A spring paddle on the Namekagon
My father and I took our first paddling trip on the Namekagon River in late May.We thought this two-day excursion would be a "float trip"-and a piece of cake compared to the lakes of the Boundary Waters. In reality, the river current made the paddle less work, but we could have used some better maneuvering skills! Our pristine aluminum canoe sustained some good dents and scrapes as we went over rocks rather than around them, and we went through a lengthy stretch of standing waves unscathed but backwards. Also, since we'd started right below Lake Namekagon, we encountered thirteen beaver dams. We were able to glide over the top of a few, but had to disembark and haul the boat over the others.
Although it was a more treacherous route than we'd anticipated, we had a marvelous time. With spring migration underway, there were numerous warblers flitting about on the riverbanks and a variety of waterfowl taking a breather on Lake Pacwawong. The maples were in full bloom, as were a number of ephemeral wildflowers including a bright yellow swath of marsh marigolds carpeting our take-out at Seeley.
Since that first trip, I have honed my steering techniques and returned again and again to the Namekagon in canoe and kayak. My favorite day trips are Hayward to Springbrook, Springbrook to Earl, and County K to Whispering Pines. These stretches have some fun little riffles and are best suited to paddlers with a bit of river experience.
Fall on the St. CroixI first trip tackled the St. Croix River on a fall trip with friends visiting from Iowa. We paddled kayaks from Norway Point down to Highway 70. My friend Dave was eager to spot his first bald eagle-and we saw four, including a pair that flew in and landed in the trees right above us. We also spotted an osprey, another of the St. Croix's great riverine raptors.
Some of the trees were beginning to change and the late summer flowers contributed golds and purples to the colorful palette along the shore. We stayed in the main Wisconsin channel rather than paddling through the Kettle River slough. The Minnesota side offers some exciting class II (or better) rapids early in the season when the water is high, but with low water in the fall, there's too much canoe dragging to enjoy that channel.
Below Highway 70, the river settles down, and as you approach the dam at St. Croix Falls, the river becomes deeper. In this stretch you will encounter larger boats (and wakes), but it's an easy section to put in and take out at the same spot because of the minimal current for paddling upstream. The area below Taylor's Falls/St. Croix Falls is the most popular paddling stretch of the river. An hour drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul, you can put in here for a half day paddle to Osceola or a full day paddle to William O'Brien State Park. This is not the place to come if you're seeking solitude, but it's a nice safe stretch for beginning paddlers. You'll pass through dramatic basalt cliffs adorned with colorful lichens just above Franconia and drift below towering limestone bluffs at Osceola. There are excellent fishing and abundant opportunities for camping on shore and on the islands.
Anne Geraghty worked for two summer seasons at the Riverway. When not on the river, she teaches and conducts botanical research.
Canoe Trip Report Date: 5/18/03-5/23/03 Length 156 miles, Put in: Hayward Landing - Take out: St. Croix Visitor Center
Starting out: The idea for this trip began with the notion to canoe the entire Chippewa River. However, the logistics of planning that trip with a limited time frame and inaccessible information about dam portage length, water conditions, and where to find detailed maps prompted us to seek other options for a long river trip. As we progressed through our search, the National Scenic Riverway became the obvious choice for the ease of planning, ample and easily accessible campsites, and scenery.
The Riverway information that was available on the internet was sufficient to plan nearly all aspects of the trip. We were quite happy with the accuracy of the maps and found them to be reliable tools for measuring mileage and locating campsites. Knowing how close the next available campsites were often enabled us to get some extra mileage in at the end of the day without worry of getting off the water too late.
Our funds were limited, so the canoes we chose were of the free variety. One was an 18’ fiberglass tripping canoe. The other canoe that did the entire trip was a 17’ aluminum canoe. After shuttling the canoes and meeting up with some people who were going along for a day or two at the beginning of the trip, we started paddling at 2pm. The first 2 days of our trip were pretty easy. Only 4 of us completed the entire trip, but we started with 2 others in a third canoe who joined us for 2 nights and another 2 canoes and a kayak who joined us for a day trip. We did some fishing on the way and managed to log a relaxing 11 miles from Hayward Landing to a campsite past Stinnett. The river was quite high and we noticed that many of the trees on the banks were sitting in water and many of the steps for the campsites were covered.
Day 2 was also a pretty easy and relaxing paddle. We paddled and fished for 17 miles to get to camp close to the takeout of the 2 who were just staying with us two nights. They left us early in the morning.
As soon as we reduced the size of our group to 4 (two guys and two girls), we started to travel much more quickly. My girlfriend and I have had significant flat-water canoeing experience. This was gained mostly in a long trip in the Boundary Waters and on two night excursion in the Everglades. The other girl, Molly, had some rafting experience and Ryan, the other guy, had some minimal canoeing experience. None of us had canoed extensively on rivers. Still, we managed to travel at quite a fast rate. We had planned to complete the trip in 7 or 8 days and I knew we would have to push much harder than we had been to make sure that we reached St. Croix Falls. I was worried about pushing Molly and Ryan too hard, as they were the less experienced trippers. On day 3, I was shocked that, after almost 25 miles of paddling including about 8 miles paddling into a hard headwind across the Trego Flowage, they were perfectly content to keep paddling! This was more than I would have expected from anyone we would have taken on the trip, but it was a pleasant surprise. The high and cold water gave us little good opportunity for fishing, so we spent most of our days paddling. We were a very ambitious group overall and ended up traveling approx 30, 35, 22.5, and 41 miles in our last 4 days of the trip. Despite the high-mileage days, though, it did not seem as if we were pushing too hard. We still took plenty of floating breaks and rest stops along the way. We were consistent paddlers, usually spending no more than 6-7 hours on the water. Despite our usually late starts of 8-9 am, we almost always managed to get off the water with at least a couple of hours to set up camp and relax before turning in. Though the pace fast and a bit demanding, I still felt like it was a very relaxing trip because we were able to be out in and experience nature the whole time. We still stopped to enjoy the things we saw along the way and remained flexible to the groups needs. This allowed us to keep everyone relatively happy. When things were getting a little stressful we made sure to take some time at night to relax in various ways including taking hikes, journaling, group yoga, and just taking some time to be alone.
Food:I think one of the things that helped to make our trip a success was a relatively healthy and hearty menu. Breakfast was the standard oatmeal and granola. Lunch varied and included tortillas, peanut butter and jelly, granola bars, sausage, dried beef and chicken, dried fruit, and cheddar cheese, among other things. This all seemed to keep everyone satisfied until diner time. This was the one meal that we made sure always fed us well. Menu items included steak, chili, noodles Alfredo, minestrone soup, and beef stew and rice. We were generally able to eat until we were satisfied and went to bed happy. Molly and Ryan were not expecting such good meals and were pleasantly surprised. I think keeping our stomachs full definitely helped to keep our spirits up.
Most of our food was cooked over the camp stove because it was the fastest and most convenient. However, we found the grill on the fire rings to be very handy for boiling water and cooking on one occasion. We still had fires every night to dry out our gear and help stay warm, though we often had to dry out our wood from the day’s rain. The majority of our water was filtered. We used a lot of water on the trip and boiling it all would have been a challenge. As you can imagine, we were quite concerned when our brand new water filter stopped working on the first night. Luckily, after playing around with it for a while, we read the owners manual and realized that we just had to clean it!
Weather:Weather for the trip was a bit chilly but fairly comfortable overall. In general, the days were pretty warm with a slight breeze that made a short-sleeved shirt or a windbreaker comfortable. Unfortunately, the nights were a little chilly. We woke up one morning to ice in our Nalgene bottles! As luck would have it, that was also the night that Molly and Ryan persuaded us to sleep outside. They only set up their tent twice on the entire trip, electing instead to sleep on the ground. I found out the hard way that my sleeping bag was not rated for these conditions. I do not think I stopped shivering all night and my toes were numb until noon. With a tent, however, the nights were quite manageable. Fortunately, the low temperatures also meant no bugs. There were almost no bugs on our entire trip.
We encountered a huge downpour shortly after getting off of the water on day 2 that prompted us to set up the tarps and sit under them to cook supper and wait out the storm. We also had a couple of short patches of mid-morning drizzle that usually cleared up. The longest rain we had on the trip was a steady drizzle between Little Yellow Banks and Sand rock Cliffs. This, combined with cooler temperatures, made it the worst paddling weather of the trip. We were already quite wet from the rapids, so the rain did not make much of a difference.
There were frequently gentle winds throughout the trip but they rarely affected travel. Other than a few hours of moderate wind on the St. Croix, the Trego Flowage presented the worst wind challenge. We had a strong, steady wind and waves through the entire Flowage that made paddling quite hard. It was a long 3 hours that very much made us appreciate the enclosed nature and current of the lower Namekagon River!
River conditions: Besides the wind on the Trego Flowage, I would say that we only encountered two other river conditions that challenged our group. The first was a section of fast water with a few rocks right below the Hayward landing. This section was fast and fun with just a few rocks and tree branches. It was actually quite fun but Liz and I noticed that our big 18.5 ft canoe was quite sluggish compared to the other 16 footers in turning corners and navigating tight spaces. We realized quickly that this was not a whitewater canoe! It worked all right for this section, but it was slow to respond to steering. The other challenge came from the rapids in the 15 miles or so above the Sand rock Cliffs. I was excited yet a little nervous about this section in part because of the canoe Liz and I had and in part because Ryan had not always proven to be able to keep their canoe very straight. I did not want any one of us in the water!
I had heard that the St. Croix was a boulder garden and that we would often be rock dodging. Due to the water level, however, we did not see one boulder the entire trip. The rapids were just very tall, rolling waves. The biggest waves were approaching 2-3 feet. Having never been in class II rapids before, I was a little nervous, but we made it through just fine. In some sections waves covered the entire channel. Shooting the rapids usually just involved picking the route with the least waves. However, this was unavoidable on many occasions and Liz and I ended up taking our big tripping canoe right through several large waves. I watched Liz bouncing up and down in front of me several feet in the air as if she was on a pogo stick! After making it through the worst section, we floated into some quiet water with our canoe a little off balance and looked down to find about 3-4 inches of water in our canoe. I had actually hit a couple of bigger waves intentionally in this section which probably resulted in us taking on more water than we should have. It was a good lesson to learn. We took a bailing break and continued on our way with no other significant trouble. Molly and Ryan were behind us and must have made it through all right as well. The rapids were only slightly challenging. I was surprised to hear from a ranger that that the rapids were about as bad as they usually ever get. It definitely made the trip more exciting, however I was a little disappointed that the high water made it so hard to fish what we had heard was world-class small mouth fishing waters. I would like to come back during lower water levels to catch some fish and shoot the rapids again to make the comparison.
Campsites: The higher water also made it quite challenging to find campsites below the confluence of the St. Croix and the Namekagon. Many of the campsites we passed were flooded. This made it challenging to find a campsite on day 5 because we were in lowland when we decided to stop and all campsites for several miles were flooded. Luckily, due to the chilly weather and it being early in the season, there was little competition for the campsites. We saw one canoe camping party and a group of kayakers day tripping on the Namekagon above Trego as well as some fishermen in the Flowage and just one canoe camper below the dam. On the St. Croix, several fishermen lined the banks at times, but we saw no canoes and only one fishing boat until we were well below Nevers Dam on day 6. The first significant amount of people we saw was at the Sandrock Cliffs campground on the Thursday before Memorial Day as people were reserving their spots for the weekend. Below Nevers Dam, we began to see many people on shore who had walked or driven into the campsites and began to see an increase in motor boat traffic as we approached St. Croix Falls. In fact, there was not an available campsite for at least 10 miles above St. Croix.
As a general rule, the campsites were well-kept, with little visible debris from previous campers. Each site had ample room for at least three tents in cleared areas. A word of warning for those of you traveling before the leaves have fully grown on the trees: the trees offer a poor privacy shield for the latrine when they have no leaves.
Note of Comparison: Water Level We returned to the St. Croix River from Gordon to Riverside on July 8. The water level was significantly lower (the gauge at County T read .9) The difference in canoeing conditions south of the confluence was immense. In May, the water covered all rocks that may have been in the riverbed, reached nearly to the cabin that sits at the confluence, covered most of the grass on the banks and ran through many of the islands. In July, the water was barely 2-3 feet deep for most of the trip and left many large boulders exposed or just under the surface of the water. Signs that were just peering over the water in May were several feet above the water during the later trip. The difference between high water and low water make the St. Croix River trip a changing experience that is fun at any water stage.
Did You Know?
Winged maple leaf mussels were thought to be extinct until some were rediscovered in the St. Croix River in 1987. Today scientists are helping to raise young mussels and re-introducing them into their former range including St. Croix National Scenic Riverway to help prevent future extinction.