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Namekagon Paddle: Rapids, loons and Les Fils du Voyageur

Sunday morning, about 75 paddlers in canoes and kayaks started a 92-mile journey down the Namekagon River in northwestern Wisconsin.

Sunday morning about 75 paddlers in a slightly smaller number of canoes and kayaks started a 92-mile journey down the Namekagon River in northwestern Wisconsin.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

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

Sunday morning, in essentially perfect weather between rainstorms, about 75 paddlers in a slightly smaller number of canoes and kayaks started a 92-mile journey down the Namekagon River in northwestern Wisconsin.

There was Sue, who had come the furthest — from Nottingham, England — for the second year in a row, just to paddle this lovely river with her longtime friend Linda from St. Paul.

There were Charlie and Diane, a retired association executive and real estate agent from Northfield, who took up paddling late in life, on a whim, and are always on the lookout for new places to wet a blade. 

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There was Kevin, an itinerant IT guy from New Iberia, La., who now gets to work pretty much where he likes and has chosen the Twin Cities, for now, partly for the opportunities to canoe, kayak and sail. 

There was Greg, my former colleague from Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, who is blogging about the trip

And there was Shelley, a student from Iowa who raised her hand when trip leaders asked if there were any kayakers in the party who had never kayaked before. She was advised to, um, check with the veterans for a few skills tips before starting out on a paddle route that last year had a dozen people out of their boats just after launching in cold, rushing water.

Later, Shelley acknowledged that in fact she had once paddled a little kayak around in a swamp for a short while. This correction came after  she had chosen to shoot over the top of a small dam, thus leaving behind the company of a fair number of folks who elected to portage around the drop — and moving toward the company of people like my partner, Sallie, an experienced whitewater paddler who brought her high-tech, banana-shaped, carbon-fiber Esquif canoe to the Namekagon.

To me, a longtime sea kayaker with essentially no whitewater skills, paddling the Esquif seems rather like how it might feel to paddle a beach ball. I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve tried: Take a straight stroke and it spins and rocks as if perched on top of the water rather than sitting within it.

But Sallie makes it dance in the rapids, over the rocks and down the chutes, and everybody who lingered over its curiosity as we loaded and unloaded boats on Saturday now gets the point.

I went over the dam, too, in a 16-foot plastic sea kayak I hadn’t paddled six times, and not at all in the last six years, a boat far too long and wide and heavy to be any good in whitewater … and you know what? It was a gas. 

meador in kayak
Courtesy of Greg Seitz
The author negotiating some rapids.

In other, non-group circumstances I might have portaged backwards to do it again and again.

Protected as wild and scenic

Sponsoring this trip is the St. Croix River Association, an organization that a few years ago converted itself from more of a club to a serious, 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers and their watershed, which reaches east to west from Cable, Wis., to Moose Lake, Minn., and then south in a narrowing funnel to Prescott, Wis., where it joins the Mississippi.

It is sometimes said that the Namekagon and St. Croix, among the first American rivers to be federally protected as wild and scenic, contribute the blue in the Mississippi, offsetting the brown and gray of runoff from urban and agricultural lands.  

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Part of the trip’s purpose is to build membership for SCRA and support for its agenda, and so the trip is educational as well as recreational. There will be short programs on different natural aspects of the watershed, and its conservation.

Saturday night in Cable, where we camped on grounds of an old school building before launching Sunday morning, we had a brief dinnertime presentation on loons that visibly impressed a lot of paddlers who already knew a fair amount about Minnesota’s state bird already.

And I was one of these. I have seen a lot of loons in a lot of places, and of course read about their lives, but I have never actually been able to see and handle a loon’s bones before, nor learn about the ways in which they differ from most other birds’ bones (much denser and heavier), nor get a closeup of the bill it uses to spear fish, menace intruding bald eagles (their only natural predator) and injure the occasional helpful human who tries to pick up an injured bird (without first tossing a towel over its business end).

Difficult spring for loons

This happens to be news you possibly can use, because as Emily Stone of the Cable Natural History Museum explained to us, this has been a tough spring for loons. Late-season snows and delayed ice-out have limited the open-water landing areas available to migrating loons returning to Minnesota and Wisconsin from their wintering grounds (mostly along Florida’s Gulf Coast). Also, for reasons not yet well understood, large numbers of loons fell to earth a couple of weeks ago after flying in conditions that caused their wings to ice up. 

Others, in distress, set down in small farm-field ponds or even on stretches of wet pavement — neither of any use to a bird that needs a full quarter-mile of open water to beat across before achieving air speed.

So: Keep your eyes peeled for stranded loons, especially in northern parts of these states. And if you should happen to spot one, don’t forget about the towel.

Les Fils du Voyageur

Last night’s program, at the Sawmill Saloon in Seeley, could be considered cultural-historical in nature. 

And I have to say, first, that between a good but long day on the river and the arrival of some ugly-looking thunderstorms, my interest in hearing four guys dressed as voyageurs, singing allegedly traditional songs in Quebecois, was somehat limited. I might have preferred our first group meal of brats, pea soup and licensed beverages without the live entertainment.

But these guys — Les Fils du Voyageur — were great, and their commitment to the music is serious and deep. (Music clips and pictures are here.)

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After the show the singers sat with the paddlers to sing logging songs and some mildly blue material not to be found on their CDs. 

And one of them, Tom Draughon, answered our questions about the improbability of the voyageur songs having outlived the fur trade itself by a couple of centuries, sketching in some detail a hundred-plus years of  research by people devoted to into their preservation. Also his own involvement with the music, which began in the 1970s after he arrived from the Carolinas for study at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

But of course the main attraction here is the river itself, and the opportunity to paddle a clean, lovely water course that travels through largely undeveloped land for long stretches, and is lined here and there with history — like the surviving fleur de lis, still blooming a bit downstream from Cable, that were planted perhaps 300 years ago by voyageurs.

Getting ready for a week-long paddle trip is always a thrash, to some degree, for Sallie and me and on the drive north Saturday my thoughts were bouncing back and forth in a tight little channel whose right bank was whether my hurried note to the housesitters had omitted anything important, whose left bank was whether our packing had omitted any essential gear, and whose occasional rocky rapids were about whether we’d be late arrivals for the somewhat complicated logistics of gear- and boat-loading. 

Masses of cedar, leafed out willows

But the river takes all of that fretting away, and it frequently took my breath away, too, as we paddled under great overhanging masses of cedar and newly leafed-out yellow-green willows. Past towering white pine, black spruce, balsam fir. Over a river bottom that often ranged from brick-red to a glowing ruby color in fast but clear water often only a few feet deep. 

river scene photo
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The river takes all of that fretting away, and it frequently took my breath away, too.

Yesterday’s leg from Cable to Seeley was somewhere between eight miles or a little over 11 — itineraries differed — but mileage means little on a river trip when you’re taking your time, backtracking for second looks, making new friends, marveling that the predicted thunderstorms are holding off for hour after hour.

In the end it took us a solid five hours to cover those few miles, and not a minute was wasted.

Next: From Seeley, Wis., to Hayward Lake.