Canoeing the Namekagon Riber

Emily Stone's view on a trip down the Namekagon River included the bow paddler, their portage pack, and the lovely river itself. Photo by Emily Stone

Cool water flowed around my ankles as I peered through shifting, shimmering sun specks at the river’s surface. Small, white ovals among the gravel on the river bottom caught my eye, and I submerged my waterproof camera to get a better look. But my wrists and hands disturbed the invisible current, and the added turbulence picked up the tiny mussel shell and tumbled it downstream.

As I stood up and straightened my back, my gaze also headed downstream to where the river slid around a corner. My partner and I had stopped on this shallow gravel bar to stretch our legs during a 20-mile-long day of paddling on the Namekagon River. 

We’d planned this two-night trip at the last minute in order to replace our annual trip to the Boundary Waters. Due to severe drought and extreme fire danger in northern Minnesota, the entire BWCA had been closed to visitors.

We were used to paddling for a while and then coming to the end of the lake, unloading the canoe, launching it and our packs onto our shoulders, and portaging across rough, narrow trails into the next lake. While portages are hard, they also provide a very welcome chance to straighten our legs. Rivers don’t provide the same variety. So, after a long stretch of paddling we picked a shallow spot, swung our feet over the gunnels, and stood up. 

Seeing that little shell reminded me about a staff training we’d had back in my early days at the Cable Natural History Museum, when a national park ranger came and taught us about mussels. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate, which, like baking soda, helps to neutralize acids, she’d told us. In this region where so many of the lakes and wetlands that feed the Namekagon River are stained brown by tannic acids leached like tea from aquatic plants, mussel shells buffer the acidity of the river water. That’s just one reason why these sensitive little creatures, and even their shells, are protected. It is illegal to take or even move any mussel shell — even empty ones — in the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers.

National park right here

Why such strict rules? Well, the Namekagon River is a national park. It’s easy to forget since there are no entrance stations, entrance fees, or scenic drives. You don’t need permits or reservations, even to camp within the park. The main clue is that classic arrowhead logo on brown road signs that direct paddlers to river landings, and a visitor center currently hidden in road construction near Trego.

Technically, the Namekagon River is part of the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway. This designation (along with national historic sites, national monuments, and national recreation areas) is administered by the National Park Service. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson grew up paddling on this river, and was instrumental in making sure that it is preserved for the enjoyment of all.

As I pondered those mussels and the people who protect them, I was filled with gratitude. We were frustrated and sad when our Boundary Waters trip became impossible, but within a few hours we had planned this new adventure super close to home. We’d chosen the river because—despite flowing near roads and through towns — the Namekagon River still provides impressive water quality and a wilderness feel.

The little mussels who speckle the river bottom are probably capable of producing pearls, although the likelihood that one actually would is extremely low. No matter, the river itself is a string of pearls.

The bright spots

Wildlife sightings formed little bright spots connected by the winding stream. Shallow riffles led to deep pools filled with redhorse suckers and smallmouth bass. Little green herons startled off their perches, and we chuckled at the awkward way their yellow legs hung down as they flew. They tipped up their long, rusty necks as they tried to put in as little effort as possible to maintain their invisible bubble of distance from our fleeting presence.

We also spooked bald eagles out of their piney perches, and listened to the rustle of their feathers as they pushed against the air. Ospreys soared in the clear, blue sky. An otter bobbed upright in a riffle to check us out before disappearing completely. A stately buck, with his 6-point rack still in velvet, picked his way across the wide channel in front of us.

Belted kingfishers were the most plentiful pearls on the river, and we admired their natty, blue-gray suits as they swooped from tree to tree and let loose their ratcheting cry. 

As usual, they made me think of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Kingfisher.” At this moment in history, the most poignant line is: 

“I think this is the prettiest world—so long as you don't mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn't have its splash of happiness?”

Upwelling

As thousands of acres of trees and their animal neighbors burn in Minnesota and elsewhere; hurricanes inundate the homes of humans and animals; and the Delta variant surges through communities; thoughts of death weigh heavily on our hearts and minds. Are we OK with all this dying? Not really, not most of us. And yet allowing ourselves to be crushed by the sadness can’t bring anyone back to life.

Allowing ourselves to experience that “splash of happiness” is necessary if we’re going to keep working to save the world and the people we love. Under the crush of the news, it’s going to take a regular upwelling of gratitude to protect our tender hearts.

Back in the canoe, we marveled as a diving kingfisher sent up a spray of glittering droplets.

Emily Stone is the naturalist/education director at the Cable Natural History Museum near Hayward, Wis.

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