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Finding solitude along the still-wild Namekagon

kayak photo
Photo by Sallie Anderson
I was ready for some solitude on the Namekagon River and yesterday I grabbed some.

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

Please don't get me wrong when I say that after a couple of long days paddling with all these people, I was ready for some solitude on the Namekagon River and yesterday I grabbed some.

Our group of 75 or so — the tally shifts from day to day as people join and others drop away — is diverse in every way: ages, origins, backgrounds, interests, paddling experience.

But civility, personal responsibility and respect are common denominators, and good humor is the rule. So is looking after one another, and as I listened last night to the stories of people getting pitched out of their boats and put back in, I noticed that a lot of the putting back in was done by people who count themselves as newbies.

But I've come to believe that most of us who like to travel in canoes or kayaks (and nearly all of us who prefer the latter) need those stretches that are just me, my boat and the water.

After another rainy night we packed up our tents on the lawn of Hayward's Comfort Inn, threw our duffels on the gear truck and launched into Hayward Lake — one of the Namekagon's larger flowages — between 9:30 and 10 a.m.

About 20 minutes later we were back out of the boats to portage around the big Xcel dam, a carry lengthened significantly by high water that made the normal downstream return  unsafe.

Suburbs — and a bear

So we slogged and toted and dragged our boats back into the river to exit Hayward, paddling our first stretch of this river lined by houses, lawns and garden sheds at suburban density.

But the forest is never far away up here. Maybe a quarter-mile below the dam, Sallie spotted a black bear in tree at river's edge. After spotting us, it climbed down and lit out away from us.

The river below Hayward is different in other ways, too — lots of sharp turns, high banks in places, a second channel  more often than not thanks to this week's high water.

river photo
Photo by Sallie Anderson
The Namekagon is the highest it's been in at least eight years.

The high, fast flows yesterday made for perhaps the most challenging sustained paddling so far, but all of us prefer that to the hull-scraping conditions of summer's low water.

How high is the river this week? Justin Magnuson, our host last night at Camp Namekagon in North Springbook, said he's never seen it so high in the eight years he's been living along it. But that's getting ahead of the story.

In search of solitude

It took me quite a few years, much hard work and many instructive mishaps to get really comfortable in a sea kayak. And I'm proud to say — I hope not unreasonably so — that I'm as one with my principal boat.

But with this week's boat, I have been as two.

It's a different boat. It's different water. And it's a different scale of group paddling from the parties of four or six or maybe eight, tops, in which I've typically traveled Lake Superior. I like the company, but it takes my attention away from the boat and the river.

And so, a half hour past the Hayward dam, it was time to hit the gas and pull ahead for some solo cruising.

I won't bore you with the details of Tuesday's lessons in learning to feel, anticipate and respond to the forces of moving water with combinations of muscle, weight-shifting and finesse strokes. I'd rather talk about the miracle of being essentially alone on a still-wild rive that is not in Alaska, not even Montana or Idaho, but in a part of Wisconsin within a two-hour drive of downtown St. Paul.

Because that's the point of building new skills — to be able to come back to this river again and again.

Yesterday I saw eagles, great blue herons, flycatchers and redstarts, goldfinches and yellow-rumped warblers, jays and crows and possibly ravens, mallards and mergansers and a loon. Also, many other birds whose names I don't yet know.

I saw miles of skunk cabbage and marsh marigolds shooting out of the muddy bank. Saw a muskrat who first seemed intent on approaching my boat but then thought better of it. Didn't see a bear myself Tuesday, but many others did. Saw large, snail-like shells floating to the surface. Paddled through the bleached, upward-curving limbs of a long-dead spruce that looked for all the world like the ribs of a shipwreck.

skunk cabbage photo
Photo by Sallie Anderson
I saw miles of skunk cabbage.

And after the last house of Hayward, I didn't see another sign of human residence (campsite markers excluded) for hour after hour.

At one point I made a few short videos of the river with dense soundtracks of birdsong. Not till I replayed them later did I pick up the constant drone of trucks in the background.

The highway was never very far from the river — I'd  just stopped hearing it.

Pelts and prescribed fire

Today's educational programming began at Stinnett Landing, where Nancy Christel, wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, had parked her pickup, opened the doors and draped them with a remarkable assortment of pelts:

woman with pelts photo
Photo by Sallie Anderson
Nancy Christel with her pelts.

Gray wolf. Red fox and gray. Coyote. Mink, otter and fisher. Raccoon, badger and skunk. Bobcat, mountain lion, lynx — the paws on that animal. Black bear and buffalo. Then there were the skulls, and the shell of a Blanding's turtle. Sort of a petting zoo for grown-up nature lovers.

Christel took some heavy grilling from a few in our group who would prefer we not kill animals for their furs, and gave a good defense of the idea that furbearers are a natural resource and their furs a natural product, and also of the notion that regulated trapping and hunting may promote healthier populations.

I'm not sure she persuaded everyone but she certainly scored some points, and racked up a few more by finding in her field guide the somewhat rare, soft-shelled turtle that one of our paddlers had just seen across the Namekagon.

Then she was off to her duties on a crew that is preparing and conducted prescribed burns to restore sharptail grouse habitat in the pine barrens of this watershed (and beyond).

History of logging and protection

The evening program at Camp Namekagon, whose lawn was our campsite last night, featured two speakers who talked about the history of the Namekagon/St. Croix river system in two time frames.

First up was Peter Gove, past chairman of this trip's sponsoring  St. Croix River Association, who talked about the protections for this watershed that came into place with the federal wild and scenic river legislation of 1968, thanks in large part to the efforts of Sens. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Walter Mondale of Minnesota.

Gove also outlined the challenges still facing the river, including the need to reduce phosphorus runoff, to insist on better practices in gravel and frack sand mining, and to support the National Park Service in a period of continuing budget problems.

These are the aims that drove expansion of SCRA over the last few years from a river lovers' club with a $20,000 budget to a half-million-dollar noprofit with a small staff and an interesting strategy for building relationships around a common purpose of protecting and respecting the rivers.

This annual paddle trip — supported by local business along the way, which are supported in turn by the paddlers' business — is a prime example.

Our second speaker was Jean Schaeppi, park service historian, who talked about the logging boom that ran from 1837 to 1914 along these rivers, producing an estimated 13 billion board feet of lumber. That would build perhaps 4.4 million 3-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot ramblers.

Almost everything about these rivers would be different without that chapter — forests of different size and composition, with pines that would dwarf today's biggest, 100-year-old white pines and far fewer trees that drop leaves in fall.

The course of the river would be different, too, because the masses of logs coming downriver carved new banks and changed flows. Fewer dams would have been built — there were 40 on the St. Croix in 1888 — and settlement patterns would have been influenced by other factors than lumber production.

Most of logging's markers are gone

But to a remarkable degree, most of the logging era's "built environment" has returned to dust and dirt without a trace.

You can't see the locations of old logging camps from the water, unless you've got a really good guide. Here and there you might spot a fragment of an old dam.

The chief thing that remains is the series of landings, most with their lumber-era names, that serve today as put-ins and takeouts for paddlers, anglers and seekers after solitude.

Next: From North Springbrook to Trego. 

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Comments (1)

Good to see and hear

Great reporting, Ron. Enjoy your paddle, solidtude, and good company. Dan