Kickapoo River – June 2016

The Kickapoo River has so many connections to my life, located between my two grandparent’s farms, one outside of Tomah (Clifton) and one La Crosse (Coon Valley); I spent many days wondering through the hills and valleys of the beautiful driftless area in South Western Wisconsin. I often dreamed of living high on the bluffs overlooking the Kickapoo River as it cuts a crooked path through the fields and forest of this enchanted land.

My parents took me canoeing on this river when I was a child. It is still a great place to introduce canoeing or kayaking to new paddlers of any age. The gentle current, with no real rapids makes this shallow river a safe place to learn. With the many twists and turns, the river provides quick and clear feedback on how to figure out how to navigate your craft.

Our daughter Kara and granddaughter Brianna had such a great time last year canoeing flat water on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, we decided to try paddling the Kickapoo River in June 2016. Our plan was to meet after work on Friday, load the canoe and kayak and head for the Wildcat Mountain State Park, but all of the camping spots where taken on this beautiful summer weekend (what a surprise). We found a nice spot for our tents at the Tunnel Trail Campground near Wilton WI. The campground is on the famous Sparta to Elroy bike trail. Seems like bike riders and canoeists have much in common – both enjoy the quiet beauty of this area.


We drove to the small village of Rockton to drop off Brianna’s Jeep at Landing #12, just past Bridge #11. It was a lovely day, sunny and warm. The bluffs were green and lush, while the river looked full. We scouted out the spot in Ontario where we would launch our canoe and kayak in the morning, then drove back to our camp for dinner and a campfire.

We enjoyed a hardy breakfast of biscuits, sausage and gravy, which formed a solid base of energy for the day. The girls made sandwiches for lunch on the river and we packed a small cooler with water for what will be a hot summer day on the water. We parked the truck and launched into the brown warm water near Bridge #1 in Ontario.


With several canoe rental operations based in Ontario, we found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of other paddlers. We watched people help older women into kayaks, perhaps for the first time. Young families with the kids riding in the middle of the canoe enjoyed a slow ride down the river. Even saw a couple with their dog in a life vest. Other young people confused the Kickapoo with tubing down the Apple River, pulling coolers of beer behind their kayaks. We paddled hard to get past the loud, rowdy groups, so we could relax and enjoy the stunning scenery surrounding us in peace and quiet.


One of my goals was to have Brianna learn to handle steering the canoe from the back. I realized that I am most comfortable in the back of the canoe, but wondered when Brianna would learn these skills before she heads off to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area next year.


Navigating the many curves and currents of the Kickapoo would have been a good place to learn, if we were alone, but navigating past groups of slow moving partiers in the narrow river was tough. After a few soft crashes into the banks, Kara took control of navigating the canoe.

We stopped for lunch on a shaded sand bar for a few moments, before we heard the sound of a noisy crowd drawing near. I resumed my normal spot in the back, with Brianna in front and Kara took over the kayak were she is most comfortable.

It was a hot sunny day, but the narrow river provided welcomed shade. Paddling near the cool, damp limestone cliffs, dropped the temperature 15 degrees. Pictures of the cliffs are stunning, showing the changing light conditions. Amazing how trees can drive their root systems into the smallest of cracks and hold on to the rock through all kinds of weather.


The numbered bridges made it pretty easy to get a sense of pace. With most of the crowds getting out before Bridge #10, our last few miles to Landing #12 were quiet and relaxing. After pulling the boats up the landing, we realized my master plan of loading the canoe and kayak onto Brianna’s Jeep was foiled by forgetting to bring the tightening wrench for the roof rack L. We left the boats out of the way at the landing and drove back to Ontario to get the truck. Back to Rockton to load the canoe and kayak, then drove to La Farge to drop off Brianna’s Jeep at our final destination. A few extra miles, but it all worked out fine.

It was a muggy night and a shower at the campground felt good. Kara grilled hot ham, bacon and cheese sandwiches and we relaxed around the campfire. The owner of the campground drove around telling each camper to expect thunderstorms, some may be sever after midnight. The neighbors in the tent with two small daughters packed everything up in the dark and drove out. We tightened down our tents and headed for bed as the rain started and we saw the lightning. It rained hard, but we camped high and dry on an elevated area in a protected valley, so the storm did not bother us much.

I made breakfast omelets, bacon and coffee in the morning fog. Frying bacon with rain dropping from the trees can be dicey at times. We packed up our wet tents in truck and headed back to Rockton. We put in at Landing #12, with the brown water running a little faster after the rains over night. Brianna took the kayak and handled it great. The second leg of our trip could not be more different from our first. We did not see another single person over the 9 mile trip to LaFarge – wonderful!

We did encounter two large trees that had fallen across the entire width of the river, near Bridge #16. My guess is that the outfitters clean up the river between Bridges #1 and #10. One we could slide the boats under the tree while we walked around the tree in the mud, but on the other, we had to lift our boats over the tree.

Kickapoo_no place to go.JPG

We stopped for lunch in a lovely sand bar overlooking another impressive limestone cliff.


Bridge #18 has a distinctive red roof.

Kickapoo_Red roof bridge Steve Kara

We finished our journey at Andrew’s landing in La Farge, just before Bridge #20. Great trip!


I introduced my wife to the Kickapoo River shortly after moving back to Wisconsin nearly 30 years ago. She remembers the beautiful scenery and swimming in the warm brown water. I remember having my grandpa pick us up at one of the bridges. Today it is hard to imagine coordinating the pickup time without cell phones, but somehow we made it work.

It has been too long and I am glad I made it back to this special river. Times change, life happens, but the Kickapoo River keeps flowing freely through the valleys of this beautiful area.

Full Circle in the Canoe

My favorite type of canoe trip is a circle route, where we park the vehicle in one spot, unload the canoe and gear, paddle for a few hours or several days, and then return to the same spot. Last winter when going through old photographs with my mother, I found a picture of my father taking my brother, Tim, and me out on a canoe trip many years ago. That photo made me realize my life with a canoe has come full circle.


In high school, my best friend, Mark, and I often canoed the Kickapoo River near Ontario, Wisconsin. On one trip, after work, we raced to the river, however, night had closed in before we got to the first river camp site. Thus, we set up our small tent along the river in the only clearing we could find. During the night, we awoke to what sounded like a large animal outside the tent, and grabbed our box cutters (from our work at a grocery store) to fend off the impending attack. The animal moved on without incident and in the morning, we realized we were camped near a pasture – with the cows safely behind the fence.

I have always loved to introduce new people to canoeing. I once invited a friend who had never been in a canoe before to join me in a canoe derby. While roughhousing with some high school classmates near the start, I lost my eyeglasses in the river. Being terribly nearsighted, I completely relied upon my friend to tell me what he saw ahead so I could navigate the river safely to the end.

In 1977, after graduating from technical school, I bought my first canoe – an aluminum Michicraft. It’s had some hard miles but it’s still with me today. One of my first trips in the new canoe to the Bois Brule River that flows north into Lake Superior was a lesson in hull design. With a deep keel, it’s designed to track straight on flat water lakes, not the fast current and rapids of the Bois Brule River in early May.   My friend and I learned this lesson by dumping the canoe on the very first turn. We could still see our car back in the parking lot! Needless to say, we overturned the canoe several times before making it back to camp, cold and wet. Our friends with flat bottomed canoes had a wonderful (and dry) day on the river, and had a nice camp fire going when we arrived.   As I was warming my hands and drying my soaking wet jersey gloves over the fire, a friend told me to clap. I didn’t understand, so he told me again to clap. Why? Because my gloves were on fire!

Brianna, our 16-year-old granddaughter, has been canoeing and learning outdoor skills at YMCA Camp U-NAH-LI-YA near Suring for many years. She said that as part of her training to be a camp counselor, she would be taking a nine-day trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I asked her, “have you ever done an overnight canoe camping trip?” Since she said no, I thought it best that she have a brief introduction before going on an extended trip. After looking at maps of several great canoeing trips in Wisconsin, we decided to make a circle trip to the Turtle Flambeau Flowage near Mercer.


Brianna and I paddled the fully loaded canoe while her mother and our daughter, Kara, kayaked alongside us.




To also prepare her for the BWCA, we camped on an island. Brianna was a trooper, handling heat, bugs, and rain, without complaint! She will do just fine in the BWCA.

As my wife, Linda, and I enjoy quiet canoe trips near our home on the Big Eau Pleine Flowage near Mosinee, I realize that my life with the canoe has come full circle – passing my passion for canoeing from my father, to our children, and now to our grandchildren.