Scenic and Wild Paddling in Wisconsin

Scenic and Wild Paddling in Wisconsin
(Kevin Revolinski)

Deer stand in the shallows, pausing for a morning drink, their heads and white tails popping up as we appear like ghosts out of the morning mist in our canoes. They leap nimbly into the brush and are gone.

Great blue herons are already poised on rocks and low branches, stone still as they prepare to snatch breakfast. Each one lifts like an angry little dinosaur, croaking with annoyance, yet flying only a hundred yards downstream, where we can scare them up repeatedly until they circle around upstream.

Eagles perch in the upper branches, and we spot several of them each day. We hear beavers in the evenings, banging the earth like a hollow log.

Fish jump and stir, and turtles slide off their rocks or drop like cannonballs from higher perches on downed trees leaning over the river. We’re on the final 30-mile stretch of the Namekagon River before it flows into the Saint Croix.

A National Scenic Riverway

The Saint Croix and the Namekagon rise up as modest streams in northwestern Wisconsin from where the watersheds divide. Just beyond the headwaters, everything flows ultimately to Lake Superior. But these two rivers flow south, destined to merge and eventually give themselves over to the Mississippi. Those two tributaries, plus the resulting wider river, which soon becomes the state border with Minnesota, combine for a total of 252 miles designated as the Saint. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The mission and guidelines of their preservation were guaranteed in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Today, the National Wild and Scenic River System protects “vestiges of primitive America,” totaling 13,413 miles on 226 rivers in 41 states. Like the Saint Croix, they’re kept from development “for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Camping in the Wild

Old friends chatter each night around a fire fueled by fallen wood gathered from our surroundings. Firewood: one less thing to pack. A whippoorwill perches above our tent the second night, nearly driving us mad with its call, until it, too, falls silent. But there’s no actual silence.

At a minimum, there’s the symphony of crickets and frogs or the bubbling water over the backs of smoothed rocks along the banks and the wind stirring leaves and whispering through spruce. Minus a whippoorwill, this all becomes white noise for a pleasant night’s dreams. We could be 100 miles from civilization, but we’re more likely less than a half-mile from a state highway that meanders roughly parallel to this river.

Related Stories

This’s what I love about Wisconsin.

(Kevin Revolinski)
(Kevin Revolinski)
(Kevin Revolinski)
(Kevin Revolinski)

With few exceptions, the rustic campsites are “paddle-up,” only reachable from the water. You can’t reserve them—they are free, there for the taking—and include a fire ring, picnic table, and what I like to call an “out”: an outhouse minus the “house” part—you sit on your throne, royal master of the forest, communing and commoding with Mother Nature.

Other than the three bridges we pass under on our Namekagon segment, the only signs of the human world are the undeveloped landings and the 35 square signs, smaller than postcards, marking where rustic campsites lie in the woods a few steps from the riverbank. We didn’t see a single soul on the river until Day 3, when we came upon Department of Natural Resources folks from the Minnesota side on the Saint Croix and a few anglers on the much wider river.

The lack of easier access and the fair number of sites gives me the confidence to paddle each day not entirely sure of where I’m going to camp. Good maps, provided by the National Park Service, help you decide when to stop at an empty site or risk paddling on for a few more to see whether they’re unoccupied.

The mode of transit also affects packing. Obviously, we can’t just pull up and unload every little thing from a car at a tent site 20 feet off the park road. What you bring, including your drinking water unless you have a purification method, must fit in the canoe or kayak and not weigh so much that you end up scraping over rocks for a few days—not fun. Dry bags are also a necessity, even if you never tip over, because the paddling inevitably brings water into contact with your gear and there’s no shelter on a river when rain catches you.

Choosing One’s Journey

The upper stretches of both rivers are playful, with riffles or Class I rapids still navigable for less experienced paddlers. However, a few dams farther upstream toward the headwaters require portages—though those are clearly marked, and landings are good.
(Kevin Revolinski)
(Kevin Revolinski)

We chose to skip all five dam portages on the Namekagon and the long stretch of flat water at Trego Lake.

A park ranger had suggested that we plan for 10 to 15 miles on a typical day—we take advantage of the two-mile-per-hour current and, with little effort, average more than four miles per hour. That information can inform your trip planning. We chose to cover more river miles, so after putting in just two miles on the first day, we rose early and set up camp late after paddling 35 miles on Day 2 and 25 more on Day 3. We were out of the water just after lunch on Day 4, after covering 14 final miles to arrive at the landing at the Highway 70 bridge just west of Grantsburg.

When the Saint Croix becomes wide, more like the Mississippi, paddling changes. This section is called the Marshlands, and the current becomes faster and stronger, though it may not always appear so. Water levels can affect rapids, taking them from fairly easy riffles and Class I to intermediate Class II. Wind can be a factor in the wide stretches, but also more islands and channels open up.

The highlight of our final day was the Kettle River Slough, a side channel to the west (river right) of the St. Croix, where the river splits around an island. It’s only recommended when water is high enough to avoid banging over rocks for nearly four miles. That exclusivity and that it’s narrower than the main channel make it attractive, and as for the frequency of riffles or maybe Class I rapids, it’s really about the same.

There are a couple of campsites along this side passage, and it rejoins the main channel where the river comes over an exciting Class II ledge. (The Kettle River also joins just above here from the Minnesota side and can be a whitewater funland farther upstream with Class II to IV rapids early in the season, something for experienced paddlers.)

The final moment of beauty along our trip was Sandrock Cliffs. The carved sandstone rising above us was hidden in a sandy-bottomed side channel, open to paddle with adequate water levels (though still accessible on foot when the water is too low, if you care to pull up on the sand and explore). Back on the main river, only a mile remained, and at the Highway 70 bridge, we pulled out at a boat landing on the Wisconsin side, where our second vehicle was parked for our reluctant return to civilization.

If You Go

The National Park Service monitors water levels on its site, which also provides excellent downloadable maps marking campsites and distances in river miles for easier trip planning. Camping is free, but it’s first come, first served.
Find more information about this riverway on the National Park Service website, and discover other National Wild and Scenic Rivers on
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is
Related Topics