Paddling — and listening to — the Wisconsin River

Veteran paddlers know the river sings in many ways, but not all the songs are sweet.

The river’s currents can alternate quickly, between playful whispers and strident assertions. Even when the river sings softly, its power and strength must not be underestimated.

We’ve learned those notes and other lessons over years of paddling the southern stretch of the Wisconsin River.

At 430 miles, the river is the state’s longest, flowing from the pine forests bordering Michigan’s Upper Peninsula southwest to its confluence with the Mississippi River near the Iowa border. The river helped carve the rock formations at Wisconsin Dells.

Starting south of the Prairie Du Sac hydroelectric dam north of Madison, the river becomes the state’s premier aquatic playground for canoeists, kayakers and rafters.

Summer weekends sometimes find the river’s 93-mile stretch from the dam to Big Muddy heavy with recreational traffic.

One of the main features that makes this part of the Wisconsin River popular is its lack of commercial traffic. The southern course, which cuts diagonally through the state’s Driftless Region, is characterized by its currents and also the abundance of sandbars that line the river and often interrupt its flow. That makes the river unsuitable for business.

In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board took steps to protect the stretch from commercial and residential development. Very few structures are visible from the river, and the board wanted to protect that pristine natural environment.

Veteran paddlers know the farther southwest they travel on the river, the quieter and more untouched the natural surroundings become. If solitude is what you’re looking for, the southernmost stretch offers it in abundance.

Motorized craft of any kind are rare here. The lack of engine noise adds to the silence that helps better articulate the river’s song.

The river hosts the most dedicated paddlers, canoers and kayakers and those who want to play. The latter swim, picnic and spend the night camping on sandbars. The average paddle rate among the more leisurely crowd is about 3 miles per hour.

The river’s relative shallowness adds to its allure. In many places, bathers and waders can touch bottom, a feature that occasionally attracts local herds of cows seeking to cool off.

But there are underwater drop-offs, some of which are precipitous and accompanied by surprisingly swift currents. Non-swimmers and families with small children in tow need to be cautious.

Renting Watercraft

In years past, we’ve piloted our own canoes, a process that involves parking pickup vehicles at the anticipated end of the trip. Lately we’ve taken to renting watercraft from Wisconsin River Outings, which offers canoes, kayaks and tubes from outlets in Boscobel and Sauk City.

The cost of the rental includes pickup of both the canoes and their occupants and transportation back to the firm’s office.

Despite sudden bouts of inclement weather, 2016 has proven to be one of the best years for river paddling, according to Scott Teuber, owner of Wisconsin River Outings.

“In years past we’ve gone through four or five wet or high-water seasons,” says Teuber, who has owned the company for 14 years and sits on the board of the America Outdoors Association. “The river has been perfect this season.”

Despite the growing nationwide popularity of kayaks, canoes still are the most popular rental craft at Wisconsin River Outings. Teuber’s inventory includes 225 Royalex Wenonah canoes, 37 Paluski Riptide kayaks and 60 Jackson Kayak Rivieras, the open-top boat that’s growing in popularity.

“I can be a bit of a kayak snob and wonder why I would ever have any sit-upon canoes, but people find them to be a lot of fun, so we stock them,” Teuber says.

When it comes to kayaks and canoes, size matters. The longer the craft is, the more stable a ride it gives in the water, according to Teuber.

The river’s proximity to the major metro markets of Milwaukee, Chicago, the Quad Cities, Madison and La Crosse attracts a lot of visitors. Teuber figures he puts about 9,000 people on the water every season.

Nudists and eagles

Wisconsin River

The site of the former nude beach at Mazomanie lies just downstream from the Sauk City launch point. It was closed permanently last year due to increasing arrests for alleged drug use and public sexual activity. Paddlers unaware of the beach’s past should beware: They may get tickets from DNR wardens if they stop at the site, Teuber says.

This year, eagles have proven to be a major draw for paddlers. A growing number of the birds have made this stretch of the river their home. They’ve established so many nests that new arrivals have to search various tributaries to find nesting trees. They add to the natural appeal of a river trip.

We have traveled the river from Sauk City to Mazomanie and on to Spring Green many times. The full route is a day’s journey, and can take a lot out of even the most experienced traveler.

Despite sunburn, bug bites and even the occasionally swamping — we once watched helplessly as our rental canoe paddle sailed downstream without us — we find the trip both peaceful and exhilarating.

But Teuber says we’ve been missing some of the river’s best features.

“In my opinion, the best stretch of the river runs from Spring Green southwest to Muscoda and the remoteness of the stretch from Boscobel to Wayalusing, where it joins the Mississippi, is sublime,” Teuber says. “The bluffs loom closer to the water and the river breaks into channels and tributaries with mid-river sandbars that are yours to explore.”

In a land so close and yet so remote, a place where soaring eagles far outnumber paddling humans, sublime is a word that certainly applies.

Perhaps we’ll make the next leg of the journey and listen to an even sweeter river song next year.