Paddling Madison’s Flood

A house along the Yahara River still requires sandbags almost a month after the flooding rains.


With over a week without any rain, Madison seems like it has turned a corner after the deluge and subsequent flooding that hit Dane County back on August 20. Johnson Street near Tenney Park finally opened up, though the outside lanes in both directions are still closed. Last weekend I took advantage of a sunny Sunday to take the kayak out and get a look at Tenney Park and the Yahara River near the locks. I paddled from there to Lake Monona, east to Olbrich Park, and then up Starkweather Creek to see how far it was navigable with the high waters.


For starters, my put-in was in the boat trailer parking lot at Tenney Park. I had clearance over the curb to paddle my way to the where the banks of the Yahara River usually are:



It was still possible to paddle over the grass but not quite to the bike path as you could the week before.


The canoe/kayak racks are still in the water making it easier than ever to launch without carrying it anywhere I suppose. The lakes were still No Wake and the low bridges on the Yahara wouldn’t have let boats through anyway. So the river (and parking lot) had been taken over by the ducks. Two or three weeks of people-free waters have the ducks a bit surly. While they typically slip away quietly, now they were quacking at me and reluctant to give up perches in a couple of downed trees in the water.


Yeah, no kidding.



The Johnson Street bridge a bit too low for your typical motorboat.


In fact, the water was high enough that I could paddle beyond the rocks of the shoreline and take the bike path under Johnson Street.


If not for the railings, I could have paddled the bike path under Washington Avenue as well.


Where the Yahara enters Lake Monona, Yahara Place Park is still partly under water.


The Capitol and downtown from Lake Monona. Heading east along the shore of Lake Monona takes you past Yahara Place Park, a few properties with boat landings, and then a long a stretch of heavily wooded high banks where you can imagine there isn’t a whole neighborhood just beyond. It’s a surprising little stretch where you’re sure to see water fowl and perhaps a blue heron as I did. Up top I believe this is Hudson Park.


At the mouth of Starkweather Creek, I paddled into Olbrich Park, past the boat launch and under the Atwood Avenue bridge into Olbrich Gardens. As I made my way upstream, I could see some low places inside the gardens which are lost to the waters, the little botanical name signs now more like grave markers.


The Thai Pavilion is high enough to have avoided the rising waters and can be reached on land by bridge without getting your feet wet (though safety cones still marked one of the walking trails as impassable).



But my plans to see how far up Starkweather Creek I could get with all this water were thwarted by the old rail bridge. As Michael Jackson would put it, It’s too high to get over. Too low to get under.


Not interested in portaging, I thought this was the end of the trip. But heading east is a storm water ditch that runs between the Capital City Bike Trail and the baseball fields. Sure, why not?


I followed it all the way to what I thought was its end near Walter Street. I was just about to turn around….


… when I noticed the storm sewer hidden behind some brush on the left.  And just big enough to paddle through — although I needed to disconnect the two halves of my paddle to do so.


In drier times clearly the water is low enough to grant passage for graffiti artists. — and in wet or dry times, it presents a battery of spider webs. Occupied spider webs. With unhappy spiders who spent the next night doing damage control or trying to find their way out of my hat/hair/kayak.


Beyond the tunnel the ditch heads east-southeast, passing through another tunnel under Walter Street, and two more not quite deep enough to paddle at Dennett Drive near the Lakeview Moravian Community Church. Beyond that it becomes a concrete storm sewer for 1,000 feet before disappearing underground. Time to turn back.


Fewer spiders on the return paddle and a sort of Secret Garden look at the exit.


The takeout was another flooded parking lot at Olbrich. With any luck this paddle route will not be available for a long time to come, if ever. But to be honest, I think it may fill up far more frequently than anyone will like.


For paddle routes less complicated, less spidery and less dependent on catastrophic floods, check out my book Paddling Wisconsin:

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

6 thoughts on “Paddling Madison’s Flood

  • Nice bit of urban exploration there, Kevin. Put me in mind of Ballard’s The Drowned World. Not much fun if you’re one of the people dealing with the water but it opens up some interesting navigation possibilities.

    All it lacked was a waterfront brewery.

    • True, no brewery, although One Barrel Brewing is a couple blocks off the route and there is a beer garden in Olbrich Park. Too lazy to leave the kayak I guess. 😉

  • Renee Lajcak

    I loved the graffiti tunnel to the Secret Garden. Reminded me of those stories exploring the steam tunnels around UW.

    • A friend apparently spent some time living in similar steam tunnels on St Norbert’s campus back in college. In high school, a buddy and I took a clipboard, graph paper and a 20 foot piece of string and mapped the low tunnels under our high school because 1) we thought that would be very Dungeons & Dragons-y fun, 2) the school didn’t actually have any blueprints or schematics of the system and it needed lots of work, and 3) asbestos? What’s asbestos? That’s just crumbling pipe insulation. Keep going!

  • I paddled the Kickapoo and Wisconsin River from August 16-18th and then left Wisconsin on August 19th. Crazy that this downpour took place the day I left the state.

    • A friend and I were on the west side playing hooky at an all-day all-you-can-play arcade on August 20th. Nearing 5 we had to go pick up Tip from work and it was already pouring like crazy. We debated waiting it out an hour, play a few more rounds of pinball. Would have been stuck where we were if we hadn’t gone that moment.


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