Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wisconsin River trip, 2007

A shared blog from my wife and I.

Saturday, August 4th, 2007
Our trip started at the VFW boat landing in Prairie du Sac, WI. Various size groups of folks were on the river throughout this section. Even in the low water we were averaging about 4 miles per hour with moderate paddling. A few days before the trip we had heard that the WI was the lowest in a decade. Started to figure out the river and what to look for to avoid getting beached on the sand. Seems that the deepest and fastest water was usually close to shore. This also provided the best way to observe the wildlife. Throughout the trip we saw various size herons, otter slides, and some songbirds we’d never seen before, even though we were both born and raised in WI. As we have spent all of our time canoeing and living in northern WI, it appears these birds like the south. Also saw a number of eagles, of course and many kingfishers. Staying close to shore also can help out if paddling into a headwind. At least some of the time the wind might be blocked. Some folks might feel a little more secure close to shore versus being out in the middle, when at times shore could be quite a distance away.

It rained 3.5” starting late in the afternoon and into the overnight the first day. The original plan was to camp on a sandbar the first evening, but instead we drove back to Madison after locking our canoe to a tree at the Arena boat landing.
We only put a cooler, some rain gear, small odds and ends in a dry bag and Mark’s mtn. bike in the canoe. Each afternoon he pedaled back to get our vehicle, so we kept the canoe lighter and faster. Plus, he got to train for his mtn. bike race the weekend after the trip! It also gave us the opportunity to cover more area wherever we ended up each night and explore what the local towns/locations had to offer, as this was one of our goals.
Bike shuttle back to Prairie du Sac was done in steady rain but temps were in the mid 80’s. When we returned to the Arena landing Sunday AM it was packed with people who had camped on the river overnight. Everyone was pretty wet and some told stories of concern from the river rising into their camps on the sandbars and some had water flowing through their tents. Seems everyone was safe and no one lost any canoes from the rising water, as they must have pulled them out of the river far enough.

Sunday, August 5th
Steady increase of folks on the river. Lots of loud sometimes obnoxious groups. Made us long for Monday’s solitude. Went as far as Spring Green. Had some dinner in town, checked into the Spring Green Motel then went to the American Players Theater for the “Merchant of Venice.” Was a very good time.

Monday, August 6th.
Started out visiting Tower Hill Park. One could also spend time at the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center as well, but we wanted to get back on the water.
No people on the water but us and few fishing boats that showed up later in the morning. Went for long stretches of silence and with the mist on the water in mid-morning it was a nice relaxing paddle. Mark did some leisurely casting for fish while I got to practice keeping the boat straight from the bow. With the silence and surprisingly lack of human encroachment we felt like we were miles and miles away from the normal days of our lives. The herons leisurely lifted themselves from their perch or morning wade looking for breakfast if we drifted too close. We noticed that the further down the river we got the less they flew away and many just watched us float by. Maybe the herons downriver weren’t as nervous as it seems the loud threatening humans normally don’t go past Spring Green? Toward the afternoon there were some folks camping. We got to Muscoda and during the bike shuttle Lynn contacted the park manager to secure a camping spot. The lady running the campsite said it would cost $15 a night to camp but we could rent the shelter for $10, so we setup camp in the shelter as the forecast called for more thunderstorms!! With air mattresses, it didn't matter if we slept on cement. It sure was nice the next morning to wake from the nightlong thunderstorm to just pop out of the tent into the covered shelter. By the time we packed up, it had stopped raining. The park was very nice with modern bathroom facilities and a pay shower with plenty of time and hot water for a couple of bucks. Also, the bar in town had Guinness on tap, what a nice surprise!

Tuesday, August 7th.
Similar weather as we’d been having, overcast but very warm, mid to high 80’s and very still air. If there was a breeze, it was a tailwind. The plan was to paddle in the AM then rest or do part of the bike shuttle in the middle of the day if the wind picked up into a headwind and paddle late into the evening when the wind would normally settle down. But as we were able to paddle all day, this allowed for a late afternoon shuttle. The shuttle today had a 2 mile continuous uphill with a corresponding speedy downhill. Mark always took the road less traveled for the shuttle if there was an option to avoid cars and enjoy the quieter of the two. It worked well to bring up the Jeep everyday as we could pick and choose what to use that evening for camping. Due to the heat and humidity we ended up using just sheets instead of sleeping bags. We went as far as Boscobel today and considered going back to Muscoda to camp but we decided to get a motel and take a shower and enjoyed some Chinese food in town and visited a number of local establishments to chat with the folks having a brew. We visited the historic Boscobel Hotel and talked to the new owners. They came from New York via Montana. A very nice couple with the desire to bring the landmark hotel back to its original fame. After we left and were making our way down the street their son ran us down as I had forgotten my jacket there. He turned and ran back so fast we barely had time to say “thanks”.

Wednesday, August 8th
Today’s section took us downriver toward the Mississippi River and Wyalusing State Park. When we got to Bridgeport, Mark did the shuttle (with another steep 2 mile uphill section) then we went to the local market close by and got steaks, beverages and such for a dinner on the river. We hadn’t camped on a sandbar as of yet. Our original plan was to alternate between camping and moteling, but it hadn’t quite worked out. No big deal; being flexible helps to avoid stress and that’s what this trip was all about, having fun, but tonight was going to be a sandbar night, no exceptions. We loaded the canoe with the camping gear, 2 coolers, camp chairs, tents, sleeping bags, etc, and the mtn. bike for the last push to the Mississippi. It was quite a load. We continued to paddle until we came upon a sandbar between the Bridgeport bridge and Wyalusing State Park. A lone eagle watched from a tree about 200 yards away as we setup camp, got a fire going and cooked supper. After a good hour we looked up and he/she was gone. When we got back on the river in the morning the eagle was nowhere to be found but then it flew overhead when we rounded the first bend, seems it wanted to leave us with our privacy, or maybe it was the other way around? With a dip of its wings, it continued upriver, back to its lookout from the night before, as if to say "see ya later". As we got close to the confluence of the Mississippi we passed a large flock of snow-white egrets then we were out in the big water. After making sure the bike was tied to the canoe in case we tipped we headed down river for the last 3 miles. A couple of times we had to turn the canoe toward the waves from the large boats in order to stay stable even though we were close to shore and well out of the shipping channel. After we got to the landing and completed the short but rather steep shuttle we took time to visit the Park. It has some great views of the confluence and a nice walk, which highlights some Indian mounds. We then headed for town and historic Prairie du Chein. We more than recommend the Prairie du Chein Museum, old Fort Crawford and Villa Louis.

Saturday, October 6th.
We wisely avoided the Upper Dells until after the summer season. The leaves were just starting to change and the rusts and reds mixed in with the deep greens of the pines and hemlocks contrasted beautifully to the deep blue of the sky and water. Combine all that with the distinct pungent fall smell and we considered ourselves to have gotten very lucky to hit such a beautiful October day, with the temps in the mid 80’s, to canoe this section of the river. Everything that had been told to us or written in books is true regarding the danger of the wakes coming off the many watercraft. Be careful. Many times we had to turn our canoe perpendicular to the wakes to avoid any problem. We started from the River Bay resort and after a short 1 mile paddle (it seemed short, you know how it goes, when you first get on the water you want to do some stroking. If it would have been at the end if the trip it would have been a mile of work paddling against the 15 mph headwind. We didn’t even notice the wind) we arrived at the 3 docks that are used for the tour boats to drop people off to walk up and see the old abandoned Indian amphitheater and Stand Rock. There was an elderly gentleman who worked the docks for the tour boats there and he gladly showed us where to tie up our canoe and we took the short walk to look things over. It’s a must stop. We then crossed over to Witches Gulch and coming out we met up with the first and tallest standing wake we’d encounter that day coming from a tour boat. We watched as a 4 ft. wave started coming at us. We both knelt down in front of our seats and just kept a steady paddle going, to give an extra point of contact to keep us as steady as possible. As it lifted us high and then dropped us into the valley the canoe make a nice slap on the water as it split the wave. One or two gentler waves passed and we were ok, almost. As we were fairly close to Sunset Cliff, the waves rebounded back under us as we kept the canoe steady. This was something we had to watch for heading down the narrow channel. As the River got narrower and narrower the waves would rebound back and forth from cliff wall to cliff wall under our canoe. We met or were over taken by a number of watercraft, large and small. The main thing was to remember that if one did dump we weren’t sure we could get back in the canoe as the sheer rock/cliff walls went straight down into the water. There was no beach. We went through Devils Elbow and forgot to look for the name of Leroy Gates carved in the right rock wall, so we paddled back up and found it. So cool! The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, just making our way down to the take out, the hydro dam. Once we got there (Mark had chained his bike to a tree on the way up from Madison so as not have to risk having the bike in the canoe during the trip, he’s lost enough high end Mountain bikes for various reasons, but that’s a story for another time) we walked up to Monk’s had a burger and a beer. I hung out while Mark rode up and got the Jeep. Quite the nice afternoon!
This was a fantastic short trip. After our experience, we’d recommend maybe even doing it in the early spring, before the tour boats start and when it’s a little cooler, to avoid as much boat traffic as possible. When there wasn’t another type of watercraft such as pontoon boats, jet-skis, fishing boat, tour boat or speedboat the channel was as quiet and beautiful as a river hundreds of miles away from The Dells.

Suggested reading: The Wisconsin by August Derleth, Paddling Sourthern Wisconsin by Mike Svob.
Mike’s book is much more than a river and shuttle guidebook. His attention to detail on and off the river is a valuable source of information that truly makes canoeing the rivers much more fun and removes much of the stress that could otherwise be involved.

No comments: