Floating the Wisconsin wild: Three days canoeing the St. Croix River
By Ben Gruber
I used to be much better at planning trips, but these days my to-do list has more pages than I have dollars in my wallet. That is why I spent last Friday night gathering gear and packing until 2:30 a.m.
My alarm went off at 4 a.m., and I hit the road for my buddy Adam’s house near Grantsburg in northwest Wisconsin. We did some quick packing and checking there and were back on the road to Gordon and the headwaters of the St. Croix River. I packed the food, and Adam did the trip planning. We left my car at Highway 70 and had to navigate just over 60 miles of river in 2½ days.
We were on the water by 10:30 a.m. and almost immediately started to question our ambitions. The river was beautiful and peaceful. As part of the National Park System, it is classified as a National Scenic Riverway and has almost no development on its shores.
The water level in the upper stretch, however, was less than adequate to float our canoe over the rocks. We spent the majority of that first afternoon walking over rough boulders in water that frequently went from ankle deep to waist deep in a single step. We managed to not swamp our canoe, which was a plus. It was a bummer that when we did get water deep enough to paddle, it was against a headwind of 18-25 mph.
Progress was slow, and it left little time for fishing. In one narrow and deep part of the river, I did manage to hook a beautifully gold-colored walleye stretching close to 24 inches and then released it for someone else to enjoy another day.
Camping is only allowed in designated campsites along the river, so I was a little nervous when we found the site we hoped to camp in occupied. We stopped and talked to the three guys there for a bit, and they invited us to share the site. We opted to keep going for the next one, hoping that it was empty. We found it unoccupied as the sun was setting.
It appeared that we were the first to use it this year, and all indications suggested that not many folks paddle these upper stretches. Perhaps they knew better than we did.
We fished from camp for a bit, catching a few smallmouth bass that fought bigger than they really were. I waded out into some rapids and hooked up with a beautiful musky, around 32 inches. Bagels and some homemade sausage over a campfire filled our bellies, and we washed things down with cold ale brewed in Wausau.
A porcupine visited the tent in the dark, wondering what was going on. He poked around for a bit and then wandered away in search of his own dinner.
In the morning we warmed breakfast burritos in the coals and hit the water again. The weather started out decent, and the river got deeper as we went. We were able to paddle most of the river, only having to walk over shallow rocks a few times. We could feel some weather brewing, so we paddled hard and fished little.
We were fascinated to watch multiple deer along the way, standing waist-deep in the river and sticking their heads under water to come up with dripping mouthfuls of lush aquatic vegetation. The storms rolled in, and we quickly found a spot to throw the tent up and wait them out when the lightning really started cranking. We napped and waited, and when it cleared out we managed to get a few more hours of late evening paddling in. We made camp in near-dark that night.
Day three found us a few miles behind our plans and with fantastic weather. We caught a few fish trolling spinners as we went. The lower stretches of the river were great paddling with some fun rapids.
With both Adam and I anxious to get home to see our families, we made it to our take out by 3 p.m. It was a beautiful trip, great scenery, and very quiet. I will be back to see some more of it soon.
Ben Gruber can be reached at [email protected]