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Rushing water, sharp S-curve lead to out-of-boat experiences on Namekagon

In two seconds or less I had a full cockpit and was stuck in brush with my deck nearly vertical and no way to paddle out. Especially after I lost the paddle.

A kayaker prepares to shoot the rapids at the Phipps Dam.
Courtesy of Greg Seitz

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

This would be as good a time as any in these journals of a river trip to mention that the Namekagon is in flood and rising.

That announcement yesterday morning from Deb Ryun — executive director of the sponsoring St. Croix River Association and overall leader of our 75-member group paddling from Cable, Wis., to Danbury — brought a little consternation.

But maybe not as much as her suggestion that we adapt to conditions by, for example, shooting a certain dam and ignoring the National Park Service advice to take out and portage around. Her reasoning: The portage is steep and will surely be muddy after all this rain; the river will be high enough and fast enough that you may not even feel a bump from the dam as you go across.

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And so it went, with the bonus of yet another quick thrill for the novice whitewater paddler like myself and not a few others in our party.

Because the Namekagon is a small, wild and lightly developed river, the definition of flood is qualitative more than quantitative. You won’t see figures on the local TV news and you won’t find the marked poles or painted bridge piers that you might see in more settled places where all this water is heading — downtown Stillwater, for example.

Up a foot from ’12

All along the route you can see where the banks are submerged and the water well up into the trees. Chuck Turpin, a park service ranger I spoke with at Larsen Landing, a few miles down from yesterday morning’s starting point in Seeley, said the water was easily up a foot or more from the conditions he remembered from last year’s SCRA paddle. And that trip is remembered for its high- and fast-water challenges, with lots of capsizes.

After our final takeout of the day, on the edge of downtown Hayward, I went looking for National Weather Service data and found that Sunday night’s rain, which alternated between sheets and buckets, amounted to only a bit over an inch. It sounded like more on the tent roof.

I also noticed that for much of the day we were paddling under a flash-flood advisory for the region, which continues through much of today, as we head for North Springbrook.

Out-of-boat experiences

There is no firm count of how many among us ran into trouble right out of the chute Monday morning. Not 20 minutes below the launch was a sharp S-curve and a lot of rushing water, and the prevailing estimate is that about half the group found some sort of out-of-boat experience there, your correspondent among them.

Sallie and I were among the last to launch, and I was in the lead as we approached the turn. Andre had got there ahead of us in an open, fishing-style kayak and been shoved into a huge thicket of submerged and overhanging alder, which ripped away his eyeglasses, cord and all.

Though a brand-new paddler on his first trip beyond the Minneapolis city lakes, Andre had the sense and skill to back-paddle into an eddy above the turn and regroup. As I came down he hollered a warning about how the river would shove me left toward the alder, hard, and so I dug deep to pull my boat’s nose right and count on averaging the two.

What happened next had the force and suddenness of a car crash.

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As I came into the turn the kayak started drifting left with the loose, accelerating feel of a car skidding laterally on wet pavement. I knew I would be shoved into the alder, but not that the submerged branches would serve as a ramp for my hull, turning the boat up on its right gunwale and opening my lap and skirtless cockpit to the full flow of the river.

In two seconds or less I had a full cockpit and was stuck in brush with my deck nearly vertical and no way to paddle out. Especially after I lost the paddle. With one hand hanging onto a limb and the other feeling around in the flooded cockpit for a bilge pump, the paddle popped out from under my arm and went downstream.

Eventually I got the boat keel-down, but a sea kayak with a full cockpit has lost half its buoyancy and only the deck will be above water. I pulled the spare paddle from the rear deck and put it together, and Andre called advice to me as I pulled and paddled backward to where he could grab the stern toggle, and eventually I got into an eddy over submerged logs.

These were solid enough to brace with a paddle, climb out of the cockpit and step into water that was only chest deep. Still embarrassed about the spray skirt, which would have kept me out of this mess, I was glad to be wearing lightweight neoprene for the next steps.

Tipping the boat upside down to drain it, which works well on flat water, is useless in a river moving this fast. But the bilge pump worked well enough, and the river bottom was solid enough, and while I emptied the water Andre managed to snag my lost paddle and carry it to a rendezvous downstream.

But his glasses were gone for good, and as of this morning he is paddling, in groups, with just enough vision, as he put it, to see the river but not the obstacles.

A hundred shades of green

After that one bad turn our river route yesterday was simple, easy and gorgeous. Spring has arrived in a hurry after a long, late winter and the forest is a hundred shades of green.

river photo
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
After that one bad turn our river route yesterday was simple, easy and gorgeous.

The willows are that pale yellow-green that Binney & Smith reserved for its box of 64. The spruce are a deep green veering toward black.

In between are the bold greens of alder, really quite pretty at a distance, and the entire evergreen spectrum of white pines, balsam fir, red pines, maybe jack pines, others. Here and there a stand of bright white birch is gathering the palest green mist in its upper branches.

I could go on, but telling colors is not that easy to do and not that interesting to hear. I’ll show you some pictures instead.

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Tenkara demonstration

A fair number of folks have brought fishing gear on this trip, and a much larger number paused at Larsen Landing for a cool demonstration of tenkara, a minimalist sort of fly-fishing imported from Japan.

Our instructor in this hot new trend was Jeff Butler of the National Park Service, which administers the federally designated wild and scenic portions of the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers.

He showed us the full kit carried by the modern tenkara angler: a tube maybe 18 inches long and an inch and a half in diameter, a few other things that would fit in a pants pocket: fly line, nylon tippet and a few dry flies. No reel.

fly fishing photo
Jeff Butler of the National Park Service explains the art of tenkara fly fishing.

Out of the tube comes a telescoping graphite rod that extends to 12 feet and tapers to the diameter of a pencil lead, although the length can be shortened, too, if that fits the situation better. A length of fly line, maybe 15 feet, is fixed to the rod with a simple knot, a bit of tippet is tied to that, and the fly to the tippet.

Casting is an abbreviated, simplified version of the traditional fly cast, but without the line-feeding and lengthening loops that tie wind knots and snag your flies in alder. When you have a fish on the line, you can telescope the rod in reverse to land it.

Being stragglers had benefits

Sallie, Andre and I were yesterday’s stragglers in the group, all day long, but this carried a great benefit for me — a chance to paddle and talk with Mike, a recently retired conservation warden of the Wisconsin DNR who paddles sweep each day, making sure everybody gets home ahead of him.

Mike has been my best single source of informational bits about the places we’re paddling, from the history of fleur de lis along the Namekagon to the reproductive peculiarities of black bear, and I’d been looking for a chance to hear more about what he’d seen in a quarter-century of patrolling natural Wisconsin.

We talked about that some, but as with all good conversations, there was as much interesting material in the eddies and side channels as the main stream:

His interest in writing short stories out of his DNR experiences. The poetry of Longfellow, Service and Poe; the short stories of Hemingway, in which place is often as important a character as any person. His and friends’ experiences as free-lancers to various hunting and fishing magazines.

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The preferability of field work to management, whether the field is conservation law enforcement or journalism. How a fellow might know as early as fifth grade that he wants to grow up to be a game warden, and the interesting work available to him after turning in the badge. His elegant cedar-and-canvas canoe, with cherry decks and thwarts, that he built with a friend.

Much of this talk took place on the Namekagon’s flowages above Hayward — wide, flat, slow places backed up behind low dams, not the loveliest water to ply but no matter. The chatter made up for that and more, and once again we reached the day’s last landing too soon.

Next: From Hayward Lake to North Springbrook.