Monday, May 21, 2018

Season's first paddle had some on, some in the Waupaca River

The Waupaca River delivers one more class 1 rapids at the end.

By David Horst 

It has to be said. We got some people wet.

The kickoff to the North East Wisconsin Paddlers 2018 Public Paddle series on May 5 was a little more challenging than our usual afternoon outings on a lazy river.

We opened the season with a segment of the Waupaca River from County Q to Brainard's Bridge Park, just upstream of the City of Waupaca. It includes a few sections classified as class 1 rapids, the lowest category in the whitewater rating scale.

Ken plays in the segment's final rapids
The pre-trip description on our website ( warned that this trip was not for novices. As a result, our count was held down to 23 participants -- both when we launched and when we took out. We encouraged people to leave the bent wood and Kevlar kayaks at home and dig up the old plastic beater instead. It was good advice.

My trusty old Perception Carolina took a hard smack from rocks one both sides. The acrylic-covered plastic that it's made of absorbed the punishment without damage. I also got hung up on a rock at one point and trapped by a downed tree at another. But I stayed dry.

It's amazing how quickly your muscle memory can forget a lesson your brain knows so well.

I know that when you get caught on something in the current, you lean downstream into the obstruction. To lean upstream is to invite the river into your cockpit.

But when the fallen tree snagged me, my instinct was to lean away from it to try to get free. One of our NEWP instructors was nearby and shouted a reminder that kept the water on the outside, where it belonged.

There was plenty to talk about on this trip.
Others were less lucky. Either leaning the wrong way or paddling without a sprayskirt to seal them into their boats -- or with one not fully fastened -- the water rushed in, the boat overturned and the American Canoe Association-certified instructors that be;long to NEWP were off to help another paddler.

No one was injured among the half-dozen or so kayak flippers. The worst of it was a couple gulps of prime trout stream. They had some experience. They had some people to help them. And they were all wearing PFDs (lifejackets) as we require on all our trips.

Any one of those three factors lacking can spell tragedy.

When someone did go over, others came to calm the paddler, secure and empty the boat and get the paddler back in the boat and on his or her way. Wading to shore and giving up on the trip was not an option we offered.

Portaging around the covered bridge
One of the swirly sections of river was just below a picturesque covered wooden bridge near the end of the trip. With the snow of the April blizzard still releasing the last of its moisture content and a week of heavy rain, the Waupaca was in the record range for flow and depth.

When I scouted the route immediately before the launch, I found 8-10 inches of clearance under the covered bridge and warned everyone we would have to portage around it.

But the Waupaca drains a fairly modest watershed and three hours later, the clearance was j-u-s-t about the height of a head pressed against the deck of a kayak.

The first to arrive at the covered bridge was Tom Young, who with wife Jeanne paddled the lone canoe on this trip. In a rare show of gallantry, he took Jeanne to shore before attempting to run the rapids under the bridge. Though he did suggest she would be valuable as ballast.

Making it through was reason for celebration.
From now on, Tom will be "The Headless Canoeist" in my book. He made it through, but only because of a perfectly timed move in which he threw his weight against the canoe's bottom with just enough force to lower the tip of the bow below the bottom of the bridge.

About half of the kayakers followed his lead. I was watching from the left bank, where I had portaged.

We had one more class 1 rapids, probably the most challenging, immediately before the takeout. A few weary paddlers took out and dragged their boats along shore. Most shot the rapids. One concluded the final class 1 passage without the benefit of his boat.

Afterwards, I heard from formerly soggy participants that they enjoyed the trip anyway. They said they learned an important lesson -- they can flip their kayak, perform a wet exit and get back in to finish a trip.

You probably won't see this stretch of the Waupaca on the club schedule again. It would be challenging for many of those who join our public paddles. But it certainly will be on our personal lists of spring adventures.

See the full list of this season's public paddles at

Friday, May 18, 2018

Back to back

Coming soon: Another story in Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine.
This one tells the story of Howard Greene's journals of canoe trips
taken in the early 1900s with "The Gang." 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Gordon featured in magazine story

My story on Gordon Bubolz, conservative businessman and conservationist, is in the current issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine. Check out the list of 10 NE Wisconsin natural areas that we have Gordon to thank for acquiring.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Father’s journals recall camping a century ago

By David Horst,

DE PERE -- Author Martha Greene Phillips is extraordinarily attached to history.

Her father was 79 when she was born. She is just one generation removed from a man who was alive as the Civil War was ending and served in the Spanish-American War.
Martha Greene Phillips

There’s an even stronger connection -- eight leather-bound journals of canoe excursions her father took with a group of friends, his sons and his sons’ friends. She turned the journals into Border Country, the Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906-1916, University of Minnesota Press. The 408-page history includes 366 photos, plus maps and sketches, and fully reproduces six of Howard’s journals, with summaries of the other two.

She described the book and her father’s adventures in a presentation at the North East Wisconsin Paddlers annual meeting Saturday (Jan. 27) at Legends in De Pere. NEWP ( is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing paddle sport education and safety and the sponsor of kayaking instruction and an annual series of public paddles.

Howard Greene
Howard Greene, born in 1865, ran a wholesale drug company in Milwaukee. In his day, that meant dealing mostly with herbs and other botanicals. His release from the rigors of running a business was to take trips into nature. Three or four men and four to eight boys, paddling off into the wilderness for four weeks.

Howard – or Dad, as everyone in “The Gang” on the trips called him – shot photographs and took notes throughout the trips and produced leather-bound journals for each participant. The trips included:
  • Wisconsin River, Wis. (1906)
  • St. Croix River, Wis. (1907)
  • Presque Isle River, Mich. (1909)
  • Rainy Lake Region – Ely to Ranier, Minn. (1910)
  • Dawson Trail, Canada (1911)
  • Pigeon River, Duluth, Minn. (1914)
  • Tower to Ranier, Minn. (1915)
  • Chippewa River, Wis. (1916)
Martha Greene Phillips – Marti – lives in Portage. She is a retired mental health counselor. She acquired a full set of those journals, added forwards, footnotes and a lot of research, to create the book.

In Greene’s day, photographing nature was nothing like pointing a digital camera and making it work with Photoshop later. He processed 4-by-8-inch negatives, and even glass plates, out on the river banks.

Some of the boys participating in the trips were Phillips’ half-brothers. There’s no way girls would have been included, but when Marti read of their adventures, “I was so envious of the boys,” she said. Their experience was one of total freedom in nature.

She knew about the journals growing up. They were almost revered in the household.

“There was a lore in the family,” Marti said. “My dad wrote very well.”

Marti was 13 when her father died at age 93. He had been a very involved father, she said, so her five years of work with the journals only confirmed for her that he was the same man in his younger years, rather than revealing the man to her.

“I wasn’t looking for that,” she said.

The journals featured other characters she enjoyed getting to know.

There was Doc, a gynecologist who has an avid hunter and collected art. One of her half-brothers grew up to run for governor and another boy became a prominent Chicago lawyer. Carl, another of her half-brothers, went off to World War I, suffered what was then called “shell shock” and never fully recovered his sanity.

Marti makes the distinction that these were not the kind of trips when men of privilege took guides and servants into the woods and came back to the club to brag about bagging a moose. Howard’s gang did take a logging camp cook along, but their adventures were self-reliant.

They engaged farmers with teams and wagons at some of the portages. As educated men, the group knew about plant identification. They also recorded the species of birds and other animals they saw. In one four-week wilderness trip they encountered only one deer, but saw many moose.

A list prepared for a customs check for a trip into Canada details what their menu was like. Items on the list included three pounds of coffee, four pounds of tea, 10 pounds of navy beans, two boxes of chocolate, 30 pounds of bacon, a dozen cans of Underwood devilled tongue, 50 pounds of oleomargerine and 25 pounds of California prunes. They carried wool blankets for bed rolls. Sleeping bags were just starting to be available. Their canvas tents had no floors or mosquito netting. They carried shellac and white lead to patch their canvas canoes.

Marti did substantial research just to understand some of the terminology of the day. They spoke of eating dynamite. That turned out to be sort of a de-watered pea soup stuffed into sausage skins, giving them the appearance of a stick of dynamite. It was kind of the power bar of its day.

She praised the job the University of Minnesota press did in designing and laying out the $40 book, but also owes a debt to the Wisconsin Historical Society. One of her brothers had accumulated the photographic negatives and was making prints. A fire at his house destroyed almost all of the negatives. The Wisconsin Historical Society agreed to shoot all of the available prints to make them available for printing.

She said publishing her father’s collection verified her feeling that the journals were important and historically influential. Her father summed it up this way:

“Experience in fields, camps, and sundry places has taught me that the best form of recuperation for a tired mind and body is to break loose from the usual manner of life and to go away with men who live outdoors in the great open places where the postman does not come. … I admit that in the years since our last camps on Lake Superior, I had grown weary, I wanted to go to places not clearly marked between night rests, the distance and a day’s travel by horse and pack train.”