It was on the third day of a recent 92-mile paddle down the Namekagon River that some magic happened. Nightly rains had brought the river up to flood stage, and the powerful current was pushing many of our party into rocks and trees, causing unplanned swims in the 55-degree water.
But the swamped canoes and kayaks were not the important part. Strangers coming to each other’s aid were the extraordinary sight. Four of us banded together for the final few miles of that day. I knew I could depend on these new friends if I ran into any trouble.
The 75 people signed up for the trip, organized by the St. Croix River Association, arrived in Cable on May 18th got to know each other a little our first night over brick-fired pizzas at The Rivers Eatery in Cable. After dinner, naturalist Emily Stone of the Cable Natural History Museum presented about loons. We learned that 20 percent of loons die from ingesting lead fishing sinkers. She urged us to keep asking our local bait shop for alternative tackle.
It was hard not to be overwhelmed by the fresh spring beauty along the Namekagon the next morning. The banks were adorned in all shades of green imaginable, and the channel was narrow enough that the aroma of growth came from both sides. It was like paddling through the Garden of Eden.
The Sawmill Saloon in Seeley welcomed us warmly that night. They set forth a feast of brats and pea soup, and entertainment by the Les fils du voyageur (Sons of the voyageur). It was like a barbershop quarter but in French, with canoe paddles as props. Their music was often melancholy, singing of lost loves and a home far away across the ocean, bittersweet memories as they paddled their canoes through lonely wilderness.
After a rainy night, several paddlers joined Dave Thorson of Down to Earth Tours for a walk through Uhrenholdt Memorial Forest. This patch of woods was once owned by a Danish immigrant farmer who believed forests were important parts of any farm. Dave filled our heads with fascinating information about the history of the region, from its ancient geology to the fact that one of the twentieth century’s most famous authors, Sigurd F. Olson, once lived and worked on the land, and married one of the farmer’s daughters.
We were sent on our way with bellies full of wild rice pancakes, and that’s when the excitement really started. A sharp turn near the beginning of the day’s route pushed several paddlers into brush on the opposite bank, where their boats filled with water. Their paddling partners came to their aid, though, and everyone continued down the river. At a mid-morning stop, park ranger Jeff Butler offered a fly-fishing demonstration.
Our camp that night was in Hayward, where a shuttle van made trips through town to drop paddlers at several shops and restaurants. Dinner at the Comfort Suites featured a buffet of food from several local restaurants. The night brought more rain, and we enjoyed the warm and dry lobby a little extra long in the morning. The rain passed and back to the river we went.
Day three’s wild ride included me nearly capsizing when I tried to rescue someone else’s swamped kayak and was swept into a downed tree for my efforts. But again, everyone helped each other out, and the river carried us quickly to Camp Namekagon, near Springbrook, where their bar in a barn served up pizza and beer, and National Park Service historian Jean Schaeppi presented a slideshow about the area’s logging history. That is a story still written on the land and the river, including two dams which have been removed now but still send paddlers through fast chutes, rocketing us through tall waves.
The river was calmer but the air colder on our fourth day. We paddled a little harder to keep warm. A lunchtime stop at Earl Landing featured a demonstration of search-and-rescue gear, and an unsuccessful attempt to get a fire started. In Trego that night, as the sun set, the clouds cleared. It would be a cold night, but dry, and foretold blue skies for the final two days.
After traveling the four mile-long Trego Flowage, and touring the Xcel Energy dam at its terminus, we commenced one of the loveliest stretches of river. The banks here were steep and high, studded with pines. A person could frequently set their paddle down to enjoy the solitude, listen to the constant chorus of birds from the banks, breathe in the clean air, and consider that maybe the world isn’t such a bad place.
Our final night brought us to Howell Landing, the most remote campsite of the trip. I arrived in late afternoon as golden sunlight embraced us. Jeff Kampa of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources joined us for a presentation about lake sturgeon, the ancient fish which give the Namekagon its name (roughly translated to “place of the sturgeon”). Mike Bartz, who was our ever reliable and smiling sweep all week, bringing up the rear and looking out for stragglers, showed his beautiful restored wood-canvas canoe and talked about the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum, a growing nonprofit in Spooner.
The next day brought us 21 beautiful miles to Spooner. I paddled for a while with Jim Fitzpatrick, the recently-retired director of Carpenter Nature Center, and an expert birder. He would tilt his head and name the many bird songs that accompanied us downstream. I was even lucky enough to be there when we heard the winter wren's song, an intricate 20-note symphony.
All too quickly, the Namekagon joined the St. Croix and we had just a couple fast miles to go to Riverside Landing, our take-out. Even when I got home, the magic of the river lingered with me. I missed the water, the scenery, and the people, but I'm thankful it will be there next time I want to wet a paddle.
I blogged daily from the riverside for most of the trip. Read the posts and see more photos here.