With air in the high 50s, I slid into the water at Lake Namekagon Dam and immediately turned upstream to get a closer look at the origins of the Namekagon River, where it pours over the dam and turns from a lake to a stream.
I currently live in a house that has a pretty darn good backyard view of the St. Croix River, but I still regard the Namekagon as my home river. Growing up in Spooner, Wis., I’ve spent many summer afternoons on its waters and I still occasionally hunt grouse along its banks with my father. Spending a moment getting a kayak-level view of where this river begins was on my mental checklist. I also wanted to take a moment to get my kayak under me. I am an experienced paddler in a canoe, but not necessarily so with a kayak. Plus, up to then, I had spent zero time in the Sans Souci II itself.
While in high school a couple of my hockey teammates and I took a summer whitewater paddling course taught by my high school English teacher Mike Ubbelohde. The two-day course featured tandem canoe paddling instruction on the whitewater rapids of the Bois Brule River in Bayfield County, Wis. It was good sport, so we took the same course two summers in a row. Paddling a tandem canoe isn’t identical to kayaking, but the river skills and most of the basic paddle strokes are plenty transferrable.
Gearing up for my first weekend on the eastern-most stretch of St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, I was conscious of the warnings of the National Park Service rangers with whom I spoke and I was therefore quite bundled up at the outset. Sixty degree air temperatures are one thing, but with nothing except the seat and the polyethylene hull of the Sans Souci II between my rear end and 40-degree river water, I wasn’t taking any chances on being too cold. I had donned long underwear, brought neoprene gloves and invested in a spray skirt to keep the water off me and out of the cockpit. I also wore my hip waders, knowing at some point I would need to drag my boat off, over or around any hazards.
The first seven miles of the Namekagon, between Lake Namekagon Dam and the County Road M Landing, is arguably some of the most challenging water the entire riverway offers. The river is not very deep even in the spring, but it’s narrow and there are several rapids and three low foot bridges to be navigated. Plus, industrious beavers are known to fell trees and construct dams. Going early in the season means plenty of water for paddling, but it also means the NPS staff hasn’t been out yet to clear any major hazards.
Luckily, my plan to avoid doing too much walking panned out. I only exited the Sans Souci II three times: twice to scout rapids of which I wasn’t completely certain, and once to get around a beaver dam.
By the time I reached County Road M, I was feeling confident. I had moved cautiously, if a bit slowly, and not had any troubles. Even at my slow pace, however, I felt I was in danger of melting. My long underwear, hip waders and jacket were roasting me as the temperatures, by noon, had risen to the mid-60s.
As I was shedding clothing and having lunch at the landing, I saw four or five other tandem canoes go by. My unrealistic hopes of being the only person on the water for that first stretch were somewhat deflated. Even in this most remote section of the river I wasn’t alone in wanting to absorb what turned out to be a beautiful weekend on the river. My fellow paddlers reported they had simply shot over the aforementioned beaver dam that I had portaged around. I also observed they were all wearing short sleeves and regular boots. So much for being too prepared!
Aside from the other paddlers, my most prominent companions on the river were ducks. If I were a duck hunter, I would have called this paradise. There were more pairs than I could count and my ability to identify all the species I saw was severely lacking. Note to self: I need to buy a good field guide for birds.
After lunch I paddled another seven miles or so, stopping to chat with a group of fly fishermen who were out after early catch-and-release brown trout. I made camp below Cable, Wis., just above Pacwawong Lake, had dinner, sat by my campfire, read my book, drank a little whiskey and watched the sun go down before climbing into my tent.
I was on the water by 8 a.m. the following day. With water high enough to take the risk, I got my first real thrill ride in the Sans Souci II as I shot over the Pacwawong Dam instead of portaging around it. I was grateful for the spray skirt as the waves crashed over the kayak’s bow and would certainly have gotten me wet if I didn’t have it. I was tempted to take the portage in reverse and shoot it again, but my better senses took hold and I pressed onward.
My original take-out point was scheduled to be at Larsen Landing, north of Hayward, Wis. I arrived plenty early, though, and was still feeling good. So I called a pre-arranged audible and tacked on an additional three miles, paddling to Phipps Landing to meet my ride home.
All told, it was a great first weekend on the river and I’m looking forward to my next chance to get out there.
I’ll see you on the water.
—Kyle Weaver is a freelance journalist and outdoorsman who lives in the St. Croix River Valley.