Are tubers becoming drain on Namekagon?

By Dean
Bortz

Editor

Hayward, Wis. – What could be so bad about drifting down a river
on an inner tube on a hot, summer day?

Apparently plenty, for both fishermen and law enforcement
officers on stretches of the Namekagon River near Spooner and
Hayward.

Congestion, littering, fights, medical emergencies, and just
plain poor behavior the past two summers have pushed fishermen off
stretches of the Namekagon, while pulling in more law enforcement
presence.

The Namekagon River is the northern tributary of the St. Croix
National Scenic Riverway. As such, it is federally protected, with
administration duties falling to the National Park Service.
Although state DNR conservation wardens can offer enforcement
assistance, most of that effort goes to NPS rangers, like Chuck
Carlson, the district NPS ranger for the Namekagon out of Hayward.
His efforts are supported by Bob Wahley, the chief ranger out of
the NPS St. Croix Falls office.

Carlson and Wahley have been fielding complaints about bad
behavior on the Namekagon from river residents, fishermen, canoers,
and kayakers.

‘Littering is the biggest thing I can see from the tubers,’ said
Rocky Zien, of Springbrook, a local fishermen who likes to fish the
Namekagon. ‘That’s one of the thing I don’t like about it – all of
the garbage that’s in the river. I guess we have to live with
it.’

Wendy Williamson and her husband, Larry Mann, own Hayward Fly
Fishing, in Hayward, and they run guided fishing trips down the
Namekagon and Flambeau rivers. Williamson said the number of inner
tube riders on the Namekagon this summer made it difficult to fish
the river.

The most congested stretch has been the approximately 5-mile run
south of Hayward, from the town of Earl boat landing to the town of
Trego, Williamson said.

‘That’s the heaviest stretch for traffic,’ she said. ‘We avoid
it July through August because of the traffic, and this year it was
warm enough in June. Every year for the past nine years, we have
seen increased traffic. That doesn’t work from a fishing
standpoint.’

Zien and Williamson both understand the publicly owned rivers
are open to all types of recreation. They just wish that all users
would treat the river, and each other, with more respect.

The NPS does not allow glass on the Namekagon or St. Croix, but
many tubers still bring beer bottles down the river.

‘The increase in the amount of garbage is amazing,’ she said.
‘And there is supposed to be no glass, but I’ve hauled empty
bottles out of there. I think it would be helpful to eliminate
alcohol – I would think that would help greatly with the littering
problem.’

Williamson and Zien said tubing is more disruptive to fishing
than canoeing or kayaking, because the latter crafts move through
at a faster pace and don’t disrupt the bottom. Inner tubes travel
with the current, and tubers who stand or walk on the river bottom
spook fish. Tubers also often float in groups of 10 to 20
people.

‘Canoers and kayakers go right through. You don’t catch much
after inner tubers go through,’ Zien said.

Williamson talked to a river resident who counted tubers over
the Fourth of July week.

‘When I heard 4,000 people over the Fourth of July, my jaw
dropped. I had no idea it was that many,’ she said.

The river resident was pretty close on the estimate, according
to Carlson.

‘We did see about 4,000 over a three-day period (of the Fourth
of July),’ Carlson said. ‘We were looking at about 1,300 (tubers) a
day over that weekend. That’s the peak. With the cooler weather,
there were fewer than 100 last weekend. When it gets above 90
degrees, that’s when it’s really bad. On an average weekend, we are
looking at 1,500 (tubers) a weekend, and we were getting that five
to six weeks straight because of the hot weather.’

Carlson said littering is indeed a problem, but it’s not the
biggest problem he sees out on the Namekagon. ‘Alcohol-related
problems – cursing, fighting, underage drinking – those problems
have been bigger than the littering,’ he said.

Fighting has resulted in injuries, and those injuries have
resulted in calls for emergency medical personnel and ambulance
rides.

‘One day on a Saturday we had three EMS cases,’ Wahley said.

‘We don’t allow glass, but we do still get a lot of glass coming
down the river,’ Carlson said. ‘We have talked about not allowing
alcohol, but it’s nearly impossible to enforce that.’

The NPS handles the littering with a lot of help from volunteers
and youth workers. Carlson said youth workers clean up the river
every Monday and Tuesday.

‘A lot of the people out there are pretty decent people, and
they’re picking up for the rest of them,’ Carlson said.

To handle the rest of the problems, NPS has stepped up the law
enforcement presence.

‘Over the last two to three years, we have seen an increase in
(problems), so the fishermen are correct,’ Wahley said. ‘We started
special operations this year so the situation doesn’t get out of
hand.’

In early August, the NPS, state police, and the Sawyer County
Sheriff’s Department ran a joint operation on the Earl-to-Trego
stretch.

Officers made two custodial arrests (one for felony assault),
and made quite a few arrests for underage drinking, disorderly
conduct, littering, possession of a controlled substance, and other
violations.

State troopers worked the roadways and made arrests for
alcohol-related offenses. Local deputies also made arrests, and had
extra people on for dispatching.

‘We will probably do that more in the future, too,’ Wahley said.
‘We’re not trying to keep people off the river, but we are trying
to maintain a family atmosphere so everyone can enjoy it. It is
remote, so it’s harder to get to for law enforcement, and some
people think they can do what they want to. We’re starting to see
aberrant behavior.’

Frank Pratt, of Hayward, is the local DNR fish biologist. He’s
also aware of the concerns on portions of the Namekagon.

‘The National Park Service has a daunting task; you have a
limited resource that a lot of user groups want to use. It’s almost
a no-win because you can’t please anyone,’ Pratt said. ‘What are
you going to do? Lock up a resource because there might be some
litter?

‘It used to be that the Namekagon below Trego was the premier
smallmouth water, but, in the last decade, I bet the stretch below
Hayward now challenges the lower stretch, but in the summer anglers
might become frustrated because of other river traffic,’ Pratt
said.

That’s true enough, Zien said.

‘I kind of stay away from it because of the tubers – either
that, or fish very early, or very late at night,’ he said. ‘It’s an
easy stretch for tubers, and that’s probably the most heavily used
stretch. I’d rather they stay there. Then at least I know where
they’re at and I can stay away from them.’

Pratt noted that the river above Hayward is trout water, so it’s
deeper and colder; that limits tubing interest upriver.

Carlson said tubing interest is not only increasing from Earl to
Trego, but also from Hwy. K to the McDowell bridge, or from Hwy. K
to Whispering Pines, a shorter stretch.

‘When you get below Hayward, you have several user groups on the
water at the same time and you have conflicts,’ Pratt said. ‘That
begs the question, what are you going to do about it? It’s a valid
question for the National Park Service. And, to the best of my
knowledge, there isn’t good information available on how much of
that is going on down there. Can you zone in space and time so
everyone gets a piece of the resource?’

Williamson wonders if the NPS could limit the number of people
on the river.

‘When it was designated as a wild and scenic river, they
probably never thought of tubing,’ she said.

‘We’re not looking at disallowing tubing, which is a legitimate
use of river,’ Wahley said. ‘It has become very popular, and there
are several liveries in the area, so it’s convenient to rent a tube
for the day and do that. The liveries run a tight ship, and we are
working with them to keep behavior in check. There is no
restriction of where to put in, so the possibility exists that it
could spread.

‘However, we started a program about three years ago where we
bring in volunteer landing hosts who have an RV at those sites.
They are our eyes and ears. They answer questions and assist
people. This is the first year for having a volunteer landing host
at Earl,’ Wahley said.

Carlson and Wahley said the NPS will continue running special
operations, too.

‘We want to get on the river as much as we can,’ Carlson said.
‘I have been here eight years. This is the most people I’ve seen,
but I thought we had a good handle on the violations going on out
there. There is just no way to limit (numbers of) people.’

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