Jacci (my wife), Mason (my 10 year old son) and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday, July 1st and 2nd, canoeing 29 miles of the St. Croix River between Danbury and Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
Our first hurdle was to find some way to shuttle us or our car from the put in to the pull out. I even considered leaving one of my bikes hidden and locked at the takeout and riding the 25 miles of county roads back to the put in. But in the end we decided to utilize the services of Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg (www.wildriverpaddling.com/). For $57 they moved all of our stuff (packs, paddles, rods and canoe) and us from Grantsburg to Thayer's Landing, just outside of Danbury. We left impressed by their general helpfulness and the feeling that they are involved with a business they really enjoy. I can't recommend them highly enough.
The wind was blowing hard in our faces as we started down the river. Jacci paddled bow, Mason rode behind her in a folding canoe seat and I took stern. Our old 16' Mad River Explorer is a great boat but it is a bit cramped for three people plus two big tripping packs and a couple smaller bundles. If I was to make trips like this more often I'd invest in a longer boat but we made do with what we had. And as far as handling and carrying capacity the Explorer was up to the trip.
My only other gripe was with myself (it doesn't pay to complain about the weather). In preparing for the trip I'd downloaded the trip maps from the Park Services website. While the maps showed the campsites and landings they didn't contain enough detail of river features to pinpoint exactly where we were, especially on the first day. When we got home I checked out images from the USGS 7 Minute topo maps and found plenty of detail. My bad.
The paddling the first day was pretty daunting. The wind was blowing hard enough to bring us to a standstill even with the fairly robust current. So it was with some relief that we pulled in to Little Yellow Banks landing for a break. We had been advised that the group campsites like Little Yellow Banks were generally less desirable than the individual sites scattered down the river. But Little Yellow Banks seemed well cared for, the campsites clean and the water from the pump tasty.
While Jacci and I rested our arms, Mason swam and waded in the river. The river bottom on the upper section was mostly sand, with very few rocks or boulders. After awhile I broke out Jacci's spinning rod and cast a jointed Rapala around some of the trees that had fallen into the river. I hooked a small bass and handed the rod to Mason. The fish obliged him with several jumps and splashes. After a bit he landed it and I hemostatted the hooks free. The fish made a parting swipe at Jacci's toes and then headed for deeper water.
After about 45 minutes we regrouped in the boat and continued our contested passage down the river. A few hours later, our butts sore and backs and shoulders aching we pulled into Norway Point Landing on the Wisconsin side. The campsites there were also nice but being heavily wooded they also were swarming with mosquitoes, which the wind had kept completely at bay while afloat. But what decided the issue for us was the pile of fresh bear poop on the trail between the campsites and the johns. We decided to push on.
A couple miles further downstream we saw a small sweeper extending into the current. At its end was a large round object that we at first took as a bird's nest. But when we got closer the bird's nest morphed into a porcupine doing God knows what 20 feet from the shoreline. We eased our canoe around and downstream from him. He raised the quills on his back and champed his jaws at our intrusion. So after a few pics we left him alone and continued our search for our home for the night.
It was with considerable relief that only a few hundred yards below the porkie's tree we came across a campsite on the Minnesota side. It was fairly open (making the wind our ally in the mosquito battle) and allowed us good visibility to the river. This enabled us to keep our paranoid parental eyes on Mason as he played and splashed in the water.
Even in the late afternoon the bugs weren't bad. Mason and I erected the tent while Jacci fired up the stove for dinner. Afterwards I found enough deadwood for a small, symbolic campfire (it was quite warm). A bit later, casting from shore, Mason managed to hook the Minnesota State Fish, which unfortunately was too small to be added to our ramen and beef stick dinner. We had to let him go, to Mason's dismay.
As evening fell our marshmallow roasting and spear making activities were curtailed by the skeets finally making their appearance. We retired to the tent and soon were asleep.
The night passed uneventfully. When I awoke Jacci had already been up for a couple hours. There was a big pot of tea steeping. She had breakfast partially made. After a little fiddling with our balky stove, that too was finished. I left her and Mason to a Suduko book while I washed dishes and took a few casts (one strike... no hook ups). Then it was down with the tent, canvas and cordura packs refilled and boat loaded and off.
With faster water ahead we trimmed the canoe a little stern heavy as opposed to the day before when we fought the wind by trimming very slightly bow heavy. Mason, who had spent the first day riding behind Jacci, now rode just in front of me. The packs were stowed ahead of the center thwart.
Our first concern was filling our water containers. A mile below our campsite lay Nelson's Landing. With the wind now switched to the northwest and at our backs it was an easy paddle to the gravel boat launch there. As I was securing the Explorer I heard Mason yell "A turtle!" I turned around to the sight of a large soft shell turtle sprinting down the bank to the river. I had never seen a turtle sprint before. By the edge of the boat landing we could see where she had just buried her eggs. A person couldn't help but wonder if the eggs would survive to hatching or would join the myriad raided nests we had found where ever we had landed the day before.
Watering up we soon were back in the boat. The first rapids of the day approached and were easily run. The campsites became more numerous and the river divided itself in small and large islands. At one cluster of campsites there were half a dozen fishing boats pulled up and a variety of tents and families scattered through the woods.
When the first real whitewater appeared a small knot of anxiety grew in my stomach. While I knew that none of the rapids were rated above a 2 on the river running scale and that we had run more difficult ones in the past, the worry of a mishap occurring was still there. With a yell from Jacci of "What have you got me into!" we dropped over the first pitch.
It had been a few years since we'd been paddling together on a fast river and the first couple of rapids and riffles were run a bit self consciously. But after that the old magic of paddling with a partner whose judgment and skills you trust kicked in. Paddling a tandem canoe in fast water is probably best compared to dancing or skiing a single track trail fast, one right behind the other. The rules are set by an outside force... the river... the music... the dips and turns on the snow. And as the stern man I was following Jacci's lead. Soon the only time words had to be exchanged was when there was a choice between good (or bad) options. Usually the movement of her paddle or lean of her body gave me all the information I needed. This is something I luckily am able to forget how deeply I enjoy. Or else I don't think I'd ever be happy off of the river.
But, lest I make this overly dramatic, the real whitewater on this stretch was very limited. Of much more concern in this section were the shallows and riffles. Many of the shallows consisted of bank to bank sheets of bedrock with the water flowing thinly over it. We scraped bottom a few times and twice had to get out of the heavily laden boat and wade it a short distance to deeper water.
Near the bottom of the constellation of rapids and riffles, at a place where the Minnesota and Wisconsin channels meet we passed the perfect campsite. There was fast water on both sides and the site was open to the wind. A person, a flycasting, smallmouth bass fishing person in particular, could establish themselves there and for the next three days (the statutory camping limit) fish six miles of prime, easily waded water. The bass habitat there is virtually omnipresent. I've promised myself that campsite and those three days some day in the future.
But the fast water soon swept us away from that site and within a mile most of the rocks and standing waves were behind us. Needing a break we pulled up on a exposed sandbar for some lunch and a short rest. Just before we left I unstowed the 7 weight and cast a diver to likely looking spots. In one small shaded pool I got a couple of small, bluegill-like hits. The next cast brought a solid hit and a small bass acrobatted across the water. Calling Mason over I handed him the rod and watched as he brought it to hand. A quick examination and he was released, scooting between Mason's legs to freedom.
And that was it for the fishing. All told we probably fished less than an hour the whole trip. The impression I was left with was of a river with a healthy fish population. The spots we caught fish in... near swamped timber, in deep holes and from rocky pools... are repeated endlessly along the Riverway. I'm sure a serious fishing foray would see dozens of fish caught. But that would wait for another day. This, in essence, was a scouting trip.
After we passed the Soderberg Ferry Landing the river's nature changed again. It broadened into huge, lake-like pools. With the wind at our backs we breezed through these stretches. Although after the more intimate water upstream I still had to wonder where the hell all this water had come from.
I found it hard to judge distances on these pieces of water, sure that they were longer than they were in real life. So I kept predicting the appearance of the Highway 70 bridge and pull out well before they made their actual appearance. But eventually the final bend was passed and the bridge lay in the distance. We eased up to the oddly boulder strewn pullout, I jumped out, dragged the stern ashore and our trip was finished.
I walked the half mile back to the outfitters to get our car (They would have moved it to the landing as part of their service but I thought, correctly, that a longish walk would feel good after sitting in the boat for two days.). Picking up a trio of cold sodas and thanking them again for their fine service, I unlocked the car and drove down to the landing. Loading up we drove the 40 miles to Spooner and had a good meal at Nick's Restaurant on the main drag.
Then we threaded our way home down highways 53 and 8 and then along a course of back roads to Merrill. On the backroads I kept the speed to 55 or less and we were rewarded with a 25 mpg average with a fully loaded Taurus station wagon for that leg of the trip.
It was a fine outing. What would I do differently? Well, better maps and maybe a bigger canoe. Breaking the trip into three days would have given us more time to fish and been easier on or butts and shoulders. But for a first time down this particular river I came away very satisfied. I also came away wondering how many Wisconsinites realize that this fantastic resource (the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway) even exists. We saw only a handful of canoes and kayaks on our trip. The campsites we visited personally did not seem to be suffering from over use either. Even if a person is not into canoe camping the number of landings make a variety of day trips possible. but we heard on the radio on the way home that the top three "most desirable Summer destinations" were Disneyworld (in the Summer?!), Universal Studios, the Grand Canyon (at least it's real), followed by the Wisconsin Dells!
What more can you say.
Campsites were in excellent shape.
Royalex 16' Mad River Explorer
Here is the map from the Wild River outfitters website:
Mike Svob's "Paddling Northern Wisconsin"
Park Service website.