By Mitch Mode
They say you never paddle the same river twice. Moving water makes one realize the impermanence of things. Things change; that is a fact. Moving water has a primal attraction and power that we all feel.
That’s one of the appeals of canoeing and trout fishing both; you are part of the water and the flow and swirl of the current can sweep you up and take you someplace that dry land cannot. River water is like abstract art or sculpture; all lines and movement and you may look at it and it reaches deep into you even as you cannot say why. Dancing flame of campfire can do the same. Look at both with caution for they may lead you to unexpected truths.
“River water is like abstract art or sculpture; all lines and movement”
A digression: I’ve always loved the word Namekagon. Don’t ask me why. That old native American name that somehow is accessible and mysterious both. Namekagon; I like to speak the word. It suggests strength and mystery and wildness.
The Namekagon River cuts a channel in northwestern Wisconsin, the river that as with all rivers is never the same, the river we canoed on last week. Seven people; four boats; two nights camping ahead. Moving water; the Namekagon; canoe camping and campfires. Who would say no to that combination?
We put in near Hayward. Nearly 60 days ago to the day I’d been there; The Birkebeiner finish. The street was covered with snow and crowds lined the sidewalks. The Birkie trail started in Cable and ran like another river twisting and turning, a white river all the way to Hayward. Now two months on and it’s sunny and springtime and the river is quick-moving and the color of the sky. Seasons change as the river changes; always flowing, always different, always present.
It’s the first time I’ve held a canoe paddle since last summer but it comes back; the easy swing and rhythm of the push of paddle against water, the pleasant strain of muscle and the satisfaction that can bring. You never unlearn some things; the balance of a bicycle, the kick-and-glide of skis; the feel of a paddle in your hand. It felt good to be back in a canoe with a paddle and the sun high and warm.
The river near Hayward is twisty and lively, shallow water for the most part. Large houses rise along the bank with blank, lifeless windows staring vacantly; no activity on this weekday and the houses may as well have been abandoned. Soon the houses are behind us; woods rise along the sides; the river is unbound and running free.
It is a pleasant day on a friendly river. We sort things out in the canoes, get comfortable, find a comfortable pace. With any activity done over time and distance pace and comfort and rhythm all come to play. If one falters the whole fails. Balance is vital. Force it too hard in one and all else comes apart. We paddle easily with a strong current and steady tailwind. We make good time.
We set camp early. The trip is part recreation, part business and at the campsite we test half a dozen different tents provided by the sales rep who organized it all. Seeing a tent in a showroom is one thing; setting it up and using it another. We, in the 3 days, test an array of gear; paddles to tents to sleeping pads to clothing, all in the real world where it all gets used.
We sit near campfire in evening chill; dusty smoke rises to the sky. Night falls and with it calm and quiet. We watch the fire as we watched the river during daytime.
The river, for the most part, runs smooth and easy. In places it is wide and slow; in other stretches the water runs deep and smooth, the color of ore. Steep banks of sand rise to hold tall pines and to let your eyes go from the low water to the steep trees in one motion is to invite vertigo.
There are no major whitewater sections on this river but at times the river narrows and kicks up its white-capped heels. Into these sections we go, lined out; one canoe after the other, spaced out to give room to react. The sections are over quickly and no damage done save for a lapful of water as we plunge into an area of waves. The water is cold.
Just before lunch on the second day we come to a sweeping curve; whitewater, however small, ahead. I am in the second boat. We follow the first, two paddlers from the Twin Cities aboard. They clear it; we follow. Then the stern man in my canoe says something and we turn back and see the third boat heading for shore. The fourth canoe is nowhere to be seen.
We pull to shore, hold in an eddy. No canoe. Then something in the flow; a water bottle. Then a paddle. Nothing good can come from flotsam in the stream. You know in the seeing of it that a boat is over and people in the water.
Whitewater is like dancing the polka: It takes a partner you can trust and plenty of experience to do it with finesse. If one or the other is lacking all grace is gone. On the dance floor it becomes a clumsy gallop; on the river a panicked reaction before capsizing. So it was with the fourth boat. A misjudgment; a rock; and the canoe is over. It happens in a heartbeat.
They are fine, the duo that tipped. Wet and chilled but the warming sun is a tonic for that. We regroup, reorganize and paddle on into the afternoon.
The afternoon is uneventful and that is often the best one can hope for. Evening brings another campfire; tangy woodsmoke and flame. April is turning to May. Spring is coming on. Change is in the air.
Flame burns down to embers; darkness lowers. Twenty yards from my tent the Namekagon flows, strong and silent and ever changing, never the same.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.