Boating Shapes Summer Life in the St. Croix Valley

2-year-old Rhys and his older sister Althea love hanging out with their parents on the “big boat.”

For thousands of years, the St. Croix River has been home to water-loving people. The tradition of canoeing on the river, started by the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes long ago, continues today with throngs of adventurers setting forth from William O’Brien State Park. Paddling competitions can be as fierce as they were among competing voyageurs from the Northwest fur trade companies. From 1837 to 1912, the St. Croix teemed with logs ready to be cut for lumber—and last year’s high water levels inspired many travelers to keep an eye out for similar debris.

Though the method of river travel has often changed with the times—from canoe to steamboat, steamboat to motor—today’s stories echo those of the past, each flowing to the other. Today, the river can be thrilling—think motorboats and tubing—or sublimely relaxing. To quote Winnie the Pooh, “Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

It’s that kind of summer joy that inspires 2-year-old Rhys George to shout “Big boat! Big boat!” every time his family approaches the dock in Hudson. His family’s 37-foot boat is a floating haven for Rhys and his older sister Althea, who love wearing life jackets and clutching the steering wheel. The Georges are a family with generations on the water. Rhys’ grandmother Ruth has long had a pontoon, which inspired his mother, Talia George, to invest in a cabin cruiser. Their current boat, The You Should, is named for family, too. “It’s after a grandmother who was always telling people what they should do,” says Talia George.

The You Should, for the George family, isn’t just a boat—it’s an entire lifestyle. “There’s definitely a community for it,” says Talia George. A member of a Hudson area mother’s group, George has serendipitously met other boating mothers, and that shared culture made playdates a must. “The yacht club has a lot of young families as well,” says George. As a result, parents and children alike head out to the water to tie up for the afternoon.

The sailor’s life, George family style, is certainly far from roughing it. Young Rhys has his own fishing rod, TV and video player, pillows, and his own life jacket. And when the midday sun gets to be too much, he and his sister can head below deck for crafts, board games or a good old-fashioned nap. “We even bring our 70-pound German shepherd, Luna,” says Talia George. To board, the pup gets outfitted with his Outward Hound lifejacket before two adults work together to get him on the deck. The Georges’ water-averse cat is the only family member that doesn’t spend the summer on the St. Croix.


For the Georges, the highlight of the summer comes around the 4th of July, when Hudson Booster Days light up the St. Croix Valley. The You Should is no less festive than Hudson itself at that time of year: The deck is decorated in red, white and blue—and so are the kids. As fireworks break over the river, the entire family soaks up the view from the best seats in the house.

It’s no wonder that the St. Croix Scenic Riverway attracts those who don’t live by the river, too. The Diffley family of Eagan is fully dedicated to their weekend tradition of boating on the St. Croix. “Where else are you going to get this kind of real estate for this price?” says Chris Diffley. It’s true. Even waterfront properties can’t quite brag about being “on the water” compared to the Diffley family’s sailboat. And compared to a vacation home, the 36-foot boat is relatively low maintenance. “You don’t have to mow the water,” says Diffley. “You get there, you’re ready for the weekend.” Plus, with two super-athletic sons, the Diffleys appreciate being a phone call away.

The Diffleys typically spend nearly every summer weekend on the river. “Friday is the greatest day because there’s nobody there,” says Diffley. “A bunch of us will run down to the casino at Treasure Island and eat the crab buffet there, just to do it, just to do something and get out on the water. And Saturday and Sunday, we’ll tend to sail down to Afton and get out the grill.”

The St. Croix Marina, home to their family boat, is a small neighborhood in itself. Diffley says, “We actually have a picnic on our dock with an umbrella.” Picnicking at the St. Croix Marina, though, is a group effort. All interested boaters pool their resources and send someone to the grocery store. Typical fare includes steak, pork, eggs, toast, and whatever will help the group “cobble together a meal,” in Diffley’s words. “The marina also has a lot of activities and parties all the time. It’s a family there,” he adds.

Almost by accident, summertime on the St. Croix River fosters friendship and community. Seldom do we see car passengers waving to each other on the road—but on the river, the thrill of being outside inspires camaraderie. If natural beauty makes people so friendly, it’s no wonder that we have gathered on the shores of the St. Croix River for thousands of years.


River Traditions

If you’re looking to get out on the water yourself, try one of these vessels, each inspired by a period in the river’s history:

Canoe: From the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes to the voyageurs of old, canoeing has long been an important part of living in the St. Croix Valley. From early May through mid-October, William O’Brien State Park rents canoes for use on their scenic section of the river.

Steamboat: In the 19th century, steamboats were the primary mode of travel on the St. Croix River. The ships were outfitted with brass bands and dining rooms; local residents called them “floating wedding cakes.” For a modern-day equivalent, check out St Croix River Boat and Packet Co.

Motorboat: There’s no denying that motorboats are a great way to spend a private afternoon with family—without the effort of paddling. Check out Sunnyside Marina for rentals.