Listen to Ruth tell the story of Day III of the I Heart Wisconsin: River Trip:
Day III transcribed:
Today is Tuesday, Sept. 29 and it’s day three of the I Heart Wisconsin trip. Today I kayaked from Eagle River down to the County O boat landing, which was just about 12 miles. That’s kind of a nice short day. I paddled with Trisha Moore, who’s a conservation specialist with Northwoods Land Trust. We started out the morning visiting their office, which is a brand new office for them in downtown Eagle River. I encourage people, if you’re interested in land protection in Oneida and Vilas Counties and nearby areas, to go in and say hello and pick up some literature about the Northwoods Land Trust. They protect land through voluntary conservation easements. It’s a really important way that individuals can express their land ethic if they’d like to protect their land, especially after they’re gone, with a legal document that prohibits subdivision. It’s recorded with a deed and runs with the land no matter who owns it.
Land trusts are really making a difference in Wisconsin. When I started working for land trusts in 1991, there were about a dozen in the state and now there are over 50. They’re supported with services, trainings and conferences, by Gathering Waters Conservancy in Madison. Gathering Waters helps organize land trusts, they work on policy issues like renewing the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, which has been very important public funding that is matched 1-to-1 by land trusts who work with land owners, do all the prep, do all the transaction, work to protect a piece of land permanently. It’s been fun talking to Trisha today about the work they do. They probably have about 12 or 15 properties just on the Wisconsin River where they’ve worked with land owners to put these restrictions on their land. That’s pretty neat. That means that when you travel down the river, there are places, sometimes miles of frontage, which will never be developed thanks to the generous actions by these people and the work of Trisha Moore and Bryan Pierce and all the board members of the Northwoods Land Trust.
One other thing I wanted to add about the Northwoods Land Trust is the role that volunteers play in their organization. They have 30-40 volunteers they have trained to go monitor conservation easement properties. This is a success in permanent protection. Every year these volunteers, one or two of them in pairs, go to each property that has a conservation easement on it and meet with the landowner if they’re available and walk the boundaries of the property and look to make sure the conditions of the conservation easement are upheld. I know one of the volunteers is Jim Bennett, who is on the board of the Natural Resources Foundation. He’s a great example of one of Wisconsin’s citizens who is volunteering in many other ways to help our natural resources.
[The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin holds a fund for the Northwoods Land Trust that was created by the late Luida Sanders in 2007 in memory of her parents Charles A. and Ida C. Sanders. Luida Sanders passed away in August of 2014.]
So we started out there in the office that’s new to them and it’s right off Main Street, so if you’re ever in Eagle River they will soon have educational exhibits as well as meeting space and information about the work the Northwoods Land Trust does.
A little bit about the trip today: From Eagle River, this was the first time that I paddled through what’s called Watersmeet Lake and it’s where the waters meet. There are several rivers that come in at one point and it’s sort of a crossroads for people who live in and recreate on the lake. It’s very common in Northern Wisconsin that you might get in your boat and go through the chain of lakes. I learned there are 28 lakes, it’s the largest chain of freshwater lakes in the world, where you can just go from lake to lake without ever getting out of your boat. On a Friday night you can just get in your boat and zip around to one of these supper clubs and have a fish fry and then zip home in your boat. You don’t even have to get in your car. That’s a neat thing about Northern Wisconsin. But for someone who’s in a canoe or kayak, it can be a lot of traffic. We were lucky Tuesday morning when headed across Watersmeet Lake that there was nobody out really, we were the only ones. We just made one little wrong turn and then we got back on at the right place and started heading down the river.
Today we saw two types of landscapes along the river. We came up to the first dam and my first portage. There are 26 hydropower dams on the Wisconsin River. This is number one, called Otter Rapids and we portaged that. It’s about a 500-foot portage, up and over, and then down to below the dam. That went okay, we just carried the boats: Trisha’s boat and my boat. And then after the dam we were going really through what I think boaters call a rock garden or a boulder garden, huge rocks where you could tell the water had been at times three feet higher than it was today. It’s been so low that when I get into these boulder gardens and then when they flatten out at the bottom, there’s just not enough water to float my boat. So I have to get out and walk again in front of the boat and line it, which means pull it behind me, through the shallow area. It’s kind of a bummer because every time I get in or out, there are these metal edges on the kayak and they’re just putting lots of bruises on my calves. Tonight Bryan Pierce and Gail Pierce, my River Angels, actually drove me back to their house so I had two nights indoors. Bryan lent me some neoprene waders he was going to throw away and so we took the tops off and now I have some knee-high neoprene booties that I’m going to try wearing in the kayak. As we see the temperatures going down, I think my feet might be a little chilly in the water shoes I have. We’re just seeing how it goes.
The second half of the river was characterized by these wide mudflats, the sugar camp river comes in kind of from the southeast and it’s a big flat area with lots of pointed sandbars that come out of the river and force you to do big meanders. There were lots of seagulls there that we think were migrating, probably feeding on the insects on the mudflats. We got hung up there too and got out and kind of started sinking in, kind of like quicksand. You have to just move fast because otherwise that muck will just hold your foot and it’ll go down like eight inches and it’s really hard to get your foot out of there and get back in the boat. But there’s only about four inches of water, so we needed to get through there.
Then when we got to the other side, just before the County O crossing where we were going to get out, there was this beautiful forest of dark spruce spires along the edge of the river and then behind it there were sugar maples and red maples with the sun illuminating the leaves from behind, so it looked like stained glass. And then behind that were these huge red and white pine trees kind of towering above the whole tableau. I looked at Trisha and she said “I’m just looking at this” and was silent for a couple minutes. It was so beautiful. At that point we kept going just about a half mile further and we saw the snow mobile bridge and the bridge for County O and there was somebody walking on it and it turns out it was Bryan Pierce. We actually have an internal website that tracks my location every 10 minutes and so he knew when we were actually going to show up at the take-out and there he was.
The other thing that I was reflecting on today, I looked back at the first 35 miles and it looks like somebody took some intestines and pulled them out. I just can’t believe I paddled all those twisty curves. The first part of the river is just incredible. When you really see how the river behaves, it’s almost unbelievable how much it twists and turns and the power of the water and how it cuts the channel. When more and more water comes in—and this is the first time we saw it today—the river starts to have more of a channel and more of a bed and it’s a totally different kind of experience, except the water was still low. I’m looking forward to deeper water as more and more tributaries add in to this river. I’m at mile 47 now, the total river is 430, so I guess I’m about 10 percent of the way there.
It’s been a fun journey!