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Fun for families on the rivers and lakes in Wisconsin’s north woods

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Kayaking the Namekogan
Kayaking the Namekogan

By Meghan McCloskey, Taking the Kids Correspondent

I’ve kayaked before, but never with the intention of following a historic route. In early August, I ventured out on a 20 mile kayak trip along the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway in Northwest Wisconsin along the Minnesota border.

These byways were once traveled by the French Canadian fur trappers to clothe the fashionistas of their day and by the nomadic Ojibwe people who once ruled this land.  Although the forests that lined the rivers in the north woods of Wisconsin those days have since been logged and new, smaller trees have taken their place, the scenery is mostly unadulterated. The National Park Service went through lengths to remove the old vacation homes along the rivers, and I witnessed the bald eagles, turtles and hooded mergansers that have since reclaimed their home.

Inside an Ojibwe home
Inside an Ojibwe home

What makes this area so fascinating historically is that people of dramatically different cultures survived in what was sometimes a very harsh environment by living symbiotically and manipulating the natural resources. The Ojibwe designed advanced homes, food preservation techniques and animal traps. These Native Americans wisely traded things like furs, maple sugar and animal fat with French Canadian “voyageurs” in exchange for many European products including blankets, weapons and silk. They essentially created a global economy in the late 1600s. Ironically, the furs were shipped across the ocean to be transformed into haute couture in Europe where none of their owners likely imagined their humble origins in the north woods of Wisconsin.

An excellent introduction to the history of this area can be experienced at Forts Folles d’Avoine Historical Park. Visitors are led through historically accurate Ojibwe homes made of birch and ash bark and witness the dynamics of Ojibwe animal traps. Halfway through the tour, an enthusiastic French –Canadian interpreter whisks visitors into the world of the voyageurs and their homes, workshops and market. She passes around furs and lets visitors guess what animals they are derived from. Willing young ones can even see what it feels like to wear the furs!

The north woods of Wisconsin is also known for its many lakes. I had the opportunity to stay at my fiancé Jonathan’s family’s adorable cabin on Deer Lake near Spooner, Wisconsin.  The cabin is roomy but quaint, decorated with lake themed items and stocked with various identification books for birds and fish. Having many friends from Wisconsin, I’d often heard of this lake culture, but now I understand the draw as I listen to wolves howl on the other bank and watch the lily filled water as the sun sets. 

Boats and Kody the dog on Deer Lake
Boats and Kody the dog on Deer Lake

The Namekogan Visitor Center is an excellent place to learn to identify the sounds in the woods and know what is swimming beneath your kayak.  A sign of a healthy river, 40 native species of mussels thrive here. You won’t see them on the menu- there are a couple species which are endangered despite their relatively clean habitat. Kids can help protect the mussels by leaving them in the water and not collecting the empty shells. The Namekogan River is named after the massive shark like Lake Sturgeon. You can spot one if you are lucky! Kids can become a junior ranger by completing activities in the junior ranger book available online or at the visitor center. Anna, 8, enjoyed the junior ranger program and said her favorite activity was writing a cinquain poem about the river.

I was recently reminded that learning through movement opens up a new part of the brain and allows for the mind to learn the information more effectively.  What better way to learn about the history of this area than by taking a ride on the river in a canoe, kayak or tube? Jonathan’s sister and brother-in-law, Erin and Jeff, chose Jack’s Canoe and Tube Rental to rent a canoe for a short ride on the river with their children, Anna and Luke. Luke, 5, said he liked getting to see a turtle on a lily pad.

No trip to Wisconsin would be complete without a visit to a supper club, like Pair O’ Lakes Lodge, a relic of the bygone days of vacationers. Find out which night the supper club is having a fish fry. Or better yet, catch your own dinner! I appreciated that the waters here are clean enough to provide safe food. I caught a sturdy 16 ½ inch largemouth bass – and oh boy it was good! I’ll save my fish tale for another story, but you betcha I’ll be back to Wisconsin to try to catch more fish!

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