September 6, 2003—Jim and I set off for our first paddle together on Wisconsin’s Red Cedar River.
We couldn’t find the put-in on our map and had to find a new starting place, adding an extra four miles to the trip. Our late departure worried me. Could we paddle the fifteen miles before dark? We then shuttled our own cars back and forth three times before eating a quick lunch and shoving off into the clear river.
I sat in the stern (back) and was able to practice my steering, which required immediate attention as we headed down a small Class I rapids within a minute of setting out. But quickly the water began working its magic. I was calmed by the pace of steady paddling and the slow way the world unfolds from a canoe. The Red Cedar River runs through farmland and often the arching rows of corn ran right down to the river, and the occasional cow chewed and watched us paddle by. The river was shallow. Long lengths of bright green grasses grew in thick clumps, brushing the surface like watery hair. A snapping turtle dived next to our canoe and swam like mad before peeling away to the shore.
A huge bald eagle surprised us by swooping down across the narrow river. He surprised us even more by accompanying us nearly the entire afternoon, flying off high branches as we approached, sailing down the middle of the river and disappearing again. Once Jim said, “Where’s my eagle?” and just then he appeared above us, quiet, watching from a branch.
Early in the trip we came to a “strainer,” which is a downed tree that lies across the water. This strainer had plenty of unobstructed river to the right, but nonetheless, a downed tree always make me a bit nervous since our Rice Creek paddle. (River #1) That day the creek’s rushing high spring water sent us crashing into a dozen dangerous strainers. I felt the grip of those claws once when my life jacket was caught by a stiff branch and the current was too stiff to resist. But today’s shallow river flowed with the gentle current of late summer and we slipped by without a scratch.
We paddled on through the clear water and the green grasses and then suddenly, everything changed.
The bottom of the river turned black. The flowing grasses were only stubs of bare stems. Dark algae grew on everything. No fish. No turtles. It was like seeing Isengaard after it was burned in Tolkein’s Two Towers. The devastation was probably due to agricultural runoff of chemicals and the river had suffocated. We paddled another mile before the healthy bottom began to return. It was shocking to see the difference between a living stretch of river and a dead one. The day was hot and we stopped on a tiny island’s rocky point to rest. The water was too shallow for swimming so I sat in the rushing current and tried to find a rock to match the perfect egg shaped rock that Jim had found. (no luck).
Our eagle had one more surprise visit in store for us – We spotted him high above and slowly paddled toward his perch. He let us get closer and closer until we glided right under him, so close we could see his huge golden claws gripping the bark. The day was darkening and we still had a couple of miles to go so when a double strainer loomed out from both banks we decided to take the shallow route around the tiny island, avoiding the strainers altogether. We had paddled only about twenty yards when a huge beaver dam blocked our path.
We paddled back to the main river where we paused on the muddy shore to assess our situation. We had to cross the current to a tiny inlet on the other side and then shoot back through the narrow opening perfectly or fall into those claws.
We were careful and our aim was perfect. We sailed through the narrow break in the trees and found our takeout just as dusk settled on the river.