Artist Mark Granlund pedals and paints his way down the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers.
This wouldn’t be a “follow your nose and see where it takes you” kind of trip. Artist Mark Granlund’s Pedal-Paint adventure down the St. Croix and Mississippi River Valleys was an idea that had been percolating for years.
On the September day that he finally put the wheels of his bike in motion, his itinerary was pretty much set. He had a list of the museums, galleries, sculpture parks and other art stops he intended to visit along the way. He had a list of natural areas he would explore, with the intent of making one or two paintings at each. In particular, he planned to stop at Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs), selected with the help of his friend Hannah Texler, a native plant specialist he knew was knowledgeable about these protected sites that serve as harbors for biodiversity. He’d also figured out places where he might find great food and lodging in the river towns he passed through, and people who could tell him what was happening in local arts communities.
His plan was to connect all of these destination dots by biking a route from Taylors Falls, Minnesota to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Like the rivers, he would travel south, posting daily missives online with photos, paintings, and stories from the road. He figured it would take eight days, which included a few days off. He’d cover about 200 miles on the bike (a.k.a. Windsor) that would serve as his pack mule.
Agate caught up with Granlund mid-way through his first day, in Marine on St. Croix, and again by phone shortly after he returned (yes, he made it!), taking an Amtrak train back to the Twin Cities with his bike and gear aboard. In this story, we share excerpts from these conversations and selected highlights of his experience related to nature and wild places. Please seek out and enjoy his own account, details of his route, and his itinerary in its entirety on Mark’s Substack publication here.
[September 13, 2023. It is 2 p.m. Granlund set out from the Swedish Immigrant Trail trailhead west of downtown Taylors Falls, MN early this morning, and has already visited Franconia Sculpture Park and Crystal Spring SNA, where he did some painting. We sit outdoors at a park picnic table in Marine on St. Croix. He talks between bites of a sandwich picked up from the Marine General Store.]
LA/Agate: We’re catching you early in your trip, the first day. How did it feel to finally be rolling?
Granlund: My whole body, my whole mind, was still on city rhythm. I think it’s something that takes time to shed. This morning, after I had done a few paintings at Crystal Spring SNA, I was aware that I had a lot of miles still to make today. But I decided to sit awhile, to just be there: to listen to the birds, listen to the water in the bottom of the gorge, change the rhythm, relax.
LA/Agate: In your descriptions leading up to this trip, you say that one of your goals is to draw attention to native plant communities and rare ecosystems. How did you come to have this interest, yourself?
Granlund: I just love being in nature. But it was through gardening that I really got into the native plant world. I started out coordinating volunteers at a little park in St. Paul, and ended up being in charge of the city’s public gardens. Working with interested volunteers—like Hannah— and also with the city’s environmental services staff, we incorporated native flowers as much as we could in certain areas. As someone who was in charge of planting parks, I just recognize that that’s a totally made-up ecosystem. I mean, that works for a city park, but it’s an entirely different thing than a place like a Scientific and Natural Area, which has not only native plants but native plant communities, natural systems that are, at least to some extent, operating. I thought that, by stopping at SNAs, I could make more people aware that there are still these incredible remnants of the landscape as it once was. We should protect them, help them thrive, and expand them where possible.
LA/Agate: Most SNAs are open to the public for low-impact activities like walking and bird-watching. But they often lack trails or other recreational development, right?
Granlund: Right, which only makes sense. They shouldn’t be like a park; they should be kept in a natural state. So many places have been chipped away, chipped away, chipped away. But we can appreciate natural areas even if we can’t access them, or can minimally access them. It’s not about people. And that’s awesome. Some SNAs are pretty accessible, others less so. For example, one of my stops will be Eagle’s Bluff SNA, which really doesn’t have access to speak of. It exists to protect important habitat for overwintering birds. I appreciate that.
“As I stand and paint for an hour or so, by myself, nestled into this bend of the bluffs, time stops. … I dissolve into the wild ginger, bloodroot, ferns and dappled canopy of this place. As I hike back out of this wooded sanctuary to Windsor, my bike, I am happy. Happy to have found such a place. Happy to have spent time breathing the ferny air. Happy to be spending my life doing crazy adventures like this.”
M. Granlund, excerpt from Day 1, Crystal Spring Scientific and Natural Area
“Yes, one could look out from a bluff and see a river, but without the diversity of nature how much less of a scene it would be. SNAs are meant to protect and preserve those elements of our landscape that could most easily disappear.
“I think that the mindset behind SNAs should be part of the design ethic for our communities and living spaces. Once we lose a prairie, a floodplain marsh, a collection of rare plants, or even an animal species, we are one step closer to staring at nothing but ourselves. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, or anything.“
M. Granlund, excerpts from Day 3, Hastings Scientific and Natural Area
“I felt I should somehow capture the view of the eagles. At the bottom of the bluff, along the highway, is a scenic overlook. I decided to paint this scene as well…what the eagles see from their trees in the SNA.”
M. Granlund, excerpt from Day 5, vicinity of Bald Eagle Bluff SNA
[September 22, 2013. Looking back on the completed journey, now in the rearview mirror.]
LA/Agate: Welcome back! So, how did the reality of your trip compare to the idea of the trip you had before you set out? You had done so much homework in advance; did anything still catch you by surprise?
Granlund: The reality was better than the idea. Ideas are just ideas. I think I got more of a sense of the real diversity of Scientific and Natural Areas, as well as understanding more fully that easy access is not the priority. It was really great to experience places that are truly set aside for their own inherent properties and goodness. And yes, I’d say I was surprised by the art venues I visited. I mean, you can look on a map, you can search art museums near me (laughing). But having gone this whole stretch of miles and cities and talking to people at each of these places, you start to see how they all interact with each other. It’s really fascinating how the arts communities and arts activities are woven together in these valleys. Things are not happening in isolation. And, as I got further south, where you’re riding right next to the Mississippi, I was just blown away by how beautiful the river valley is. I’d see these vast stretches of water dotted with islands and marshes and bluffs in the background. The river keeps widening, broadens out into marshlands, the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge and Perrot State Park on the WI side, all these backwaters and really interesting places. You’re seeing the bluffs from a distance, but also biking right up to them so you see their profile, see how steep and tall they are. It was really eye opening going that slow through it all instead of speeding past in a car.
I just encourage people to get out and slow-roll through these beautiful parts of our region. Take your time. Enjoy it.
Mark Granlund is an award-winning artist who received a Masters of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing from The City University of New York at Brooklyn College. He is represented in 2 regional galleries: Everett and Charlie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Yellow Bird Gallery in Duluth, Minnesota. He has exhibited regularly for 30 years. Granlund has been an art educator and administrator as a lifelong career: teaching, advising and stewarding arts communities and public art collections.
Other than painting, writing and gardening, Granlund is the Public Art Administrator for Metro Transit in the Twin Cities and an occasional caretaker of an island on the U.S./Canadian border for the Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation.
Paintings from this Pedal-Paint trip and other works will be available for view and purchase at an Open Studio event held in conjunction with the 2023 Fall St. Paul Art Crawl. Visit Friday October 6 from 6 p.m.—10 p.m., Saturday October 7 from noon to 8 p.m., and Sunday October 8 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Mark Granlund Studio, 1022 Burgess Street, St. Paul, MN, 55103.
All photographs in this story by Mark Granlund unless otherwise noted.