It was hot and sunny and still and quiet at Afton State Park last Sunday. People wandered the park alone or in small groups, largely along the St. Croix River. There were runners and anglers and backpackers and hikers.
They were about the only thing moving, save the south wind brushing the trees on the river banks and the prairie grasses.
We started by walking on the north side of the park, the trail broad and well-mowed through tall grass, everything green and glowing in hot midday sun. Then the path dropped into the little valley of a dry creek, narrowing and becoming a tight strip of packed dirt. It was shaded and cool, and there were only a few mosquitoes.
When we climbed up a long paved trail we emerged back into the open, where the sun again baked us and the breeze blew across fields and prairie. It was a good hot, the kind you should feel in the middle of July, and it seemed to cook the very last of winter out of us. Our footsteps and conversation and the dog’s panting were accompanied by birds and crickets and quiet.
Afton State Park sprawls across 1,600 acres, almost all of it this rolling upland, perched above the St. Croix. It drops abruptly down sandstone bluffs, with steep hills and large rock faces. There is the river trail, flat and straight as the railroad tracks it once was. And probably where 75 percent of its visitors go.
Near where the narrow, rocky path we took down the bluff intersected the river trail, there were young backpackers standing around with their packs dumped on the ground, resting aching shoulders.
The music for our hike here was waves on the rocks below, boats intermittently roaring to and fro, and the wind.
Water was our destination. A rocky bank and a strip of sand jutting out into the river, a spot made for swimming. We pulled off clothes and walked in, instantly cleansed and cool. The next hour washed away like sand in the waves. Our “beach” was a jumble of rocks, but it was enough to sit and eat pasta salad and drink water, beholding a view across the broad river at lush green bluffs opposite, a mirror of our own shore.
Finally, it was time for the short and steep hike back to the car. The many steps of the trail up are a good way to measure yourself year after year. How bad do your legs burn? How hard do you breathe?
The river, the woods, the prairie remain as always – we come to step foot after foot and see what it all adds up to.