10/02/2015 0 comments

Kickapoo River: West Fork

County Road S to Highway 56
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The West Fork of the Kickapoo is a “river” by name only. This is very much a creek and creekers will love this lively and twisty section which shares distinct similarities to not only another class A trout stream, Black Earth Creek, but also the narrow confines of the Badfish, as well as the sometimes rough and brushy banks of Koshkonong Creek.

This ride, however, is set in the Kickapoo River Valley which gives it a slight edge with its modest rock outcroppings, a dozen or so mini-islands and amazing water clarity. That, and its endless riffles make it an appealing endeavor for those who don’t mind less-than-ideal put-ins and take-outs. Our first-hand advice though, is to catch it at higher water levels than these.

One of five rock wall stretches on the West Fork of the Kickapoo River.

August 26, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Riffles (a lot of them)

Ontario: ht/ft: 8.28 | cfs: 50
LaFarge: ht/ft: 2.52 | cfs: 114

Recommended Levels:
These gauges don’t correlate to the stream itself but they give a general idea of water in the area. We definitely recommend higher levels than these. At these levels, you won’t be spending the day walking the creek but you’ll definitely scrap throughout the entire stretch. For reference, I would shoot for at least the following levels when Rick Kark paddled it on June 2, 2015: Ontario read ht/ft: 8.43, cfs: 62 and LaFarge: ht/ft: 2.87, cfs: 168.

County Road S bridge
Highway 56 bridge, Liberty, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 10:45a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.75

Wildlife: An insane amount of trout, a couple turtles, a couple muskrats, a bald eagle and thousands of grasshoppers.

Having recently run across Rick Kark’s “Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to 309 Wisconsin Streams,” I was inspired to check out his 309th paddle - the curtain-call of his handbook, if you will. His guide and the reports within it span decades which makes for moderate accuracy in predicting paddling conditions but this one, his last one, was paddled in June of this year so I figured the report was pretty accurate and timely.

And it was. The water levels however, were more in his favor than mine.

I had been watching the nearby gauges to see if there was water in the area for awhile now. These levels were near-identical to our trip on the main branch of the Kickapoo a few years ago and we had no trouble then. Of course, this is a different source of water and the levels were lean.

Now, had I known of Timothy’s experience just the week before on the main branch of the Kickapoo and the struggles that came with that low water level, I probably would’ve waited to explore this, but I had the day off and it’s a pretty drive from Madison, so I thought I’d check it out.

It was indeed a scrape-y little ride but with a couple more inches of water, this would be an excellent run. To be honest, for August, (and a dry one at that) I was surprised there was still water in this part at all.

What we liked:
I’ll fight the urge to call this the mini-Kickapoo or the lil’ Kickapoo but it does share a lot of similarities; the crystal-clear water, the floor bottom makeup and the sandstone outcrops. It doesn’t hold a candle to the main stem (otherwise, you would’ve already heard about it and probably paddled it) but creek fans who don’t mind scratchy put-ins and take-outs will love this paddle and all the riffles and jetting-trout shadows that come with it.

There are two put-in options for this section. The first, a dedicated fishing access with parking. I scouted it but the brush was already high this time of year and County S wasn’t too far away - about 1/4 mile (or so) further up the road, so I headed upstream (plus, I’m kind of a bridge guy anyway). In hindsight, County S and the fishing access are essentially the same; weedy, probably tick-laden and both with solid odds that they each contain a fair share of rash-giving plants just waiting for some foolish kayaker to brush up against them.

I chose County S to put-in and I recommend you do the same because that additional 1/4 mile on the water offers some fun and pretty views that you would otherwise miss.

In general, the West fork is a very shallow (even in higher water, I reckon - because of the many, many shallows) and narrow stream. The water is a green-ish/marine blue at times especially in the deeper areas but mostly crystal clear (and who doesn’t like that?). Its depths appeared to run about 4’ at its deepest on this day but there were pockets where I’d lose sight of the bottom.

Despite being sand-bottomed almost the entire way, there are very few sandbars. You’ll encounter stretches of stony and rocky areas comprised of natural rocks, small boulders and the occasional concrete slab (from what, I don’t know).

As Kark notes, the banks are often lined with box elders, willows and basswoods and I agree with him that the corridor was mostly grass and would’ve been somewhat boring if not for the views of the forested hills surrounding.

Indeed, an added element of beauty are the surrounding bluffs and of interest is the fact that you’re actually on the Western side of the bluffs from the more-familiar main branch. They’re kept at a distance, (save for the one that frames the backdrop of the farm across from the put-in) but when the backdrop opens up to grassy banks, you’re reminded of the valley and those glimpses of the rolling hills add to the depth of your surroundings. On a day like this one, I got the added benefit of the clouds casting decipherable shadows on the giant hills beyond.

What struck me most were the countless riffle beds… very rarely did I paddle long (or straight for that matter) without eyeing more beyond the bow. There was one riffly pass after another - bend after bend. It’s fun and you get used to it - almost spoiled by the fact that you know another one will be lurking around the corner. Now, scraping over them was another story, that I got used to right away. I also loved the (what seemed like a) dozen or so mini-islands (I guess you could call them future islands? - totally intentional) that split the river into choose-your-own-adventure channels.

Now, for all the warnings about this being scrapesville, I was never overly-inconvenienced. I portaged twice (not bad for almost 7 miles). Once, at the end of the second wall of sandstone, which in higher water could've been paddled over. The second, as mentioned in Kark’s guide, is literally within eyesight of the Highway 56 bridge (and take-out) and it’s non-negotiable. The size of the trunk and the depth of the water surrounding this obstruction requires that you climb over it (circumventing would've been a challenge).

But for being so narrow and also not being a popular paddling destination, I was surprised that this river was so free from deadfall. It certainly has all the surroundings that could make for a tough go of it but I had a relatively free and easy paddle.

The West Fork is a trout stream first and foremost and it’s highly regarded as such (current fly-fishing reports here). And trout are everywhere. Darting and big. With each passing stroke, trout would jet upstream and down and were as thick as the grasshoppers at the fishing parking lot (and alternative put-in option mentioned earlier). It was hard to keep your eyes on the road at times.

In fact, I came upon a fly-fishermen and his dog standing midstream while coming around a bend. We chatted briefly and he admitted that he’s never seen a kayaker on this river. He asked if I knew about the main branch? I kind of laughed to myself and said, "yeah, we like to explore streams off the beaten branch."

There’s just something about trout streams and how excellent trout habitat makes for wonderful paddling too (see also: innumerable rivers of Montana). Aside from the abundance of trout, wildlife was at a minimum except for a couple muskrats and a bald eagle that flew low overhead.

But the highlights of this paddle are what you would (or personally, I had) hope to find with “Kickapoo” in the name - fern and moss covered sandstone bluffs. The shapes felt similar but the magnitude of them are definitely on the miniature side, rising only about 10-12’. But there are five walls that line the paddle and break up the riffles and mini-islands throughout (I say that like it’s a bad thing).

The walls are short-lived (in length) but beautiful and quite photogenic. The first one, you’ll have to search for but the others are more apparent and stand revealed. The third one is the most distinct, located directly after the Highway 82 bridge with a sandstone bluff that endcaps a wall just like you’d see on the main branch.

I should note that there is one drop that might constitute a Class I (but barely, I’ll give it a .5 class - I can do that, right?) but it’s more of a simple ledge at these levels and would probably disappear at higher levels.

The take-out is probably a little tougher for the average easy-maintence paddler. It’s under the highway bridge with an awkward exit up a steep sand and rock incline. From there, is another adventure through plants that’ll have you muttering, “Lord, I hope this isn’t poisonous”, under your breath.

What we didn't like:
What comes with less-traveled rivers and creeks are usually less-than-ideal accesses and that was certainly the case here. People visit this section to fish, not to lug 10-foot pieces of plastic down the banks, afterall.

We’ve certainly encountered worse but these were not necessarily a physical challenge as much as they were plant-spotting challenges (and those of us who think all leaves appear to come in threes suck at these kind of challenges). So, for those who are bothered by bushes and brambles and all the ticks or whatever else comes with that, this part could be a downer.

If we did this trip again:
The main branch of the Kickapoo River is one of the premier destinations in Wisconsin, if not the Midwest and it was a joy to, along with Rick, shine a light on and explore a lesser-known fork of this river. There’s something wonderful about paddling a rarely-trodden place. The sense of discovery is appealing. The wonderment of what’s around the corner - nothing compares to it.

I can’t wait to get back but in higher water and see what happens to the numerous riffles (might they disappear? Were they so plentiful only due to the low-water level?). I’m willing to bet that it’s much more fun at higher levels (but I've never been very good at gambling). In water levels like these, this specific day deserved a 3-star rating but based on the knowledge that Rick Kark had an enjoyable (and sometimes glowing) paddle earlier in the season, I’m giving it a 4-star rating based on his report and what I feel is a lot of potential.

Lastly, let us tip our hat to you Mr. Kark, for sharing your paddling history and inspiring people like us to explore territory that we may not have otherwise thought to venture. Happy 309th!

Related Information
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to LaFarge
Kickapoo River III: Landing 4 to Landing 14
Miles Paddled Video: Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Miles Paddled Video: Kickapoo River II: Rockton to LaFarge
Camp: Wildcat Mountain State Park
Good People: Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River


Shuttle Information:
The shuttle was a surprisingly easy 5 miles (less than 30 minutes) for this area. But then again, this section doesn’t have a steep gradient. Nevertheless it was short and the perfect end-shuttle for a day paddle.

Photo Gallery:

Looking down from the County Road S bridge at the put-in.

Amazing water-clarity.

Riffles immediately.

Approaching the fishing put-in.

Bluff ridge in the distance.

Approaching the first wall.

The second sandstone wall.

Looking upstream at the only drop on the trip.

Highway 82 bridge.

Approaching the third and most unique sandstone feature.

Quite familiar in shape to the main branch of the Kickapoo.


Channels, everywhere.

The fourth wall after a riffly section.

Mirror-like water.

Bluffs and shrubs.

High and low beauty.



The fifth and final wall.

Coming into civilization for a bit.

River bends.

County Road S bridge.


Mini-island #23 (or something like that).

The non-negotiable portage. It's more climbable than climbing-around-able.

Highway 56 bridge.

Take-out under the bridge.

Exit strategy is tick-laden and who knows what else?
9/29/2015 0 comments

Travel Wisconsin's Road to Fall Fun

This promotion may certainly be of interest to paddling fans.

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s “Road to Fall Fun” scavenger hunt is underway and this week’s prize is the “Wisconsin Paddler” package (which includes a Lifetime Tamarack 12 Angler kayak, Lifetime Lite Elite Two-Piece paddle, 9.5x16” Dry Tek dry bag, Body Glove adult life preserver, and Bell Adult Segment Multisport helmet).

The next clue will be posted on Thursday, October 1st on the Travel Wisconsin website as well as their Facebook and Twitter pages.
9/27/2015 0 comments

Kickapoo River III

Landing 4 to Landing 14
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A return to a Wisconsin classic, one of the very best paddling prospects anywhere in the state (and arguably the Midwest in general), in order to celebrate the birthday of a friend who’d never been on the beloved Kickapoo, this trip did not disappoint… for the most part.

Always photogenic.

August 22, 2015

Class Difficulty:

3.5' per mile

Ontario: ht/ft: 8.27 | cfs: 50
LaFarge: ht/ft: 2.55 | cfs: 118

Recommended Levels:
This was too low. While still runnable, the scraping was frequent and the slaloming around shallows to avoid grounding out was constant. I’d say that the minimum for paddling the Kickapoo should be 60 cfs. In Kevin Revolinski’s new paddling guidebook he recommends a minimum of 70 cfs. Either way, you do not want to be on the water when it’s high, as it’s prone to flash flooding due to its high rock walls and narrow streambed. What’s too high? 200 cfs and above.

Landing 4, Highway 133
Landing 14 at County Road P, Rockton, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 6:40p.
Total Time: 5h 30m
Miles Paddled: 13.25

Wildlife: Mink, turkey vultures, hawks, trout and first-time canoeists.
Time worth driving to: Several hours. However far away you’re coming from, the Kickapoo is worth the drive.

When it comes to the Kickapoo River, most paddlers think about one of two things: the Ontario to Rockton segment or the Rockton to La Farge segment, a continuous stretch of some 22 miles along public land, where the most beautiful rock outcrops and mini-canyons are located anywhere on the 120ish miles of the whole river. To be sure, if you’ve never paddled the Kickapoo, then you should start here. There are, of course, segments upstream and downstream also worth doing in their own right. I myself have paddled the last leg of the Kickapoo into the Wisconsin River (sorry, no report; it was pre-Miles Paddled, egad!) and can assert that it is truly beautiful and wonderfully diverse.

It’s been three years since Barry paddled the Kickapoo and I myself haven’t been back in five. I’d first paddled the Rockton to La Farge segment in the summer of 2009 and fell for the river heels over head. I returned that fall to check out the Ontario to Rockton segment just upstream and was decidedly less impressed. Why? Because this stretch of the river is like a beautiful woman in a crowded bar who’s had one too many strong drinks and is slurring her words a little too loudly when not dancing like a slob: it’s extremely pretty – though evidence of graffiti and litter were more evident – but there are hoards of paddlers mostly in rented canoes who do not know the first thing about paddling a canoe, much less after the stowed-in or towed-behind cooler of cheap beer and bad classic rock (which begs the question: what is it about paddling and cornball music? Is there an unwritten mandate that all music blaring from speakers whilst on the river – any river – be recorded not before 1971 but no later than 1985? Is Ozzie or Foreigner really the soundtrack that gets conjured when paddling past sandbars and sandstone rock outcrops? I just don’t get it. But there’s a lot about people I don’t get…).

Not coincidentally, this is the most popular segment of the Kickapoo River, and by “popular,” let’s be clear about something: all that means is it’s where the local outfitters send their customers. It’s not necessarily “popular” because people voted that way or prefer it to the Rockton to La Farge segment (in fact, I’d argue that the latter is preferable for a variety of reasons – it’s as scenic, if not more so, and has way less traffic, which enhances the wildlife sightings). A year and a half later, on Memorial Day weekend of 2010 at that, I returned to the KVR a third time to paddle the Rockton to La Farge segment again. It was just as lovely as ever, and despite the three-day weekend, we had the river to ourselves.

For this trip I took two friends who’d never paddled the Kickapoo but have always wanted to. Days before we all decided to this, the spectacular magnum opus that is Richard Kark’s e-book came to our attention. One particular stream that caught my attention is Billings Creek, a tributary of the Kickapoo River flowing past the other side of Wildcat Mountain State Park. Since one of my friends is a lover of trout streams, and since we were out this way to celebrate his birthday as it was, I thought it would be terrific fun to put in at Billings Creek, paddle down to the Kickapoo, and take out at Rockton. Billings is described as a “mini Kickapoo” with added advantages of crystal clear water and swift current bordering on light rapids. We scouted the creek but decided it was just too shallow to risk running. Even another inch would’ve made the difference. Instead, we resolved to return another time at higher levels (maybe in autumn during the foliage) rather than scrape and feel frustrated.

As it happened, I had a backup plan for this, having suspected that the creek would be too shallow. I knew it would be crowded on a sunny Saturday in August on the Ontario to Rockton segment in particular, and I didn’t want to start right in town anyway. So we put in at Landing #4, coincidentally four miles downstream from downtown Ontario. This is the closest access point relative Wildcat Mountain State Park (unless you’re already in the state park, in which case there’s a separate boat launch at the Lower Picnic Area). The next few miles on the river will offer breathtaking views of Mount Pisgah on your left. A number of rentals end their trip at this access, thereby offering the benefit of reducing the traffic further downstream (alas, some rentals also put in at Landing #4, too, so take the whole high/low traffic volume thing with a grain of salt).

Furthermore, since we were putting-in downstream of the conventional starting point in Ontario, I knew we could paddle past Rockton a couple miles for what would be in effect the same length of a trip, and this much is certain: the traffic volume on the river does decrease considerably from Rockton to La Farge. This is one of best attributes of the Kickapoo River from Ontario to La Farge: there are so many different access points (and all of them great) to tailor the kind of trip you're looking for. In other words, you don’t have to (and arguably should not) simply begin and end where the guidebooks tell you.

What we liked:
The river is just gorgeous. Minus the crowds, of course, it’s everything you want a river to look and feel like. It's only 20-30 feet wide most of the time with mostly clear water, good current and it's continually endowed with an unabashed glory of Driftless geology – a wildfire of lush green ferns, secret, sunken hollows, sandstone and limestone rock outcrops directly lining the water itself.

As mentioned above, the many accesses are all excellent and supremely convenient. And if all that were not enough, there are a dozen riverside campsites accessible only by the water, allowing for drybag camping, whether you’re canoeing or kayaking, at wonderfully isolated and primitive locations (alas, we didn’t camp during this trip but I have in the past and it’s a real delight). The whole Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) feels like a paddler’s paradise – and really it is!

That’s the essential synopsis for the Kickapoo between Ontario and La Farge. For this particular trip I loved that the landscape beauty begins right off the bat at Landing #4 and basically remains beautiful for the entirety of the trip. The sights of Wildcat Mountain and Mount Pisgah towering above the surrounding valley several hundred feet high is quite captivating. There are umpteen sandbars along the way, each offering pleasant respites to stretch your legs, pee or picnic (or in my case, de-water your boat – more on that below). And after a fairly long day on the water, our chosen takeout bridge at Landing #12 (aka the County Road P bridge) was picturesque (an old truss bridge) and easy-as-pie.

Also cool about all these landings? There are designated trash cans for garbage, plastics and aluminum (don't take glass on the river – any river, ever). There even are meshed bags at these points, presumably for canoe rentals to collect all the canned beer. Pretty smart!

What we didn't like:
Two things can detract from the Kickapoo’s wonder: throngs of people and low water levels. The crowds are ridiculous, and I’m not kidding. I’ve never seen so many paddlers on one stretch of river ever before in my life. And this was on a day with a stiff headwind from the south. Normally, I never mind seeing other folks on the water for no other reason than it confirms a commonality that others too love something as I do. But this was crazy.

It was loud and crowded, both in front of you and from behind, the confused canoes going sideways in particular (“boatjams”?). Saying nothing of the compromised “getting away from it all” feeling most of us seek if we’re to drive two hours from home, congestion of this sort pretty much precludes any wildlife opportunities (although we did spot one mink on a log, which was awesome).

The low water was in every sense a drag. But that’s nothing more than bad timing (the third week of August with very little rain in the game), not some intrinsic issue with this stream. Paddle this at the higher levels recommended above and you’ll have a great time. The shallow water did leave one very unfortunate impression, however: a two-and-a-half-inch gouge on the bottom of my boat. At various times I kept noticing surprising amounts of water in my boat, sometimes sloshing around as though I’d been running Class II rapids or plunging down drops. I knew something was up – I had to “sponge out” the cockpit five times in as many hours. But it wasn’t until we took out and I had taken everything out of my boat, turned it over, that I saw my new blemish. And this is a boat designed for whitewater! It’s not like the Kickapoo is considered a rocky river – it isn’t, by and by – but the water was low, and I must have hit some sharp rock at just the right wrong spot. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It was just bad luck (there's certainly no reason to draw the conclusion that the Kickapoo is a dangerous river that will damage your boat).

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, though next time only in off-season or mid-week. It’s just too distracting on a summer weekend – bordering on an amusement ride at the Dells. It definitely detracts from the overall experience, which otherwise should be one of sheer awe and wow.

Related Information
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to LaFarge
Kickapoo River: West Fork: County Road S to Highway 56
Camp: Wildcat Mountain State Park
General: Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Good People: Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Drifty's Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Mr. Duck's Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Titanic Canoe Rental
Overview: Hunt Fish Camp
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Paddle Report: The Mad Traveler
Paddle Report: Midwest Weekends
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River


Shuttle Information:
7.1 miles bicycle, 7.6 miles car. The bike shuttle is great, especially the first mile through the Kickapoo Valley Reserve but there are reputable hills along Highway 133.

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

Put-in at Landing #4.

Cool rock walls begin immediately.

...as do people congestions!

Pine and hemlock relicts crowning rock outcrops.

Mount Pisgah lovingly hovering in the near background.


One of many canoeists facing the wrong direction.

More grotto than cave.

Traffic jam.

It really does look like this for miles and miles...

A pleasant quiet bend.

One of the taller cliffs on this trip.

The river can be quite narrow at times.

Mink on a log.

Classic Kickapoo.

Not always rocky, some stretches teem with lush greenery.

Picturesque bridge at the takeout in the late afternoon.

Another excellent boat landing at the takeout.