During our first day on the Namekagon River, we watched brook trout scatter in threes and fours as our canoe parted the water. Their greenish-gold bodies contrasted against the river’s sandy bottom and we could clearly see the red on their fins as they darted away. Ebony jewelwings fluttered along the water’s edge. These brightly colored damselflies have brilliant turquoise bodies with dark black wings. Like dragonflies, they lay their eggs in the water and live as aquatic insects during their nymph stage of life. After metamorphosis, they emerge as brilliantly colored flying insects that feast on gnats, mosquitoes, and other smaller insects. Other treasures of the day included a deer munching river grass, blueflag iris and swamp milkweed in bloom, and a three-ridge mussel – one of 40 native freshwater mussel species that call the Namekagon and St. Croix home.
It’s hard to say which of us was most excited for the trip. I was eager to see the Namekagon for the first time; my eight year-old son was ready to play the protagonist in a real-life, outdoor adventure; my husband yearned to escape from work for a few days; and the dog was just relieved that she wasn’t left behind like her older sibling.
We started our trip at the County Rd K landing (Namekagon River), near Trego, Wisconsin, and ended four days later at the Lower Tamarack landing (St. Croix River), 47-miles downriver. To avoid using a shuttle or bringing two cars, I brought my mountain bike along and rode back to our put-in at the end of each day to bring our truck and camping gear down to the next location. The strategy worked really well on the first day, and became progressively harder each day after that due to the sandy conditions on most of the smaller roads. Riding through the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area on Day 3, I was treated to a stunning view of pine-oak barrens, a globally rare habitat that features scattered pines and oaks amidst a prairie landscape. The rolling hills and wide-open views are unlike anything else in the surrounding northwoods forest, but the soft sand road was a callous snare that left me feeling as though I was riding my bike across a never-ending series of sand dunes.
We were surprised to see how much the river changed from day to day. In some places, it was rocky and filled with rapids. In other locations, it was a long flat ribbon of crystal clear water over miles and miles of golden sand. Around us, the landscape changed as well, from pine forest to silver maple floodplain, interspersed with wetlands, cold-water tributaries, and islands large and small. Though we saw other people in canoes, kayaks, fishing boats, and inner tubes along the way, there were also many times that we traveled for several hours without seeing another soul. This was when we encountered the most wildlife – a deer swimming across the river from north to south, a bald eagle resting on a fallen log at the river’s edge, a beaver gliding silently beneath the canoe, and dozens of softshell turtles that slipped stealthily into the water as we passed. Each day stretched out long and lazy beneath the summer sun in an endless sequence of unimportant actions – paddle, swim, hunt for frogs, paddle, sand, repeat. We ended our trip feeling dirty, exhausted, and entirely content.
For help in planning a day or overnight paddling trip on the St. Croix or Namekagon Rivers, go to the National Park Service website, where you can find river maps, recommended routes, safety and gear lists, links to check river levels, and other information: www.nps.gov/sacn.
If you own your own canoe or kayak, it is technically possible to do a multi-day trip without spending money on anything but food and gas. North of Hwy 8, riverside campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and do not require a permit or reservation. Between Highway 8 and the Arcola High Bridge, a free annual camping permit is required. The Namekagon and St. Croix River campsites are similar to ones you find in the Boundary Waters – they have a latrine, a campfire ring, and sometimes a picnic table, but no water or indoor bathrooms.
In your canoe or kayak, you’ll want to bring food, water, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and bug spray, as well as life jackets for each person on board. Children under 13 are required to wear theirs throughout the trip. In addition, our family brought a fishing pole and sling shot, a couple of books, and a hammock and fold-up stadium seats to use during rest and play time.
If you’d like to try using your bike in lieu of a shuttle, be sure to bring a bike lock and helmet and pack a small bag with a change of clothes and bottle of water that you can leave with your bike at the take-out each day. Alternately, you can find shuttle services; canoe and kayak rental; and guides for fishing, hunting or paddling trips at www.nps.gov/sacn/planyourvisit/goodsandservices.htm. There are also several places along both rivers where you can rent tubes to float down river and get picked up at the end of your trip.