“Oh no, this is it!” yelled Nicki from the lead.
The water was moving swiftly and I saw her briefly attempt to paddle backwards, but Greg, seeing the effort was futile, hollered, “We’re going to have to go through it.”
I watched from a short distance back as they both dropped through the rushing water where the old dam once crossed the Sugar River. I gasped a short OMG as the current carried me toward the drop.
“Just stay balanced, just stay balanced,” I thought, as I aimed for the center of the river. The water was frigid and I did not want to tip into it.
October 11 was an unseasonably warm day, not to be wasted inside. Knowing our paddling days are numbered this time of the year, Greg and I had talked all week about going for a Sunday paddle.
It wasn’t until a conversation with our friends Nicki and Doug on Friday evening that a plan took shape.
Nicki and Doug mentioned that they wanted to pick up some smoked pumpkin ale at The Hop Garden in Paoli. About the same time, I saw a Facebook post from a member of Wisconsin Women Who Kayak who’d recently kayaked the Sugar River near Paoli.
“Sure, we’re happy to meet you in Paoli,” Greg and I said, “but we’ll be coming by way of the Sugar River.”
Nicki was in for paddling with us, so we picked her up first and headed to Verona on Sunday morning.
We read up on the Sugar River route in Timothy Bauer’s book, “South Central Wisconsin: 60 Paddling Adventures within 60 Miles of Madison,” putting in on Riverside Road, just off WI 69.
The trip was exactly as described in the book: “a charming stretch of the Sugar, nestled in the soft hills and farms of southwestern Dane County, featuring clear water, riffles, pretty stands of oaks, a fun rapid and the button-cute hamlet of Paoli.”
Just as the book noted, we passed under strands of barbed wire crossing the river a couple of miles in, but the water was low, so the wire was high above our heads, no need to even duck. The morning ride was quiet. We saw no other paddlers, only a variety of birds, including cranes, a hawk, a kingfisher, geese, ducks and lots of robins and blue jays.
Further into the trip, we prepared for “an 18-inch ledge where there used to be a dam,” debating whether we’d portage or ride through it. Our first time on the Sugar River and not having the book open in my lap, we weren’t exactly sure when to expect it.
Bauer says, “Predictably, you’ll hear the sounds of the rushing water well before you come upon it. Also, there’s a sign that reads DAM, SWIFT WATER alerting you beforehand. It’s a sweet little drop that gets the adrenaline surging, but isn’t dangerous.”
We didn’t see a sign for DAM, but we did see the SWIFT WATER warning, but since we’d encountered other areas of swift water, we weren’t sure this was “the one” until we were already in it.
Once Nicki saw the drop, our only choice was to go for it. It truly did get the adrenaline surging!
Below the drop, we floated for a few minutes while I checked our distance. We were four miles and two hours in, one more mile to go, and right on time to meet Doug in Paoli in about 30 minutes.
We enjoyed the last mile of our river ride, winding through the fields and woods, and pulled our kayaks out behind the old mill building in downtown Paoli off Canal Street.
Doug arrived shortly later and took Greg back to Riverside Road to grab our vehicle and trailer. We quickly loaded up the kayaks and then enjoyed an hour or two of live music, drinks and snacks, socially distanced on the backyard patio of The Hop Garden.
The five-mile trip down the Sugar River was a great combination of relaxation and adventure, definitely worth repeating next season—and when we do, we’ll be ready for another exhilarating ride through the old dam!