Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hike portage trail of 18th century fur traders

Namekagon River
Though the Namekagon-Laccourt Oreilles Portage Trail memorializes a famous 18th century route where fur traders and explorers carried their canoes between rivers, hikers will head through a landscape much changed from that day. In fact, those fur traders and explorers probably wouldn’t recognize the wild area.

Located near Hayward, Wis., in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the modern trail is very close to the original portage route. A fur trader even operated a winter post during 1784 near the trail.

That portage route sprung up because travelers hoping to avoid problems with Sioux Indians near the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers junction decided to instead reach the continent’s greatest waterway downstream from the Sioux by making a series of portages from the Namekagon to the Chippewa River, which joins the Mississippi at Lake Pepin.

To reach the portage trail, from Hayward go south on Wis. Hwy. 27. A historic marker erected in 1955 commemorates the portage. Turn left/west onto Rainbow Road then right/north onto Rolf Road. Upon entering the scenic riverway, take the first left/west. A parking lot will be on the right, and the trailhead begins there.

Significantly different
An easy, 0.8-mile loop, hikers will head through a second growth forest of mixed hardwoods and pines.

Those using the portage trail in the 1700s found quite different flora growing there. At the time, this flat sandy area largely consisted of red and jack pines with white pines on the surrounding higher grounds. Most of that was logged off during the late 1800s, however, and the result is an area now dominated by maples, oaks, birch, red pine and spruce.

Logging and later small dams collaborated to change life in the Namekagon by leaving the shoreline open to sunlight. The result was an increase in the water temperature, which decimated some fish populations common during fur trading times.

Spur to riverfront
At the loop’s westernmost edge, hikers can take a short spur trail to the Namekagon, and it’s well worth the walk for the blue river is scenic.

One thing the 101-mile long tributary to the St. Croix River does retain is its Ojibwa name, which means “at the place abundant with sturgeons.”

Today, bass, blacknose dace, brook trout, brown trout, cheek chub, Johnny Darter, mudminnow, northern pike, sculpin and sucker primarily live in the river. Rainbow Creek, which runs south of trail and feeds the Namekagon, remains a rainbow trout fishery, however.

Along the trail, hikers also can cross wetlands over a boardwalk. Watch and listen for bull frogs, turtles and waterfowl that are common in the area.

Read more about day hiking Sawyer County, Wisconsin, in my Day Hiking Trails of Sawyer County guidebook.