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Back(paddle) to Basics: The Flambeau River

Reflections on a restorative trip with Chris Korbulic and Ron Griswell
15 Jul 2022

Some of my earliest memories are from summertime family river trips. Those indistinct recollections of continually mixing wonder and joy and awe and excitement are feelings I continue to seek. On my way toward Wisconsin’s Flambeau River, I wondered what this atypical trip for me, in a flat landscape and accompanying craft, with a travel partner I had not met would be like. I’ve spent my life on the river, in many kinds of crafts from my whitewater kayak to boats carved from a single tree in the Amazon to those made of strung together reeds in Myanmar, but never in a modern open canoe. I knew the river would be just a couple hours from the city, and save for a few small rapids, mostly flat water; not my usual place of interest. From my brief meetings with Ron Griswell, though, I was excited to join him in a canoe and learn about his perspectives and river experiences.

Once at the river, during the first step of packing a canoe, I discovered the pleasant surprise of an abundance of space. Accustomed to years of packing camping gear into a small kayak, and worse, carrying it on one shoulder at a time, my sore back was relieved to sit upright in all that space with no portage on the horizon. The years of boat toting had taken a toll on my back, recently leaving me unable to even sit in a kayak, and unsure I’d be able to contribute much to our forward paddling. Within the first strokes, as Ron guided us gliding over the wind rippled surface, I had no doubt these would be restorative river days.

I had come from a wet Pacific Northwest spring in hopes of sunny summer days, but also prepared for the forecast , and we paddled into the rain. I learned about Ron’s journey on the river, from childhood memories in the water to guiding canoe trips on the Mississippi River in and around Minneapolis. Miles passed as we shared stories, until we came to a wide bend to the left with the sun low through the clouds, I saw an elegant wave elevating at the edge of my vision. With near disbelief in his voice, Ron quietly pronounced, “Sandhill cranes.” I have seen few more elegant forms than the pair of great birds that lifted and flew ahead of us down stream, their celestial call trumpeting over us even as they were beyond the horizon. In their wake, a kingfisher flashed to our right, a pair of mergansers winged over their reflections, and a hummingbird briefly considered us for potential nectar. We shared in the awe and contemplation as we approached camp.

The next morning, with a sore back, I was grateful for the smooth and easy pace of the canoe as the water picked up speed and the clouds opened for a sunny approach to the whitewater section of the Flambeau. It was my turn to guide the canoe in the rear seat, and as we scouted one of the rapids from shore, I was unsure how we would maneuver between rocks in such gradient. I reminded myself to just do what I do, and work with the water to navigate the unfamiliar craft. We approached the rapid slowly, waiting for just the right angle and position to change our momentum. “Forward,” I called, and we both pulled our paddles through the accelerating current. In the rear of the canoe I pried a stroke to change our direction between hazardous rocks in the heaviest current, and directed another set of forward strokes to carve into the eddy and safety at the bottom of the rapid. I was elated with the clean line we carried on through the next few rapids, naturally adapting to maneuver the canoe, appreciating the craft, the landscape, river, and my companion more and more.

It doesn’t take a long journey or great expense and skill to enjoy a river trip and appreciate its many benefits. It doesn’t take an exhilarating adventure for it to be restorative and healing, and it doesn’t take long to understand that. The river has been a lifelong teacher, hopefully it always will be, and this lesson was exactly what I needed. This adventure was part of that continual education of flowing water and a reminder that even the most unexpected landscapes can be a source of wonder and joy.


Exploration Guide

Korbulic began his career spending years living out of a small hatchback traveling between class V rivers in the Western US and airports for overseas adventures. An expedition white-water kayaker and pro photographer, he has ticked a life list of big-water first descents in some of the most remote corners of the globe—from Patagonia to Indonesia to Central Africa and the Arctic. On trips to the world’s most shrouded rivers, Korbulic has tallied more than 90 first descents on sections of rivers in 28 countries while documenting the journey with camera in hand.

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