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The Best Babysitter

Danette Olsen
The Upper St. Croix from the Gordon Dam to the Confluence of the Namekagon

I grew up in a somewhat stereotypical family in the era of my childhood. My mother only worked part-time and this was AFTER we had all gone off to school. With a brother five years older than me, we rarely even had babysitter. Occasionally there might be supervision from either of two grandmothers — one who was a stern Swedish immigrant who seemed very, very scary (even though her mashed potatoes were heavenly) and the other a kind, gentle, and nurturing second generation Dane who would allow hours upon hours of playing “store” with dozens of small and fragile curio cabinet treasures.

In hindsight, I remember only ONE real babysitter and she was absolutely amazing. She came into my life when I was ten years old and this babysitter was like no other. She was playful, stunningly beautiful, sometimes unpredictable, and quite wild. I am amazed to this day — and grateful — that we were trusted to her care!

Yet that’s exactly what happened. . . and when we were in her care, she seemed to have so much time to give us and she taught me so much, especially about watching out for surprises and how to work as a team. I was the oldest by just a month of the four kids in two canoes dropped into the upper St. Croix right below the Gordon Dam and we were told that in a few hours we’d come to Highway T just two miles from our cabin near Dairyland, Wisconsin. With a cursory reminder that we should get out and portage around water and rocks that were too rough or walk alongside the canoe as another option, we set off with the St. Croix as our babysitter for the day.

This was 1970 and it was not a time when kids wore bicycle helmets or life jackets, but we did have some sandwiches & snacks along and caps to keep the horse flies and deer flies from chewing into our scalps. Our babysitter carried us through the experience of rapids, rocks, and low hanging branches with a new appreciation for keeping an eye out for trouble. In the past, there were adults along to guide the way, but this time we had been trusted to both see and navigate the challenges ahead.

There was plenty of drama that day — canoes that flipped over, getting hung up on rocks, having to drag the boats through shallows, and also predictable fights among children who thought they knew the best way to go around islands and boulders. But there was also plenty of wonder — fawns at the water’s edge, hawks soaring overhead, an abandoned cabin that we stopped to explore, and the lack of all human sound except our paddles and our chatter. The serenity of the Upper St. Croix filled me that day in a way that has never left me. And she would care for me many more times over the next years to come.

As someone who has worked with children a great deal in my life as a teaching artist and has children (and grandchildren) of my own, I kind of shake my head in horror at the thought of putting kids on the Upper St. Croix without adult supervision. But those summers of my youth it seemed perfect. We would round the last bend before the Highway T bridge and there was my dad waiting. To this day, he loves to tell people that he could hear us coming for ten or fifteen minutes as we laughed or argued or screamed at the horse flies. We’d get out for a break and a refill of snacks and then head out again because our babysitter wasn’t done with us yet and the thrill of Fish Trap rapids was still downstream on our way to the Iron Bridge at the confluence of the Namekagon, where in a few more hours, my dad would be waiting, surely aware that our babysitter would deliver us and we’d have more river stories to share.

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