Wild City // Seeking the source

Minnehaha Creek flows through Southwest not far from my home, but one day I realized I couldn’t name its source. I took out a map, traced the creek back to Lake Minnetonka, and then drove out to have a look around. There is a dam between the lake and creek; the scene that day was hazy, marshy and magical.

I went back up there again only this morning, over a decade since my last visit. I was eager to get my new kayak on the water. Our daughter just graduated from high school, and I’m realizing that over the years I’ve accumulated more domesticity than I any longer need.

Sweet, then, that my stepstool for cleaning windows has become the item that frees me, a 55-year-old woman, to go kayaking alone. I use it to help me hoist the kayak on my car: grab, lift, step up, scrooch, lean, step down and done. It isn’t the most delicate of operations, but it works.

As I drove along Gray’s Bay Boulevard, on my way to the parking area near the dam, I spotted an older man standing in his driveway. He saw my kayak, and gave me an “Ahoy, matey,” salute to the brow, then a hand waggle. I saluted and waggled right back.

My husband had sent me off with a wish that I’d see a kingfisher, and I saw one, right after I got into the boat. Some couples have their song, but we have our bird. Whenever we hear the rattle, and see one of these blue, crested birds dive into the water for its prey, he and I smile, and high-five.

That day on the water I saw or heard 12 different kinds of birds, including red-winged blackbirds, yellow throats, wood ducks, orioles, a sandpiper and a red tail hawk. My list would be longer, but I have a limited knowledge of birdcalls, a situation I would like to remedy.

Painted turtles were sunning themselves on logs, or on the muck on the marsh’s edge. Because of its shell, which is dark on the back, with orange and yellow markings underneath, this turtle might seem an unlikely candidate for sensuality, but if Wikipedia can be believed, its courtship ritual “is a rare and beautiful sight.”

The male uses his front claws to tickle the female’s cheeks “rapidly up-and-down in a vibratory manner. … If the female is receptive, she will stroke the forelimbs of the courting male.” Given the number of turtles in this marsh, this ritual must be going well there, indeed.

I grew up in northern Minnesota, outside Cloquet, and we’d see these turtles when they came out of pothole lakes or wetlands and crossed country roads. Whenever we found one, we brought it home and kept it in a box overnight. The next morning it would be gone. These were dinner-plate sized turtles. How could they climb out of that box? I wonder now if my mother released them.

I had a high school teacher in Cloquet who was so fond of turtles that she would stop her car in the middle of the road, get out and carry them to safety. She wore turtle pendants and had turtle figurines. We joked about her outside class, which even at the time felt wrong. I think what made us uncomfortable was her passion, and the way she gave herself over.

That day kayaking the upper creek, I took my time. In a kayak you ride low, at duck level, and most of the houses along the marsh are set back pretty far, and were screened by cattails, so the area felt wild. I am rereading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain, and here are Huck’s thoughts about life on the water:

“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and  we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”

A stream wants us to go where it goes. I wanted to ride the creek all the way, west to east, 22 miles across the Twin Cities to Minnehaha Falls, but I hadn’t the time or the right boat. A canoe would be ideal for that. I stopped at the one-mile point, turned around, and paddled back to where I had begun.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.