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.
We stopped for lunch in a lovely sand bar overlooking another impressive limestone cliff.
Bridge #18 has a distinctive red roof.
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.