The way National Park Service ranger Jeff Butler sees it, there’s nothing new about military veterans finding refuge on the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers. Butler says the logging camps of the nineteenth century were full of men who had come north after the Civil War to the land of white pines and wild rivers.
So it is a “no-brainer,” Butler says, that the river is still providing respite for veterans today, whether they served in World War II or Afghanistan, or anytime in between. Butler, who works for the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway out of its Namekagon River ranger station in Trego, Wisconsin, has been central to the Park Service’s efforts to get more veterans on the water.
A veteran of the Vietnam War era himself, Butler says a day spent kayaking, canoeing or boating is good for war-weary souls.
“We’re not going to take away their combat experiences, we just put something new in the mix,” Butler says. “Something fun, some relaxation and enjoyment, some quality family time, peace and quiet, solitude.”
Guiding veterans to the river
The idea of outings for veterans started with a feeling of gratitude, says Branda Thwaits, from the Park Service’s Namekagon ranger station. “There has been a lot of effort by a relatively small group of people, a lot of hardship, so it felt like a responsibility. Here we have two of the nation’s more beautiful rivers, let’s use them.”
What started with a paddle for female veterans in 2012 grew into several outings in 2013, including a family paddle on the Namekagon River, trips on the Park Service’s pontoon boat in Stillwater, and a fishing trip in oar-powered drift boats, with help from local outfitters. The Park Service worked with the St. Croix River Association this year write a grant to the National Park Foundation which allowed them to purchase kayaks for the program.
“We got together and said, ‘we’ve got the river, we’ve got vets in the area, some use it, some don’t know about it, some want to but don’t know how to go about getting on the river,’” Butler says.
Addressing that need is the core of the project. The trips aren’t about therapy or treatment, but merely about connecting veterans with the rivers, and all they have to offer.
“I don’t consider myself someone who’s guiding veterans on the river, just to the river,” Butler says.
Camaraderie in kayaks
One of the veterans Butler has guided to the river was Mike Mills, from Stearns County, Minnesota. Mills was burned and suffered other injuries when his vehicle hit an IED in Iraq in 2005. Today he operates a nonprofit organization connecting veterans with resources.
Connecting with each other is key, and the river is an ideal place to renew the bond veterans experienced while serving, but which is all too often absent from their civilian lives.
“The camaraderie is what’s important, the chance to hang out with other veterans,” Mills said.
His comments were echoed by Alysia Smith, a veteran from northern Wisconsin who served in Kosovo and has participated in several of the Riverway’s outings with her husband Matt, who was deployed to Iraq.
“Being in touch with nature is good for anybody but the calm environment and the staff encourage a kind of camaraderie amongst everybody on the canoe trips,” she says. “It brings veterans back to the days when they had that sense of camaraderie amongst their fellow service members.”
Calm and quiet
The trips this year kicked off in June with a canoe trip for Iraq vets and their families down the Namekagon River. The paddlers then enjoyed a barbeque hosted by Vietnam veterans from the local VFW post.
Starting in August, the Park Service expanded the program and started offering evening trips on a pontoon boat near Stillwater. The trips were organized with each one open to veterans from different eras, starting with World War II and Korea. On the twelfth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were invited on a cruise.
The river was glassy that night, and the late summer sun set the sandstone bluffs aglow. The conversations ranged from fishing and hunting to stories of military bureaucracy and war. The calm and silence are everything war zones are not. Boaters wave as they pass by, and herons ignore the pontoon and its passengers as the birds stalk their supper in the shallows.
A trip in August brought several homeless veterans from Minneapolis out on the pontoon boat. They were awestruck by the sight of a bald eagle’s nest, and soaked in the silence. As the group walked off the dock after the cruise, one of the men turned to Butler and said, “I’ve never heard quiet like that before in my life.”
Water’s wonderful work
Butler places the credit for the program’s success squarely on the rivers. “The river is working with the vets, the river and nature is doing the work,” he says. “We’re just there to provide the canoes and kayaks, and take care of the logistics.”
The Park Service plans to continue the program next year. Butler says the biggest obstacle is just finding veterans to go. “The challenge up here is rural vets don’t have the posts, Legions, VFWs, and there are vets out there that don’t belong to any of that.”
But when they get the people to the water, the results are worth it. The Minneapolis veteran who told Butler he’d never before heard such quiet went on to finish, “It’s going to be the peace and quiet of the wilderness that I remember for a long, long time.”