Bumper cars on the water: that’s what it felt like as my friends and I strategically paddled our way between dozens of other kayaks, canoes and inner tubes, carefully making our way down the Kickapoo River on a hot Saturday in July. Today was an adventure, all new kayaking territory for the four of us.
We heard the Kickapoo River was one of the most famous and popular canoeing sections in the entire state of Wisconsin. We heard it had beautiful scenery, waterside bluffs and mini-sandbars. We heard there were numerous canoe rentals in the area. Yet we never anticipated that these allurements would add up to a frenzy of people, boats and ruckus.
We began our journey in Ontario in Vernon County, about a two-hour drive from Madison. In Paddling Southern Wisconsin, author Mike Svob describes the 22-mile section between Ontario and LaFarge as “the best that the river has to offer.”
The area is noted as one of the most rugged portions of the state—the heart of the unglaciated Driftless Area. Its location in the heart of Wisconsin’s hidden valleys is so quiet and beautiful that it’s aptly referred to as God’s Country.
Diane, Jenny, Rebecca and I unloaded the four kayaks at the public canoe landing at Bridge 1 and then, while Jenny and Rebecca watched over our kayaks and gear, Diane and I drove our two vehicles to Bridge 7 where I parked the Pilot and trailer, and then we returned to Bridge 1 in Diane’s car.
Ready to hit the water, we followed a steady stream of water enthusiasts as they eased their water craft into the river. One by one, the kayaks and canoes and inner tubes were carried downstream in the current.
Canoes manned by first-time paddlers crossed the river haphazardly, often blocking our path, causing us to stop or veer around them. Inner tubers floated lazily downstream followed by inflatable coolers within easy reach. Some paddlers carried water radios, blasting loud music as they made their way along the river.
All we could do is relax and go with the flow.
The commotion continued as we crossed under the first two bridges. By Bridge 3, we’d made our way to the front of the pack. As we approached Bridge 4, river traffic was slightly lighter, yet I realized early on in our trip that with all the noise, it was unlikely we’d see any wildlife today.
Well, no wildlife other than the partygoers hooting and hollering on the sandbars—who I venture to say were a bit wild, in a summer-fun kind of a way—throwing frisbees, dogs barking and swimming in the river, music playing loudly, lots of yelling and laughter. It was, after all, an ideal day to be on the water: mid-80s and sunny.
One sandbar was so crowded with people and coolers, you could smell the beer in the air as we passed by. My fellow paddlers and I exchanged smiles. We had plenty of drinks with us, but not of that variety!
Tourists call the Kickapoo River the “crookedist river in the world,” and while it became jammed at sharp bends, the crowd was good-spirited. Most seemed in no hurry to get to their destination.
Diane, Jenny, Rebecca and I stopped just after Bridge 4 on a shady sandbar for lunch. Some of the crowd caught back up to us, passing by us while we ate.
As we finished eating, a lone canoe came around the bend. We could hear its occupants arguing, every other word an expletive, about how to paddle and steer. Let’s just say, canoeing was not going well for them. We weren’t sure whether to give the two boys instruction or tell them to watch their foul mouths.
Instead, we high-tailed it into our kayaks and pushed off into the river to put distance between us. We certainly didn’t want them to ruin our happy day.
We enjoyed the long and scenic stretch between Bridges 4 and 5 near Wildcat Mountain State Park. At Bridge 5, many of the canoe renters left the river, turning in their boats to the rental workers waiting onshore in buses. That made for a much more peaceful ride through Bridge 6 and on to our final destination at Bridge 7.
We estimated it would take us four hours to travel from Bridge 1 to 7, but since we were actually paddling, not just floating like many of other river occupants, we cut a half hour off our time. Had we another couple of hours, I would have loved to make it to Bridge 10 in Rockton, completing the 11.5-mile route, halfway to LaFarge.
We had looked forward to our Kickapoo kayaking adventure all week—and it was everything we had hoped for! We plan to pick up this adventure again someday, starting at Bridge 7 next time and continuing our exploration downriver.
We’re aiming for a crisp autumn day—definitely a weekday—where we can experience the beauty of this enchanting river with less of a crowd.
Photos by Diane Lukins