: from the fast-moving rivers twisting through boreal and northern hardwood forests of Northern Wisconsin, to the slower, broader waters lined with silver maple floodplains, then through the incredible pine-topped basalt outcrops of the St. Croix Dalles, transitioning to the sandstone bluffs below Osceola. Finally, to the vast stretches of Lake St. Croix, with its containing bluffs supporting hardwoods and prairies.
I discovered an abundance of wildlife—especially birds—that became a major part of the project. One of my favorite birds, cedar waxwings, were nearly omnipresent as they diminished the insect populations over the water. Throughout my travels, I thrilled to eagles and osprey scanning the rivers for fish. The heron, egret, and cormorant rookeries of Cedar Bend and near the Boom Site Landing are uniquely spectacular, as is the winter gathering of trumpeter swans at Hudson.
The rapids of the upper rivers provided both subject matter and a great challenge. I learned that if I had any thought of making a photograph, I had to stop NOW, or my subject would quickly disappear behind me. When the water was cold, I wore a dry suit when paddling. This provided a measure of safety while traveling alone. More important, it allowed me to stand comfortably (and leech-free) in the rivers for hours while making photographs.
For forty years, my career has featured the interface between land and water—most of it on Lake Superior. Paddling over and camping along water, its rhythms have become a part of me. On Superior, the sound of waves is as constant as breathing—the silence shocking when I walk inland.
On the rivers, there is the pull of gravity drawing me downstream. It creates its own rhythms of standing waves and swirling eddies. Then there is the long, slow inhalation and exhalation of changing water levels. When the rains fall in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, the runoff is tempered by giant sponges of numerous bogs and countless beaver dams. But eventually the rivers do rise—sometimes dramatically. On one of my trips, I got off the St. Croix mere hours before flood waters reached me. When I returned to my car in Taylors Falls, the water was several feet higher than when I had put in a few days before. Most of the campsites I’d just stayed at were now under water. It was easy to envision my untethered kayak floating away while I slept.
With so many kayak and canoe trips made for this book, I obviously had a variety of memorable moments, from sublime to oops! Two of the most indelibly remembered incidents both involved hail storms. The first was while setting up to make the photograph of water lilies on page 57. This type of photograph requires precise camera placement, which is not easy to do while standing and trying to set up a tripod in deep muck without disturbing the subject. I was almost set, when the sky opened with heavy rain and hail. I took the camera off but left the tripod in place, hoping the wind might die down after the front passed. Minutes later I was rewarded with absolute stillness as the sun broke through the storm clouds, and the pads still held the raindrops. The second hail storm opened on me mid-rapids above Riverside Landing. The wind-driven hail was so hard I could no longer make out the rapids, as even the line between water and land became a white blur of splashing water and fog. I managed to paddle to shore and hang onto a branch to stay in place, safely admiring nature’s fury.
My river explorations were not limited to kayaking and hiking. I first “traveled” most of the river system via online satellite photos, selecting locations I felt would make interesting aerial photographs.
I teamed up with friend and colleague Jon Smithers to do the drone photography for this book. Jon flew his drone and operated the camera while I art directed, viewing the images on a tablet. After our first series of trips along the Scenic Riverway, we had confirmed the locations with the most photogenic islands and meanders. Over the next few seasons we returned to those sites, most often at sunrise, when fog might be rising from the rivers.
Over the course of working on the rivers for more than two years, I returned to kayak my favorite stretches many times. I began to anticipate what was coming around the next bend and recognize particular trees or rock outcrops as familiar friends. I had gained an expanded awareness of the watershed I live in, and a deep gratitude to Northern States Power and the National Park Service for their stewardship of this incredible landscape.
Humans evolved within nature, and most of us find beauty and perspective within natural environments. Whether delighting in the S curve of a river or the creatures found along it, we have a need to experience the natural world in order to be whole and well. I am pleased that my photographs are often used in hospitals and senior care facilities as a surrogate for nature, eliciting many of the same positive responses as actually being out of doors. Similarly, I hope this book brings into your home some of the same enjoyment you derive from being near the water.
When people develop an emotional connection with a lake or a river—especially when they fervently want their descendants to have the same opportunity to relive their own experiences—we then have a common basis from which to share a conversation about protecting what we love.
The St. Croix is a perfect microcosm of past human interaction with nature. Over the course of three centuries, through over-harvesting (and the use of the pesticide, DDT), we depleted what were originally seen as seemingly inexhaustible resources. Fortunately, the St. Croix also has a remarkable story of resurrection. When we travel through the watershed now, we are likely to see trees and wildlife that were extirpated or rare just a few decades ago: white pine, beaver, gray wolves, osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, giant Canada geese, wood ducks, great egrets, sandhill cranes, and mussels have all returned in significant numbers, and through intensive reintroduction efforts, whooping cranes once again dance in Wisconsin.
But the conversation we share must now include the realization that simply drawing a ring around our most beautiful places or beloved species, and saying they are protected, undermines the cornerstone of all ecological teachings—that everything is connected.
Looking back, we shake our heads at the ignorance and greed of those who harvested without limits. But is it any less ignorant of us to expect technology to have created a world without any limits? Whether we are talking about the number of pine tree or the capacity of the ocean or atmosphere to absorb CO2 without dire consequences, our world is finite. Perhaps this is the most important lesson the river has to offer.
Today we celebrate the efforts to “Save the St. Croix,” championed by Wendell Anderson, Gaylord Nelson, and Walter Mondale over fifty years ago. It is a natural inclination to also look downstream towards what our collective future could become. I hope my daughter will be able to look back fifty years from now and see that this was the turning point where people returned to learning about and trusting the natural sciences. That from this point forward, we modified our choices, allowing us to humbly fit within a sustainable niche on our planet. That over those fifty years our population gradually decreased, and our enjoyment of life greatly increased. That our idea of wealth transformed from consumption of material goods to a greater appreciation of human relationships, nature, and the arts. That we continued to hold the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway as invaluable, intact, and wild—realizing access to such places is vital to our well-being.”