Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spooner's best-kept secret: the Yellow River

To mark my 65th birthday and husband John's seventieth this past July 2010, we vowed to ratchet up a notch our already very active lives.  The first venture was to bike from our home along the White Pine Trail north to Big Rapids, stay the night and return home (110 miles round-trip).  A few weeks later I got back on water skis, after a quarter-century hiatus.  Now, having planned for several weeks, we are kayaking the Yellow River, a trek that began Saturday, September 25, 2010.  Below is the Wagon Bridge in Spooner, taken from the home where my grandparents once lived.
This voyage down the Yellow has prompted me to reflect on my past-----and to write a Yellow River Almanac or memoir (my 20th book) that will hopefully draw attention to this beautiful waterway.  I just commented to the motel desk clerk that my husband and I were kayaking the river.  O, she said, the Namekagon, that's a beautiful river.  No, I responded we're not kayaking the Namekagen, we're kayaking the Yellow River that runs right past this motel!  Go through the dining room and out the back deck and there is the river right in front of you, bordered by maple and willow and lots of shrubbery and a nice dock for fishing or vegging out.  That's where we brought up our kayaks two days ago.  I'm looking out my window watching it flow by as I write.

Northern Wisconsin has a lot of wonderful rivers, and truly the Namekagon is one of those.  But for folks like us who prefer see wildlife---and beautiful scenery---rather than other kayakers, the Yellow is the place to be.  But the Yellow is typically overlooked.  I got that same impression when I stopped at the tourist information center in Spooner yesterday.  When I asked about information on the Yellow River, the woman said they didn't have any but that had lots of material on the Namekagon.  Hey, Spooner, let's start touting our wonderful river!  Here is the old railroad bridge---now supporting a bike path.
For me, the river runs through my veins.  It's part of my DNA.  My grandfather did white pine logging along the Yellow River, helping to build Minneapolis and Chicago. Several family members on both sides of my family have lived along the river and still do today.  But long before my ancestors immigrated from Germany and Scandinavia, native peoples were using this wonderful waterway.  I almost sensed their presence as we were silently carried on by the current.  I thought of them as we approached Rice Lake.  They harvested the wild rice in the late summer and they buried their dear ones in mounds near the banks of Rice Lake----mounds that I often visited as a child at the east end of the lake (at the end of Indian Mound Road).

Below are my daily musings.

Yellow River Almanac: Day One

I've probably had more than 20 wrist watches over the course of my life but none have meant so much as the one given to me today by eight-year-old Cole Burgraff---a spontaneous act of kindness that I will never forget.  Our chance meeting came at the end of our first day kayaking the Yellow River that runs through Spooner, Wisconsin and on through the farm where I grew up.

John and I began our trip yesterday, leaving Grand Rapids at 2 p.m., staying the night in Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula,  and arriving in Spooner before noon today.  The first leg of our kayaking trek was an incredibly beautiful trip up river and then back again to where we had parked the car (at the historical marker on highway 70, just east of Spooner) and then southwest on toward Spooner.  I've often said that one of the truisms of my life is:  If it's humanly possible to get lost, I will.  Well believe it or not we got lost going down river!  When we got back on track and started seeing houses along the bank, I called out to a fisherman asking if he knew which way to Spooner.  He laughed. How could anyone get lost on a river?  Before the Yellow River gets to the dam in Spooner there is a large area of wetland with open water meandering every which way; we took the wrong turn and I feared for a time that we'd be out in the swamp overnight.  We finally found our way and then I began recognizing landmarks from childhood, including my grandparents little house.  From there we went a short ways and stopped at the motel (Best Western American Heritage Inn) on the river where we are staying for the next 3 nights. We then went on to the dam where our trek ended for the day.

It was at the dam where I met Cole and his older brother Joshua.  Cole came running over and asked in a very friendly way if he could help, seeing that I would have to be getting out of the kayak at a precarious place.  I gladly accepted his assistance, but in the process slipped on the bank and fell into the cold water, getting soaked up to my elbows.  Cole kept saying he was sorry, but I assured him it was my fault.  I must not have been very convincing because he insisted I take his watch as a gift.  I said no, that I couldn't do that, but he was persistent, and I know it is wrong to refuse to accept such a gracious gift.  Here is a photo John snapped of Cole and me (holding the watch in my hand).  Below are pictures along the way, the first at the spot where we began the trek, the second is me at the bank of my grandparents' home (now vacant), and the last is a beautiful natural driftwood sculpture we saw along the way.  Tomorrow we will be going down river from Spooner, stopping by to see a cousin who lives on the river and ending our trip at the farm where I grew up.  We brought our bikes along, so between bikes and car will manage to get back to our hotel in Spooner at night.


Yellow River Almanac: Day Two

The bad news this morning: the grass outside our motel window was covered with frost; the good news: any lingering mosquitoes and gnats had shivered away.  We were on the river just below the Spooner dam at 8:15, with no authorities around to kick us out of the KEEP OUT area so we were able to drive up close to where we put in.  The current was fairly fast for the first hour and we managed to climb over and go under the trees that had fallen across the river.  Scenery was spectacular:  towering white pine and spruce, garnished with birch and brilliant splashes of red and orange maple, against a vast expanse of azure blue morning sky, broken only by the moon.

We portaged at the culverts on Tozer Lake Road. We contemplated trying to go through, but the water is high and we thought better of it.  As we ate our health bars before setting off I thought of my classmates a half century ago, Beverly Magnus and Randy Giddings, who had lived right there a stone's throw away on either side of the road.

Our next leg of the voyage was hard going.  The river veers south and turns into a shallow lake that continues beyond Green Valley Bridge and on to Hector Dam---almost all the way to what is known by locals as Swan Bridge.  We were told by Dave at Green Valley that we had gone less than a quarter of the way from Spooner to where we had left our bikes, just across the Burnett County line.  That news was more than a little depressing.  We had already fought the SW wind for most of our three hours, and I was calculating the time, fearing we wouldn't arrive to bike the eight miles back to Spooner until 8 p.m.  Fortunately, he had seriously miscalculated.  The current picked up after Swan Bridge and we sailed past my second cousin Carrie's home and ten minutes later to cousin Nancy's home where we learned she was gone but chatted with her husband Bud for a short while.  From there we went under the bridge on Highway 70, the current carrying us through some beautiful terrain.

We stopped at the home of another classmate, Richard Wright, and were disappointed to find him gone.  A bridge had once spanned the river near his house (before I was born), and was washed away in a flood.  Across the river from his home is "Wild Cat Canyon," a large wash-out where I played with brother Jonnie as a kid.  From there, we passed the old Stafford place and soon we were going by the swimming hole where I spent many hot afternoons as a child.  And then, the bridge.  It was our bridge, as we referred to it over the years.  Less than a half mile from my childhood home, my four siblings and I spent many hours playing there, and it was where I launched my raft that took me down stream to the river bank on our own property.  Beyond the bridge is the seventy square feet of land I claimed as my island.  What incredible memories.  Within minutes we were at realtor Jerry Thompson's beautiful log home where we had stored our bikes.  Jerry worked with me more than two decades ago when I was selling some land in the area.  We biked back to Spooner and were in our motel room by 4 p.m.

All in all, it was a perfect day.  I would not recommend the trip for beginners or for the faint of heart.  What perhaps surprised us most was that we saw only one other boat during our long trek---some duck hunters pulling into shore.  The Yellow is truly the river less traveled by, to paraphrase  Robert Frost.

Here is John putting us in this morning and below is the wonderful bridge on Yellow River Road near my childhood home.

Yellow River Almanac:  Day Three

Today's trip down stream past my childhood farm is best told in pictures.  We put our kayaks in at Jerry and Debbie Thompson's beautiful home ("next-door" neighbors to the home place where I grew up).  Here the river is most beautiful---though I may be a bit biased.  It's the span of water I knew so well a half century ago.  Trees across the river called for some quick maneuvering and lying flat in the kayak at one point, but it made the trek even more interesting.  We stopped along the way to visit cousin Marie Stellrecht Bassett. (My maiden name is Stellrecht, a name more common than Smith in these parts.)  The river pours into Rice Lake, and after being pushed by the wind half way across the lake we were back on the river again, and in less than three hours were at Kenowski Bridge where we had left our car this morning.

Below is a historical marker on highway 70 along the Yellow River about a mile east of Spooner.  It gives a glimpse of the history of the native peoples who lived and traveled along this wonderful river, sandwiched between Spooner Lake and Yellow Lake.

Below are some of my favorite river paintings.

Below is Jason Tako's "Study for Soft & Silent