By Doug Coomer
Fog rises up from the riffles as the cold morning air mixes with the warmer water of the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin. Our shuttle had dropped us off and the sound of its tires was fading in the distance and being slowly replaced by the healing sound of moving water.
It was the beginning of a paddle down the Namekagon from the County K landing, just west of Trego, Wis., to Riverside Landing on the St. Croix River some 34 miles distant. I chose this more secluded section to paddle, rather than the upper portion, due to its lack of development. Everything I had read about the Namekagon told of its intimacy and beauty and it did not disappoint. Actually seeing something for the first time you have been picturing in your mind is always a very special moment. You can look all you want at images online or in magazines, but they lack the impact of seeing it right in front of you. The sound of the water, the taste of the air and the smell of the trees are things that a video or picture cannot, nor ever will, be able to convey.
It was our first cool fall morning, having come up to Wisconsin from warmer southern Illinois, and the crisp morning air added a distinct freshness to the day. Lyle, my long time paddling buddy, and I packed our gear in the boats and pushed off into the current. Within the first half-mile on this narrow portion, we gained a real sense of remoteness and the humbling feeling of nature being in control. The current generally moves along at a nice two-to-three mile per hour clip which allowed us to either paddle or float whenever we wanted. The water in this section is clear and has the usual brown tint from tannins that most northern Wisconsin rivers have. This entire portion from County K to the St. Croix was mostly shallow with a gravel and rock bottom interrupted with the occasional deep pool. The curves come one after another, always pulling you down river to find what lies unseen around the next bend. There are some areas where the banks widen out and present swamp-like lowlands that somehow seem out of place, but add yet another level of diversity to this beautiful river. It’s no wonder that the Namekagon and the St. Croix were chosen together to be one of the original eight rivers in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
The Namekagon has had several names during its history. Maps from the 18th century, including the famous Mitchell Map, show it as Quasisacadeba and Quadeba. Somewhere in the 19th century, no one knows when, it takes on the Ojibwa name it carries today.
Small islands dot the river all the way to the St. Croix. These are wonderful places to explore, stretch your legs or have some lunch and enjoy a sip of whatever you have handy. At regular intervals along the river there are campsites that are managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Every site we stopped at was very well maintained and in a nicely chosen location. The mileage marker signs at each campsite can been seen from the river and make map reading and tracking your progress a breeze. While most of the campsites are reachable by river only, there are landings along the river that provide vehicle access. Using these as shuttle points allows for trips to be tailored for varying lengths. A map of all the sites, their mileage points on the river, and what services each stop offers is available at the Namekagon River Visitors Center in Trego. Make time to check it out as it is very much worth visiting.
At one point during the first day, we had given the paddles a rest and were drifting along with the current when I spotted a bald eagle down river perched on a tree limb. About 20 feet above the water it was staring at us intently with its huge eyes. He sat motionless as we floated under the branch, and then turned his head slowly and followed us until we were out of sight. When I was young it was a special occasion to see a bald eagle anywhere outside of a zoo and now I see them on almost every stream I paddle. I feel confident I will never tire of that.
We made camp around 6 p.m. and decided on a group site due to the fact that they all have picnic tables. I cannot bring myself to pack a chair. It’s quite a large item to pack and the last thing I want to do, after having my butt planted on a canoe seat all day is sit down. I will not, however, refuse one if offered and almost always find myself wishing I had brought one as I stand by watching someone sipping a tasty beverage seated in complete comfort. On the other hand, I find it totally necessary to bring along my Therma Rest Mondo King air mattress. This four inches of heaven takes up more room than anything else I pack, and has earned a spot near the top of the “I gotta take this stuff” list. After dinner we sat around the great conversation piece that is a campfire, and talked of things close to the heart. Before we turned in, during a brief moment of no conversation, we noticed the silence. I have read on many occasions that these moments are getting harder and harder to find. There is nothing quite like the total absence of sound.
It rained during the night and we woke up to heavy fog once again. The air was very still, but the sun was rising up through the trees and its bolts of light gave the fog warning that its time was almost up. The heavy dew made the trees and grass a very lush dark green. We enjoyed some coffee and oatmeal for breakfast and then did our best to shake out our saturated gear before packing it up. When the fog lifted, we set out on a beautiful calm morning for the last 12 miles of the journey. As with the day before, the river’s circuitous path took us through every heading on the compass and gathered a little speed as we picked up the flow of the Totagatic River a couple of miles from camp.
Checking the map as we paddled past Dogtown Creek, I knew we were near the end of the Namekagon where her waters mix with the St. Croix. We negotiated the rock garden that greets you with no problems, but I’m sure we would have been dragging if the water had been any lower. Leaving the Namekagon and entering the St. Croix is like walking out of a forest and into a clearing. The expanse of the big river exposed us to a head wind that almost stopped us in our tracks. What I remember most about the St. Croix was the midday sun reflecting off of the shallow water rolling over barely submerged rocks that made the river appear as if it were filled with diamonds. History tells us that people have lived along the St. Croix for thousands of years and the people and goods that have floated down this river were instrumental in making the country we live in today. You can definitely feel something special when you put a paddle in the water here.
The wind was in our faces as we paddled through riffles and small rapids that made up the last four miles to our take-out at Riverside Landing. We carried our gear up to the car and talked with an older gentleman that asked about where we started and how long it had taken. He told us he had paddled the same section, but it had been long ago. His old pickup camper looked like it logged many a mile. He told us of many of the rivers he and his dogs had travelled in his life with the enthusiasm of a young man. On the surface it didn’t appear that he had much, but it was easy to see that he had enough.
Human beings were smart enough almost 50 years ago to protect these incredibly beautiful rivers for future generations to immerse themselves in and help put life back in perspective. Let’s hope that this generation and all that come after will be smart enough to never let it slip away.