The mid-winter thaw has me in a boating frame of mind. With perhaps barely two months left before the first spring outing, the sound of dripping gutters has me recalling adventures last year and plotting more in 2016. I wrote last spring about the joys of boating to lunch in Excelsior, so here is a little outing to historic Stillwater this past summer. I hope your takeaway is two-fold: being on the water is wonderful, and walkable urbanism is really pretty simple.
My two boys and I launched our 1984 Lund “Mr. Pike” with Mercury “Classic 50” (Long May You Run) at the public boat launch just north of Stillwater and headed up the St. Croix River. A challenge to river boating, which we discovered right away, is river depths are very unpredictable. You can set a straight line course that is roughly in the middle of the river, and one second it’s 30 feet deep and the next it’s barely two. This is a bit unnerving.
We made our way a few miles upstream, and beached on an island to swim and play in the sand. It is remarkable, when heading north out of Stillwater, how quickly the St. Croix becomes a wild river with few obvious signs of civilization. This is thanks in part to being part of the National Park Service (be sure to check out the maps.) In all honesty, I recommend the float trip over motoring for this section of river. Floating is idyllic and with a canoe you can explore numerous backwaters. No motors increases the chance of spotting wildlife. Camping is available at various places along the river, including on islands, and all sites are only available by boat.
As I have written previously, part of the enjoyment of being on the water is returning to shore, especially when you are hungry! Thus, having a town beyond the dock is helpful. As towns go, Stillwater is historic, and there is something special about arriving at a charming town by boat, and walking to lunch. Where does one take two kids, age nine and five, for lunch? Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop of course. We dined on burgers and malts, then headed out to walk off our lunch before returning to the boat.
While Stillwater is much loved for being historic (the “Birthplace of Minnesota“), and while it’s old buildings and beautiful river valley setting certainly add to the character of the place, its walkable scale ties it all together and is indispensable. Walk along the riverfront in Lowell Park or along the downtown streets, and pedestrian friendliness abounds. Block frontages are varied and have a high “Gehl Door Average” (GDA). Sidewalks could be a little wider but are sufficient. From Leo’s, in the middle of downtown, the number of stores, restaurants, inns, residences and open space within a five-minute walk is pretty impressive, and makes for a satisfying day trip. Anyone doubting whether Stillwater is walkable need look no further than the walk-up window at Leo’s. Although it doesn’t increase GDA, a viable walk-up window is evidence of walkable urbanism. Being able to buy an ice cream cone sure helps!
Let’s keep in mind for a moment that it wasn’t hipster architects and planners who created “walkable urbanism” in Stillwater in the late 1800s. I’m willing to bet, like any of the charming towns in the Twin Cities like Excelsior and Northfield, that Stillwater wasn’t so much planned, but rather evolved incrementally, in an economically viable way, at a time when walking reigned supreme as the primary means of getting around. Luckily city mothers and fathers haven’t tinkered too much with this formula in the past century-plus. It isn’t rocket science. There is no alternative universe where walkable urbanism can exist; it just needs a high GDA, a decent sidewalk and slow-moving traffic. All the other things follow these necessary elements.
Boating is fun, and it’s made all the better by a charming town where you can stretch your legs. See you at the boat launch!
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.