Three of my friends and I couldn't turn down the opportunity to eat cheese and enjoy the gorgeous winter weather on a recent weekend.
We four girls began our Tour d' Western Wisconsin with a hearty bowl of chili in River Falls, before continuing onward to the Cady Cheese Factory for cheese curds, maple fudge and Diet Cherry Cokes. Next, we headed north to Willow River State Park, located five miles northeast of Hudson on County Road A.
The Willow River is one of several major tributaries to the St. Croix River. Studies have shown that the Willow River is a major contributor of sediments and nutrients to the St. Croix River. That detracts little from its natural beauty, however, especially as it cascades in a dramatic waterfall within the park's boundaries.
A small wooden bridge carried us safely to the other bank, where we took a long, steep staircase upwards to an observation platform. From above, we could see hundreds of the nearly 3,000 acres of tree- and snow-covered hills that comprise the park, along with a dramatic view of the river gorge. Laughing, we climbed up treacherous, ice-covered stairs to a trail above. Going down was a different story, though, as slipping, sliding and falling we threatened to create four large, new sources of water pollution for the poor Willow River.
On the Minnesota side of the river, there are several smaller tributaries to the St. Croix. Valley Creek in Afton, Brown's Creek in Stillwater, Mill Stream in Marine on St. Croix and Falls Creek, along the edge of Chisago County, are all designated trout streams. Valley Creek, with its cool, clean, spring-fed waters, is the only place in the Twin Cities metro area where native brook trout naturally reproduce. The Department of Natural Resources stocks brown trout and rainbow trout in the other creeks, but you would have to go all the way to the North Shore to find another stream with brook trout.
Valley Creek and Brown's Creek cross mostly through privately owned land, making them harder to visit than their Wisconsin counterparts, although no less important in shaping the character of the lower St. Croix watershed. Unlike the Willow River, which has been heavily impacted by agriculture, Valley Creek runs mostly through wooded glens that offer protection from runoff and other sources of pollution. Streambank erosion, though, is a problem along Valley Creek where landowners have cleared vegetation along the water's edge. Brown's Creek is also showing signs of stress due to development and was listed as biologically impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2002. Sensitive species like brown trout are no longer surviving in the creek, even when stocked regularly, and many of the aquatic insects and invertebrates normally found in a healthy trout stream are missing.
When we think of the St. Croix River, we often think only of the river itself, the bottomlands and the bluffs. With 11 major tributaries flowing into the river, however, and countless smaller streams, the health of the St. Croix depends not just on protection of the river corridor, but also on the protection and restoration of Valley Creek, Brown's Creek, the Sunrise River, Kinnickinnic River, Willow River and more. If you have a chance to explore one of these tributaries this spring, you're sure to find amazing natural beauty, just be sure to take your ice cleats.
Angie Hong is an educator with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program.