Canoe Camping the St. Croix River

Sunrise on the St. Croix River


The image of a canoe silently cutting through the morning fog past islands topped with towering white pines on the St. Croix River immediately captures the dreamy summertime feelings that Wisconsinites define as the Up North experience. Up North is a romanticized conception of boundless wild nature and nostalgic memories of lake cabin retreats; blended with an aspiration to the image of a gentleman explorer - a legacy of the French fur traders who were enlightened, toughened, and wizened in this land of endless adventures.

The St. Croix draws a hooking nose-like boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, an essential feature in a profile that defines Indian Head Country. One of the original eight American rivers to be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1968, the St. Croix River has since become recognized as one of the top paddling destinations in America.

Nearly all of the 169-miles of the St. Croix and 101-miles of the Namekagon River flow between parkland preserved through the National Park Service and state and county forests. The banks on either side feature a combination of hundreds of miles of hiking and horseback trails that wind through the homes of black bears, bald eagles, and white-tailed deer.

Recreational paddlers are able to access this wilderness landscape through a network of landings and ramps and can enjoy their evenings gathered around campfires at any of several dozen primitive campsites, many located on small islands accessed only by canoe or kayak.

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Paddling the St. Croix River
Paddling the St. Croix River

THE EXPERIENCE OF A 3-DAY CANOE TRIP ON THE ST CROIX IN MID-MAY

With several hundred miles of wilderness to explore in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, it was difficult to zero-in on a river trip spanning only three days. Our plan began by finding an outfitter to provide the essential equipment and a shuttle ride up-river to a launching location. For this trip, I chose Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg. Their location is within a mile of a major landing off Highway 70, and they were able to transport us to any starting location on both the St. Croix and Namekagon.

Our trip plans were conceived in the depths of Winter, when the warmth of summer was merely a dream, and long before a weather forecast was available. We idealized a trip on the upper stretches of the St. Croix where the channel is narrower, the depth shallower, and the run more exciting.

Initially, we planned to put-in at Riverside and travel to the Clam River campsite on our first day, then proceed to the Kettle River Slough and make a landing beside the rapids, and finish out at Highway 70 on our last day. We picked the weekend prior to Memorial Day in hopes that the river level would be high enough to enter the Kettle River Slough, as well as avoid competition for the premium campsites. We envisioned a late May date when the sun would be beaming, the temperatures in the '70s, and the flies not-yet-swarming ... Well, at least we didn't have to battle biting bugs.

Winter couldn't find a way to finish in early 2019. Duluth received an unwelcome blizzard dumping over 8 inches of snow the weekend before our trip. In-between snowstorms, rain had soaked the entire Midwest, leading to record-breaking floods that are still gathering downriver as I write this post.

The final forecast for our weekend excursion included consistent rain and highs in the low 60's. We opted to cut a few miles out, put-in at Thayers Landing, find a great campsite to spend two nights, then finish with a day of rapids in what was forecast to be our only day of sunshine.

Rain was light, and not too much of a bother as we put-in. We enjoyed the first few miles as we adjusted to the quiet of our surroundings. A black bear charged into the river from the Minnesota banks and swam in front of us to an island. we saw a few bald eagles fishing the river in the distance. We made great time and landed at St. Croix State Park in Minnesota to warm up and have lunch. It was at that time that we decided to take the next campsite downriver and save two hours of canoeing for the next day. We camped at a landing. A roaring fire kept us warm as the temperatures dropped into the 40's.

We woke to a higher river and a churning current. We had a fairly good trip in spite of the continuing rain and made for an island topped with white pines at the head of the rapids. Knowing that if we missed the island we would be swept into rapids in less-than-ideal weather I was determined to get to shore. But, the river current was so strong and fast that by the time I could survey the island for a proper landing we were already passing it. We paddled hard towards its rocky shore, and rather than beach the canoe, the bow bounced off and the current grabbed the stern and swept us around backward. We pinballed off the island twice, spinning us around, and I was worried we'd be swept into rapids backward. With a hope and a prayer, I leapt out of the boat to a steep embankment and held the boat against the bank. My friend found a hail marry rope tied along the shoreline - surely we were not the only ones to nearly miss this landing.

This island was ideal for camping. It was high and densely covered in forest, but with wide flat areas for multiple tents. It was just big enough to have a fun time exploring and searching for firewood but small enough to feel cozy. Shortly after setting up soaked tents the rain turned to accumulating snow. Our fingers quickly froze so that it was an ordeal to operate our stoves or get into our bear canisters. The rain and snow let up in the early evening and we enjoyed a brief roaring fire before heading to bed early.

The next day I woke at sunrise after shivering through the sub-freezing night, and I was quite satisfied that it was indeed a sunrise. Finally, we were able to shed our jackets and rain gear and our spirits were uplifted by beams of daylight that carved up a blanket of morning fog that had settled in the valley.

The river had risen again, picking up an intimidating speed. We knew that the Kettle River rapids were going to rise to class 3 rapids and so our mission became launching and avoiding being swept into the slough. After we accomplished our first mission we were tossed into Class2+ raids in the main channel. We let the current guide us and aimed our bow directly at each swell and rolled through the first set of rapids. The quickened current propelled us through the flat water between each run of rapids so that we barely had time to read and choose our approach. But, the benefit of the high current is that we rode high above any rocks and obstructions and didn't have much need for maneuvering.

Barely two hours had passed and we had arrived at the Highway 70 landing. With our extra time that afternoon we enjoyed a 3-mile hike at Sandrock Cliffs.

I suppose that you could say there were lessons learned. But, except for bringing a warmer sleeping bag, I would do it all again. There is little one can do about the weather in Wisconsin, and while our trip wasn't picture perfect, it is often these more harrowing adventures that stick in the memory. There is a sense of accomplishment in surviving against the elements. At the end of the trip we had observed seven bald eagles in close proximity, an osprey, a black bear, and a turtle. We had a blast riding the rapids. And, we found a new appreciation for the sun and a good campfire; I have been transformed from a night owl into a sun worshiper.

St. Croix River
St. Croix River


WHAT TO EXPECT AND HOW TO PLAN YOUR TRIP

There are a number of ways to enjoy the St. Croix River. Paddling by canoe or kayak will be the most immersive. The entire length of both rivers are referred to as recreational. That is to say that only a beginner or intermediate level of skill is required to safely navigate the river.

In normal current conditions intermediate paddlers should have no trouble with navigating, maneuvering, landing, or running the rapids. Most rapids will be class 1, with a few areas that rise to class 2. The river conditions on our trip were extraordinary and made for a few tense moments, but in the end, our intermediate skill level was enough to overcome the challenges of the surging river.

Campsites are fee-free and available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Each site includes a picnic table, fire ring, and a primitive toilet seat set off from the camping area.

The river is wider than I expected. It is a large river with a steady current. I don't think that paddling upstream is a tenable option. It is mostly flat water, but a few riffles and rapids are interspersed. The current will keep you moving, and if you are paddling it will be easy to progress 3-5 miles each hour. You can plan to spend 5-hours each day paddling before it becomes tiring. Therefore, you can expect to travel about 15-25 river miles each day depending on the current. 30 River miles would make a suitable overnight trip, and 40-45 would make for a good three-day trip plan.

OUTFITTERS AND RENTALS

There are many outfitters and canoe and kayak rental agencies that serve the St. Croix. You'll find most on the lower portion of the river below St. Croix Falls. I won't be able to list all of them here, but here are a few that I found:

Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg WI - Wild River Outfitters provides rentals ranging from popular day trips to two weeks. They also have a campground. They will shuttle you and your group to landings along the entire length of the St. Croix and Namekagon.

Hayward Outfitters - Hayward - Located on Hayward Lake, they are close to the Namekagon and rent by the day or week.

Jack's Canoe and Tube Rental - Trego - Serving the Namekagon River for day and overnight trips.

Namekagon Outfitters - A longer directory of more outfitters on the Namekagon

Riverwood Canoe & Kayak - Osceola - Day trips between Interstate State Park and Osceola

Eric's Canoe Rental - St.Croix Falls - Offers shuttles to as far upriver as Highway 70 and all trips return to Taylors Falls Dam. They also have a day trip from St. Croix Falls to Osceola



Directions and Trail Map


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Address for your GPS: 15999 WI-70, Grantsburg, WI 54840
| coordinates: 45.774261, -92.778959 |

From Milwaukee 6 Hours
From Madison 5 Hours
From Green Bay 5 Hours
From Wausau 3.5 Hours
From Minneapolis 1.5 Hours
From Chicago 7 Hours



Photos


Short Trail on an Island in the St. Croix River
Short Trail on an Island in the St. Croix River

Sunrise on the St. Croix River
Sunrise on the St. Croix River

Rustic Campsite on the St. Croix River
Rustic Campsite on the St. Croix River

St. Croix River at the Head of the Rapids
St. Croix River at the Head of the Rapids

Paddling through Rain on the St. Croix River
Paddling through Rain on the St. Croix River

Paddling through Rain on the St. Croix River
Paddling through Rain on the St. Croix River

St. Croix River
St. Croix River





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