Editor’s note: Some 25 paddlers from several states including Arkansas and Missouri gathered July 31-Aug. 4 to float the Wisconsin River in southwest Wisconsin. The trip covered 85 miles. Flip Putthoff, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette outdoors reporter, was part of the group. Here are excerpts from a journal he kept along the way.
July 31: The gang’s all here, and we’re off on our expedition along the wide, wonderful Wisconsin River. Our adventure started this morning by launching canoes and kayaks at Sauk City, Wis., below the last hydroelectric dam on this long river. The 85 miles we’ll float is part of the 92-mile Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. There’s little sign of civilization along the way and wildlife, especially bald eagles, is abundant.
For us, this float is more like a family reunion with a river trip thrown in. We’re all alumni of the Great River Rumble paddling trip that took place for 25 years on the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries. The last rumble was in 2021. Since then, some 25 of us who became great friends on those trips get together once or twice a year for a river reunion.
Our bunch hails from several states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and five paddlers from Kentucky.
Talk about great timing. This week in Arkansas the temperature is a degree or two on either side of 100. Here it’s — ahhh — in the low 80s by day and 60 at night.
Something new on this trip is that we’re all base camping at a nice campground in Spring Green, Wis., at Wisconsin Riverside Resort. We won’t have to move our camp for the whole five days. Each morning we drive to the section of river we plan to float, do a quick car shuttle, then shove off. Daily paddling distance is from seven to 17 miles. We paddled 13 miles today from Sauk City to tiny Arena, Wis.
This first day on the water revealed that the Wisconsin River is a wide, shallow beauty with woodland banks and bright sandy beaches that are ideal for lunch and swimming breaks.
It’s great being on the river, but much of the fun is in camp. There’s some top-notch musicians in our group, so there’s lots of singing. It’s cool enough for a campfire with all our lawn chairs circled around.
A big surprise tonight is that our two Wisconsin gals, Dawn and her sister, Jodi, fixed a fabulous skillet dinner for all 25 of us. Haute cuisine for sure. Snoozing tonight in our sleeping bags will be so pleasant here in the cool north country. Dawn and her friend Mike from Kentucky teamed up to put this trip together.
Aug. 1: It was a tough put-in this morning at Arena. Boats were launched, then we paddled a lagoon toward the main river and portaged a ways over a sand bar to the big water. The Wisconsin River is all sand, no rocks like back home. Current on the Wisconsin is slow most of the way, about 1-2 mph, but faster on some narrow channels where the river twists and turns between its many islands.
Bald eagles are everywhere since this is their summer home. Most eagles seen in Arkansas during winter migrate from northern states such as Wisconsin. These majestic raptors seem to escort us downriver under a sunny blue sky with puffs of cottonball clouds. And the temperature? A mild 80 degrees with a light breeze. We covered 14 miles today, taking out at our campground in Spring Green.
Aug. 2: It’s good to know how to read the river to keep from getting stuck on a sand bar. We’re all seasoned paddlers who can sniff out the deepest water. Swim breaks are refreshing in this cool river. Water is fairly clear with a tea-stain color typical of northern rivers and lakes.
Most of our group doubles up in tandem canoes with some kayaks among the colorful flotilla. Everyone is in a fairly fast boat, and we average 4-5 mph even in sluggish current. We’re on the water around 9 a.m. and finish up around 2 or 3 p.m.
Aug. 3: Today yours truly and a fine friend from Illinois, Mark, have left the river for a day to take a guided musky fishing trip on Wisconsin’s Pentenwell Lake. The muskellunge, musky for short, is one of the meanest, toothiest fish in fresh water. Neither of us has ever been musky fishing, so we seized the opportunity while in Wisconsin, home of giant muskies over 50 pounds. We’ll feature that story soon in NWA Outdoors.
Another Mark in our group, Mark from St. Louis, opted to spend the first years of his retirement attending and graduating from culinary school. This evening, Chef Mark slaved over a hot camp stove to fix a gourmet meal savored by all 25 of us. Everyone pitches in with some potluck, so it’s a fine dining feast. Sleeping is divine snoozing in our tents. Two couples in our group have camping trailers, but most of us snore under a nylon roof.
Aug. 4: Our last day on the Wisconsin River is the longest at 17 miles, from Mus-coda (pronounced musk-o-day) Wis., to Boscobel, Wis. Eighty-five river miles pass quickly when people are having such a grand time on such an enjoyable atrip. Paddlers seem eager to strap their boats to roof racks or trailers at the take-out, maybe because there’s an ice cream shop close to the launch ramp.
It’s our last night in camp so no one is in a hurry to get to bed. We’re up until midnight singing around the fire, but that’s OK. Our tents are on the edge of the campground away from anyone else so we aren’t bothering anyone.
This Wisconsin trip was so much fun that campsites are already reserved for next year. When it’s August in Arkansas, Wisconsin is a fine place to be.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .