On a sunny day in June, National Park Service rangers Rick Damstra and Sam House drop anchor close to Nevers Dam on the Saint Croix River. They scoop long tubes and jugs of river water to collect samples for the Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Service, one of many efforts along the historic riverway that keep the Saint Croix remarkably clean.
This is no easy task since, all told, more than 7,800 square miles of land drain to the Saint Croix. Ranger Rick has been monitoring the river for more than four years. “Everyone who uses this water is so lucky,” he reflects between between measurements. “It’s incredible how unspoiled it is. They had a vision fifty years ago to preserve this, so close to the Twin Cities.”
In 1968, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act established the Saint Croix as a National Scenic Riverway, putting over 200 miles of the Saint Croix and Namekagon Rivers into the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. While some of the riverbanks are privately owned, the park service can still restrict activities there to preserve the river.
Today, the pristine river offers remarkable recreational opportunities to residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it was once a bustling hub of economic activity. “Rivers were lifeblood,” says Rick, noting that the nearby Nevers Dam boat launch was once the site of a logging dam.
The National Park Service works in partnership with regional schools, counties, and nonprofit organizations like the Saint Croix River Association to protect this unique natural resource, and Rick notes that homeowners and locals play a big role, too, through volunteer service and stormwater management on private property. While he works gathering samples, he often sees volunteers monitoring the river for aquatic invasive species.
Forty miles downriver in Stillwater, Julie Kilpatrick and Dianne Polasik are two dedicated volunteers with the Saint Croix River Association (SCRA). With a mission to “protect, restore, and celebrate” the Saint Croix, the SCRA engages volunteers in programming, invasive species monitoring, and advocacy to protect the river.
Julie and Dianne have each lived in the river valley for over 40 years and, long before they became water stewards, they thought of themselves as “river rats.” Dianne’s extended family purchased a cabin on the river in 1937, and her family members were longtime members of the SCRA when it was a fledgling organization. When Julie and Dianne met as public health nurses in the 70s, they bonded over their shared love of the river’s scenic beauty. Before long they were picking up litter together near the old family cabin.
Today, Julie and Dianne coordinate a youth program called Rivers Are Alive, a partnership between the SCRA and NPS. Aimed at fourth graders, Rivers Are Alive recently led students into the mud with a bucket and a microscope to teach them about bugs as an indicator of river health. Dianne is inspired to help kids get “into the river down to the macro-invertebrate level.”
In addition to programming for kids, Julie (a recently certified Master Water Steward), leads group paddles for adults and seniors. While both of these seemingly tireless volunteers take pride in connecting people of all ages with the Saint Croix River, they also benefit from the restorative time spent in nature. “There’s something about moving water that’s good for the soul,” says Dianne. “If you can get out and provide a service at the same time, it’s blissful.”
Thanks to the coordinated efforts of concerned local residents and park professionals, the Saint Croix is an enduring example of water stewardship done right.
Take it from Julie: “No matter where you live, find the land or water you love and find how you can give it attention.”
Visit the SCRA website for a list of ideas on how to get engaged where you live.