Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Magic on the River

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace.”  -- Sigurd Olson

Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing six boys come alive on a trip down the river. As we launched from the Cable Wayside Landing, I could sense in them the thrill of adventure. The braided stream channels of the Namekagon River wove their magic around the boys. Every experience, from catching crayfish, to casting with fly rods, to exploring the campsite seemed to draw out the spark in them, just as they drew sparks with flint and steel.

This morning at that same landing, I launched those same red canoes with a new group of people. As the sun climbed in a cloudless sky, grandparents, parents and kids pushed off on a new adventure. Sigurd Olson believed that canoes are “the open door to waterways of ages past,” and Jean Schaeppi, a historian with the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, prepared us to go through that door.

As Jean spread out the old explorers’ and surveyors’ maps at the landing, a story unfolded, too. First were the sparse, hand-drawn accounts of early explorers with oddly-shaped lakes and blank spots enough to satisfy Aldo Leopold. Next came the neatly divided surveyors’ maps showing a checkerboard of ownership between logging companies and railroads. Finally, there were sketches from old-timers, remembering for posterity the neighbors, farms, and towns of their youth. The final map that Jean handed out was the official National Park Service map of the river, with river mileage, campsites, landings and roads all accurately marked.  

The river has gone through many changes over its lifespan. Nature is reclaiming the last traces of railroad trestles, home sites, and logging dams. Majestic pines, once seedlings in extensive clear cuts, tower along the riverbanks once more. The cultural history of this river continues to evolve, and now includes the legacy of visionary politicians who protected it as a National Scenic Riverway. Now the beauty of this place belongs to us all.

With a ten-year old as my bow paddler, and her younger brother as “wildlife spotter” in the middle of the canoe, we enjoyed the freedom of a day spent in nature. Ebony jewelwing damselflies fluttered around the canoe and along the shores. The exquisite beauty of their solid black wings and iridescence green bodies adds a spark of wonder to the landscape. Their adult form, twinkling in the bright sunlight, is in stark contrast to their immature nymph stage.

Looking for the whole story, the kids and I picked up rocks in the river’s riffles. Clinging to the dark undersides were alien-like creatures with six sprawling legs, two antennae, and three tails. These mossy brown damselfly nymphs will feed in the water for several months before climbing up a blade of grass, splitting their exoskeletons down their backs, and flying away as shimmering adults. The magic of metamorphosis is not rare in nature.

The spin of life cycles, the march of time, even the flow of a river, all remind us that change is constant. Still, we remain connected to the past. On the Namekagon, this includes early peoples, explorers, loggers, residents and recreationists, all with their own stories. Sigurd Olson believed that “When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” To me, that is part of the magic of the river.

Alan Craig, curator at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in Spooner will be sharing more about the history of canoeing in this region on Wednesday, July 25. at 7:00 p.m. at the Cable Community Centre.

 “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores....There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” – Sigurd Olson

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