As a flotilla of kayaks departed from the banks of the Willow River, the clouds parted, the rain stopped and the sun shone through as if scripted by Mother Nature herself. More than 20 kayakers took advantage of an opportunity to paddle a section of the Willow River from the Mill Pond to the newly completed canoe/kayak landing at the New Richmond Nature Center Wednesday, July 25.

"As the City's been saying for a few years, 'We're better together.' This project has been a collaborative effort, just look at the list of financial and in-kind partners we've worked with. It was a great family event today, not too many rapids, first timers with kids managed it, It was a lot of fun. The Willow River is a diamond in the rough right here in our community. My thanks to everybody for working together and making this happen," said New Richmond Mayor, and paddler, Fred Horne.

As part of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new landing, the City contracted with Mike Deneen, owner of Willow Kayaks to provide kayaks, equipment and shuttle service free of charge to anyone interested in joining the paddle.

After parking vehicles at the Nature Center, participants were shuttled up to the Mill Pond where they put in just below the dam. Despite a few sections of low water, paddlers were treated to an intimate view of New Richmond most residents have never seen. Banks lined with lush grasses gave way to monster oaks and maples limbs arching over the gently flowing river as it ambled its way through backyards and playgrounds rarely glimpsed from the river's plane. Crayfish darted below while damselflies danced above accompanying the troop as they navigated around pebble bars and under hidden bridges. In all, the leisurely float lasted about 45 minutes; most wished it could have lasted longer.

Among local dignitaries donning life preservers and joining the paddle were, in addition to the Mayor, Alderman Mike Montello, Public Works Director Jeremiah Wendt and New Richmond Area Community Foundation Director Margaret Swanson. State Sen. Patty Schachtner joined the group at the landing.

Primarily through the work of New Richmond Pathways, a project committee of the New Richmond Area Community Foundation (NRACF), in conjunction with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Willow River was officially designated as a Water Trail in 2016. Work by the Wisconsin Conservation Corps cleared a route passable for canoes and kayaks from the Nature Center to 100th Street in Boardman in the fall of 2016. The initial work was funded by a donation from the Upper Willow Rehabilitation District.

In March 2018, the City received a $10,000 grant from the DNR to use for "planning" aspects of the Water Trail Project. The City planned to pass the DNR funds to New Richmond Pathways to help establish an active friends group and to pay for setting up a website and having maps and brochures made that show the various routes and estimated times as well as parking areas and public access points, restaurants and hotels. The grant will also pay for chainsaw training for the friends group, enabling them to be responsible for annual maintenance of the river trail. Part of the funding will also be used for education and to create a long-term plan for recreation.

"I think the big takeaway today was, there is this multigenerational activity that's available here in New Richmond. Watching everyone's faces and the smiles and the laughter, doing this outdoor activity enhances health, it enhances mental health and the awareness of nature. That's what it's all about. And you have these collaborations that are making these positive things happen. Hats off to everybody and congratulations for this great project," said Schachtner.

The new landing was constructed by the City of New Richmond's Public Works Department. It is intended to improve access to the Willow River for all outdoor enthusiasts. The project was made possible by financial and in-kind contributions from the St. Croix County Community Development Department, City of New Richmond Public Works Department, St. Croix County Sportsman Alliance, State of Wisconsin County Conservation Aids Program, New Richmond Area Community Foundation and the DNR.

For anyone interested in learning more about what's planned for the water trail, the City is planning a kickoff event for Aug. 8, starting at 6 p.m., at Champ's Sports Bar & Grill. This citizen-led effort seeks to bring together stakeholders to promote and enhance the Willow River for the enjoyment of paddlers and silent sport enthusiasts.

The kickoff event will feature keynote speaker Natalie Warren, a nationally recognized water trails expert who has paddled thousands of miles across the United States. Warren will share research on the environmental, social and economic benefits of water trails, coupled with how communities across the nation have invested in and benefited from their local waterways. Information will be shared about recent progress and current initiatives in New Richmond in support of the Willow River Water Trail, and how citizens can get involved with these efforts.

For more information, contact Wiedenfeld at 715-246-4268, Jim Heebink at 715-246-5137, or Harvey Halvorsen at 715-220-5425.

For anyone wanting to learn more about paddling opportunities on the river, contact Deneen at 715-781-3145 or