Our Royalex Wenonah Spirit II on the Cannon River
First it was kayaks. Now it’s stand-up paddleboards. Canoeing just can’t seem to compete. The recent news that a popular material for canoes will no longer be manufactured is perhaps a sign of how far the once-dominant watercraft has fallen. If not a symptom, it could very well push the canoe further to the margins of paddling.
Tough, lightweight, and inexpensive, Royalex has been used in many a fine canoe during the past 30 years – including my Wenonah Spirit II. The Minnesota company uses the material in 50 percent of the canoes it makes on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Our Spirit II has taken us deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down many miles of Minnesota rivers. Sure, I have envied my companions’ super-light Kevlar boats when carrying it across BWCAW portages, but love the durability on the rivers during low water, when scraping gravel is unavoidable. It’s the ideal all-purpose boat.
Royalex is best known for its use in whitewater boats. I don’t paddle rapids much, but I love the stories of canoes wrapped around rocks by hydraulic forces, only to snap back to their original shape when pulled out of the river, often with a winch.
Apparently this position as the preferred material for the hardcore fringe of an increasingly marginal pastime doesn’t make manufacturing the stuff economical any longer.
Rise and fall
Canoes were once made out of birch bark and then wood and canvas. After World War II, airplane manufacturers converted their plants to making the ubiquitous aluminum canoes (and many war pilots turned to flying those craft into remote lakes with vacationing paddlers).
The vortex of baby-boomers and post-war industry and a national passion for the outdoors defined canoeing's peak.
Then along came Royalex and eventually the premium Kevlar. And then came the meteoric rise of kayaks in the late 1990s and 2000s. People – including myself – love the indepence, the ease, the intimacy of a kayak. Stand-up paddleboards are the latest and greatest thing – it looks fun, and boasts the simplicity and closeness to the water to which all paddlecraft aspire.
But you can’t beat the connection between boat and water and people as you can achieve while paddling a tandem canoe. To make it swing and pivot in the current as you descend a river, or to pull it against a headwind stroke by stroke, brings you close to each other, and to the canoe’s history as an efficient means of transportation – loved by indigenous people, voyageurs and explorers.
The big question with Royalex is what will happen next? Will someone buy it up and keep the stuff available? Will some other material replace it? Either way, I suspect it will be a more expensive future, recognizing the smaller niche market it supplies.
Hardcore canoeists will probably point to cedar strip, wood-canvas, fiberglass, or Kevlar as indication of thriving canoe communities, but those aren’t materials for the mass market. People will always canoe, but it's likely it will either be in heavy, noisy aluminum, or one of the expensive and precious materials.
Royalex is dead. Long live canoeing.
There are people everywhere, all the time, in New York City. On the sidewalks, at the parks, in the bars and restaurants. It’s a city defined by swarms of humans as much as skyscrapers or famous streets.
I was reminded while visiting recently that how those millions of people experience the city is a complex thing: They coexist relatively peacefully, mostly minding their own business. They search for companionship in the crowds. They make micro-refuges of miniscule apartments. They drink.
And they make art.
The city’s major art institutions – the Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, etc. – are world-class. But this time, we saw what you could see without leaving the street.
Sunday morning, we took the E train to the 23rd Street stop, got coffee and pastries, and walked a couple blocks to the High Line, a nascent park built on an old elevated railroad. Grasses and flowers grow up from gaps in the pavement where the old tracks still lay, reminding you this was once a way to get dangerous freight trains off the streets of Chelsea, and it then sat abandoned for 25 years. Now it is a bright ribbon of green, threading a mile-and-a-half through the concrete and steel landscape of Manhattan.
The first part of the High Line opened in 2009, a second part in 2011, and another section is due to open next year. The park feels like something that could only have been created in the last decade. The design is thoughtful, confident, and informed. People move along its length smoothly, conveyed by a constant shifting of scenery.
At every turn, art asks you questions. We sat on a bench and listened to an automated male voice recite the names of animals. I wonder, will this be the outcome of one extinction after another? In the future, will our kids go outside with only a list of that which once lived here? What beasts once wandered the Manhattan wilderness? Fine questions to consider in a park reclaimed from industrial use.
It was a sunny and hot morning and for these Minnesotans it just felt good to be walking outside. We beheld creations big and small. Variations on busts, a wall of pressed tin and broken mirrors, billboards of baseball moments, gardens carefully curated for beauty and wildness.
The art and the gardens and the structure fit together in perfect harmony. An amphitheater over 10th Avenue, with a long view uptown through windows where a stage or screen might be, lets you sit and rest your feet and consider the city as a play or a movie: a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, and a drama, all at once.
After our walk on the High Line, I took the subway out to Brooklyn. When I stepped out of the Morgan Street station, I immediately noticed two things: it was a lot dirtier than Chelsea, and there was art everywhere.
Street art, an evolution or an expansion of graffiti, is often vandalism, and illegal. But in blighted neighborhoods, especially industrial areas, it can improve one’s experience of the place. It states that people live here, and says a little about who they are, and it adds color and depth to the landscape.
The Bushwick neighborhood is full of good examples. The sort on display there isn’t your typical tag, and most of what I saw seemed intended to to delight, beautify, or challenge.
Its very nature is a statement about contemporary art. These are not artists content to work in a studio, hoping a curator will one day decide their work is worthy enough for a gallery or a museum. These artists go directly to the public. They also create knowing that their work is impermanent, that it will last at most a year or two, and often much less.
These artists do not work so that the paintings will hang in a climate-controlled environment for centuries, viewable with a ticket. They work so that many, many people see it now.
Our hotel was only a few blocks north of Times Square, but I had no intention of going there this trip until a friend told me about Max Neuhaus’s sound installation. It was worth fighting the hordes to experience.
You have to go looking for the piece, which is simply called Times Square, at the tip of the pedestrian triangle in the middle of this famous intersection. We found it surrounded by two people dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and a Buzz Lightyear – hokey impersonators who take photos with tourists in exchange for a couple bucks.
The large, unmarked grate in the sidewalk was unnoticed by the crowds. They walked over it quickly, perhaps assuming the weird drone from beneath their feet was the subway or ventilation or perhaps not thinking about it long enough to assume anything.
Neuhaus first installed the piece in 1977, when Times Square was one of the seediest places in New York, and possibly America. How the work has remained relevant as the square has evolved into a highly-commercial tourist destination is an interesting question worthy its own article.
The experience of the piece today is fascinating. If you stand on the grate, you are suddenly in a bubble. For the most part, people do not congregate on the grate, so you have rare space around you, and the droning emanating from beneath has the effect of white noise, blocking the cacophony of the area. You are surrounded by more activity than just about anywhere, and you are suddenly very alone.
Then you step off the grate and back into the fray and you walk as fast as you can past neon signs to escape the area. A museum like the Metropolitan has peace and quiet going for it, but none of the works we enjoyed last month would have had anywhere near the same impact in a traditional museum setting. I came home feeling I had a better sense of New York than before – not the accumulated art of our world found in the big museums, but the city itself.
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.
The oldest fly shop in the Twin Cities is also its newest. The angling institution that is Bob Mitchell’s in Lake Elmo recently changed hands, as Mike Alwin handed the reins to Robert and Rhea Hawkins, thirty-somethings who, for reasons mystifying to many anglers, moved to Minnesota from Montana last year.
But Robert, who grew up fishing trout in Bozeman and guided anglers in Alaska for seven summers and in Montana for eight, couldn’t be more excited about his new home a thousand miles east. He’s exploring Minnesota’s waters, meeting its anglers, and embracing life as a fly shop proprietor.
The pair are here for family (Rhea grew up in St. Cloud) and fishing. On their first trip to Minnesota to explore the fly shop idea, they headed to northern Wisconsin’s Brule River for fall steelhead fishing. They stayed at a grimy motel favored by fishermen, where Rhea slept in her sleeping bag on the bed.
It was their wedding anniversary.
That adventure in October 2011 led to Robert standing behind the shop’s counter last week, steward of a 35-year-old shop with a rich legacy.
As the third owners of the shop, the Hawkinses inherit a loyal community and a tradition of education. Alwin was a faithful steward of Bob Mitchell’s concept of a Western-style fly shop located in the Twin Cities. He was also regular host to “The Lost Boys,” the group of old fishermen who come to the shop on Saturday mornings to drink coffee, talk trout, shoot the bull, and occasionally buy something.
Bob Mitchell’s name on the door isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed since 1978. Fly fishing has grown from its traditional trout roots. The shop is still focused on trout – and Robert says it always will be – but it will also gradually grow into providing education and gear for other piscine quarries.
Since moving here, Robert has fallen for muskie fishing on local rivers, smallmouth on the upper Mississippi, and steelhead on Lake Superior tributaries.
Last summer, residents on St. Paul’s East Side might have seen Robert riding a motor scooter to Lake Phalen, clad in his waders, fly rod tucked under the seat. There he chased the lake’s tiger muskies, and landed a few bass and northerns.
The muskies were more cooperative on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, he reports. Hailing from Big Sky Country, Robert seems shocked that such fishing is possible in a major metropolitan area.
Spoiled by famous Rocky Mountain rivers, Robert also fished western Wisconsin’s popular trout streams last summer. He says he can’t believe this fishing is dismissed by anyone who thinks the only place to fish trout is east of the Missouri River. He was blown away his first day on the Kinnickinnic, and he compared the fish numbers to the three famous spring creeks which flow into the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana. He had to add that the numbers might be comparable, if the fish size wasn’t quite.
“The shop has always been an educational center, and we’ll keep that as a main focus,” said Rhea. “We want to keep that community of people here, with all the classes.” But it’s also about making the long-time regulars comfortable.
Robert says one of the Lost Boys told him he was worried there might be a “two-fly minimum purchase” to hang around and drink coffee. Robert assured him that wouldn’t happen. While the Lost Boys might never grow up, there is also a new generation entering the sport.
“There are a lot more young people who are fly fishing these days, but many of them think they need to drive several states to find fishing,” Robert said. “We want to get people who only fish out West to get out more around here. If you live a few blocks from Lake Phalen, you can go string up a fly rod and catch fish.”
In the months ahead, the shop will increase its inventory of gear for both warmwater fishing and trout. Robert also hopes to share his knowledge of Montana’s Bighorn River, beloved by many of the shop’s customers, and Alaska’s Bristol Bay, another major fishing destination. He has in-depth knowledge of both fisheries.
But Robert’s bottom line is that neither a road trip nor an airplane ticket are necessary for great fly fishing. If he ever gets a day off from his new gig, he won’t suffer from lack of angling options to explore.
Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop
3459 Lake Elmo Ave N
Lake Elmo, MN 55042