Paddling the headwaters of the Wisconsin River
This is a brief account of my paddling the headwaters of the Wisconsin River, specifically the first 19 miles from Lac Vieux Desert to the Co.K bridge in Conover. Check the Google map of the Headwaters of the Wisconsin River for some of the location and be sure to use the satellite view. For larger copies of the photos, check my Flickr set.
Some background: I grew up on the lower Wisconsin and have canoed the stretches around my hometown of Boscobel a number of times. The river there is large, sandy and not developed. It is quite possible to spend a day on the water and not see another boat or approach a house. So, it has always been a desire of mine to do the entire Wisconsin River, which runs for 430 miles from Lac Vieux Desert of the Michigan border and ends up in the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien.
North of the city of Eagle River, the river flows freely. West of Prairie du Sac it also flows without hindrance. For its other 300 miles, it is interrupted by 26 dams. At some points, they come fast and furious (Du Bay, Stevens Point, Whiting, Plover, Biron, Wisconsin Rapids, Centralia, Port Edwards and Nekoosa all within about 40 miles). Besides the need for portaging and the danger that dams pose to paddlers, they create flowages, where there is little current, many power boats and sometimes windy conditions. Not my idea of good paddling water.
Thus my desire to see the headwaters, which is definitely wild territory. Few houses or even bridges. No crowds, like the Kickapoo, which can sometimes resemble a theme park ride. So when we went on vacation near St. Germain, I took advantage of the opportunity to paddle the first 19 miles of the river.
Some resources: Paddling Northern Wisconsin a great book that seems to be out of print. The author has a nice description of this section (and eighty others), but for some reason the map is incorrect and shows a different portion of the river. Fortunately, the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Corp. provides decent maps of the area. Not as detailed as I would like, but worth carrying. Of course, you can also scout the river using Google Maps and such.
Some notes about equipment. This is a small river and more of a creek, so I was using a Perception Prodigy, a 10 foot recreational kayak. I don’t think there would have been much of an advantage from a larger boat, since the stream meanders quite a bit at points. The Prodigy has a wide cockpit, which is nice because I needed to get in and out several times. It also gave me easy access to my water and food, while my dry bag rested comfortably between my legs where I could consult the maps. It also has adjustable padded seats, which are worth their weight in gold, and knee brace pads. Plus, a paddle holder, so you can strap the paddle to the side of the boat. The Prodigy comes with a drain plug, which I used to get the incidental water out of the boat. For a rec boat, the Prodigy tracks well, handles the many 180 degree turns easily and carries a heavy paddler and his equipment. Just about everything I could want for this kind of water.
I was paddling solo, which is not such a good idea. Safer to be in a group. The dry bag was a good idea, since I got water in the boat just getting in and out and I needed to be able to see my map and be sure I would have access to different clothes as the day went on. I used a pair of bicycle gloves, since my hands blister during long paddles. I started the day in long sleeves, since it was cool, and kept them on for a while to keep the sun off. I brought some OFF (wipes), but didn’t really need them. Brought two quarts of water, which I didn’t fully use, but was glad to have. In adition to a lunch, I brought some grapes (sugar and fluid), carrots (crunchy) and my secret weapon, peanut M&Ms. Don’t leave home without them. I don’t have one of those nifty whitewater style life jackets, but I like the sportsman’s model I use. Lots of pockets and doesn’t get in the way. No reason not to wear a vest when it is where you keep your immediate supplies. I have an old pair of glasses I saved for this kind of use and I usually wear a hat to keep the sun off my head. It also discourages the deer flies, which like my shampoo (or lack of it). My dry bag had a second shirt, real shoes in case I needed to walk and my maps, displayed through the clear plastic. My food was in a semi-water proof lunch box, all sealed up in bags. What did I miss? Forgot my sunscreen, probably because the day started cool and cloudy. I would have enjoyed a compass since it would have made map reading easier. I had to rely on the sun for directions. A camp saw might have been useful. For the first time I used a paddle strap, since I was alone and didn’t want to lose my paddle at a critical point.
Lac Vieux Desert – The lake and the headwaters are easy to find, not far off Hwy 47 and there is a parking lot for paddlers. A short path takes you to the lake. You can put in on the lake and paddle to the outlet, where there is a small dam to control the outflow. You can put in at the dam and paddle 100 yards to the parking lot. Or you can start at the parking lot, where the creek runs through a culvert under the road. I wanted to paddle the entire river, but wasn’t interested in two portages in 100 yards, so I started after the culvert.
Yes, that is the entire flow of the Wisconsin River at this point. It is labeled Wisconsin Creek on the map, which is fair. Of course, this was August and Wisconsin is in a decade long drought, but the gauge on the dam read .75, so this wasn’t an inadequate flow.
Just below the culvert, which is smaller than it looks here, but is visible in the previous photo.
This is the small pond just below the culvert. The stream is narrower than this, but it show the general landscape. Marshy banks rising above the stream. Trees like bluffs on either side, but only alders and marsh grasses along the banks.
There is a small beaver dam in the early going, but not that much fallen wood in the water. The trees are too far away to fall in the water, so you see branches but not too many big trunks. I did find two trees that had fallen across the river. One I was able to get under pretty easily, but the other knocked my hat off and I ended up taking on some water. Just a little too tall and not flexible enough to get all the way under. The marshy banks do not encourage portaging. Thank goodness for the drain plug, which soon had me dry. This is where a paddling partner would have been nice.
This is a more typical view of the early going. Narrow stream with a little current. Alders growing from one bank and marsh grass on the other. Enough water for a kayak or canoe, but not much more. Not room for going side by side.
This is a little more of a problem. Here the branches meet over the river. Makes you feel like Marlin Perkins as you push them aside and up to fight your way through. Nice to be able to strap the paddle onto the boat here. Good news is that the water is only 1-2 feet deep, so there is a limit to the trouble you can get in. This is typical for the first 2-3 miles.
Then suddenly, the river changes. From a narrow stream, it becomes a first a stream with marsh weeds, then a wide pond, flowing (kinda) between the forest on either side. No trouble telling where to go, since it doesn’t branch off, but almost no current either. A very quite area, not near the mile 5 bridge yet. The water is surprisingly deep in spots and the only barrier is that there is often no channel and you must paddle through the lily pads.
This area is very pretty, but not fun paddling. Slow going. But I must note that I didn’t get a single mosquito bite throughout the entire day, despite the marshy surroundings. One more photo.
After a mile or so of this, you hit a very long but not very high beaver dam. It is well established, but if you follow the sound of water, you can run into a gap and pull yourself through. Beaver dams are always a little tricky, since at some point you find your nose in the water and your tail up on the dam. The natural stability of the boat disappears and you need to get back into water to restore it. I hit a total of six beaver dams on the day, but none were high and they posed only a minor problem.
After the dam, the marsh becomes a river again and you can hear the mile 5 bridge (Hwy 47) ahead. There is a small boat landing at a park downstream left just after the bridge. Not much there. No water, but tables and a toilet. There is an ice cream store across the road and a tanning salon(!). I ate lunch, stretched and realized I had spent 2 1/2 hours going the first 5 miles and I had another 14 to go. I knew that this stretch was rated 8-10 hours, but I was hoping to hit the low end of that, so didn’t tarry.
After the Hwy 47 bridge and mile 5, the river picks up pace a little. The alders that line the river remain, but no longer block as much of the now wider stream. It still seems more like a large creek than a small river though. I found three beaver dams in this stretch, one with a 6-8 inch drop. Still, I was able to run over them with only a little trouble. A railroad bridge also created a bottleneck.
Soon after that, I entered Snake Meadow. The name is well deserved. The creek continues between a valley of trees, but meanders excessively. Fifty yard and a 180 degree turn, then another fifty yards and another 180 degree turn. Repeat for four or five miles. You have to pay attention all the time, since you are always turning, but it does become tiresome.
At mile 11 you enter Scratch Rapids, which I found to be a series of rocky riffles. Too many small rocks and not enough water. I had to walk short stretches of these, no more than ten yards or so probably three times. This is the only thing approaching whitewater on the first 35 miles.
Then there is your reward. Portage Creek merges with the Wisconsin at Mile 12. The river doubles in size, which makes a lot of difference. Suddenly, you can cut the corners, no more beaver dams and the current is faster. Plus you pass Rohr’s Wilderness Tours, a private guide / campsite. That someone can make money guiding on the rest of the river is comforting. Someone, probably Rohr’s, cuts paths through downed wood, which is a lot of help.
Mile 13 brings a canoe campsite and the Runnel Road landing. Shortly after the Tour site, I passed two canoes and four people, with a guide in another canoe. They were busy hitting the banks and burning through their tempers. The river here is safe and suitable for families, but kinda technical, since it is far from straight. With a canoe, someone is always in back and in charge and someone is in front getting orders. Not a good combination for most duos. I much prefer kayaks where you are the master of your own destiny, as does my wife.
Now mile 1-5 took me almost three hours, but mile 5-13 took only three more, a sign that the current was faster. Miles 13-19 were on a wider, faster river, with fewer sharp bends (still a lot of meanders, but gentler ones that could be handled at speed). This was the best part of the trip. Enough interesting work to make the time pass, but a sense that you were on your way home. I quickly left the canoeing couples in my wake (yes a 225 lb kayaker in a small boat leaves a wake) and hit the Co. K bridge in Conover in only two hours. In all, just under eight hours, which was the bottom of the range listed for this stretch.
The Co. K bridge does not a real boat landing, but the road has room to park and it is easy to get out of the river here.
After reaching mile 19, I got in my car and went home for a good night’s sleep. We were staying in a resort just 30 miles away, so I didn’t even think about camping out. The next day, I returned to do the next 16 miles (Co. K to Co. G).
Now, sixteen miles is a lot of water for part of a day, but I didn’t hurry to get started. This stretch lacks the sharp differences of the first 19 miles. The river is pretty constant, with enough water and current to move you along, enough meanders to keep you occupied, but very few identifiable mile markers.
As you can see from the Google Map, you soon move away from the highway, so it is quiet, with no development or houses. The only real mile markers are the two canoe campsites at mile 23 and 25. I didn’t see the mile 23 campsite at all, so when I stopped at a campsite, I was misplaced. I didn’t think I was making very good time. As I was pulling in here, a group of seven young women in three canoes were pulling out. I used the facilities, rested and stretched then set out to catch them A convoy moves at the speed of the slowest ship, so a lone kayak should be able to catch them. Plus I think that a kayak makes better time than a canoe in such constricted waters. It is just easier to maintain speed through turns. I took about 45 minutes before I passed them.
A mile or two after mile 25, the river approaches the highway. After the quiet, the sound is very apparent, though you never see the road. Looking at my map, I realized where I was and that I was making better time than I thought. This was a relief, but put me in the wrong frame of mind. I was only half way through sixteen miles.
Thr river worked west and the road tended east, so quiet was slowly restored. This was where a compass and a better look at satellite images would have helped. I could hear airplanes from the Eagle River airport, which is near Co. G, so I started to be anxious to be done, when I still had another 5-6 miles to go.
Suddenly, the river changed. Not the water so much as the banks. The distant pines closed in and grew leaves. Instead of a broad valley with distant pines, I had large trees right on the banks, some of them dropping into the river. This is familiar territory for me, since it resembled the Plover River, which I paddle often. A few cottage and houses appeared, leading me to think I was nearly in Eagle River (nope).
Still, this is pleasant water to paddle. Family safe, pretty and fairly open. Good current even in August and clear paths through downed wood. The Co. G bridge is just after a bend (most of the river is just after a bend), so you get no warning you have arrived, but also no sense you are almost there. I felt like a living example of Zeno’s paradox.
When you finally arrive (as I did after making good time – 16 miles in 5.5 hours) the Co. G landing is a good one. Nice paved parking lot, toilet and tables. Missing only water.
Below this landing, the river widens int0 a flowage caused by the Otter Rapids dam. I had no interest in paddling a long lake through a city, past banks paved with cottages. Part 4 will pickup below the dam.
This part covers mile 41 to 48, which is a little misleading as to mileage.
Mile 41 starts with the Otter Rapids dam. Enter off Cloverland. The bridge over the river at the dam is closed to traffic. The dam houses a small hydro plant (the first of these on the river), which has a self guided tour. I didn’t take the time since we were getting a late start. I was accompanied by my sister-in-law Linda, a kayak novice who had been in one for the first time the day before. She used the Prodigy and I used my Swifty. The Swifty is the model Preception made before replacing it with the Prodigy. It is slower and has a smaller cockpit. I found that Linda could leave me behind easily, which I found disconcerting. Shows how much design matters even in low end kayaks.
Between mile 41 and 48
The river is quite low below the dam, enough so that the description of the river from Paddling Northern Wisconsin was a bit misleading. We soon found ourselves facing a choice of very rocky riffles (which would have meant walking) or low level rapids with small standing waves. This was more than I had planned for Linda, but she handled it well. We were able to see other kayakers stranded on rocks to guide us through enough water. Two or three times, we had to cross the river to find enough water and run fun little chutes. If the water had been higher, we probably would have just floated over all these obstacles.
There is a fair amount of traffic on this portion of the river, with a local canoe/kayak/tube rental place right on the river. we noticed that many of the rocks had sliver streaks on them were aluminum canoes had struck them. Made them easier to see. We passed a group in inner tubes that didn’t seem to be having a lot of fun.
The river run close to Hwy 70 at a couple points and one of these hosts a boulder garden. Not hard to handle, but pretty impressive from the road. In the midst of this we saw a doe cross the river to join her two fawns along the Highway. I was worried about her crossing the very rocky river, but she took her time. Then we worried about her and the fawns crossing Hwy 70, which is very busy between Eagle River and St. Germain. She and one of the fawns ran for it and made it, but the other backed off and then ran back and forth wondering what to do. I could hear the doe calling the fawn, but he wouldn’t cross and we eventually passed on.
After 3-4 miles, the river lost its rocks and turned sandy. At this point that maps show it entering a marshy lake. Did I mention the drought? Not a lake, but a dried seabed with a meandering river flowing through it. Having to follow the meanders added another mile or two to the trip. During normal water, one could paddle straight through this area. Instead we made large loops through sandy banks. Lots of traffic, including seven girls in three canoes, my old friends from mile 25. I suppose paddling across a marshy lake would have taken some time, but these sandy meanders made the trip seem longer than it was. It didn’t affect Linda much, as she just kept paddling and leaving me and my Swifty behind.
The Co. O landing (mile 48) is good but totally unimproved. Not even trash barrels. After this point, you enter the Rainbow flowage, a very large piece of water indeed, with over 4,000 acres of water. I have no interest in paddling it, except you can connect to Pickeral Lake, where our resort was. After this too, you are no longer on the headwaters. You have entered the hardworking part of the river.
View Headwaters of the Wisconsin River in a larger map