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Finally, the Namekagon and weather combine for a perfect river day

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
On Thursday, we finally woke up to the kind of paddling day we'd been hoping for.

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

Thursday may have been about as perfect a day as it’s possible to have on the Namekagon River:

Clear skies, light winds for the most part, temperatures that climbed into the 60s, I think, which is the heart of that that happy zone between being too warm from the work of moving a boat and being chilled no matter what you do.

Most if not all of us had found dry and/or fresh clothes, too — guaranteed spiritual balm after four days that had progressed from damp to downright dank.

Thursday’s leg was to have been 20 miles or so, but the first five were on a flowage that didn’t sound very interesting.

So when the option was offered of being shuttled directly to the first stop of the day — a tour of the Xcel Energy hydroelectric dam at the bottom of the flowage — Sallie and I were among the many who said yes.

I can’t tell you about that dam, however, because another little logistical breakdown resulted in our being left behind at the Log Cabin Resort, where we had camped on Wednesday night. Also, in my boat’s being shuttled without me to another group’s launch site, then returned to Log Cabin when nobody turned up to claim it.

But eventually we were reunited with our compadres, and boats, and had a precious half-hour of down time that I put to use field-repairing two aged, leaky hatch covers. (Service bulletin to boaters: Gorilla Tape, extra-wide. Don’t leave shore without it.)

Best I can tell, all three dry hatches on this boat actually stayed dry today. Hard to say for sure because the river was pretty tame, though still quite fast; I don’t think I had water washing over the deck but three or four times.

We were away from highways, for the most part, in a section from Trego to Howell Landing that is often described as the Namekagon’s loveliest reach — and the likeliest place to see its eponym. (“Namekagon” is an Ojibwe name translated as “place of the sturgeon”; don’t confuse it with “Namakan,” which means “lake of the huge houseboats.”)

For lunch we stopped at a group campsite and I picked up pamphlet with map. For the first time all week, I had a clear idea of where we were and how far we were going, but I can’t say it improved the experience.

I can be an obsessive navigator on kayak trips, with map, GPS and compass all mounted on deck. But on a river trip, the route tends to be generally downstream, and that makes it easier to be Here at all times — times that merge into Now.

Wildlife sightings

The banks were often very high and topped with red and white pine, balsam fir, black spruce. Lots of flooded areas thick with alder and red osier. Today’s new wildlife sightings:

From Cherie, an osprey leaving a nest platform thoughtfully provided by riverway managers. Many more eagles, including one that Vickie felt was in midair combat with a smaller hawk. Another porcupine up a tree, seen by several.

Jerry saw a water snake, type unknown, and Caroline, a large beaver patrolling near a lodge. Sallie and I saw common mergansers, many types of warblers and a profusion of painted turtles. Katherine, who focuses on flora more than fauna, wants you to know she saw creeping Charlie and antennaria.

Nobody reported a sturgeon sighting — the odds are better in slower, clearer water than we had yesterday — but we had an interesting presentation on conservation and restoration of these dinosaur fish from Jeff Kampa, a fish biologist with the Wisconsin DNR.

Saving sturgeon

To the first questions on many minds, he said that Wisconsin’s record sturgeon was 240 pounds and 87 inches long, and was determined to be at least 125 years old. However, larger and presumably older fish have been detained temporarily by DNR for research purposes.

The sturgeon’s numbers in the Namekagon have recovered somewhat under conservation programs that began in the 1970s. Commercial harvests have been banned for decades, and limited sport fishing on the Namekagon was brought to an end in 1994.

That took care of the sturgeon’s only predator, Kampa said. They’re born with bony plates that serve as razor-sharp defensive weapons, turning into armor as they grow and mature, and other fish leave them alone.

Beautiful handmade canoes

The crew and display boats from the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in nearby Spooner didn’t show up for their presentation.

But museum member Mike Bartz, who has been paddling with us, gave a quick introduction to the subject of cedar-strip-and-canvas canoes, using the boat we’ve all been admiring his week as an example.

canoe photo
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Mike Bartz with his hand-built canoe.

You could say that these craft represent the third and most elegant era of American canoe-building, which began with dugouts. Their heavy weight propelled invention of the bark canoe, and birch depletion led to the idea of lightweight, rot-resistant cedar ribs and planks overlaid with cotton duck and sealants.

Now we have passed into the fourth and fifth generations, of boats made from aluminum and then various plastics and resins, and Mike would acknowledge that some of these canoes have advantages in higher durability and lower cost. But they’re nowhere near as pretty.

And harder to make yourself. Consider: a $100 membership in the Spooner museum buys access to a fully outfitted shop and experienced counseling on your project.

For $1,200 in materials and 120 hours of work time, you can have your own handcrafted 16-foot gem to paddle. If I lived a little closer to Spooner, I’d be highly tempted.

As it happens, the museum is having its annual open house Saturday from 10 to 4.

* * *
Today is our last day on the river, paddling down the Namekagon’s confluence with the St. Croix and then heading for home. With the Memorial Day holiday, I’ll have a final trip report here  on Tuesday.

Tuesday: A Namekagon River Paddle wrapup.

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