Posted by: Step Outside | July 31, 2009

Wisconsin River Canoe Trip – 61 Miles and Counting…


It all started with a passing conversation. Let’s take an easy trip to get some paddling experience.  Maybe I thought it would be a good time.  Maybe I thought we would never go.  But I started to get really excited as my father came up with an actual trip plan.  A four-day, three-night paddling trip to gain experience for the future.  The Wisconsin River would be the perfect location for such a trip – a 61-mile paddle from Sauk City to Boscobel.

In 1982, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board protected the last 92 miles of the Wisconsin River from development.  Thanks to this forethought, you’ll see very few houses along the tree lined shore during your trip and views of bluffs in the distance are unspoiled (WI River Outings).

The last 92 miles run from Sauk City (on the north end) down to the Mississippi River.  We decided to use the services of WI River Outings to transport us back to Sauk City from our final destination, Boscobel.


We packed the gear, loaded our 16 ft Old Town Canoe and headed off to Sauk City on July 17th.  Sauk City is only 85 miles from Waukesha and is approximately 100 miles from Milwaukee – not far at all.  We checked in for the pick up service on July 20th.  We unloaded the SUV and loaded the canoe in no time.  Once we had the canoe loaded, we were 90 minutes ahead of schedule with no river traffic to contend with.

Neither of us had spent much time in a canoe in the last five years (or at all for that matter).  We were told the river current was three miles an hour.  But also knew we had to paddle through a good head wind.  We charted each day with mileage markers associated with cities and boat landings along the river. 

What we didn’t have was an actual river map.  This would have helped as the trip unfolded.

We paddled into the wind and through a little rain to get to our first rest point and enjoy some lunch.  It just so happened our first rest point coincided with one of the more popular site seeing destinations, Ferry Bluff.  You can leave your canoe and hike to the top of the bluff.  Lunch consisted of a couple granola bars, an apple and a cold drink.    This spot also turned out to be a great place to cut some firewood for the evening.  We loaded the firewood into the canoe and pushed off.  It continued to rain on and off all afternoon.  Our goal for day one was the town of Arena.  Just south of Arena we found a nice beach with some trees that would shelter us from the wind and rain.  After reviewing the maps we paddled 15 miles on day one. 

Dinner on day one consisted of boiled noodles with butter, garlic salt, and dill weed (a recipe from a previous fishing trip to Canada).  We also cooked up some hot dogs and washed it all down with a couple beers.


Day two started very early.  Tent camping on the beach is beautiful, but not comfortable.  I was on breakfast duty for the trip.  I lit the stove and percolated a pot of hazelnut coffee to wake us up.  Breakfast was four eggs, half a pack of bacon, and some left overs from the night before.  Can’t let anything go to waste.

We pushed off from our campsite just south of Arena around 9 a.m.  The plan was to make it to Spring Green by late afternoon. By our calculations this would be our biggest day at 21 miles on the river (reviewing maps after the trip Spring Green is just 9 miles from Arena).    

As the day progressed, the weather cleared up but remained cool. We decided to paddle further than planned.  If the clouds disappeared the next day and the sun turned up the heat, we would need to slow down.  We paddled under both the Hwy 14 Bridge and the Hwy 23 Bridge.  This meant we had passed through Spring Green.  We quickly found a good place on the left riverbank to cut some firewood for the campfire that night.  We had paddled 10 miles and it was just 12 p.m. 

The trip continued and we navigated our way past the landing for Lone Rock, WI.  After another five miles we found a great campsite for day two.  We set up camp, got a nice fire built, washed up in the river and sat down with a couple cold beers.  Dinner that night was red beans and rice along with some buttered bread.  And a couple more beers.   

Day two took us 21 miles down the Wisconsin River.  The campsite was just up river from the boat landing at Gotham.  Two days down and just 25 miles to go. 

Day 3

I awoke to the sun beating down on the tent.  I had slept until 7:50 a.m.  As I prepared the bacon, four eggs, and some boiled red potatoes for breakfast I could tell it was going to be a warm day.  We broke camp just after 10 a.m. with shorts and short sleeve shirts.  No long sleeves and no rain gear.  A good start to the day.

We quickly came across the boat landing for Gotham and continued on for what seemed like forever.  The river became wide at times and the wind tough to paddle through.  We navigated through some of the smaller channels to the river.  These side excursions made us think we had lost substantial time.  

As the morning continued we paddled with a couple different groups.  A young couple doing the trip for the first time in kayaks.  Another group consisting of two canoes and one kayak.  One canoe even stowed a beautiful Golden Retriever.  We were all looking for the Blue River boat landing to judge the day’s progress.  We passed under the Hwy 80 Bridge for Muscoda, which put our progress at nine miles for the morning.  We beached the canoe on a large sand bar that divided the river in two.  We grabbed a couple apples, a couple granola bars, and some rest.  We lucked out and found some firewood on the sandbar too.  

This is where the timeline for day three (and the entire trip) becomes skewed.  When we stopped to take a lunch break the young couple paddled out of site.  The last thing I remember them saying was how much faster the trip was in a kayak vs. a canoe.  And the group of two canoes and one kayak stopped just down the river for some rest as well.  No longer could we pick their brains for river information.

We paddled another eight miles down river.  This took us to the Port Andrew boat landing on the right.  But we missed the less noticeable Blue River landing exact opposite on the left bank.  We had paddled for a combined 17 miles and believed we had not come to the Blue River landing.  I began to question the mileage markers from city to city.  The overpasses did not have signs indicating what highway we had gone under either.

The further we floated down river the less people we saw.  No signs of civilization for another five or six miles.  Then we saw a fishing boat and we knew civilization was around the corner.  Unfortunately we thought the next overpass was finally Blue River.  We paddled past the fishing boat and around the river bend.  On the right shore were two fishermen scouting out a good fishing hole.  I yelled over to them,” Is this Blue River?”  And without hesitation they replied, “Yes”.  We later figured they were just messing with us.

At this point we decided to go another mile or two until we found a suitable campsite.  We were exhausted and frustrated.  There was no way to explain how the last 18 miles were so difficult.  We set up camp on a nice sandbar with no worry of wind or rain.  The sun had burnt us to a crisp on day three.  It felt good to wash up in the river.  Dinner that night was baked potatoes (wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the fire), baked beans, and ring bologna. 

We pushed ourselves 27 miles down the Wisconsin River on day three.  And had no idea we just passed our final destination.  We were now 63 miles into what would seem like an endless canoe trip the next morning.

Day 4

Dense fog lined the river.  Visibility was low.  It was 6:00 a.m. and I thought we had eight miles to civilization.  Or so I thought.

We decided to wait out the fog.  I lit the stove and made the last pot of camp coffee.  Who knew coffee could be this good.  I fried up the last of the bacon, scrambled the last four eggs and threw in the left over red potatoes from the previous morning. 

All it took was the sun to make a slight appearance and the fog disappeared.  We loaded the canoe.  Spirits were high.  It was 8:20 Monday morning.  It should take us two hours to paddle the last eight miles.  Maybe 2.5 hours.  We noticed right away this section of the river was less inhabited than the previous three days.  Less traveled.  No houses.  No fisherman.  No canoe’rs.  Two hours of paddling and no HWY 61 Bridge.  Three hours in the canoe and we could finally hear cars. As we followed the curve there was a road running parallel to the river.  At some point this road is going to cross the river.  Then we will be in Boscobel.  We called for the pick up service in Boscobel.  It was believed the boat landing was around the next bend of the river.

Two more hours in the canoe and we can see the bridge.  We called again as the canoe approached the bridge but there is some confusion as to where the landing is located.  We cannot see a small lagoon on the left side just past the bridge.  It was clear at that very moment we were in the wrong place.  83 miles down the Wisconsin River.  Six miles from the Mississippi.  We paddled 22 miles in the final five hours of our canoe trip.  We left Sauk City on Friday at 10:25 a.m. and arrived in Bridgeport on Monday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

Lessons were learned.  Fun was had.  Stories will be told. 

What I will remember most is being able to do this adventure with my father.  This trip coincides with the 20th anniversary of a canoe trip my father and I took in 1989.  How things have changed in those 20 years.  I was 12 years old.  I sincerely hope I was more help this time around Dad…

Click here for a photo timeline of our 4 day trip.




  1. […] is in the air in our house.  Andy recently blogged about his very cool canoe trip on the Wisconsin River and started picking up the guitar again.  And I’ve been crafting up a storm.  Why, you […]

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