National parks at 100: Living the dream on the St. Croix

National Park Ranger Mike Gavre leads a tour.
National Park Ranger Mike Gavre led a pontoon boat tour on a stretch of the St. Croix River in mid-August.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

It took 23 years as a Marine, eight years at the Department of Defense, two degrees and a move back home to get Michael Gavre to his dream job. In May of this year, it happened: He's finally a park ranger, stationed at the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.

"I can't believe they pay me to do this," he said last week. "I have always been an outdoorsman at heart. My dream job would have been something like this, but when I was growing up, all of that required a degree — and at that time, going to college just wasn't an option."

One of the original areas designated for preservation by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway includes the St. Croix River and its tributary, the Namekagon River — more than 200 miles of waterway in all.

The High Bridge spans the St. Croix.
Spanning the St. Croix between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the bridge simply known as High Bridge sits 185 feet over the river. It is owned by the Soo Line Railroad, and is still in use today.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

The rangers of the National Park Service — which celebrates its centennial this month — act as stewards for the waterway, leading programs that preserve the resource and make it accessible: youth day camps on outdoor living skills, guided kayak trips to paint fall colors along the river and evening pontoon boat tours of the Stillwater Islands.

A pontoon boat launches on the St. Croix River.
A pontoon boat captained by National Park Service Ranger Mike Gavre launches at the St. Croix Boom Site, just north of Stillwater.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Ranger Mike — that's how he introduces himself — has been guiding pontoon boat tours twice a week this season. On a partly cloudy evening in mid-August, he meets his tour group — a boatful of 11 people — on the shore of the St. Croix. He lands the park service pontoon in the style of the locals, gently driving it up onto the sandy shore. Here, more than a century ago, a lumber camp fueled the appetites of the Twin Cities' burgeoning mill industry.

As the tour begins its 10-mile trek along the St. Croix just north of Stillwater, Minn., Gavre talks about the "journey of discovery" along the way. He talks about the intersection of humanity and the river, how "places, like people, are unique and full of character and the same forces that shape us as people, shape the places."

"We are going to journey up the river ... and try to discover what makes the Stillwater Islands a unique and individual place," Gavre says as the pontoon heads into the St. Croix's main channel.

A great blue heron takes flight.
A great blue heron takes flight along the banks of the St. Croix River near Stillwater, Minn., as the sun was setting Monday, August 15, 2015. Herons and bald eagles are plentiful earlier in the season.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

It's a place where the waterway has affected the people who've passed over and along it as much as it's been affected by them. Native Americans left pictographs along the river while European settlers logged the land and built bridges across the water. While the "High Bridge" that marks the northern end of the tour is still in operation, most of the structures along the river are relics of the lumber industry.

Heron fish here along the shores while sturgeon jump ahead of the boat. In the springtime, eagles nest in the grand white pines that tower above the shoreline. Their nests are visible from the water year round.

The Stillwater Islands dot the busiest stretch of this waterway, so much so that the National Park Service has introduced efforts to minimize the human impact on the area. During the summer's heavy traffic season, the park service installs temporary docks carrying port-a-potties on the islands, creating odd, artificial peninsulas jutting from the shore.

Brian Jemelka gets a closer look at wildlife.
Brian Jemelka gets a closer look at wildlife during a pontoon tour of the St. Croix River.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

"This is a national resource. It is our job and everybody else's job to ensure it stays this way," Gavre says as he steers the pontoon down the channel. "It is not just for our use. Our job is to preserve it and protect it to ensure that our future generations can use it and see it at least as good as we have it now and hopefully we can make it better."

Other pontoon boats dot the islands: a benign invasion force, regimented and evenly spaced along the sandy shores. These islands are highly sought after by locals and newcomers alike for their clean and shaded beaches — perfect for picnics and play, just minutes from Stillwater's downtown.

A mid-August day was perfect for water skiing.
Today, the St. Croix near Stillwater is known for recreational activities of all kinds. A mid-August day was perfect for water skiing.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Private residences punctuate the shoreline as Gavre steers north of Stillwater. Many plots of land along the river are privately owned in agreements with the National Park Service, which will eventually take ownership of it.

The park service's relationships with these neighbors and the public have helped maintain the park's natural resources — particularly its hallmark creatures: Mollusks. The St. Croix River is a habitat for more than 40 native species of clams and mussels, some threatened or endangered.

Those native clams are especially vulnerable to invasive species like zebra mussels, which have encroached on many waterways across the state, but have so far left the river untouched. Since the St. Croix has no natural barriers to water traffic in the Stillwater area, it is the voluntary compliance — boat cleaning and water traffic rules — that has so far kept the invasive mussels at bay.

A rookery with a tree full of cormorants
Although by mid-August most of the bald eagles and great blue herons have left the area, a rookery with a tree full of cormorants remains.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Rangers like Gavre try to make sure they're a frequent presence on the river — they paddle or boat sections of the waterway a few times a week, and lead tours like this one weekly. Their role, he said, is to enforce park rules, like no jet skis in the park or making sure campers have the proper permits, and to continue to build those community relationships.

Gavre loves it. He was born and raised in Eau Claire, Wis., and has made preserving the St. Croix his mission, after decades working in 17 different countries. It's good to be back home.

"I took the long way around to getting back to where I really feel I belong," he said.