In 2013, I paddled almost the whole Namekagon River with the St. Croix River Association. It was an amazing adventure, when challenging conditions fused me together with some new friends.
Rain early in the trip raised the water levels to flood stage, and we rode rushing currents all the way downstream. When people capsized, we helped them. When the weather finally improved, we relished it together.
The next year, we paddled 90 miles of the St. Croix. I remember launching at Riverside Landing in a cold, driving rain. I remember packing up my tent at Wild River State Park in a warm, driving rain.
This week, many of the same folks and some new ones are paddling the Namekagon again. I couldn’t take the whole six days this year, and of course they’ve enjoyed sunny days.
Tuesday, I met them at Stinnett Landing, downstream of Hayward, about halfway through that day’s route. Myself and folks from the St. Croix River Association, as well as Wisconsin environmental organizations, shared some information about Enbridge’s oil pipelines which cross the Namekagon and other wild rivers in the state.
While we were there, it rained. The first rain they had seen so far — and I was assigned the blame, because of my track record of wet weather on previous paddles.
Once the rain stopped, we joined the group for the afternoon’s paddle to Springbrook Landing and the night’s campground at Camp Namekagon.
The river rushes through a bottleneck at Stinnett, where an old logging dam once stood. It drops a foot or two going through the chute, and kicks up big waves that splashed over my bow and shipped an inch of water into the bottom of my boat.
Below that, the river is pure Namekagon — undeveloped banks, eagles, turtles, fish, and other wildlife, high sandy banks studded with pines, as well as low boggy shorelines.
Elizabeth Ward, with the Wisconsin Sierra Club, was paddling next to me at that point. She is based in Madison, five hours south by car. She had never been on the Namekagon or St. Croix River, which was why she and others had been invited.
After only a few minutes on the river, she said to me, “Is the whole thing like this?” She meant was it all so wild, so free of signs of people.
“The whole thing,” I said. That’s why it’s called wild and scenic. Many people gave up their houses and cabins after the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was passed 50 years ago so the river could be restored to near its natural state.
Such solitude will catch anyone’s attention.
Crossing the pipeline corridor
Only a short ways downstream, after we passed under a railroad bridge, we passed the pipeline crossing. You could easily miss it, the banks are brushy, and only a couple of the bright posts that mark the pipeline are immediately visible.
You couldn’t miss the buzzing of the high-voltage transmission lines that also cross the river at the same spot.
The 80-foot corridor containing the pipelines is one of the only major industrial sights to see on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. It is a brief interruption, but the real impact will be if the pipeline spills oil into this or other countless rivers, streams, and wetlands in the area.
The oil would flow downstream wherever it escapes, coating everything in touches in sticky black goo.
Downstream from the crossing are countless miles of classic northwoods river. Blue flag iris was in bloom (as was its invasive cousin, yellow iris). When we paused to watch an eagle and a blue jay sharing the same tree top, a large fish splashed in the shallows (a muskie? a sturgeon?).
I was quickly transported back in time to those other long paddles, when day after day, we descended these wild rivers. It was during those weeks, when you start to follow the river’s routine and match its pace, that I came to understand the nature of this National Park.
The Riverway is huge, almost 200 miles including both the St. Croix and Namekagon. But you can’t see it all at once, like from the top of some mountain or the rim of the Grand Canyon. There is no single awe-inspiring sight like Yellowstone’s geysers that makes it obvious why the river was worth of designation.
It’s only when you travel past unbroken banks for consecutive days that you begin to grasp the scale. It’s only then you start to learn something from the river.
On those paddles, I began to see how the St. Croix and its watershed are one big system. They are connected by geology and climate, history and — always — water.
At Springbrook Landing, waiting for the shuttle, I soaked in the river with Deb Ryun, director of the St. Croix River Association. The water always seems to wash away my aches and pains.
When we got to Camp Namekagon that night, the group was in good spirits. They were smiling and full of the kind of joy only wilderness inspires. They had completed three of the six days, they were starting to understand the river’s rhythms, they were happy to be somewhere with a bar and a restaurant.
I joined them for dinner and beer, catching up with old friends. If you spend a week paddling together with a group, you create bonds that can survive intervening years of absence. I relished their stories from the trip so far. I wished I was joining them for the rest of the route.
At 6:30, the evening’s program started, with Frank Montano sharing stories and music with us. Frank is a 77-year-old member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and a master flute-maker. He performed on the guitar, percussion instruments, and his flute. He used a loop pedal to layer his own sounds on top of each other. And he shared stories and wisdom accumulated
Mostly, he reminded us to listen. Listen to our elders, to our youth, to the river, to the trees.
I listened to radio station WOJB in my car while in the area. The tribal public radio station played lots of indigenous music, which deepened my appreciation for the land I was visiting and the people who had lived there a long time.
When it was getting dark, I said goodbye to my river friends, wished them well on the rest of the trip, and headed to Hayward for the night. I drove the backroads of Washburn and Sawyer counties, dusk slowly descending on the quiet land.
Through the heart of that land flows the Namekagon. I hope the paddlers have had more good days, and I hope to get back to the river and that land soon.