COLUMN: Renewing Respect for the Rivers

tubing is a trademark of Eau Claire summers, and it helped one longtime local gain a new appreciation for her home

Caroline Akervik, illustrated by Lydia “Nibs” Noble

I have lived in Eau Claire for nearly 30 years. And yet, until last summer, I had never tubed the river. 

This may come as a shock. After all, the vision of college students floating down the river is a trademark of an Eau Claire summer. The rivers are an enchanting omnipresence in Eau Claire. We bike along the rivers. We fish the rivers. On winter nights, we admire the lights gleaming like jewelry on the numerous bridges crossing over the rivers. 

So, how had I made it through three decades of living in Eau Claire without floating down the river? 

As a child, I went on a tubing trip with my siblings down the aptly named Gunpowder River. Though my father had the enthusiasm to bring us to this natural waterpark, he didn’t do the necessary research to ensure a successful expedition. 

When we joined the throngs of people exiting their cars to head down to the departure point, I noticed immediately certain details: Most everyone was wearing battered old sneakers or water socks, while we were ouch-ing along barefoot over the rocky path. Other folks had sweatshirts, food, and drinks with supplemental floaties, and most well-prepared tubers that day also had bottoms on their tubes, generally a piece of wood secured with bungee cords. 

The result of this expedition: When we finally emerged from this ill-fated tubing adventure, we were shivering, hungry, and covered in bruises and scrapes from the rocks and submerged tree limbs we had encountered during our ride. 

Is there any wonder that I waited three decades to try it again? 

Yet I couldn’t resist the siren song of the river. Deep in my heart, I envied those floaters every summer. I longed to tube. 

It was a warm and glorious evening and the sun had faded to a comforting mid-summer gold. The water moved us gently, unhurriedly along. We saw river otters frolicking along the shore and a bald eagle soaring on updrafts in the sky.

The perfect opportunity presented itself during the summer of 2021. With the lifting of many COVID-19 restrictions, my sister planned to come visit from California. She had never tubed the river either. Thus, it was time to seize the moment. 

When the selected day arrived, I was prepared. We stopped by Azara on Water Street to purchase our tubes, and a nice young man inflated them for us. We stopped at the Holiday gas station where my sister purchased compulsory beverages. I was skeptical about this stop, wary of the dangers of the wild river, but after a full day – my sister assured me – a beverage or two while floating was simply a good life choice. 

What follows I can only describe as an extended enchantment. We launched from the beach accompanied by several much younger – but extremely friendly – tubers. We popped the tops on our beverages, and sipped in the summer. It was a warm and glorious evening and the sun had faded to a comforting mid-summer gold. The water moved us gently, unhurriedly along. We saw river otters frolicking along the shore and a bald eagle soaring on updrafts in the sky. There was none of the roughness or danger of that long ago Gunpowder float – and, yes, the beverages tasted divine.

We emerged at the Hobbs boat landing transformed, relaxed, and totally Zen. I had made my peace with the river. 

Only a few days later, my sister’s significant other came to visit. We both urged him to try floating the river, and finally he agreed. They chose to go one cool afternoon after a rainy spell in July. Remembering our glorious tubing experience, my sister and I didn’t take note of the fact that on that day, the water was moving much more quickly. In addition, there were no other tubers. What had taken my sister and me an hour and a half a few days before, took them 25 minutes on this day, and they had to battle strong currents to get out at Hobbs. Rather than frighten me, it gave me a renewed respect for the river.

The rivers are part of the town’s logging history and part of the identity of Eau Claire and the people who live there. Our rivers are to be respected, even feared a little. But above all, they demand to be understood. 

The rivers are a part of who we are, inextricably pulsing through the heart of our fair city, with the pounding cacophony of heartbeats of all the people who float down the river propelling us forward. And, as the evenings spent on the rivers come to an end, we remember those summers spent in the sun, and look forward to the next adventure.