Yahara River Full Moon Paddle
Mud Lake to Lake Kegonsa
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Out first ever full-moon paddle on the next to nonexistent current of the Yahara River between lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa. The sizeable width of it makes for a great landscape to dabble in paddling from point-to-point under lunar light. Who’d have thought a body of water called “Mud” could be so romantic?
August 7, 2015
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
<1′ per mile.
McFarland: ht/ft: 6.2 | cfs: 375
We recommend this level this is quite high – almost four times its average for this time of year. As such, this trip can be paddled at much lower levels as well.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Jaeger Road boat launch (off Exchange Street), McFarland, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 9:30p. Out at 1:00p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8
Wildlife: Hard to know for sure, since it was night, but at least one huge heron, owls, sandhill cranes, bullfrogs galore and a ridiculous amount of fish.
I’ve wanted to paddle a river under the light of the full moon for many years now. (True, I’ve been caught twice now paddling at night because I missed my intended take-out, but those are separate matters!) It’s been tricky for any of the following to align: a full moon falling on a weekend evening, a full moon on a weekend occurring on a clear evening without clouds or rain, planning for such an event sooner than the day of and then figuring out the mad-dash logistics of where to go, at what time, shuttling at night, etc. (To be fair, I am an overthinker. Notoriously so. Detrimentally so.)
And for years I’ve been essentially transfixed with doing this on some segment of the Lower Wisconsin River. Why? For the following reasons: 1) it’s super-wide, so downed trees are never a problem; 2) it’s usually shallow, so safety is hardly a concern; 3) the gradient is low, so you can just float tranquilly in the milky light of the moon; 4) it’s all sandy bottoms, so even if you do ground out (that’s a baseball term, Barry) because you can’t read the river due to it being, you know, night, all you’d have to do is get up, out, and pull your boat to a deeper channel; and 5) the landscape is lined with big undulating bluffs that would look – forgive me for tipping my hat here – unfreakingbelievably beautiful in the moonlight, a romantic montage harkening back to 19th Century naturalism. Plus all those sandy beaches and sand bar islands would make for perfect stopping points along the way.
Right? The thing practically sells itself!
But I’m a pretty bad planner, and each summer month when the moon is well-nigh full, I go into this frantic phase of “Oh man, tonight would be a perfect time to go night paddling… but for [fill in the blank excuse/reason for reality putting the kibosh on starry-eyed whimsy].” Every year, for years now.
So, this year I really wanted to stop making excuses and do it – do something at least, go somewhere at night. I currently live in McFarland – to wit, 90 seconds away from the Yahara River between Stoughton Road and Exchange Street (or the section of river between Lake Waubesa and Lower Mud Lake). Relative the Lower Wisconsin River, this stretch of water is like comparing an overfed and indolent housecat to a wild, svelte lynx. But I’m too often guilty of letting perfect be the enemy of good enough, and the desire to do a full moon paddle had more to do with What than Where. And as you might have guessed, in the end it really was all about the experience of such a novelty, wherever that happened to be. That it wasn’t staged in the perfect location couldn’t have mattered less. That it simply was done at all, anywhere, was all that really did matter.
Technically speaking, this whole trip is on the Yahara River, which connects lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa via Lower Mud Lake. (The Yahara also connects Upper Mud Lake, Lake Monona, Lake Mendota and Cherokee Marsh, all in Madison). In the four miles between Waubesa and Kegonsa the Yahara quietly flows as a broad river, slows to the swell of a lake, tapers again as a very intimate river, then slows down again before entering an even larger lake.
The first half mile is entirely residential on the east, totally undeveloped on the west. And whereas the east bank (left-hand side, going downstream) is pancake-flat, the west bank is lined with a woodsy hill and then a broad swath of cattails. Curling to the northeast, around a right-hand bend the river will enter the vast but attractive sprawl of Lower Mud Lake. On the left and right, both off in the distance, are a couple more small hills. Except for some property on the far southern shore of Lower Mud Lake, this whole wetlands complex is wild and undeveloped. The river leaves the lake in the southeast corner (roughly between 4 and 5, if you thought of the lake as a clockface), heads east and then makes an abrupt turn due south. This is an especially pretty stretch of the Yahara River, albeit a very short one (~ 1 mile), that we covered a few years ago during very different conditions. (The boulders we encountered back then were all buried under high water, and the Dyreson Road bridge was hard to discern at night, but we’re happy to see it’s still the original truss bridge – it wasn’t replaced by something modern and mundane.)
The river will make a horseshoe-shaped bend east/northeast towards County Road AB, preceded by a ¼ mile of residential houses on the south bank (river-right). On the downstream-right side of the County Road AB bridge is a boatyard and slip. On the other side of the river is Fish Camp County Park, where there are two accesses, both on the left: a dock next to the park buildings, the other, an actual boat ramp, just downstream and at a tip of land before the river enters Lake Kegonsa.
What we liked:
The water access at Jaeger Road is a cool secretive spot. I myself only know of it thanks to walks with my dog in the new hood in which we live. It’s a dead-end, all but hidden little road off of Exchange Street (which connects downtown McFarland (such as it is) with Stoughton Road. Exchange Street crosses the Yahara River, but there’s no practical place to launch a boat or park a car. Jaeger Road, by contrast, is pretty much designed to be a boat launch and parking area. You have your choice of a dock or actual boat ramp. Super-convenient, no fee.
Despite this section of the Yahara River being residential, there’s a lot of open, public land to keep your eye and mind off private property. Lower Mud Lake, despite being a lake, is actually pretty and exemplifies a quintessential wetlands complex created by glaciation. Toss in a small drumlin hill and postcard-quaint barn and silo off in the distance, and you have a snapshot of classic southern Wisconsin. (Not that you see any of this at night, of course!)
OK, let’s just cut to the chase. Paddling under the light of a full moon is gloriously awesome! Exquisitely, ridiculously, resplendently awesome. It’s as sexy as it is romantic. It feels wild and daring, even if past suburban lawns on a Monday night. There is a thrill to paddling deep, dark waters at night, something that taps into our more primitive selves. Accentuating that thrill/fear were the countless encounters with unknown fish flicking their tales or jumping out of the water, only feet away, or bumping into our boats and paddles, over and over, when we were on Lower Mud Lake (not so much the river proper). It kind of freaked us out – but in the best way possible; just enough unnerving to keep us on point without being truly afraid or uncomfortable. I mean, hell, a 2′-long carp could’ve jumped into our boats on our laps for all we knew. (Mercifully, this did not occur.)
Passing a dark woods we heard two great horned owls call forth and back – who cooks for you? – which couldn’t have been more appropriate for the occasion. We heard overlaid soundtracks of sandhill crane bugling and bullfrog croaking. You could’ve played Greg Brown or Marvin Gaye. I opted for the obvious: Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”. Followed by “Ricky’s Theme” by Beastie Boys, arguably the single greatest night-themed instrumental of all time.
As for being able to see, there was plenty of light from the moon to allow us to take in the entire landscape in the foreground and background. Alas, what the human eye takes in is not the same of a camera’s aperture. Whereas we saw the whole world awash in a refulgence of soft grays, light whites, and vague lavenders, the camera captured only black, as though the lens cap were still on. (Remember lens caps?) So the pictures from this trip are limited and not at all telling of the overall experience and visual splendor of lunar luminescence. Seriously, you’ll just have to do this yourself to know what I mean. And you really, really should do a trip like this!
We brought headlamps as well as lights for our boats, but they were entirely unnecessary. I mean, they’d be good – and required by law – in order to be seen by other boats, but the light of the moon was more than enough to see where we were going. In fact, all they did was attract bugs. Other than the bugs, birds, fish, and muskrats, we were totally alone out there, which of course only enhanced the whole novelty of this trip experience.
Even sweeping past a stretch or two of residential houses was interesting simply on account of the light reflections. We were lucky to do this trip on a totally windless night (the rarity of which occurrence, in Wisconsin, is impossible to overstate). Whether river or lake, the water was glass-like, flat and calm. Perfect for our purposes. So, the still reflection of lights from houses, whether lit windows, rooms, or exterior bulbs of any sorts, cast on the water was uniquely marvelous. Psychologically, we felt like two kids skipping school, truant ne’er-do-wells doing something naughty, as we soundlessly slipped past such houses at midnight whose humans were long asleep or still watching TV in the flickering light of a living room, as we sat in our boats sipping beer, grinning ear to ear.
Our bodies are designed to be asleep at night. As darkness looms, a more primeval stage is set for shadows and secrets, a nocturnal world that is both melancholy and terrifying – or can be. As for paddling as a basic form of recreation, it’s taken for granted to be done during sunlight. Who paddles in the dead of darkness? But when done safely and intentionally, this subversion of the norm triggers sensations in the human soul and imagination that are experientially unique, if not phenomenal. The textures of the landscape visually are stunning, and one’s senses of sound are acutely attuned. Whether you’re paddling with the moon in front of you or behind, the lighting offers different takes – the former more crystalline and brilliant, the latter more softly reserved – both abundant. There is a grace to this experience, a sense of compact presence. And if that sounds a little too nuanced or new agey, let’s just go with this: it’s seriously very cool.
What we didn’t like:
Nothing. This was so much fun – I’m embarrassed it took me so long to finally do this! Sure, paddling upstream was a mild nuisance, but definitely worth not having to shuttle.
If we did this trip again:
We’ll definitely do this again. It’s really a great landscape to paddle under the full moon without risk of incident, getting lost, missing a take-out, etc. Really though, you should go anywhere you know and feel comfortable with and do a full-moon paddle. It’s not just that it’s a novelty to see the world and water in such a different light (literally), the overall feeling of it is exquisite and thrilling. For me, this was a kind of test-pilot. Next time, I’d like to do this somewhere on the Lower Wisconsin River, or even the Dells, or the lower Yahara River – any river wide enough where strainers or downed trees won’t be an issue. Or missing your take-out.
This was a there-and-back paddle, although one could easily cut this distance in half by taking out at Fish Camp County Park at the Yahara River’s inlet to Lake Kegonsa. It’s just that I live less than two minutes away from the Yahara River, in McFarland, and rather than drive to the county park to drop off a car, and then back to Jaeger Road, we opted instead just to turn around and paddle upstream since the current is so slack. It’s a rare occasion when I voluntarily paddle upstream, but this was a justified case.