Recently, during May 18-24, the St. Croix River Association hosted the 2013 Namekagon River Paddle. The trip started at Phillipi Landing in Cable, WI. Lake Namekagon had been ice-free for less than two weeks, and there was still a bit of snow on the ground at the landing. That didn’t deter most of the 80 people that had signed up for this 92-mile-long river journey on this section of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The Namekagon has a way of charming people, and this trip was no different. The weather was cold; three nights it dipped below freezing. The water levels were high and very fast, creating difficult paddling conditions. Many people dumped into cold water. Those that shot through higher-than-normal rapids without capsizing had a wonderful sense of accomplishment. People not quite so lucky found assistance from other paddlers to retrieve lost boats and other gear, without having to ask. And every day ended with laughter, stories, sharing of food and drink, and looking forward to the next leg of the journey.
Warm spring days arriving later than normal turned out to be a blessing for sighting wildlife. Trees and bushes were just starting to leaf out, making it easy to spot all the activity. The river’s edge was alive with thousands of warblers, redstarts, thrushes, kinglets, sparrows, vireos and other migrating birds. Eagles, ospreys and hawks soared overhead. Wood turtles, painted turtles, snapping turtles, and soft shelled turtles were seen basking on rocks and logs when the sun peeked out. Deer, bear, otter and beaver ambled into view. At the end of the day the nighthawks put on an aerial show, as they preyed on flying insects.
People in host communities along the route helped make the trip special. Some of the overnight stops were right in town. A church left their doors open so we could use their flush toilets and running water, and offered shelter in case of severe weather. Restaurants not only supplied great food, they also welcomed paddlers to stay in out of the rain; the pool tables and card games were competitive and friendly. One of the campground hosts went so far as to shuttle people to a laundromat so they could have some dry clothes. I regularly heard how impressed paddlers were by how open and welcoming all the host communities and lodging facilities were. Many said they are planning to come back and spend more time in Namekagon River communities.
This National Park is special, one of the first eight designated wild and scenic rivers, yet very near a large urban center. Anglers from all over the world travel to the Namekagon to fish its cool clean waters for trout, muskellunge and bass, and maybe get a glimpse of a sturgeon. The Namekagon River begins narrow and winding, with spruce, tamarack and pine trees prevalent along the banks, a rocky bottom and several small rapids. At flowages the river becomes slow, deep and wide, and some stretches support high-quality wild rice beds. Then it narrows again, and there, for us, the marsh marigolds, trillium and bloodroot were very showy. The river bank varies from a wide flood plain to steep, sandy banks. Remnants of the logging heritage are evident. At the mouth of the river it widens again and joins the St. Croix, a river to be explored on another trip, as our adventure ended at Riverside Landing, near Danbury.
Every time I put in, the Namekagon feels like a new river, and this trip certainly proved that to be true. It’s important to simply get outside among the water and the trees, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Taking a week to slow down and live in the moment is something everyone should do at least annually.