The ice cube trays filled up quickly as six boys in swim trunks and ball caps scoured a rocky riffle in the Namekagon River. Using forceps, these Drummond Middle School students carefully placed one small, leggy, wiggling critter per section in the trays. No doubling up – the critters might eat each other and destroy good data in the process.
John Kudlas, member of the Barnes/Eau Claire Lakes Association and designer of the Eco Education program, instructed the students in the proper techniques for collecting critters without harming them or their habitat. He also stressed the purpose of this stream study: benthic macro invertebrates (things without backbones that live on the bottoms of streams and are visible to the naked eye) spend at least half their life in the water, and they are excellent indicators of ecosystem health.
The Namekagon River is in excellent health, according to the invertebrates. Its clean water, abundant wildlife, beautiful scenery, and diversity of plants make it the perfect place for an adventure. After filling out their data sheets and gently releasing the ice-cube-tray occupants back into their home, the boys loaded five canoes borrowed from the Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters’ “Canoes on Wheels” program, and headed down the river.
John and I paddled the sweep and lead canoes, while in the middle of the group paddled Ranger Joan, a representative of the National Park Service. Many folks who pass through this area and many who have lived here their entire lives have never realized that they have a National Park in their back yard. The Namekagon River is the major tributary of the St. Croix River, and is included in the National Scenic Riverway – a designation (along with National Historic Sites, National Monuments, and National Recreation Areas) administered by the National Park Service.
During a snack break, Ranger Joan shared the story of how Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson grew up paddling on this river. It was through his love, foresight and hard work that the river is preserved in such wonderful condition for the enjoyment of all.
This overnight canoe trip was a collaboration between the Cable Natural History Museum and the National Park Service. Not only did Ranger Joan paddle with us, Ranger Jeff met us at the campsite and gave everyone a lesson in three different types of fishing. The presentation culminated with Tenkara fishing – a type of backcountry fly-fishing that originated in the mountains of Japan. Tenkara means “from the heavens” and refers to the way the line floats gracefully through the air and settles on the river’s surface.
After a lesson in knot-tying, Ranger Jeff opened his tackle box containing a rainbow of flies. Made from deer hair, feathers, and other materials, these lures mimic stoneflies, caddisflies, Mayflies, and other insects that fish like to eat. These flying insects are the adult stage of the same benthic macro invertebrates that the boys had sorted into ice cube trays in the morning. A healthy river should produce a healthy insect population – and good fishing!
Around the campfire, Ranger Jeff read the boys a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who established the National Wild Rivers System: “The time has also come to identify and preserve free flowing stretches of our great scenic rivers before growth and development make the beauty of the unspoiled waterway a memory.” Then Ranger Jeff asked the six bright-eyed boys, “What can you do to make sure this place will be here for the next group of kids that come back twenty, thirty, forty years from now?”
I have confidence that these young scientists, avid anglers, and budding outdoorsmen will be up to the task.
For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013. Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/