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Paddlers finish a week on Namekagon, a river to step into again and again

I’m encouraged about the state of our civilization to know that so many people can still be moved by a travel-section brief to gather their gear and sign up for a 92-mile river trip in dicey spring weather for seven days in May.

Frost coated any gear left outside our tents the morning of our last day.
Photo by Sallie Anderson

Earth Journal author Ron Meador spent last week paddling the Namekagon River

On the last day on the Namekagon River dawned with a coating of frost on any gear we’d left outside the tents.

No matter. The sun burned it away before some stragglers were even out of their sleeping bags, and the forecast was for another blue-sky day in the 60s, perfect paddling weather.

Thursday night’s encampment at Howell Landing was by far our loveliest and woodsiest, on a broad, soft lawn with nary an RV in sight and the highway at last too far away to hear.

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It was also the first place we’d stayed where restaurant meals weren’t an option, and this encouraged a different kind of sociability over Thursday dinner and Friday breakfast.

So, perhaps, did the realization that we would soon be setting out together for the last time.

I sought out Phil to hear his promised story of genealogical research that has traced his famiily’s line back to the voyageurs. One ancestor  was active in this very territory, playing key roles in the operation of North West Company fur posts on Madeline Island and at Forts Folle Avoine on the Yellow River near Danbury — just beyond our final takeout Friday afternoon.

It was these discoveries that propelled Phil and his wife Jone to join this paddle tour of the Namekagon, a river still rich with echoes of the voyageur era, lined here and there with place names familiar to him from his research.

That, and stumbling on a little item in the paper about this third annual trip organized as a membership builder by the St. Croix River Association.  

This was a common story in the group — I heard at least two dozen people tell it — and I’m encouraged about the state of our civilization to know that so many people can still be moved by a travel-section brief to gather their gear and sign up for a 92-mile river trip in dicey spring weather for seven days in May.

It was uplifting, too, to see among our 80-plus paddlers a strong plurality of men and women well into their 60s or older, a phase of life where sleeping on the ground and paddling long days in chilly rain eventually begins to lose some appeal. Even if a crew is hauling most of the gear between overnight stops.

Even better: A strong contingent of paddlers in their 30s or younger, a demographic whose enthusiasm for this kind of trip bodes well for continued protection of the Namekagon and other important rivers after my generation is gone.

The river relaxes

River data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s station at Danbury, just beyond the Namkeagon’s entry into the St. Croix, shows that river levels and discharge rates dropped steadily on Thursday and Friday after rising sharply in the first half of last week.

So Friday’s run from Howell to Riverside Landing was 21 miles of somewhat smoother water,  still fast enough to do most of the boat-moving work – and to punish inattention. More than once in the early miles, framing a photo or watching eagles, I drifted into an unnoticed eddy and was brought back to the moment by a 180-degree turn so quick and smooth it felt as if an unseen hand had flipped my kayak around.

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But after six days on the Namekagon, little missteps like this were no longer surprising or embarrassing or the least bit alarming. I was one with the river at last, and also with the little-used kayak I have stopped disparaging as my beater boat.

Wildlife sighting of the day was a huge snapping turtle taking the sunshine. I’ve seen bigger, but never 8 feet in the air, on a tree trunk overhanging the river and our boats.

treed snapping turtle
Photo by Sallie Anderson
I’ve seen bigger snapping turtles, but never 8 feet in the air.

We paused for lunch at the Schaefer cabin, a century-old property that the National Park Service acquired after designation of the Namekagon and St. Croix as a scenic riverway.

It’s a pretty little place, well-preserved and apparently off the list for obliteration: In the last few years it has become a resource for Northwest Passage, a mental-health program for adolescents based in Spooner that places high value on the healing value of nature photography in the riverway and beyond.

Burning for home

After lunch I realized I’d been missing one particular aspect of kayak travel in these days of leisurely group paddling — a long, flat-out run aimed at achieving top speed and practicing the stroke forms that maintain it.

So that’s how I made my way over the last 11 miles to Riverside Landing, reaching the takeout in time to hitch a ride into Danbury, retrieve our car and drive it back to the landing in time to greet Sallie.

kayaks and sunset
Photo by Sallie Anderson
Canoes are the traditional boat for the Namekagon, but this group preferred kayaks by a wide margin.

There was time, too, to pull out the iPad I used to file my trip reports and look up that quotation about never stepping in the same river twice.

I’ve always thought it came down to us from the Buddhist tradition, more specifically from Zen, as a commentary on impermanence. Right on the meaning, wrong on the source.

The aphorism appears to have originated with Heraclitus in the fifth century BC. The Bartlett’s version of his “Fragment 91” — think of these writings as tweets in ancient Greek — goes like so:

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            It is not possible to step twice into the same river.

Mulling this notion on the drive homeward, I wanted to argue a bit with old Heraclitus.

Teachings about the impermanence of all things are certainly important. Certainly we saw this river change appreciably from day to day.

On the other hand, these are times when the scope and pace of endless change is such that we hardly need to be reminded of it.  

Indeed, our souls cry out for something like permanence – for material reminders of continuity in things or places, especially places, that in their essence are unchanging. Places we can rely upon as sources of restoration, resilience and renewal.

It seems a modern miracle that the Namekagon River, though reshaped by a century of logging and hydroelectric production and other human use, retains so much backcountry character, so much wildlife, so much paddling challenge, so much experience that borders on adventure.

Having now made this river’s acquaintance I know I’ll be stepping into it, paddle in hand, again and again.