Paddling with paddlefish; easy time on a wild riverMy brother John from Madison called last week to say he planned to join us on a canoe trip down the lower Chippewa River. The voicemail message wasn’t very clear. It sounded like he would bring a nun. John is an active and often unpredictable guy. I didn’t put it past him. Paddling with a nun?
By: Dan Wilcox, columnist, River Falls Journal
My brother John from Madison called last week to say he planned to join us on a canoe trip down the lower Chippewa River. The voicemail message wasn’t very clear. It sounded like he would bring a nun. John is an active and often unpredictable guy. I didn’t put it past him. Paddling with a nun?
When we met at the Caryville landing to start our trip, it turned out that John’s friend Susan Nonn of Madison was along; not a nun.
Experienced voyageurs Bill and Susan Smith were there. They’ve been canoeing with us on the lower Chippewa since they brought their young kids with them down the river in 1987. Jesse and Angie are now grown up with kids of their own.
The last time my brother John floated with us down the Chippewa River was a few years ago. It rained the entire time and we cut the float trip short at Meridean. Despite the rain it was reasonably warm. We caught lots of fish and had a good time.
Last year a bunch of us got together for a July weekend float down the river. The wind picked up to over 30 miles-per-hour from the southwest, right on the nose. There were whitecaps where the wind-driven waves stood up in the current. Sand came blasting off the bars in gusts of wind.
The wind forced us to wait until almost dark before we could set up our tents on a sand bar. The next morning started calm, but as soon as we started paddling the wind kicked up against us again. We were arm-weary by the time we worked our way down the river to Durand.
The Chippewa River dealt us a good hand last weekend. The weather was beautiful with plenty of sun and a mild breeze. The river discharge was less than 1,000 cubic feet per second. That’s about one third of the long-term average for this time of year. There wasn’t much current.
The water was really low, exposing old pilings from the logging railroad that once ran right up the river. We had to watch closely to find where most of the water flowed to avoid grounding out on gravel bars.
Carol and I stopped to fish at the deep Sevastopol Pool a few miles downriver from Caryville. After catching a few smallmouth bass we continued our float. A big paddlefish jumped completely out of the water and did a 360 cartwheel right in front of our canoe. We gave it a 9.8 for style and a clean entry. I suspect that they are either jumping for joy or to shake off the native chestnut lampreys that attach to them.
We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar where a side channel rejoins the main channel. There’s a nice current break, a deep run and an eddy along the bank. Bill Smith caught a smallmouth bass and a northern pike on his first two casts. The smallmouth bass were aggressive and I caught another northern but we released them all.
Sandhill cranes were talking to each other while roosting on a low gravel bar just downstream of our campsite. After dinner, a fine sunset, and talk around the campfire we turned in and slept well in the cool night. Mosquitoes were remarkably absent! In other years we could hear the mosquitoes revving up their engines at about 9 p.m. and we were chased into our tents before they got all our blood.
The Sunday float down to Durand was leisurely. We saw at least a dozen juvenile and adult bald eagles. Great blue herons patrolled the shoreline. Swarms of bank swallows rocketed out of their nest holes in the river bank, swooping over the river intercepting insects on the fly. Tree swallows, cedar waxwings and flycatchers joined in catching insect breakfast on the wing. Kingfishers took off from overhanging trees with a loud rattle.
What a contrast to the St. Croix! We floated most of the 27-mile trip without seeing others out on the water. The lower Chippewa is too shallow for larger boats. The dominant sounds were made by the moving water, wind in the trees and by birds.
We landed at Durand, loaded the canoes and gear and enjoyed the scenic ride home. Canoeing the lower Chippewa is always a treat for us, despite the frequent imposition of bad weather and mosquitoes.
About 15,000 acres in the lower Chippewa River were designated a State Natural Area in 2002. The Lower River State Natural Area contains over 2,000 acres of native prairie, over 25 percent of the prairie remaining in Wisconsin. Downstream of Durand is the largest area of contiguous floodplain forest in the Midwest.
We are fortunate to have such an extensive and beautiful wild area as the lower Chippewa River nearby. Thanks to the good stewardship of local landowners, the DNR, NSP-Wisconsin and many other stakeholders, this big river area will be protected for future generations to enjoy.
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at email@example.com.