The water can be low on substantial portions of the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin this time of year, but there’s usually a section or two that can still be floated easily during the cool autumn season.
You won’t be motivated to take a swim along the way, as many paddlers do during the summer, but there’s still something special about floating this river in the crisp fall air, when a paddler most likely has the stream all to himself.
It’s been years — in the late ’80s, before I hit my teens — when the Namekagon made its first impression on me during a summer family trip. Lucky for me, this family trip has been repeated almost annually with parents, siblings and cousins.
One year we encountered some nasty August weather. My family started on a cool summer day with blue skies and clouds. But several miles into the trip, the skies gave way to heavy, cold rain. It started pounding just as we pulled up for a picnic at the Earl Park landing near Trego, Wis. My father, sister and cousin, in the canoe ahead of us, ditched their boat on the landing and darted for shelter in the smelly cinder block restrooms a couple hundred yards away.
But as my canoe, with my mom, my brother and me, pulled up to the landing, the rain turned torrential. So we simply flipped our boat and waited underneath. Luckily, our boat was carrying the cooler and the main dish for the whole family’s planned picnic: fried chicken.
My brother and I dug in, eating under the comfort of our green, plastic rental canoe.
“We were sitting in a rainstorm, and you guys wanted hot sauce,” my mom recalled recently. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the Namekagon has changed little over the years thanks to the act of Congress in 1968 that protected it, folding it into the National Park Service.
To this day, the Namekagon runs clean and clear, showing just what she is made of: sweeping sandbars and aquatic plants waving in the current, mussels and fish scattered across the channel, and wildlife from deer to bear, bald eagles and waterfowl.
It’s easy to take the river for granted. When I moved back to the Twin Cities from North Carolina a few years ago, I planned for frequent floats down the nearby Namekagon. A fishing buddy and I make a pact to visit the stream at least once every year. But I’ve gotten there less often than I hoped. That’s disappointing considering it’s one of my favorite streams. I even named my beagle mutt Nammy in honor of the river.
So while I’ve managed only a handful of summer trips down the river in recent years, fall has offered me a last chance to visit the Namekagon.
A decade ago, a friend and I paddled an 8-mile section of the Namekagon in late September. The leaves were turning from green to rich yellows and oranges. A light rain pattered the surface.
We were casting, mostly for smallmouth bass, but it was another fish, one we hadn’t tied into, that I still remember. A stubby lake sturgeon, about 3 feet long, jumped completely out of the water alongside my friend’s aluminum canoe. We got the rare glimpse at its rubbery gray skin and beady black eyes.
Late-season paddling requires extra precautions. This became apparent last October when I floated the stream with my brother and a few friends for a couple of nights of camping, and also, finally, to introduce my dog to the river for which she is named.
Keeping warm is one of the biggest challenges. For example, my poor hound was so cold she shivered in the bottom of the canoe until I wrapped her with my thick rain jacket.
Water levels are low this late in the fall (check levels online at www.nps.gov/sacn/plan yourvisit/riverlevels.htm). As our group trudged toward our takeout, I could have used a pair of hip-waders to keep my feet from freezing every time we bottomed out and our vessel needed a shove.
My feet were so cold I passed on casting a lure to some of the fishiest spots, which I found almost as painful as my freezing feet.
Then it hit us: Since we planned to camp overnight, we had extra sets of warm clothes stowed in waterproof packs. Had we taken a spill in the icy water, these extra clothes might have prevented a run-in with deadly hypothermia. But in this case, we used the extra layers to keep toasty, so we could focus on something other than the weather: enjoying the spoils of my favorite river.
Javier Serna is a freelance outdoors writer based in St. Paul. Rain or shine, a day on the Namekagon River is about as good as it gets for him.