They say you never step in the same river twice. On the Wisconsin River it can also be said you never camp on the same sandbar twice. It’s part of the appeal of paddling and spending a night there, the ever-changing shape and flow of this 430-mile waterway.
History flows here. European explorers such as Father Jacques Marquette and Henry Schoolcraft knew the Wisconsin. Black Hawk briefly eluded pursuing troops during the war that bears his name by leading his people across it in 1832. Through most stretches there is little sign of civilization though by a map’s reckoning it’s never far away. The river is wide at some points but in many others side channels have opened up, stranding small patches of brush and trees. Sandbars lurk beneath the surface or rise above and stretch long and wide — perfect for making camp.
In 1942 Wisconsin author August Derleth wrote that “the Wisconsin is an intimate river, though it is not a small river in any sense of the word. Its meandering course makes it flow leisurely; its valley divides easily into small, neighborly segments; and all its tributaries are beautiful streams, flowing through agricultural country that is still largely wooded.” Thanks to preservation efforts among citizens, environmental groups and government, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was established in 1989 protecting approximately 80,000 acres along the banks and keeping the look of the river Derleth once knew.
See my latest book on Wisconsin Paddling!
Twenty-four dams are on the Wisconsin, many of them tapping on the water’s power; it is often referred to as the hardest working river in America. But for the last 92 miles of its journey to the Mississippi, it’s unimpeded. From late spring through summer the river becomes a playground for canoeists who commonly come to paddle for a few hours at a time. But these daytrippers don’t get the full experience. Surrounded by the waters at night with the constellations as your canopy, you can sense the gravity of the river out in the darkness. Owls come to call. Deer lurk by the banks. During the day eagles hunt the water for fish and great blue herons or even a rare egret pick along the shore. Scott Teuber, who manages Wisconsin River Outings, marvels at the illusion of remoteness just a few hours from Chicago or Milwaukee. “You can’t find better camping short of going to the Boundary Waters. After the Wisconsin River I don’t know how you can go to a campground and take a 20 by 20 spot.”
The first time I ever camped on the Wisconsin was actually a Fourth of July holiday weekend, a very busy time to be on the water. But because of our choice of a put-in far down river from the popular starting point of Sauk City — we put in at Lone Rock — we had the water to ourselves for long stretches and our pick of the sandbars. The random little islands take no reservations and charge no fees — it’s first-come, first-served, like French explorers coming to stake a claim. Finding a site for the night is by chance, but not a concern. Says Teuber “Usually from the end of June into winter water levels are such that you find a sand bar every 200 yards.”
Along the banks are mostly hardwood forests which catch fire with color in fall. The bluffs that the river valley cuts through look stately in the distance and their eroded sandstone shows through the leaves in many places. In other places, such as Muscoda (MUS-koh-day) or Gotham (GO-thumb), the bluffs come right up to the water. Just a few miles southwest of Sauk City, paddlers have an opportunity to stop beneath Ferry Bluff and climb to a superb view of the river valley.
Derleth interviewed locals for his book Wisconsin: River Of 1000 Isles: River Of A Thousand Isles. “Throughout the course of my research among them, no one ever spoke to me about the Wisconsin as our river, but always my river.” I sensed the same as I chanced upon a group putting in with their own canoe, fully stocked with provisions and camping equipment. Simon Faust of nearby Black Earth explained why he and his friends and family have camped here in his backyard over a dozen times. “The river’s always changing. It feels more remote than it is. Just paddle until you’re tired then find a sandbar.”
It’s a camping trip dictated by the whimsy of water and wind, sand and stamina. You don’t know where you’ll stop for the night, but when you get there, the river becomes yours.
Read more about Wisconsin’s best campsites in Kevin’s latest edition of Best Tent Camping Wisconsin.
If You Go
The twelve miles from Sauk City to Arena is by far the most popular Wisconsin River canoe trip and takes about four hours. But a good overnight paddle doubles that and pulls out at Spring Green, the home of American Players Theatre and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. The busiest times on the river are July and August. But come September and October, the number of paddlers drops significantly. Without summer heat and its accompanying bugs, the river is really at its finest. Fall colors seal the deal. Trips can range from a couple hours to four or more days. From Sauk City to Wyalusing State Park where the river meets the Mississippi is the longest trip and depending on wind and your enthusiasm for paddling, can be done in under a week. Outfitters provide canoes, paddles, vests, and transportation even for private boats which makes pick-up and drop-off easy. Booking in advance is highly recommended.
Wisconsin River Outings
(formerly Sauk Prairie Canoe Rentals)
715 Wisconsin Ave., Boscobel, WI
866-412-2663 or 608-375-5300
WRO operates out of Sauk City and Boscobel which is farther away from the busy river segments, and runs trips into November or “as long as the phone is still ringing.”
Trader’s Bar and Grill
6147 Highway 14, Arena, WI
Trader’s runs trips “until the snow flies” (but not the week of deer season in November). They also have their own campground on shore.
Find our more about the Lower Wisconsin Riverway at lwr.state.wi.us