Portrait of St. Croix National Scenic Riverway at 50

Craig Blacklock holding his book
Photographer Craig Blacklock holds his new book, "St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift," an up-close portrait of the rivers forming the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, established 50 years ago by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Courtesy of Craig Blacklock

Photographer Craig Blacklock is best known for his sweeping images of Lake Superior. But his new book, "St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift," is an up-close portrait of the rivers forming the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, established 50 years ago by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The result is an intimate look at the riverway, but not a small one: there are three different editions of the book, ranging in size—and price, from $90-$4000. The largest versions span more than three feet when opened fully; Blacklock says he wanted readers to feel like they were stepping into the riverway.

Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Blacklock about the project.

(As for that $4000 edition, it's signed by former Vice President Walter Mondale, among other perks. A portion of all book proceeds heads to the St. Croix River Association.)

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Namekagon River, below County Road K landing
Namekagon River, below County Road K landing.
Courtesy of Craig Blacklock

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

How long did it take you to really immerse yourself in the beauty along the St. Croix and the Namekagon?

The first year, I just did a couple of exploratory trips. In 2015, I was still doing some teaching in the fall. But in 2016, I paddled the full length of both the Namekagon and the St. Croix to really get a feel for what was there. I knew little portions of the riverway, but I didn't know the whole thing. I live in the watershed, on the Moose Horn River, but I really hadn't paddled the whitewater areas of the upper rivers, nor the areas down close to the Mississippi with the big bluffs and the big water of Lake St. Croix.

That gave me a good feel for what was there, then I went back to the areas that I thought were the most exciting. And then, as you noticed looking through the book, it's not just images from the water but also from the air. A good friend of mine, Jon Smithers, has been flying drones and doing nature photography with those for years. And he worked with me to go back to those areas that we thought we really wanted to be able to show the meanders and the oxbows, what that looks like. And so we were able to see the river as we've never seen it before.

You mentioned that you went back and explored further some of the places along the rivers that really intrigued you. Name one that might be a bit of a surprise for listeners.

I think that the area south of Osceola, downstream from there—[the] Cedar Bend area to me is the prettiest forest along the riverway. It's not whitewater, it's not grand rock outcrops that you have at interstate parks, but it's just a gorgeous section of the river with huge hillsides, big white pines.

I paddled it one day when it was foggy and calm all the way through about noon. And it was at the peak of fall color, and I'm just drifting slowly along and out of the fog emerges this rolling tapestry of color. And I think that's one of the things that the value of these rivers or any wild ecosystem, especially when it's close to the metropolitan area like this, is you can have a harried week or weekday and within a few minutes be out on the river and everything slows down. And that's healthy for us.

I note that former Vice President Walter Mondale will be signing some copies of the book. You have a quote in the book from then-Senator Mondale when he was giving testimony before a Senate committee about designating the St. Croix as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

And he says, "In the Lower St. Croix, we have a chance to break the chain of destruction that has claimed other urban rivers. We should make our commitment, protect the river and, for once, take heart in the saying: how we care for our natural treasures will someday determine our worth as a nation."

With development pressure that the river has seen over the past decade or so, is that river showing signs of any stress?

It is. As Walter refers to it, there are little nicks and cuts that are happening, one variance after another. Certainly when we're up in the drones, we see—I say that figuratively, because we imagine we're up in the drones. When we're looking at the world from the vantage point of a drone, we can see the encroachment of housing developments and farms on the riverway. And as I point out in the essay that I have in the book, you can't just draw a circle around it, put a wall around the park and say it's protected. Because many of the threats that are now coming to the riverway are from outside.

So the river is certainly protected as a national park, but that alone doesn't guarantee it's going to be the same 50 years from now as it is now. We have to, each of us, look at becoming a better global citizen and protecting not just the riverway but our whole planet.

You know, it's always a pleasure talking to you Craig. Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much, Cathy.

An exhibit featuring images from "St. Croix & Namekagon Rivers: The Enduring Gift" is open through June at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. For more on the project or to order the book, head to stcroixphotography.com.