County Road K to Riverside Landing:
Crystal clear water, good current, great wildlife, dozens of free campsites along the way to provide for fun multi-day trips, and all set in a very wild-feeling environment because of minimal development, the Namekagon is a paddling staple in Wisconsin.
By Rachel Friedman
Our Biggest Fan/Chief Miles Paddled Marketing Evangelist/Miles Paddler since 2013
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 16-19, 2015
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
4′ per mile (average)
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Leonards: ht/ft: 1.7 | cfs: 103
Leonards: ht/ft: 1.78 | cfs: 106
We recommend this level but do note that the gauge is 55 miles upstream. Water levels are typically pretty good throughout the paddling season below Trego. If in doubt, call the visitor center about current levels at 715-635-8346.
Day 1: 7.16.15
Miles Paddled: 13.5
Day 2: 7.17.15
Miles Paddled: 9.25
Day 3: 7.18.15
Miles Paddled: 5
Day 4: 7.19.15
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Total Miles Paddled: 35.25
Eagles, eagles and more eagles. A snake of some sort (sorry Barry!). Raccoon – so be prepared to secure your coolers/food storage bin at night! Great blue heron. Turtles (painted and snapping). River otters (the highlight). Mosquitos were tolerable and the biting flies were fairly tolerable (we had good wind most days).
26.4 miles. For such a length, it’s prudent to do a car shuttle or pay for one from an outfitter. (Editor’s note: That said, Timothy and his crazy friend bike shuttled this trip back in 2010. Due to road construction at the time, they had to take an even longer and less direct route, making it over 30 miles. In 90-degree heat and “a million percent” humidity. It was the longest and least enjoyable bike shuttle ever. Both dove into the water to cool off upon returning to the car.)
To quote Timothy, who encouraged us to do this trip, “It’s as if the Namekagon were designed to be a playground for paddlers.” (Editor’s note: Timothy did this very same trip in August 2010, pre-Miles Paddled, and has been eager to do it again ever since.) Every summer my partner and I do a multi-day paddling trip (usually the Boundary Waters) but this year we decided to do a river trip instead. With us were my partner’s 14-year-old daughter and her same-aged friend, both who have joined us on paddling trips in years past. Timothy sold us on the Namy years ago; it’s just been a matter of figuring out when we’d actually do it. The Namy is truly beautiful and rightfully protected by the National Parks Service as part of the great St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, an oasis of near wilderness in the Northwoods.
What we liked:
The Namekagon has everything you want and expect from a Northwoods stream: clear water with good current, undeveloped surroundings, some rolling hills, a whole lot of conifers and just a sense of getting away from it all, being somewhere special and protected. It has a cool forest feel to it, but there are pleasant open areas too with bogs and fens. There are lots of riffles but no serious rapids. And towards the end of the trip we were towered above by tall sand banks that looked more like cliffs.
We went with Jack’s in Trego, Wisconsin for our canoe rental and shuttle service. They’re nice folks with a big operation for renting canoes, kayaks and innertubes. When we arrived on Thursday we were the only souls there with about ten cars in the lot. Granted, it was a Thursday, 72 degrees and cloudy with rain likely. When we returned on Sunday it was INSANE; the parking overflowed to the streets AND an upper lot! It seemed reasonably well organized – people were organized in groups and herded off with their tubes in large passenger vans. They allowed us to jump the line to simply retrieve our car key and $10 deposit (yeah, $10 deposit for 2 canoes? Okay). Our driver recommended avoiding this area like the plague on holiday weekends. Apparently there were thousands of people floating on July 4th weekend – wall to wall tubes on the Namekagon – coming from around Earl to Trego.
Given the challenges of a couple rapids and the beautiful surroundings, it really was a fun river to paddle! Our two 14-year-olds had canoed before but had little experience steering. After getting stuck a few times on rocks in riffles or small rapids (no capsizing, thankfully!), the girls both did very well and mastered avoiding the protruding rocks. The water moved fast enough with periods of flat water so at times we didn’t need to paddle much – just drift 2-3 mph and steer. With the wind against us a few of the days it was more work but not difficult.
Regarding the small rapids, a volunteer ranger (a retired nurse from Texas we met at one of the campsites) advised this: on the St. Croix, the rapids are fun and not difficult to manage. Lots of rolling water with few real dangers. The very last section includes some nice rapids near Big Pine Island. There is a smaller channel that goes right and around the top of it. The main channel has a series of Class I rapids. She advised to stick to the main channel – or if you like rapids then stay in the middle. If you don’t like rapids then stay to the right side. She was spot on; the rapids on the St. Croix were super fun with some pretty obvious boulders you want to avoid but not hard in a canoe if you have decent steering abilities. It would have been a blast in a kayak for sure!
Swimming is easy enough if you don your life vest: (there are strong currents but not terribly deep water in the upper sections) walk upstream and then float back down to your campsite. On the third day we actually paddled upstream a couple miles in one canoe and dropped the girls off (this is a deeper section) and they floated back to the campsite. Do note that footwear is a MUST when swimming – one of the girls ended up with a fishhook in the sole of her Keen’s sport sandal from the float/swim!
There are allegedly many types of fish in the Namekagon and St. Croix which makes for some wonderful fishing opportunities. The fisherman of our group caught one small mouthed bass. The first section of this trip (from County Road K to Howell Landing) was often too shallow to throw a line in. His fishing attempts were often thwarted by the din of 14-year-olds demanding less paddling and more swimming time.
The campsites are great for free sites. There are 39 designated campsites along the way; obvious tent areas, a fire ring and a pit toilet. The sites are well-marked on available maps (we printed the NPS section map and had it laminated at an office supply store). The sites are well-marked on land with signs that include the mile marker number – awesome for knowing exactly where you are.
The landings along the way are very nice and easily accessible. Howell Landing (not West Howell, which is across the river) is the last landing with water -so fill up if you’re going all the way to Riverside! Or bring a way to filter water. The Namy is very clear thanks to the lack of farm runoff and all the fresh water mussels but I wouldn’t drink it without filtering!
Overall, this was a great trip with something for everyone. Thanks to Timothy for the recommendation!
What we didn’t like:
Did I mention entry to the Riverway and all the campsites are free – yes, FREE! Thank you National Parks Service! So really, how can one complain? That said, here are my complaints… The group sites tend to be a lot nicer than the smaller sites. One feature in particular of the group sites is a picnic table. Smaller single sites did not offer this. This is important to think about, as a picnic table makes a huge difference when camping… especially when camping with two teenage girls (just saying). Many of the landings at the sites were not maintained. In lower water levels you do have to haul your boats up onto dry land, but typically most have some type of gradient where you can step out to do so. Some of the sites have steps down to the water. The steps are generally dilapidated (federal budget cuts?) and some are downright dangerous.
The Riverway and the primitive sites give the illusion of being backcountry. The river, flora and fauna help underscore this as well. We saw an average of ten other paddlers per day, so not a lot of others camping. However, that illusion was frequently interrupted due to the proximity of roads, houses and people who raise “bear hounds.” Our last night we camped at a gorgeous site (likely the nicest on the Namy, #3.6) but there was another group site a tenth of a mile away and our neighbors were loud and raucous. A nearby house (the shuttle driver explained) is owned by someone who raises hound dogs; if you enjoy being woken to the sound of howling dogs – and, really, who doesn’t? – then, baby, this is the site for you! Still though, I’d say the trip (and site) were worth these minor intrusions. The only reason for this trip receiving four instead of five stars was the surprising amount of ambient noise (roads especially).
If we did this trip again:
Next time we would love to have a bigger group – I think it would be a lot of fun with 6-10 people, and the group sites can certainly handle that number. I would include people who like to kayak and have a balance between canoes (for gear) and kayaks (for fun) and have people switch off taking turns with both. The Namy would no doubt be fun in a kayak, especially if Timothy is in one of them!
General: National Park Service
Good People: Namekagon River Partnership
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Maps: Kettle National Park Service
Outfitter: Jack’s Canoe Rental
Video: St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers
Wikipedia: Namekagon River