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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Two hundred and fifty miles of wild river corridor await exploration on the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. © Catherine Khalar
© Catherine Khalar

June 2008

A wild ribbon of forest and water

Two hundred and fifty miles of wild river corridor await exploration on the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. These wild waters celebrate 40 years of scenic protection this year.

Dale Cox

The Namekagon
The St. Croix
Take me to the river
Planning your visit
Regional tourism contact offices

Woven throughout our history are the tales of rivers and their people. As emblematic as any of our rugged waterways, the St. Croix and Namekagon are water trails to our past and future. Managed as the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, this unique park is a living testament to the vision of wild rivers forged by Senators Gaylord Nelson and Walter Mondale when these waters were included among the original rivers preserved in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, forty years ago. Nationwide as of 2006, Wild and Scenic River designation protects more than 11,000 miles of 165 spectacular free-flowing rivers in 38 states.

The two rivers form linear paths of blue and green stretching over 250 miles in length. The federally protected St. Croix flows for over 25 miles in Wisconsin before becoming a border river marking the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin for almost 125 miles. Almost 100 miles long itself, the Namekagon is solely within the borders of Wisconsin. Together, they keep alive a fading memory of the primitive and pristine waters flowing from the bogs and wetlands of the Northwoods.

The richness of this surrounding watershed contributes greatly to the unspoiled nature of the rivers and is the source of all water that flows into the riverway. Nourishing the St. Croix is an expansive basin covering over 7,700 square miles that connects an intricate network of more than 1,500 springs, brooks and 16 major tributaries in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Fed by these waters, the rivers pass through a midwestern tapestry of primitive Northwoods forests, scenic river bluffs, prehistoric archaeological sites, century-old farmlands, and thriving urban and rural communities.

Flowing past 13 counties, seven state parks and three state forests on its way to meet the Mississippi near Prescott, Wisconsin, the riverway is a unique partnership of planning and study managed by the National Park Service, with assistance from the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, local counties and communities. The riverway, home to 40 species of freshwater mussels, including two on the list of endangered species, is considered to be exceptionally clean, despite its proximity to the Twin Cities.

The Namekagon

Rising in wetlands from small seeps, the Namekagon never gives the impression of being a "big" river due to the narrow nature of its watershed.

In the cool, clear waters that begin to flow together east of Cable, Wisconsin, the Namekagon is home to native brook and transplanted rainbow and brown trout. Farther down below Trego, muskies resembling submerged logs leisurely swim over the sandy bottom. Campsites dot the riverside, inviting the visitor to rest or cast a fly in pools below long abandoned logging dams.

In the fall and spring, the rivers become classrooms, as local fourth grade students venture out with park rangers to learn about water quality, aquatic habitats, insects, fish, birds and mammals. Amid the laughter, children knee-deep in moving water begin to appreciate that this is a special place to be preserved.

As in any watershed, water levels near the headwaters of the Namekagon can drop off after spring runoff recedes. So at different times of the warmer seasons, floating the Namekagon can be a treat for both beginning and experienced paddlers. The final 30 miles near Spooner is a primitive stretch of water meandering through high sand banks, quiet marshes and even quieter forests. As the river twists and winds its way through changing scenery other river users are out of view, already around the next bend and downstream. Human noise wanes, then vanishes as the river follows the course it began thousands of years ago. On this part of the river, water flow remains steady through the fall, and this lower sweep beckons to be floated when the neighboring trees begin their fall color change.

Once surrounded by an immense forest of white pine, the water is now shadowed by a second growth of oak, maple and red pine. The area was opened to logging by a treaty signed with the Ojibwe tribe in 1837, and the pineries of the upper St. Croix watershed were heavily cutover to build a growing country. From the 1830s through the early 1900s, more than 12 billion board feet of lumber floated down the tributary rivers of the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson, Wisconsin, and Marine-on-St. Croix and Stillwater, Minnesota.

The St. Croix

Rising on the south side of a natural divide that splits water north to Lake Superior (down the Bois Brule River) or south to the Mississippi River, the St. Croix is the shortest route between the two, as French fur traders learned from Native Americans when exploring the St. Croix area in the 1600s and 1700s. A small two-mile portage is still accessible to modern day adventurers who travel this historic route.

Protected below Gordon Dam near Gordon, the first 20 miles of the river can be a rowdy, almost whitewater adventure, or a grueling low-water struggle, depending on the time of year. When the water's up, fields of glacial stone are covered with small ripples, and rapids dot the river mile after mile. An abandoned dam known as Coppermine requires a portage in low water, and great skill during high flow. Eventually the last major rapid, Big Fish Trap, presents a passage of thought and ability: thewrong choice can lead to a quick flip and a necessary stop to dry off.

After merging with the Namekagon, the St. Croix begins to widen and slow. The river begins cutting down through native sandstone and limestone bedrock, to form ripples and small rapids in places. Smallmouth bass find home in this stretch of river well-known and beloved by anglers. Hiding among the rocks and boulders, the abundant smallies make an excellent opponent when captured on ultra-light tackle or a fly rod: a river trip can create memories to last a lifetime.

While stopped to contemplate the water, visitors are sometimes surprised by caravans of youth paddling canoes, loaded with gear and garbage. Scout troops and summer camps conduct service projects along the river cleaning campsites and learning skills that are not taught on the Internet.

Below a hydroelectric dam in St. Croix Falls, the river passes through the Dalles of the St. Croix, a unique gorge carved through an ancient basaltic lava flow. The site of numerous major logjams over one hundred years ago, the area today features some of the best rock climbing and one of the most scenic areas in the Midwest. Although not as remote as the upper stretches of the river, the high bluffs and wide water accompanied by numerous backwaters provide ample opportunities to see migratory birds in spring, summer and fall.

When the river reaches Stillwater, Minnesota, the location of numerous sawmills during the logging era, its current can become almost imperceptible. The final 25 miles of placid water before the confluence of the Mississippi River is used in summer by a wider range of recreational boaters, including anglers, houseboaters, water skiers and personal watercraft users.

Take me to the river

So that all Americans may enjoy our natural heritage, the National Park Service cares for more than 390 special places, from large parks to such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, to lesser known but no less significant places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Though protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and active management, the fate of the St. Croix and Namekagon, like other major rivers, is bound to what happens in the watershed. Development, soil erosion, and loss of wetlands in the surrounding basin eventually impair the riverway. Maintaining and enhancing the water quality in these rivers rests equally with the people who live and play there.

To increase awareness of this unique park unit, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act will continue throughout this summer. The National Park Service, the University of Wisconsin- Extension and the University of Minnesota-Extension are collaborating to promote stewardship and understanding of the riverway. Support from the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of Natural Resources, county conservation departments and many local organizations will offer programs and community festivals to celebrate these rivers.

Children throughout the watershed are involved in service projects which range from repairing shorelines and litter cleanups, to stenciling town storm drains that lead to local streams. In Burnett County, 4-H members are monitoring water quality in local waters which merge with the St. Croix River. These citizen scientists measure water clarity, total dissolved oxygen, temperature, flow, habitat and macro-invertebrates. The data they gather will be entered into a growing database maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

To learn more about how youth can become stewards of the Riverway or to explore Take Me to the River events including Big Top Chautauqua performances and local events, call (715) 483-2272.

For additional information on trip planning, visiting or volunteering for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, phone (715) 483-2274, or visit the National Park Service.

Dale Cox is park ranger for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway headquartered at St. Croix Falls.

Planning your visit
Brochures share a map and a sampling of some of the beauty, but they are a poor substitute for a visit to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway website that is a veritable online travel agent for planning and booking visits and adventures on these waters. Visit the National Park Service to get going. The site is chock full of helpful information to understand the nature of the riverway, explore different segments, check on river conditions, find outfitters and make plans for a visit. Park rangers at the two visitor centers will also help you plan a trip. Here are some practical tips to learn about camping, boating, visits and outfitting:

The riverway has two main branches – the 98-mile Namekagon River in Wisconsin and the 154-mile St. Croix River in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The rivers average about a half-mile wide along the corridor and shorelines contain a mix of undeveloped forests, public parks, private homes and riverside communities. Most people can comfortably paddle about 3 mph downstream with the current; but don't push it. Plan on floating about 15 miles a day or less and only expect to see a small segment of the riverway on a given trip.

Your headway will vary greatly depending on river depths and currents. Visit the portion of the website describing river levels to learn about conditions of each river segment that is commonly canoed. Smaller detailed section maps provide information to paddlers about potential hazards, dam locations and any portage requirements. The maps are organized by segment – Namekagon, Namekagon Dam down to Hayward Lakes and on the St. Croix above Riverside Landing, from the Gordon Dam to the CCC Bridge, from the CCC Bridge to Riverside, from Riverside to Nevers Dam and from Apple River down to Prescott. Canoeing conditions are described as "challenging," "good," or "excellent" depending on flow and time of year. The website contains links to water gauges on the river that provide real time water flow rates.

A section of the site called outfitters discusses launch sites and kinds of boat rentals available in different segments. The riverway provides a wide range of on-water experiences from solitary canoe and kayak stretches to paddleboat rentals, charter cruises, paddleboat lunch/ dinner excursions, angling, water skiing and the like. You can also find directions and contact information for canoe/kayak rentals, shuttle services, phone and e-mail addresses for water-related businesses on each river segment. Other listings offer leads to fishing guides if you want to book a float trip to cast for panfish, northern, bass or musky.

You will also find listings for launch sites and marinas in the boating section of the site, as well as descriptions of the river channels, obstructions and general features of each portion of the river bed. Launch sites are open year-round until freeze-up.

Picnickers will find shelters at local and state parks as well as at the Osceola Landing.

For those who want a mix of cultural activities mixed with the natural beauty along the riverway, the main portion of the website lists nearby attractions in neighboring communities.

Practical tips abound for would-be campers. There are no fees for staying at the federal campsites along the river, but most cannot be reserved and it pays to claim a site earlier in the day. There are special fees for those planning large group gatherings like weddings, religious services, races and scientific research projects.

Camping is only allowed at established campsites. The National Park Service maintains more than 150 of these primitive shoreline campsites, the majority of which are only accessible by canoe or kayak. They are available at no fee on a first-come, first-served basis and there is a three-day maximum stay at any one location. Campsites are divided into "individual" sites designed for up to three tents and eight people, and "group" sites designed for up to six tents and 16 people. The federal primitive campsites have fire rings and picnic tables. Some have pit toilets and some offer drinking water wells that are open from late May through September and closed the remainder of the year. Paddlers should be prepared to carry in their own potable water and use a water filter if needed.

The busiest time of year for camping tends to be early summer when the water is higher. Overnight use starts to drop off by early August. As with most recreational areas on holiday weekends, the campsites fill up fast. While campsites are located at fairly regular intervals along most parts of both rivers, there are fewer on stretches of the St. Croix that have extensive swamps. It is best to decide on several campsites where you might stop in case your first choice is full.

Camping is also available at state, county, community and private campgrounds adjoining the river and you can find information about these at the regional tourism offices listed below.

New camping requirements are in effect for 2008 on the St. Croix River south of St. Croix Falls between Highway 8 at St. Croix (river mile 52.3) and the Log House Landing near Copes (river mile 39). Overnight campers in this segment need to obtain a free annual pass prior to camping. Toilets in this segment are only provided at Eagle's Nest Campsites; elsewhere portable toilets must be packed in and out and used. Check online for details. All campsites require visitors to pack out all of their trash and prohibit glass containers.

The Namekagon River Visitors Center at Trego, (715) 635-8346, is open Thursdays through Mondays, 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day as well as weekends in May and September. It is closed the remainder of the year.

The St. Croix River Visitors Center at St. Croix Falls, (715) 483-2274, is open seven days a week from April 19th through mid-October, 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and is open those same hours on Monday through Friday the remainder of the year, except for federal holidays. That center has information counters, exhibits and a bookstore as well.

Regional tourism contact offices (north to south)
Cable Area Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 217, Cable, WI 54821

Hayward Lakes Visitor & Convention Bureau
101 W. 1st St., Hayward, WI 54843

Spooner Area Chamber of Commerce
122 N. River St., Spooner, WI 54801

Wisconsin Indianhead Country, Inc.
(serving 22 counties in NW Wisconsin)
911 2nd St., Chetek, WI 54728

Burnett County Wisconsin
7410 Co. Rd. K, No. 112
Siren, WI 54872

Polk County Information Center
710 Highway 35
St. Croix Falls, WI 54024

St. Croix Falls Chamber of Commerce
106 S. Washington St.
St. Croix Falls, WI 54024

Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce
106 S. Main St.
Stillwater, MN 55082

Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce
502 Second St.
Hudson, WI 54016

Prescott Area Chamber of Commerce
237 Broad St. N.
Prescott, WI 54021