Wisconsin River I
Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The last section before the confluence with the Missisippi River is less-traveled and feels the most secluded since it’s further from Madison and it’s by far the most alluring for those reasons. At times, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. And wildlife surrounds you. If you like bald eagles, you’ll see plenty. If you like to fish, you’ll have plenty of opportunity as well.
August 22-24, 2008
The first two days were at the minimum recommended level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin, however, they can change drastically change at a moments notice.
Floyd Von Haden Boat Landing, Boscobel, Wisconsin
Wyalusing State Park
Day 1: 8.22.08
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 6:15p.
Miles Paddled: 3.5
Day 2: 8.23.08
Time: Put in at 10:00a. Out at 6:30p.
Miles Paddled: 27.75
Total Time: 11h 45m
Total Miles: 31.25
What we liked:
Our first trip down the Lower Wisconsin Riverway can be described with two words, awesome and exhausting. We didn’t quite know what 31+ miles meant in terms of paddling time and we certainly didn’t help matters by cutting our first day short. Our second day required a solid 27+ miles (with a headwind) which is far too much to be biting off in one day. This would be a learning experience that will change our mapping and planning going forward.
Having grown up on the Wisconsin River in Central Wisconsin, it was hard to imagine a time when I’d gladly spend a few days with my feet in these waters. The river there was (and is) a collection of dams and paper mills and having witnessed first hand just what went into that water (I spent my summers working at one), it would give anyone pause. Of course, miles, time and better environmental regulations (as well as the bittersweet closing of some of those mills) puts some distance between those memories and the reality of the water quality now.
In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was created to protect the last free-flowing 92 miles to the confluence of the Mississippi River for recreational purposes and to help protect natural wildlife habitats. From Prairie Du Sac to just south of the city of Prairie Du Chien, the river is un-dammed with no man-made barriers to disrupt the flow. Of course, the river’s water levels are greatly impacted by the slightest rain which can produce some unpredictable height and current. Consequently, almost no paddle will be the same as water levels change daily.
The put-ins on the lower 92 are varied in condition but they are generally all well-maintained. Some are parks, some are boat landings and there are numerous access points to tailor your paddle from a day to many days. The put-in at the Floyd Von Haden boat landing in Boscobel is a fantastic start to this section with lots of parking and an easy inlet with ramp access to the water.
The water level was generally low throughout our trip. We did plenty of portaging over sandbars until we reached sudden drops of 3′ and beyond. However, just a couple miles before heading into the Mississippi, we paddled over some suddenly deep depths. At one point, I spotted something moving in the distance just above the waterline. As I got closer (or as it got closer to me) it became apparent that it was a branch sticking out of the water, connected to a giant tree. I watched as the entire tree moved swiftly beneath my kayak heading up river. It was an ominous sight. Yes, the current can be strong and do unexpected things. If you can’t swim, wear a lifejacket. The Wisconsin DNR documents drowning information every year and often (but not always) a lack of life jacket and/or drinking play a role in drownings.
The seclusion of this lower part of the Wisconsin is one of the most appealing aspects to this section. At times, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. And wildlife surrounds you. If you like bald eagles, you’ll see plenty. If you like to fish, you’ll have plenty of opportunity as well. Remember to keep glass off the river since you’ll surely be stopped by the DNR, especially if you’re fishing (so have that license with you).
Another appealing aspect to the Lower Wisconsin is the freedom to camp practically anywhere. That makes this a very popular and appealing canoe and kayak destination. In the lower 92 miles, no permits are needed to camp as long as you’re on a sandbar or island. Technically, the banks are off limits since they are usually privately-owned but sandbars are plentiful when the water is low so you shouldn’t have to worry about noisy (or nosy, I guess) neighbors.
Entering the Mississippi River is a unique part of this trip. Be cautious of boat traffic as you enter. It was a particularly nice day and the boats were out keeping us on our toes with some rather large waves and wake. Make your way river-left until you see signs for the Wyalusing trail (It wasn’t well-marked). On our way through the backwaters, we came upon a girl and her dog wading through the shallows. Her dog insisted on “leading us” but couldn’t quite doggie-paddle fast enough in the deeper areas to keep ahead of our boats. It was a much longer paddle in the Wyalusing backwaters to the take-out than we expected. Of course, we just bit off 27+ miles, so we were feeling every stroke at that point.
The take-out at Wyalusing State Park is as good as you’d expect. They do of course, require a sticker (or day sticker) to use it. We camped at the park that second night on a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers (Note: it gets windy up on the ridge campsites). It was a stunning view and it’s a beautiful park but we were much too tired after 27 miles to explore all of it. It’s all the more reason to visit again soon.
What we didn’t like:
As noted quite often, this was far too much paddling for a 2-day trip. This is definitely a 3-day paddle which would allow for a much more leisurely trip (and a lot more sandbar time). The low water levels made for a rather slow-moving journey, as did having the wind in our face the whole time, an added challenge that didn’t help matters.
If we did this trip again:
We’ll be back but we’ll definitely make this a 3-day trip so we can fully enjoy the journey without being rushed next time. We definitely recommend this section over any of the upper sections of the Lower 92 miles because it’s a little further away from Madison and therefore, less busy. But if you love to canoe, kayak and camp, any section on the lower Wisconsin River is well worth it. It’s a must-paddle destination.
Wisconsin River Overview: Lower Wisconsin River Paddle Guide
Wisconsin River II: Gotham to Boscobel
Wisconsin River III: Arena to Gotham
Wisconsin River IV: Prairie Du Sac to Arena
Wisconsin River VIII: Lone Rock to Muscoda
Wisconsin River XVI: Spring Green to Lone Rock
Miles Paddled Maps: Lower Wisconsin Riverway Mileage
Miles Paddled Video: Wisconsin River IV: Prairie Du Sac to Arena
Article: Lower Wisconsin River Worth Getaway
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River