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
Sir Ernest Shackleton is widely studied for courage and leadership. He led his crew of sailors to safety over a two year journey when their ship was stranded on the Antarctica ice in 1915. The story was immortalized in Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance.
Wild Bill Cooper of northern Minnesota has not received such attention. He led a snowmobile expedition in 1972 which was supposed to travel from Minnesota to Moscow and back via Siberia and Russia. They didn’t make it, but did get to Greenland eventually.
Then Cooper turned to drug smuggling and ultimately disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Duluth filmmaker Mike Scholtz has immortalized the man and the trip in a new documentary, Wild Bill’s Run. Wild Bill is the anti-Shackleton, and Wild Bill’s Run the anti-Endurance. There are no heroics here, but there is plenty of adventure.
The film has gained accolades since it was released -- it’s currently on tour with the prestigious Banff Mountain Film Festival, and I finally saw it when it was shown on Outside magazine’s website yesterday. A paean to the ‘70s, Minnesotans, outlaws and an adventurous spirit, it glows with glorious 16mm film footage, paired with wry interviews with some of the surviving members of the expeditions, and Cooper’s family.
Cooper was not one to play by many rules. The expedition starts with his handgun being confiscated when the group crossed through customs into Canada. They more or less steal fuel at one point, and get in trouble when they enter Greenland without any permits.
Flying marijuana from Mexico to Minnesota was lucrative work and Cooper allegedly had 17 planes in the “Marijuana Air Force” the FBI says he operated. And then he disappeared. The most likely explanation is that he was killed over drugs or money, but that hasn’t stopped other explanations, including that he is still out there somewhere.
The chance that the fame-loving Cooper might just show up at a screening of the film about himself should be enough reason to go see it when you can. But the more reliable reason is that it’s a funny tale of adventure and intrigue and wilderness, Cooper every bit a character from the Nixon era as Shackleton was a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt.
Watch the trailer:
Shoveling one’s driveway falls somewhere between a walk in the woods and washing the dishes on the spectrum of good times to do some thinking. Two items danced in my mind as I worked at mine after yesterday’s snow: An interview with Twin Cities people person Lars Leafblad and the news that Grand Marais explorer Lonnie Dupre called off his attempt to summit Mount Denali in Alaska.
Leafblad will soon start a new position directing the Bush Foundation’s leadership efforts. I admire those who lead and who study and teach leadership but, as a writer, usually prefer the role of observer to protagonist. Dupre has tried for the past three winters to be the first person to climb the tallest mountain in North America alone in the month of January. As much as I like a good hike, I am also not a mountain-climber.
But, when shoveling, we are all philosophers of any subject we wish to ponder.
As I cleared a couple inches of snow off my driveway, and cursed the treacherous crust of ice beneath it, I thought about the definition of leadership discussed in Leafblad’s interview. He essentially said that part of his role at the Bush Foundation will be to develop courage to fail in our state’s leaders.
Dupre’s repeated failures to achieve his goal on Mount Denali in Alaska entered my mind at this point. I thought of how a man who wanted to climb a giant mountain alone could exemplify leadership. I also thought about why the obscure “first” which Lupre seems so determined to claim was worth the extraordinary effort he has put into it.
It’s probably because there are not many firsts still out there. The tallest mountains have been climbed, the moon visited, the oceans crossed. Dupre has had to seek out one of the greatest physical challenges which remains in order to make his mark on history.
Of course, that’s not to say challenge doesn’t exist in our world. Despite all our modern conveniences, anybody who has tried to succeed in business, pass legislation, or start a family can tell you it is not easy. I have attempted all three in the past five years and I can tell you no gadgets, websites or other technology will remove the obstacles. But you have to persist, despite the inevitable failures and setbacks.
Whether you want to lead or just live well, I think you need the courage to risk failure. The resilience to risk following your dreams over and over again. We must return to the mountain January after January.
The value of courage should not overshadow the necessity of using our brains. I was impressed by the intelligence Dupre exhibited to make the difficult decision to abandon this attempt.
He figured he could make it to the summit -- achieve that goal he has chased for years now -- but the previous night he had struggled to stay warm because the snow at his 17,200-foot campsite was too hard to make a good snow cave. He had not gotten much rest in the -35 degree temperatures inside his shallow cave.
Dupre knew that if he made it to the summit, he would need to rest in this cave again on his way down, and that such rest would not come with the poor conditions. And he knew that making it to the top of the mountain is one thing -- making it back down again is the real accomplishment.
So he turned back.
Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy being comfortable. I like my close group of friends, my well-known professional network, my well-worn hiking boots (and well-worn slippers), my home and even my favorite chair. I write about canoeing or hiking or fishing, definitely not leadership and mountain climbing.
But sometimes you have to take a leap. I did it recently when I stepped away from a cause I care deeply about and people I felt lucky to work with to pursue new work as a freelancer and a new calling as a father.
It felt like I had climbed to the top of another steep hill in life, and rather than stopping to enjoy the view, jumped off the cliff on the other side.
We won’t get anywhere in our communities, our state and our country if we don’t take big leaps -- we must accept risk, welcome new ideas, admit when we are wrong, and of course use our brains.
As I discovered yesterday, we also won’t get our driveways shoveled if we stand around thinking all day.
“We went for a hike. The beach was a tumble of exposed bedrock, some formations looking like model pirate ships in silhouette, but soon the gravel narrowed and an outcrop of jagged rock faced us. The girls scrambled up a well-used trail, and then I saw Grace climbing, hand over hand, up the final short rock wall. I was about to yell my customary warning, but she had summited and Bailey was on her heels. They raised their arms, the Lake Superior wind whipping their hair, and I breathed two words: their Everest.”
- Chris Niskanen, Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota’s State Parks
Chris Niskanen spent 17 years as an outdoors writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, writing about fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor pursuits popular in Minnesota. Then, in 2010, he left journalism to lead the communications efforts of the Department of Natural Resources.
During this career, he has written two books, one of which included photos from each of Minnesota’s 66 state parks and 16 essays by Niskasen.
The guy knows a thing or two about outdoors and nature writing. From the excerpt above, he also seems to know about raising adventure-loving daughters.
So I have two good reasons to attend a writing workshop being taught by Niskanen on Nov. 17 at Warner Nature Center in Marine on St. Croix. St. Croix River country being home to a lot of inspiring nature and inspired writers, this is an ideal location for the class.
The workshop is sponsored by ArtReach St. Croix (which I recently joined the board of) and will feature not only in-depth instruction about writing well, but a chance to get outside, too:
During this special writing workshop, author Chris Niskanen will talk about the importance of imagery, point of view, pace, dialogue and research in good nature writing. He’ll stress the importance of avoiding cliches and creating a strong voice and developing a sense of place. Chris believes good nature writing is rooted in keen observation and he will address the skills you should hone in your observation. Class participation is strongly encouraged and you will be challenged to take risks in your writing while enjoying a day of retreat at the Warner Nature Center. Meet other writers around the Nature Center’s 11′ diameter table made from a cross sectional “cookie” cut from the largest Douglas Fir that the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company ever cut down. Enjoy a guided mid-day hike on the Nature Center’s trails. Dress for the weather. Warner even has enough snow shoes for everyone if we need them! Bring a brown bag lunch. Hot and cold drinks provided.
The class costs $60 for ArtReach members and $65 for non-members. You can sign up here. I hope to see you there.
(Cross-posted from St. Croix 360.)