(State #33/50) My Mother stood, looking impatient and swatting mosquitoes, as I lugged free-ranging laundry from my car and into her rental. In my backseat, I piled junk onto the adjacent seat and crammed some trash under that pile. Then I wiped sand and leaves from the fabric, which I hadn’t seen in three months. Stepping back, I presented the spot to Mom, who seemed satisfied that there was at least a place for her iced tea. I loaded up Dad in the passenger seat with some dry bags and gear, jumped behind the wheel and drove to the launch on the Flambeau River. We spent the 45-minute drive swatting, clapping and rolling down the windows trying to kill, mane or eject as many of our mosquito passengers as possible. Wisconsin, Hurrah!
Minnows schooled in the shallows tea-colored water as Dad and I loaded the canoe at the bank of the river. The afternoon was sunny and warm, but mosquitoes and biting gnats put a rush on our launch. Mom snapped a picture and then drove off to leave my car back at the pull out point, thus completing her shuttling duties.
We began downstream in the late afternoon, moving with the swift wide current. Rider, loaded with the excess weight of my Dad and actual ice in the cooler, bobbed down the dark clean river, past large granite boulders left from glaciers. Chattering kingfishers and green dragonflies filled the air above the water, replacing the biting insects of the surrounding woods. The sun glinted off the water, rippled by gusts of wind.
Dad and I headed into Barnaby Rapids, where small whitewater curled around protruding boulders. Yet, with the rocks the same color as the water, we didn’t see one until the last minute. It was a close one — nearly colliding with the rock head-on — but we bumped our way through with zero fatalities. Scraping the side of a huge boulder got us to talking about the Titanic disaster… then we stopped talking about the film and discussed when the ship sank. (No, that’s a joke. Titanic was a great movie. I mean Nicole in 6th grade English saw it 6 times… in theaters. You read right… 6.). The upshot of this chain of events was that I started singing My Heart Will Go On, a song that is as beautiful as Canadians are interesting.
After several miles, the Flambeau strayed from the highway; the sound of cars vanished and the feeling of true wilderness prevailed. Aspen and white pines grew above lush banks, thick with grasses, ferns and horsetails. With all land vegetated, there was little to erode and, therefore,no sandbanks. We only spotted the occasional reed coated island or low bank.
The name Flambeau, meaning torch, is a remnant of the days when the white people of Wisconsin were burly fur-clad trappers speaking French, verses beer-bellied guys with Packers Jerseys, stained in sausage juices and cheese curds. The best guess on the name’s origin is that these French trappers saw the Chippewa Indians fishing the waters at night below the light of torches. With as remote and wild as the river still is, that wasn’t a hard image to conjure up… and it’s one I like to envision.
Passing muskie fishermen in row boats and kayaks, we made fantastic time around the oxbow bend in the river, crossing the halfway point under the highway by a little after seven. Knowing most campsites would likely be occupied, possibly by humans and definitely by mosquitoes, we were happy staying on the water into the evening. “We’ll start looking for a site after we get down from the bridge.” I told my dad.
This time, unlike Kentucky, the choice to keep floating paid off. A mile from the highway bridge I spotted something large and living in the river — two lumps of fur, presumably connected by more wet fur below the water’s surface, moving in the water 300 yards away. “There’s something big in the water, straight in front of us!” I called out to Dad. He saw it too. We both had an idea what it was, but didn’t say as not to jinx it. The creature was large, mammalian and dark. Maybe a moose, expect moose weren’t common to the area. We paddled hard and I grabbed my camera. The animal swam towards the bank and I took photos, standing in the stern as Dad power stroked. Soon we were close enough to confirm what we were looking at… A black bear!
At sixty-feet out, the bear touched bottom. It turned and saw a two-headed green monster barreling down on its position. So, the bear began lunging through the water, kicking up a white water wake. In an ungraceful sprint, which included a big stumble and recovery, the bear made it to solid land. Without a look back, it disappeared into the Wisconsin wilderness in one last flash of black.
Thrilled with the bear sighting and less worried about camp, we floated on in the evening light. Then, as the miles wore on and the sun sank further towards the northwest, the residual bear glow wore off. Without a map, we could only hope another campsite was coming soon. More miles passed by and only the tops of the trees bore sunshine. Low hills and ridges rose from the river and pines replaced maples as the dominant trees. Then, right as we were about to camp anywhere that would hold a tent, we spotted a yellow sign for a campsite. It was eight-thirty.
We took a bug spray bath before we unloaded our gear, but the mosquitoes at camp weren’t as bad as Upper Michigan or even where we were earlier with Mom. We set up a tent on one of the two freshly mowed, unoccupied sites. Dad and I gathered wood in the dark forest and built the campfire. We played with the fire, drank Leinenkugel’s and Spotted Cow beer as twilight lingered. Down by the water’s edge, we stared at the still-lit horizon as the big dipper coursed the sky and the odd lightening bug (or zap doodles as they’re known in Wisconsin) signaled from across the Flambeau — little torches preceding the night. With nothing more than curiosity, we checked the clock; it was ten thirty-five.
Back by our fire, we discussed music and old Simpson episodes (which, I promise, hold up with time). With enough coals now, we grilled our beer bratwursts over the fire, talked some more and listened to the night. Then, realizing that it was midnight, we crawled into the tent.
In the morning, clouds dropped sprinkles, which turned to rain. We re-heated some brats, had oatmeal and took to the water by ten-thirty. “It’s just light rain, nothing like it was that time in New York.” I said, even knocking on my wooden paddle. Within five minutes the rain picked up and my butt soon felt the trickle of rainwater. It was entirely my fault.
We canoed 5 miles, through the rain and passed a soaked bald eagle, perched above the river. Right as the novelty of being wet turned to annoyance, we found the pullout at the W Bridge. Dad and I loaded up the car and were on the road by noon, headed to meet Mom in the charming town of Ladysmith, with a car re-filled with mosquitos.
Days before our float, Dad and I drove up from a 4th of July bonanza with our relatives in Green Lake, WI. The subject of bears came up. “I remember seeing one strung up on the corner store in town,” Dad recalled. “We never heard anymore about them after that…” This memory was from his hometown of Antigo, back in the early 1950’s. So, that swimming, stumbling creature we saw on the Flambeau was my Dad’s first wild, live bear to see in his home state; it only took him 69 years.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Flambeau River, Wisconsin
- Miles Canoed: 22
- Date Canoed: 7-8/9-2017
- Weather: Hot, Sunny with happy white clouds on the afternoon to cool, humid and rainy in the morning
- Elevations: 1399 to 1356 feet above sea level
- Launch Point: Public launch near 9 Mile Tavern (45.852602, -090.600284)
- Campsite: Mason Creek Campsite (45.811244, -090.72292)
- Takeout Point: W Bridge public access (45.767724, -090.761163)
- Songs Sung on River: Take on Me by A-ha (a rare 80’s song for me), My Heart Will Go by Celine Dion (Titanic Theme), New Life in Old Mexico by Robert Earl Keen
- Big thanks to Luke and The Ladysmith News for their article on my journey. Thanks to Nancy and Mike for hosting my folks and I for a fantastic 4th of July on Green Lake. Thanks to Cousin Tim for not spraying me with the garden hose to wake me up (as he threatened).
- Great Local B&B: Carnegie Hall Bed & Breakfast in Ladysmith. A former Carnegie Library, restored (even after a tornado toppled a water tower on it) to a comfy little B&B with themed rooms. The owner put me in the Titanic Room (which I found hilarious) and my folks were in a Civil War themed room. Tasty huge breakfast. And yes, my parents floated the cost, so thanks Ma and Pa!
- Delicious Local Restaurants: Wendy and Joe’s Steakhouse, The Cedar Lodge (both had some of the best burgers I’ve eaten throughout the country) and anything shot, caught, tapped, smoked and cooked by Jim and Joy Sisko.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, belted kingfisher, cedar waxwing, robin, redwing blackbirds, swallows, Canada Geese, crow and variety of other songbirds
- Mammals: 1 Black Bear! 3 White Tail Deer, Eastern Cottontail, bats
- Amphibians: 1 swimming toad, multiple leopard frogs
- Other: Crawfish, minnows, bait fish and one jumping small mouth bass
- Noted Species: Wolves, Black Bears, Elk (Reintroduced 20 years back), Fisher and Ruffed Grouse
- Dominant Vegetation: “Both forks are surrounded by a mixed northern hardwood forest with: sugar and red maple, red oak, yellow birch, white ash, and beautiful stands of quaking aspen. Frequent stands of conifers along the riverway include: red, jack and white pines, tall hemlocks, and occasional cedars overhanging rocky riverbanks.” — Wisconsin Trail Guide
- Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50g) Chippewa Lobe Rocky Ground Moraines
- Current Threats: Copper and Zinc toxicity from The Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith. Often touted as a “model mine,” the Wisconsin DNR and EPA found evidence to the contrary. In 2012 a Wisconsin Court found The Flambeau Mine to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on eleven counts.
- Trash collected: Bits of plastic, torn duct tape, bit of nylon rope, but very little trash on river!
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign