Wisconsin River XIX
Prairie Du Sac to Wyalusing Landing
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is beloved for its canoe and kayak camping opportunities on the islands and sandbars that dot the protected 92 miles from the Prairie Du Sac dam to the Mississippi River. We’ve done it in parts and pieces, but never have we done the whole thing in one trip. Until now. Trevor altered his original bachelor celebrations due to the pandemic, and committed to paddle the entire lower riverway for one special outing. Yes, all 92 miles. And he proved once again, that water levels are everything as the increase in water throughout the trip affected the paddling, as well as the camping. And yes, there’s a bit of coincidental irony that our 19th Wisconsin River trip report was a byproduct of Covid-19.
By Trevor Bellrichard
Voyager/Explorer/Pisces/Some Guy/Miles Paddler since 2017
June 10-14, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Quietwater
≈2′ per mile
Muscoda: ht/ft: 3.09-5.14 | cfs: 12,400-23,700
VFW Veterans Memorial Park, Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin
Town of Wyalusing Boat Landing
Day 1: 6.10.20
Miles Paddled: 25.5
Day 2: 6.11.20
Miles Paddled: 21
Day 3: 6.12.20
Miles Paddled: 18.25
Day 4: 6.13.20
Miles Paddled: 20
Day 5: 6.14.20
Miles Paddled: 7
Total Miles Paddled: 91.75
Bald eagles, sandhill cranes, sunbathers, bar flys, sheepshead, white-tailed deer, spiny soft-shelled turtles, common terns, snakes, a guy without his shirt and humans.
While we can’t legitimately recommend a bike-shuttle for this trip (can you imagine?), we do recommended the shuttle service and outfitting at Wisconsin Canoe Company.
Long, long ago in a pre-pandemic world, we were planning my bachelor party. I was to be wed in July of 2020 to the most amazing woman I have ever met. To celebrate our friendship and the marriage itself, the groomsman and I decided to do a canoe and kayak trip down the… Namekagon. Wait, isn’t this a Wisconsin River paddle report? It is, but our original intention was a northwoods adventure. February moved along and planning was in full swing (planning is one of my favorite parts). Then March came along and with it: increasing restrictions, job insecurity and eventual full shut-down. Not knowing how months of quarantine would play out, we sadly scrapped the trip.
Weeks pass and through happy hour Zoom calls we realized that maybe we could put something together after-all. We decided on a more modest approach… no we didn’t, we decided to do the entire Lower Wisconsin State Riverway in 5 days. Two members of the party couldn’t make it as their jobs and school obligations had increased due to the pandemic. Three remained, myself a furloughed operations consultant, my oldest friend, a man who is nuts about bolts, and my brother, a postal worker. Our dream team decided life is worth living, opportunities are worth seizing, and beers are worth drinking. With these ideals held close to our hearts we set forth into a tropical storm to achieve the ultimate Southern Wisconsin Huck and Finn goal, paddle and camp our way down the Wisconsin River.
Five days required breaking this down into five parts. Specific endpoints are loosely related to where we camped. Here’s how it all shook out day by day.
Prairie Du Sac to Spring Green
June 10, 2020 | Miles: 25.5
A relaxing but not very exciting stretch that started to feel long by the end. Due to water levels, not many sandbars were available for camping. Due torrential rain, we didn’t notice much during the final 9 miles.
Time: Put in at 10:30am. Out at 5:45pm
Total Time (Paddled): 5h 55m
Gauge: Muscoda: ht/ft: 3.09-3.47 | cfs: 12,400-14,200
Recommended Levels: This is a recommended level, although water levels were rising and the current was pushy in places. Wisconsin Canoe Company cancels trips at 15,000 cfs.
The trip begins! Ryan at Wisconsin Canoe Company picked us up in Wyalusing around 8am and shuttled us back to the Sauk City dam by 10am. We can’t recommend his service enough – great guy running a great business, use his services if you can. The sun was out, the wind was low, all was right with the world. A 4.7 mph average kept us moving quickly out of the greater PduSac metropolitan area. Shortly after going under the Highway 12 bridge, there’s a steep sandy spot that was being utilized by some locals as we paddled by. A few thousand feet below the “beach” you’ll encounter the site of a former bridge. We encountered fun and strange currents here, occasionally swinging the sterns of out boats out wide, right our left. This would be a precursor of things to come: unknown, strange, sometimes sinister feeling currents that only barely show their presence before taking your boat for a ride. Once through the narrows, it was smooth sailing. Past Ferry Bluff and the former Mazomanie nude beach the sky grew dark. We donned rain gear and prepared for the worst. For an hour, rain started and stopped, lulling us into a false sense of security. Around the crossroads at Cassell we faced the true nature of the storm, strong winds and intense rain. Luckily we were very close to an island and bucked whitecaps to shore.
Fast forward almost two hours, we had enough of staring at our own shoes, each other’s shoes, and wondering aloud if it was drier under this tree than that one. The wind seemed to have died down so we pressed on, now dreaming of burgers and a dry seat in Spring Green. Minutes turned to hours, hours to days as we slowly pounded through the waves and constant rain. This may have been a lovely part of the river, but all we could see were the wet bows of our boats as visions of bar food danced through our heads. Eventually, 3 years later, we slunk our way into Wisconsin Riverside resort, just in time to see the skies clear and sun come out behind us.
What we liked: The Sun
What we didn’t like: The Rain
If we did this trip again: We wouldn’t launch into the remnants of a tropical storm.
Spring Green to Muscoda
Date: June 11, 2020 | Miles: 21
An interesting and entertaining section with many islands and sandbars to explore. To many, this would typify what the Wisconsin River is: wild, sandy and fun to explore.
Time: Put in at 8:30am. Out at 4:30pm
Total Time (Paddled): 5h 50m
Gauge: Muscoda: ht/ft: 3.47-3.72 | cfs: 14,200-15,500
Recommended Levels: This level is a skosh high. Sandbars are becoming less prevalent, and the current is a bit pushy.
After fully drying out overnight, we hit the river with renewed hope and excitement. We were aware that we would be facing a strong headwind for most of the day, but we remained optimistic. Early on, we tried some fishing, but the current was fast. Without an anchor, we were quickly pushed past the spots were we trying to fish. A sheepshead (fresh-water drum) was caught, but nothing else. Within an hour we gave up and pressed on. If someone were looking for an area with lots of sandbars, we would recommend this section. Being downriver from Spring Green, the crowds should be thinner. As it was, on a Thursday with rising water levels, we didn’t see a soul. We really enjoyed the shade provided by the steep bluffs, river-left, downriver from the bridge at Lone Rock.
Just outside of Gotham the wind really kicked up and we stopped on a sandbar island for a break and to reevaluate. After about a half hour, we pushed on to a shoreline sandbar across from the Gotham Boat Launch. Here we had lunch as the wind whipped the sand up and into our beached boats (my kayak became known as “The Beach” due to the amount of sand deposited during this hour). Seeing the wind was not dying down, we decided to get on with it. Our goal was to reach our safety car at the Orion Boat Landing for beer and a break, then push on to camp around Muscoda. Gotham to Orion was a slog, the 20 mph headwind took a lot out of us as we crept forward, thankful for the rising water levels and strong current. Arriving at the Orion Boat Landing put us in a celebratory mood and we enjoyed a drink or two in the shade, watching the wind turn up white caps as it blew over sandbars. After about an hour we shoved off for Muscoda and found a nice sandbar to watch the sun go down.
What we liked: We liked most everything about this paddle. It’s a great section.
What we didn’t like: The headwind
If we did this trip again: We will do this trip again, when winds are negligible.
Muscoda to Boscobel
June 12, 2020 | Miles: 18.25
A wonderful and lonely section, the river takes on a new flavor here. This area was full of wildlife and void of people.
Time: Put in at 9:30am. Out at 2:40pm
Total Time: 5h 10m
Gauge: Muscoda: ht/ft: 3.72-4.32 | cfs: 15,500-18,600
Recommended Levels: This level is high and not recommended for novices. Sandbars are few and far between and the current can be very pushy to the uninitiated.
This is a great section of river. One we would like to come back and fish when water levels are lower. As it was, the light wind and high water made for a more relaxing day. There were no other users of the river on this stretch. In most sections we only saw one or two other boats. It was a unique feeling, being on this grand adventure of almost 100 river miles and seeing nary another soul. That’s what makes the lower sections of the Wisconsin River so interesting. Once you are past the tubing areas, you have the river to yourself. Miles and miles of paddling with no human interruption. We saw terns going about their daily routines, diving on a school of baitfish. We saw snakes crossing the river behind an island, eagles looking for fish, all this would have been happening whether we were there or not. That’s a great feeling, the feeling of being a visitor in the wild.
After going under the bridge at Boscobel, we saw some day-users of the river. After passing them, we were alone again. The water levels had been rising all day. Areas we thought we might find sand for camping were under water. Some areas near Woodman looked like they might have sand, but we weren’t feeling the spirit and didn’t want to go that far. After checking out some islands that were far less than ideal, we came around a corner to find a high and dry sandy point. It had a nice shallow area around the back for beaching the boats and a nice drop-off in front. We decided to go for a swim here and wash off the anxiety that arises from not knowing where you will be laying your head at night. Once the sun went down we enjoyed a barred owl chorus and sipped our drinks, watching the sky change color.
What we liked: This is a great section. There isn’t anything not to like.
What we didn’t like: The dwindling sand, but that isn’t this sections fault.
If we did this trip again: We will and some members of our group will remember to wear pants instead of shorts. Reddish purple is not an attractive skin tone.
Boscobel to Bridgeport
June 13, 2020 | Miles: 20
Due to high water, it was difficult to tell what this section had to offer. There were a large number of islands that we would imagine have sand in better conditions.
Time: Put in at 9:00am. Out at 2:00pm
Total Time (Paddled): 5h 40m
Gauge: Muscoda: ht/ft: 4.32-4.97 | cfs: 18,600-22,600
Recommended Levels: This level is high and not recommended. Sandbars were almost nonexistent and it would be easy to find yourself in a sticky situation
Getting started, the current had noticeably increased overnight. Taking advantage of the extra speed, we switched positions in our boats to give some less-experienced paddlers the chance steer or try the kayak. As with the day before, the increased current allowed us to not paddle quite so hard and enjoy each other’s company. There are a number of islands, narrows and small channels throughout this section. With the high water, we were able to take any of them without fear of scraping bottom. There wasn’t much for wildlife in this section however, just us, paddling along. At one point we spotted a small pontoon boat tooling along about half-mile in front of us. We wondered what drugs he was smuggling to a downriver rendezvous, but we never caught up to ask details.
A mile and a half before Highway 133 turns away from the river, you’ll come to a railroad bridge. At these water levels we were able to make it under, but just barely. Anything more and you would be in a tight spot here. We got out to have lunch at the Millville boat ramp. It was nice to have a picnic table and actual bathroom. Gnats were everywhere, so we hustled to get back on the river. Prior to departure, I sent Ryan at Wisconsin Canoe Company an email, wondering where the sandbar of last resort was. It was either camp there or paddle to the Mississippi and end the trip early. His recommendation turned out to be spot on and we found a nice spot shortly after the bridge at Bridgeport.
What we liked: Not having a headwind and the high bluffs.
What we didn’t like: The high water; it made this section difficult to enjoy.
If we did this trip again: We would only do this again in lower water conditions and even then… maybe not.
Bridgeport to Wyalusing Landing
June 14, 2020 | Miles: 7
High water prevented us from truly getting a feel for this section. We did get to paddle on the Mississippi though, so we had that going for us… which is nice.
Time: Put in at 10:30am. Out at 12:00pm
Total Time: 1h 30m
Gauge: Muscoda: ht/ft: 4.97-5.14 | cfs: 22,600-23,700
Recommended Levels: This level is high and not recommended. Sandbars were almost nonexistent and it would be easy to find yourself in a sticky situation.
Leaving our camp at Bridgeport, we anticipated more of a paddle before reaching the Mississippi. As we neared the end of the Wisconsin River, motor boats became more frequent. That was startling after several days of seeing almost no one. Before we knew it, we were taking a left and heading down The Big Muddy. At first, the difference between the Wisconsin River and the Mississippi seemed negligible. The current was a bit stronger and we were facing a headwind, that was familiar. However, after a few barges and numerous pleasure boaters passed, it was clear we were somewhere new. The distance from the mouth of the Wisconsin to the Wyalusing Boat Ramp seemed much longer than it looked on the map. Quickly though, we arrived at the boat ramp and attained our goal, to paddle the Lower Wisconsin Riverway in one continuous trip. We were tired, but not as tired as we thought we would be. High water combined with Covid-19 related stored energy allowed us to finish on time.
What we liked: Being on the Mississippi was a great experience. The change of pace was subtle, but appreciated.
What we didn’t like: The final mile of the Wisconsin isn’t impressive. Flooded timber and marshland combined with dead trees and brown grass aren’t all that inspiring. All sections of the Wisconsin are better than this one.
If we did this trip again: We would not do this part of the trip again. It doesnt offer much other than excercise. The Mississippi was cool, but that’s a different trip altogether.
Wisconsin River Overview: Lower Wisconsin River Paddle Guide
Wisconsin River I: Boscobel to Wyalusing
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 XV: Spring Green to Lone Rock
Miles Paddled Maps: Lower Wisconsin Riverway Mileage
Miles Paddled Video: Wisconsin River IV: Prairie Du Sac to Arena
Outfitter: Wisconsin Canoe Company
Outfitter: Wisconsin Riverside Resort
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River