Kickapoo. From an Algonquin word that means “one who goes here, then there.” And for good reason. In just about 12 highway miles between Ontario, Wisconsin and La Farge, the town to the south, the river manages to rack up 22 miles. That stretch which passes through Wildcat State Park and Kickapoo Valley Reserve is maintained by the various canoe rental companies working the river. Log jams and fallen trees get cleared or at least cut up a bit to allow for paddlers.
My friends Rob and Dave and I decided we didn’t need no stinkin’ outfitters and brought our own rides: a borrowed canoe (one of Dave’s sister-in-law’s “babies” complete with warnings, careful instructions and perhaps a rental car’s itemization of pre-existing scratches) and my kayak. We’d camp at Wildcat Mountain State Park and hit the river early Saturday morning. But we weren’t just paddling the common stretch from Ontario to La Farge. No. We would try to add the additional 6 highway miles farther south to Viola, possibly another 12 miles of water. I had reviewed maps and made some calls to the park and some area outfitters, and then even went up Friday afternoon a bit early to scope out the situation. I was a bit wary. Having a careful plan is just good sense so I stopped in Viola, La Farge and Ontario and looked over the maps carefully, calculating mileage and our paddling abilities to determine if indeed we would be off the river on Sunday in time to see the Packer game and if a proper tavern nearby would be showing it. It was a late Sunday game after all. Who knows what kind of tavern laws for Sunday bar closings these little towns might have?
All looked good. A bar (or three) in every town and another one along the way at Rockton.
Saturday night’s camp would be at one of the primitive riverside sites somewhere halfway down to La Farge with no outside access other than the Kickapoo.
Rob came down from Marshfield and we camped Friday night at Wildcat Mountain. After a night of terrifying omens — an uncommonly large murder of crows cawing, the eerie calls of unseen owls, Rob’s raucous allergy-enhanced snoring — Dave met us at the state park and we caravaned to the drop-in point in Ontario. We cable-locked the canoe and kayak together and headed down Highway 131 first to La Farge, where we left one car, and then on to Viola, where we left the second car. This way if things looked bad we could just stop at La Farge. We had been warned that the Viola segment was not maintained and could be full of logjams left over from the raging floodwaters of June 2008.
We returned to Ontario and prepared to launch. The landing point was oddly narrow and muddy. A couple healthy horse droppings were odder still. Without proper coffee dosage it took a few moments to understand this was where the equestrian trail crossed the river and we hauled our things to a path through the tall grass near a distant Porta-potty. We loaded up the coolers, tent, some firewood, and off we went. 10:30 a.m.
The Kickapoo feeds into the Wisconsin River and is its longest tributary at 130 miles in length. The scenery is some of the best in Wisconsin, in my mind, and the banks are often lined with sandstone outcrops and tall cliffs. In the morning the valley is shrouded in mists until they burn off as the sun gets up in the sky.
With a couple short breaks for some food and drink along the way, we had a lazy paddle watching the numbered bridges and lettered campsites for a suitable stop for the night. As we came upon our first choice, Camp I, we saw the bright red tent, like the flag of a rival tribe, had laid claim to it. We paddled on only slightly nervous that we might have to paddle nearly to La Farge if the next few were taken. But H proved a winner and we pulled out and started hunting for firewood as darkness quickly fell around us.
Sunday was the big question. Do we pull out five miles from here at La Farge or venture on down an unknown river distance to Viola with the possibility of a vast tangle of dead trees and logjams making passage difficult past our point of no return and thus leaving us at risk of not getting out before sunset? Indeed a big question. 54 words in fact…
We fell asleep to the calls of owls.
And woke to the snores of Rob.
Read Part Two of the Kickapoo River paddling trip
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