“Left or right, your choice,” Ryan Ramaley announces over a loudspeaker as his boat advances on some poor schmuck who’s canoeing right in the boat’s path, “but there’s a big boat coming right at’cha.”
On this particular day, Ramaley is guiding the Taylors Falls Princess north on the St. Croix River. The Princess, and the Taylors Falls Queen, are two of the first paddleboats since 1924 to operate this far north. The Princess is 23 feet wide, 80 feet long, and weighs 30 tons; the Queen is 20 feet long, 80 feet long, and weighs 45 tons.
The only thing between the Princess‘ passengers and the sunshine is a yellow canopy covering the boat’s upper deck. Water churns through the Princess‘ paddle in the back, and arms hang over the edge of the boat getting burned. It’s hard to imagine a bad day on this river – unless you’re some poor schmuck who’s canoeing right in the path of a 30-ton paddleboat.
The Princess doesn’t have the kind of agility you might be used to if you play Princess Peach in Super Mario Kart. It doesn’t have the speed, either, so the canoer has plenty of time to move it. No harm done.
Ramaley has been guiding these boats for the past 30 years at Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours. He recalled the night he took the steering wheel for the first time. The captain that night stepped back to have dinner, and watched the first chapter of Ramaley’s own captain’s tale take shape.
“I was hooked,” says Ramaley. “I remember thinking, what a great deal to get paid to do this all day.”
Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours has been operating as a business since 1906, and you’ll never guess how many times they’ve had to unpack the lifejackets for passengers: zero.
“With reference to the boat,” Ramaley says. “We have used them for swimmers in distress!”
The St. Croix River valley’s formation began with violent volcano eruptions over a billion years ago, per Wikipedia. Lava flows oozed across the area, then hardened into basalt. The region was covered by a shallow sea 500 million years later, during which sandstone and siltstone coated the basalt. The formation was complete 10,000 years ago, when water from melting glaciers rushed south and carved out the valley. The St. Croix River flows out of Upper St. Croix Lake in Solon Springs, Wisc.
Ramaley is from Taylors Falls originally, and the grandson of a former history professor at the University of Minnesota. He said his grandfather’s discussions piqued his interest in history to a degree, but most of his historical knowledge has accumulated over his years at the wheel.
During our boat ride, he points out where the Great Logjam of 1886 started backing up on the river. To someone who never saw the logging boom, the numbers might sound preposterous: a logjam 50 feet high, backed up for seven miles of river. Basically, imagine if a bunch of four-story buildings were floating down Interstate 94 and all got stuck between the Lyndale Ave. and Snelling Ave. exits.
Ramaley estimates the logs in that jam could have made 20,000 three-bedroom homes. Instead, they were blown to smithereens by dynamite. It was the only way to free up the jam.
Ramaley also tells the story of Blast Island, a little patch of land in the middle of the river just south of Interstate Park. The story of its creation involves broken windows, some unhappy Army Corps of Engineers folks, and 20 tons of dynamite … when only two tons were supposed to be used. And it might have been much, much more: a story in the July 16 issue of the Inter-County Leader suggests 200 tons of dynamite might have been used! Fallen rock palings from that blast became Blast Island.
You might see an elephant face in the rocks (I did). You might see a lion’s face, too (I did not). You might miss the huge stone cross for which the river is named (I did), but you’ll definitely see the Old Man of the Dalles.
Excursions last about 90 minutes, and are scheduled through October 21. More information can be found at www.taylorsfallsboat.com.