It didn’t take long to pack their Duluth packs. Six of the seven boys had been on a canoe trip with me before; the newbie was a younger brother. Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, head lamps, and mess kits from the National Park Service went into the garbage bag-lined packs with their clothes, toothbrushes, and extra shoes. Within half an hour, the seven boys, two leaders, and two volunteer drivers were on our way to the Namekagon River landing just below the Hayward dam.
Many hands make light work. Unloading the Canoes on Wheels boats (a Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters program that lends canoes to educational programs for free) at the landing went quickly. I’m often impressed with these local kids – they jump right in to help and don’t complain. Just before launching the canoes, we slathered on sunscreen and fueled up with gorp (aka trail mix). “Two hands,” I reminded them as I poured the peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms from the bag. To drop an M&M is a major fail.
Soon we’re all floating. Two great blue herons rose like dinosaurs from the reedy shallows just around the first bends. Kingfishers swooped overhead, and cedar waxwings gave their high, thin, whistles from the shrubs on shore. The boys probably didn’t notice the bird songs, though, as they focused on navigating through quick water and around rocks. One canoe got distracted by some fishing line tangled in the alders, and the boys managed to free quite a bit before moving on. They’ve been told how dangerous lost line can be to wildlife, and a use for the line was already swimming in their heads.
A light drizzle gave way to tentative sunshine as we landed at our first night’s campsite. After we gathered around the picnic table, David, an intern with the Park and my co-leader, asked “Does anyone know where the closest National Park is?” “Right here!” several boys replied. In 2012, when I first ran a trip like this, none of the kids realized that we live so close to a Park.
Many local residents drive by the brown NPS arrowhead signs every day, and never stop to realize that they live right next to a National Park. The Namekagon River is a tributary of the St. Croix, and therefore is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a unit of the National Park Service (NPS).
Both the Cable Natural History Museum and the Park Service want to get kids on the river. So, the Park and the Museum have developed a marvelous partnership in the past few years. I provide the trip guiding experience, camp food, and participants, and the Park provides camping gear, a second adult to come along, a Park Ranger for an evening program, and logistical support. This year, funding was provided through the St. Croix River Association, which was awarded an America’s Best Idea grant from the National Park Foundation. As I tell our Park partners, just like lichens, we couldn’t do it without each other.
The boys are the ones that really benefit, though. We covered our miles quickly on the first day, and recurrent drizzle dampened their enthusiasm for swimming. So what could they do around the campsite? Before too long, one kid was making a fish hook by filing down the metal end of bungee cord found near the fire ring, another was whittling a fishing pole from a stick, and a third was untangling the fishing line found earlier.
Not a single boy pulled out an electronic device, or even mentioned wanting one. Two Frisbees (one of mine and one found in the weeds on the river) were sailing among the tents. A few other boys were practicing intently with David’s kendama, an extremely addictive wooden skill toy that originated in Japan.
No one was bored. Everyone was safe. I sat back and let them be boys in the woods.
Soon the fishing pole was outfitted with a wooden bobber, baited with a raisin, and ready for testing. The whole troupe followed Gavin down to the landing, and watched as he swung the hook and line into the current. Evening light reflected off the trees, and bugs skittered along the surface. The onlookers soon dispersed, but Gavin stood quietly – our most talkative boy sliding easily into the fisherman’s meditation.
After several minutes without any nibbles, Gavin decided to try the other canoe landing – a backwater area filled with water lilies and muck. As he waded in wearing sandals, I heard him mutter to himself “I hope I get a leech on my foot so I can use it for bait.”
I’m not sure when Gavin took a break, but at some point we all drifted back around the picnic table to watch the kendama practice. Then, out of the blue, Gavin exclaimed, “I’ve got a leech!” with not a hint of disgust or fear in his voice. Nearby, Grant, who had whittled the fishing pole, replied “Sweet! Now we have bait!” with the same untainted joy.
The boys never caught a fish with their make-shift pole and leech bait, but I know they caught even more of the spirit of the Riverway: adventure, resourcefulness, stewardship, and beauty. In the next two days we paddled rapids, cooked over a campfire started with flint and steel, learned about the Voyageur history of the river, picked other people’s trash out of a fire grate, admired bald eagles and osprey soaring above, and paddled 15 miles in a morning.
Around the campfire I asked the kids what they wanted in a trip next year. “More fishing!” exclaimed one. “Can we go longer?” suggested another. Obviously, we’re all hooked on the Namekagon River.

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