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.
August 22, 2015
3.5′ per mile
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
Mink, turkey vultures, hawks, trout and first-time canoeists.
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.
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.
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
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
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River
Miles Paddled Video: