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Cold, soggy paddlers look forward to sun on the Namekagon

Photo by Sallie Anderson
Four days of rainy, windy and increasingly cold weather are about to end. You can see it in the sky.

Earth Journal writer Ron Meador is posting daily this week from the Namekagon River in Wisconsin.

The photo above is included not as a sentimental sunset-on-the-trail shot but as a bulletin of the best news to reach our Namekagon River paddle group since we launched last Sunday:

Four days of rainy, windy and increasingly cold weather are about to end. You can see it in the sky. And though the overnite forecast for Wednesday into Thursday is, as I write, for lows in the middle 30s there is still great happiness over what likely lies beyond — dry weather and sunshine.

You have to be prepared on an outdoors trip for cold or wind or rain. Any two of those at a time is fine by me. But the combination of all three has been steadily wearing on our procession of 75 canoeists and kayakers, and yesterday the strain was particularly plain: You could hear it in our voices, see it in our fatigue and peculiar dress.

People are paddling in so many layers of long underwear, outerwear, rainwear and paddle wear that they seem have gained 50 pounds overnight, or to have been inflated with a tire pump.

Getting in and out of boats is more cumbersome when dressed this way, but there isn’t always a choice: Some are out of dry clothes, having run through everything they brought for a week on the water, and are opting for as many layers as they can stand at one time.

paddlers getting ready
Photo by Sallie Anderson
People are paddling in so many layers of long underwear, outerwear, rainwear and paddle wear that they seem have gained 50 pounds overnight, or to have been inflated with a tire pump.

At least two in the group just ran out of gas for paddling yesterday. I saw one of them go by as cargo behind the center thwart of a canoe, bundled up and draped with a reflective space blanket for good measure. The canoe was trailed by a kayaker towing a second, empty kayak behind.

If that was a sobering sight, though, the surprise appearance of a sauna at our destination more than made up for it.

Smoke was already curling from the chimney as we pitched our tent at the Log Cabin Inn, and the delicate question of what and how much to wear in a group of recent acquaintances was settled quickly: People came in covered with full-body layers of wet gear and peeled away the outer ones as the material dried and their bodies warmed.

Toughest day so far

Yesterday may have been the  toughest paddle so far for most people if you factor everything together. There was no dam or significant drop to shoot, as on each of the earlier days, and the tightest turns and whitest water might have been down a bit from Tuesday’s top challenges.

But Tuesday’s route was also about half flowages and other slow water, and Wednesday’s had none. The water ranged from fast and smooth to fast and very rough. It wasn’t work the whole way, not quite, but you had to pay attention every minute, and if some miscalculation put you where you didn’t want to be, or caused you to miss a landing, recovery was real work.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s river data from gauges at Cable, where we began our 92-mile journey, and at Danbury, where we’ll end it, tell the story of what’s happened in the river this week:

On Saturday, the river at Danbury was flowing at about 2,000 cubic feet per second; this morning the rate is about 3,600 (median for the Namekagon over all seasons is 1,430).

Saturday’s river height was 2.5 feet; today’s is a little over 4. Water temperature: about 60 F then, about 50 F now.

For me, a whitewater novice, yesterday’s conditions offered a full menu of opportunities to practice new ideas, including the notion a of paddling as few strokes as possible — steering with slight leans and weight shifts while letting the water take me where it would (as long as that was further downstream and front end first).

On the other hand, every slight distraction seemed to result in a change of course directly toward some obstacle, and a fresh need for fancy paddlework. And few things are as distracting as being a little too damp and a little too chilled, which I was all day long.

I’ve probably had some mild hypothermia on other paddle trips and it scares me, deeply. Especially in conditions where getting out of the boat means getting into the wind, which makes things worse.

Conditions’ effects on paddlers

The sauna’s warmth took conversation to a deeper level about the day, the trip, the river.

Lydia, a graduate student and new kayaker who has been who has been consistently nonchalant along the river, allowed that the river had put a little fear into her, making her remember that she’s never been all that crazy about being on or in the water and has never learned to swim that well.

Mary, a nurse closer to my age, confided that a few capsizes had put some tight, full-body anxiety into her about getting on the water again, which she knew was groundless but couldn’t talk herself out of.

She had come to the sauna from the campground’s coin-operated showers, where her last layer of dry clothing, placed carefully out of splash range, had gotten soaked anyway by a fault in the plumbing, reducing her to tears.

Andre has recovered his vision, sort of, having found a pair of prescription sunglasses as he shook debris out his kayak hatches.

Many of us  saw the porcupine up a tree that he was first to spot — a delightful, unexpected encounter. Others’ wildlife intelligence from yesterday: Jerry and Dolores saw a black bear cub that seemed to be shadowing  a couple of picnickers near Bing Bend Landing. Cherie saw an otters’ slide on the riverbank but, alas, no otters. A few people saw a mink, probably, running along the bank with a fish in its jaws.

Many in our group are picking up litter along the way, and Sallie grabbed an ancient Miller can with a good-sized snail attached.

Seeking hot meal, early turn-in

Last night’s presentation on hand-building canoes, with example boats and experts from the canoe museum in Cable, was postponed for lack of enthusiasm. The judgment was that most paddlers would prefer to tidy up, walk up the highway from our Trego campground for a hot meal prepared by others, and turn in early.

Good call. Earlier in the day, a few of us approached the landing where a program on North Woods search and rescue was on order and decided to keep moving. The subject is interesting to me, and I imagine to others as well, but I’d been on the water for half a day and a dozen miles already, and hadn’t felt warm since morning, when I got back into chilly, clammy neoprene. Best to keep moving.

And now it’s time to get moving  on today. The rain has stopped and the sun is up, though so is the wind. Temps may reach 60 or better today and tomorrow, our last day on the river.

It may get down to 30 tonight at Howell Landing, the first place we’ll be tenting without any chance of going indoors for a hot shower or restaurant meal. If it stays dry, that won’t matter.

Next: From Trego to Howell Landing. 

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