Hastings to Red Wing

“How about lunch in Red Wing?”  And thus was born the boat ride with Bill Bixby on his boat June 20th.  From the harbor in Red Wing Kate and I with Bill set off down river.   Hastings is a wonderful little river community with a main street that is reminiscent of the larger Red Wing with brick facades and a feeling of a historic river town.  First established as a camp by soldiers from Fort Snelling to guard a blocked shipment, it soon became a trading post and was incorporated in 1857 with the middle name – Hastings, of future general and governor Henry Hastings Sibley.  The name had been drawn from a hat. Until 1951 it was famous for the 1895 spiral horse bridge that crossed the river and in 2013 it is getting a third bridge opening up the road to the ever increasing traffic demands.  The river port grew because of the Vermilion River that enters near the St Croix.  The falls on the Vermilion provided water power that  ran the gristmills.  Now in a park you can even find the remains of a mill that was operated by Alexander Ramsey.  This famous Minnesotan has the county that holds St Paul named after him.  The National Park refers to the islands and byways that are across from Prescott as the Vermilion River Bottoms – a wonderful pristine river/island and backwater network.

It isn’t far from Hastings to Prescott, WI where the St Croix enters the Mississippi.  This mighty river, a National Wild and Scenic River, is second only to Minnesota as a tributary along the Minnesota section of the river.  Its waters are blue and clear in contrast with the muddy Mississippi and they seem to resist mixing – running side by side down river below the town.  Prescott has its marina’s along the river shore at the confluence and has a history that dates back to 1839 when Philander Prescott opened a trading post.   It is also known as the mother house of the Franciscan Servants of Jesus, a woman’s order that was founded in 1997 by the Bishop of the Diocese of LaCrosse and suppressed by Bishop Burke in 2003 because the founder – Sister Julie Green was allegedly a transsexual.  It is no longer in existence.

From the water the twin domed towers on the 1912 St Joseph Catholic Church and the mouse ears on the weights for the Vertical lift bridge over the St Croix mouth are the most prominent landmarks.  On the water the number of fishermen indicates a good place for catching fish.  It made us wonder if the fish are dazed by the confusion of waters and the murky color of the Mississippi and therefore more susceptible to capture.

Downstream the bluffs rise steeply and provide wonderful mural escarpments of limestone just beneath their peaks and sandstone on the lower elevations.  We saw 7 Bald Eagles, numerous great blue herons, crows, and kettles of turkey vultures as we cruised downstream beside occasional sandy islands of dredge materials.

Perhaps the most startling view we had was of the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant.  No matter where we are these are startling places – ominous looking silos and a long line of steaming cooling towers with wisps of white steam rising against the background of trees.  Prairie Island began operating in 1973 with two nuclear reactors.  This is the second nuclear plant along our route – Monticello was the first - and it remains the most controversial of the Minnesota plants because of the storage of spent rods in large steel casks within the Mississippi River flood plain.  This storage system was opposed by the environmental and the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Sioux communities, but approved by the state and Nuclear Regulatory Agency.  

The Prairie Island band had already lost substantial land to the lock and dam and Corp of Engineers before losing more to the power plant.  At lock #3 we entered with a large boat from Treasure Island casino.  Locks and dams are part of the Upper Mississippi just as levees are the control structures of the Lower River.  We slid in to the large capacity lock and grabbed a rope that was given to us by the lock master.  Then the large doors to the rear close and the water is released until the water level matches the downstream level.

As we entered Red Wing the parks and marinas were the first site and then as we turned the tight meander to enter the downtown region the famous barn bluff rose behind the grain towers and railroads and barges.  This grand bluff had been an island in the earlier torrent called Glacial River Warren and thus has a very unique shape that was noted by most early travelers.  The bluff itself is made up of ancient oceanic deposits.  Mike used to bring his college students here to see the Red Wing Fault line that is near the intersection of highway 61 and MN 58 where the rocks are displaced 125 feet putting unrelated eras of rock formation right next to each other.  The layer cake that is Barn Bluff has a wonderful greenish color in the lower Franconia Formation – caused by the mineral glaconite.  The layers going up include the Jordan Sandstone – one of many layers of Cambrian Sandstone.  These are capped by the stronger layer of Oneota Dolomite – a type of limestone that is rich in Magnesium.

The Mississippian culture – the same great culture that built the mounds of Cahokia near St Louis also built mounds in this area, including some on the bluff.  This culture was eventually displaced by the Mdewakanton Dakota in about 1815.  The town gets is name from the Dakota leader who was known as Red Wing even though his name according to historical accounts was actually Walking Buffalo (Tatankamani) which would have made a fun community name too.  The Dakota used the 350 foot bluff as a lookout – giving them visual control of many miles of river.

We landed at levee park, a wonderful greenway that was filled with people enjoying the great weather of this June 21 Summer Solstice day.  One other boat the Beluga, a sailboat was at the dock and in front of that was a barge anchored at the grain elevator.  We walked across the railroad tracks past the depot which now includes an art gallery and up the historic St James Hotel where we had lunch on their veranda perched up a story from the slanting sidewalk.  The town is classic brickwork –the signature of river towns all along the upper Mississippi.  Known for shipping and for Red Wing shoes this is a popular tourist destination.

We sat in the breeze (wind) and sipped our Surly beer and ate our brisket sandwiches enjoying this wonderful day.  In front of us was Barn Bluff and it is fun to think that it has been climbed by Zebulon Pike, Henry Schoolcraft, and Henry David Thoreau.

Seeing a large towboat pushing a series of barges up river caused us to move quickly so we could get to the lock for our upstream trip before it became entangled with the logistics of barges.  This allowed us to move along the towboat and watch as it navigated the sharp corner – working its powerful engines and setting up a massive wake.   Those barges do not turn – they are pushed where they need to go and the narrow channel and the tight turn were an excellent example of the pilot’s skills.

After the lock we were treated to a bald eagle that sat on a sunken log off the main channel.  It was only a foot above water and moved along the log allowing us great opportunities to observe and enjoy it.  Then we came to another unusual sight.  I saw something nearing the shore – Kate insisted they were sticks, which made this a reversal of our deer sighting when we were walking on the Sibley Peninsula during our walk around Lake Superior.  Then she had the good eyes!  But I saw that these sticks were in fact two pair of ears – two deer, swimming side by side, having crossed this large river and now getting up on to the wooded islands that dot the Minnesota side from the sediments of the Cannon and Vermilion Rivers.

Moving back upstream we investigated Prescott marina, slid under the bridges at Hastings and cruised up to lock #2 that was filled with downbound  barges.  Under the massive bluff on the east side a red engine freight train moved along the tracks and we had an image of the river that was in stark contrast to the small stream that we had investigated in the north, yet it was still the Mississippi.


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