Canoeing the Black River

by Ben N on July 29, 2014

I just got back from canoeing the Black River.

For the past several years, my father, my brothers, and I have been taking multi-day canoe trips as sort of a male-bonding vacation. It tends to be easy-going. The main expense is gasoline and a cooler full of groceries. We’ve canoed several different parts of the state of Wisconsin, and every year have gained a little more experience, and a little more camping gear.

This time, it was my father (Jim), my brother (Wayne), my brother-in-law (Fred), my cousin (Chuck), and his son (Huxley). We put in to the Black River at Black River Falls, and headed downstream for four days. We had three canoes. Fred and Dad both solo’d, and Wayne and I doubled up in the largest canoe. Chuck and Huxley brought a tandem kayak, although tween-aged Huxley seemed to sleep most of the time in front, with Chuck paddling away in back.

This year, I was in charge of food, and I brought three coolers, a dutch oven, and a large sack of dry goods.

We left first thing in the morning to get to Black River Falls around noon and then put in for half a day of paddling. Half a day is pretty easy, which leaves us looking for a primo camp site. The river didn’t disappoint, and we set up on a beach facing a beautiful bluff carved out by the current. Traveling by water means that weight isn’t an issue. While backpackers often every item they carry down to the gram, with a canoe, there’s nothing stopping you from bringing a three-burner cast-iron stove….. Which weighs 68 pounds.

While it takes a while to set up camp, and I don’t love lugging around the heavy gear, it’s pretty luxurious to be in the middle of nowhere and still be able to have Chicken Cordon Bleu, biscuits and gravy with actual fresh-made biscuits, and from-scratch chocolate chip scones. Wayne and I did the cooking and didn’t have any complaints about the food. Wait, there actually was one. My dad said that the trouble with this kind of cooking was that nobody would believe them when they get back…

Paddling was pretty easy. The worst of it is that the Black River is aptly named. It’s so dark that you can’t see into it more than a few inches. Although there were very few snags, they were hard to see coming. Overall, the river is almost all sand through this section. Sand so clean and uniform that you think you are at a public beach. There were a fair number of shallow areas where we had to hop out because of low water, but even then, it was just walking on sand. I nearly never had to put on shoes.

The river twisted and flowed downstream. Bald eagles spotted the sky. We saw both the world’s fastest turtle making a run for the beach, and a high-diving turtle make a “plop!” off a log three feet above the river. We saw a six-foot-long snake swimming across the river, and Chuck, being Chuck, had to immediately paddle after it in his annual snake hunt. The night was clear. The constellations shone down on us and coyotes howled in the distance.

During the day, the most common stop was a location known as “Cookie Island” – which was pretty much anywhere we could take a break and share cookies, chips, and apples. Lunch was sandwiches, including venison sausage, meats, and cheeses.

The weather was generally not too warm and partly cloudy. We got rained on a few times, first while breaking camp (but after we were mostly packed) but everyone had either a rain-jacket or at least an emergency poncho. I was pretty happy with my recently-purchased day-glow jacket that I bought on a whim before the trip. The next day, the weather was manic-depressive and alternated between gusts of rain and gorgeous blue skies.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was camping with cows. We always noticed animal prints when we pulled into an area that we planned to camp at. Usually it was just raccoons, and signs of other humans – old camp fires and empty beer cans. Several times we saw very large dog prints. Chuck managed to convince himself that it was NOT a wolf, but rather a man traveling in a canoe with a very large dog. At one beach my dad pointed to a large curved print and hollered “Look Ben, horse prints!” It wasn’t quite a horse-shoe, but I couldn’t figure out what else it could be. I couldn’t imagine somebody going out horseback riding where we were.

We set up camp. Put up the tents. Set up the stove. “Hey, look over there.” On the north end of the beach was a black cow, wandering out of the woods. She was soon joined by a few more, and pretty soon, there was a herd of cows on the edge of our campsite. With them were several playful calves and…. a bull.

The cows eyed us, and we eyed them. It was a “Mexican Stand-off.” The cows lined up in a row facing towards us, and the bull started stomping the sand, kicking it backwards in the way a cartoon bull does before charging the bull-fighter. We all had been rather quiet since the bull started making aggressive movements. My father had been sitting in a camp chair – his attention fully on the herd, when he finally turned to speak to one of us, only to find that we all had taken one very large step backwards, nearly hiding in his shadow.

Shortly after that, Fred had started cracking dirty jokes about cows and bulls, and as if offended, the lead cow turned her head and walked off towards the woods. The rest of the herd soon followed.

Of course the rest of the evening was spent making up ghost stories about cows.

The next day involved more paddling, and my dad found and old bocce ball. We improvised a beach game that was half lawn bowling and half “jarts”, tossing the ball towards a circle in the sand with a shell in the middle. After my father destroyed one shell , shattering it in half with a game winning toss, we switched to crushed aluminum cans, still calling the target a “shell”.

Our final day was an easy paddle down river and taking out at a boat launch. Our other adventures of the trip included stopping at North Bend, a town so small it nearly qualified as a ghost-town. We also ran into a group of canoeists who only paddled far enough from the bridge they put in at to get around the bend and set up camp on the beach. We were impressed by their ratio of three beer coolers per canoe – far more than we had brought. We also had a few minor scares of tipping. Fred got soundly stuck on an invisible log, and Wayne and I risked tipping every time we had to get back in the canoe, which was often, as our cargo barge was the first boat to bottom out, get dragged across the sand, and have to try to get back in at the edge of a drop off. Once, the sand sucked off my shoe, which started floating down-stream. (Thanks for catching it, Dad!)

The annual canoe trip is always interesting. It’s a chance to get away from the city and the stresses and responsibilities of daily life. We balance simplicity with technology. We gaze at the night sky and see the stars, but also man-made satellites, and even here we can see the glow of the cities. Time slows and we all have to do our own share of chores, setting camp, finding wood, cooking, washing.

Finally back home, I’m glad to have a hot shower and the ability to go to the bathroom without being bitten by mosquitos. Even with our modern conveniences, there’s nothing quite like being on a beach just off the river, staring at the night sky, counting the stars…. and out blessings.

Keep paddling…


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jim nelson July 29, 2014 at 8:13 pm

good job Ben. You’ve become the outdoor writer that I’ve always wanted to be. Dad

2 Scutaru August 1, 2014 at 2:00 am

Nice trip, wonderful pictures. And first time in three or maybe four years since I’ve been reading about you (starting with the Geo Metro conversion) that I could see such funny faces of you – couldn’t keep myself from laughing a time or two. :) I’m glad to hear you had such a wonderful time there. Keep up the good work of inspiring as many of us as possible.

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