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Archives for July 2017

A reunion with the wild things along the Kickapoo River

Slip on your water shoes, grab that giant bottle of half used, possibly expired, sunscreen and make your way down the Kickapoo River. With 180 degree switch backs galore, it’s known as the most crooked river in North America and named after the Kickapoo people who once occupied Wisconsin. Our adventure begins at the widest section of the Kickapoo in Ontario, Wisconsin.

 

Location of Kickapoo River

Essentials of a river trip, supplies, an idea, and your Dad

Growing up, my family spent a lot of time camping, hiking, and canoeing, but I had never been on the Kickapoo River. This particular Saturday I ventured to cross it off the list. My Dad and I pulled into town about 9:30 Saturday morning and quickly realized we would have no trouble finding a canoe to rent. We should’ve known since the town’s welcome sign does declare Ontario as “The canoe capital of the Kickapoo.” Drifty’s Canoe was packed and didn’t have any canoes left for the day (be sure to make a reservation if you want to rent from a particular shop). After driving a ¼ mile stretch with several other shops offering canoe rentals, we landed on Titanic Canoe. After, relatively painlessly, signing a form, we had a trusty canoe, sturdy paddles, and bright orange life jackets.

Each shop has a listing of trips ranging from two hours to two days, whatever floats your boat. We chose a five hour trip that would take us to Bridge 10.

 

Route of Kickapoo River

Our five hour route from Ontario, WI

Quick Tip: Arrive at the rental shops early. You want to be able to enjoy the day and get out of the water in time to dine at a local restaurant or at your campsite.

 

Let’s rewind a moment. Before launching our canoe out on the Kickapoo, we need to decide what goes in the canoe.

  1. Water and snacks. You may be on the water and/or in the water, but you still need to drink plenty of water. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
  2. Bug spray. The river wasn’t swarming with insects the day we went, but waterways can get buggy.
  3. Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Sunlight reflects off the water, exposing paddlers to intense sunburn. Please apply your sunscreen; your skin will thank you later.
  4. Dry bag. Be the smart one on the water and keep valuable items like your keys and cellphone in a water proof bag. You don’t want to be the guy we saw who lost his phone, though he did miraculously find it in 3ft of clay water.
  5. Good water shoes. Ones that will stay strapped to your feet (not your tennis shoes).
  6. Rope. All of the items one through four are helpful, but if you happen to be in that 5% that flips, you want all those valuable items attached to your boat and not floating down the river. That cellphone won’t capture much if it’s at the bottom of the river.

 

supplies to bring along

Shh! Did you hear that?

Sliding into the boat, I chose to sit in front as the momentum paddler, which left my Dad in back to steer. He’s good at steering, unless he’s not paying attention. Many times growing up this would happen, leading our canoe into a tree filled with rather large spiders and my sister and I abandoning ship in a frantic and embarrassing display. I wish I had the guts to share those photos with you.

As we started our way down stream, we quickly came upon many more paddlers, some louder and others just taking the sunshine in. If you go during the week, you should be low on river traffic, but on a Saturday, the water is bustling. Not too far into our trip we met a couple with a pooch, who was swimming near the shoreline, canoe the Kickapoo River often, mainly because their dog loves to swim. Another canoe was pulled on shore to eat an early lunch. The kids had lawn chairs, school lunchboxes, and their dad was assembling their table. Most boats are pulled on shore for paddlers to eat their packed lunch, but a suggestion: eat later down the river or just in your boat and enjoy the peace of paddling a river in Wisconsin.

 

Quick Tip: Pack it in, pack it out. Follow these principles for keeping the Kickapoo River clean for centuries to come.

 


Muskrat on Kickapoo River

 

In the absolute quiet we heard the sound of trickling water falling down a sandstone formation. Interjecting into the peaceful calm is a variety of sounds and curious wild critters. We saw birds catching bugs on the water’s surface and a muskrat carrying a branch in his mouth to his home. Depending on water levels, you may hear light rapids, but don’t be alarmed nothing too tricky.

Keeping a keen eye on the currents and following some elementary paddling techniques, we stayed afloat and heading in the right direction. Get stuck in a swift current and your canoe could flip, dumping you and the contents of your boat into the river (hopefully you followed steps four and six from earlier). During one set of small rapids, my Dad steering in back, said “start paddling, draw left, left, left, draw right, right”, making our way swiftly through the waters. He later commented,

“That was really good and we haven’t been paddling together that long, it’s as if we were accomplished whitewater paddlers.”

 

 

 

Ahead were more sandstone formations; those geological wonders are why people fall in love with the Kickapoo. This region is part of the Driftless Area, rich in deep valleys, rivers, and stone formations. We saw ferns and moss growing in cracks of the red, yellow, and beige layers of stone that skirted the edge of the water. Both of us constantly made remarks about the uniqueness of the Kickapoo River. The sandstone provided a nice relief from the warm summer heat in the slow spots of the river. Whenever we got close to the formations, the temperature dropped 10 to 15 degrees and felt as though Mother Nature turned on the A/C.

 

paddlers on Kickapoo River

The final countdown

Our journey came to a close as we passed under Bridge 10, the take out ramp just a few hundred feet ahead. Grabbing hold of the canoe handles, we carried our boat to the top of the bank. In no time flat, our deep ocean blue school bus shuttle arrived. Feeling sad to leave the river and our trip behind us, we boarded the Titanic bus and headed back towards our vehicle, all of seven minutes away.

My Dad and I only spent one day on and around the Kickapoo River. A family could plan a full weekend of activities and still not exhaust all the Driftless Area has to offer: biking the Elroy -Sparta State Bike Trail, camping at Wild Cat Mountain State Park, eating at farm to table restaurants.

 

Our boat on the kickapoo

 

The Kickapoo proved to be a unique venue set in a fascinating landscape, calming and leaving me wanting more. The time flew by that day and helped me realize even more the true passion I have for river paddling. I love the idea of using your strength to complete the journey. It provides such a strong sense of accomplishment. Aldo Leopold said it best,

 

 

“There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

 

View the introduction to Wisconsin summer adventures, a travelog.

Part 1: The road trip planner, mapping the perfect Wisconsin travel route.

Part 2: Minocqua, a tiny cabin, and my grandpa’s boat in Wisconsin’s Northwoods

Minocqua, a tiny cabin, and my grandpa’s boat in Wisconsin’s Northwoods

My family’s been coming here for as long as I can remember.

Nearly everyone you meet while digging through antiques, punishing your stomach at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, or taking a swim off Beer Can Island on Kawaguesaga Lake has a familial connection to Minocqua.

I met a fella in The Beacons of Minocqua’s sauna who travels from his home Palo Alto, California (he is an executive for a software company) every single year, staying in the same room and fishing the same spots (but don’t you dare ask him where those spots are). We shared travel stories, he to all sorts of exotic locales and private islands, me on mind-numbingly slow train trips through France eating crackers and baguettes to ensure enough money for the trip home. He never digressed into his personal wealth, which I can only assume is at least slightly more than minimum wage.

This gentleman could have gone anywhere. He could fly first class to Greece and island hop on a yacht with a private chef on board. But no. He chose a city lacking any Michelin-starred restaurants, without any 5, 4, or 3-star accommodations. He chose to sit in a sauna with a bunch of strangers and fish on a tiny boat because it’s what he’s always done, what he’s always enjoyed. His father took him here and he loves nothing more than sliding a worm on a ½ inch hook for his own son, reliving some of his fondest childhood memories.

The Island City

Minocqua is a tourist city. The main street is occupied by antique stores, specialty t-shirt shops, a candy store, and multiple frozen yogurt stands. You’re standard fare for a Midwestern resort town. Half of Minocqua’s 4,000+ residents are seasonal and resorts compete for lake frontage along nearly 15 billion gallons of freshwater. Perhaps most telling of Minocqua’s resorter culture is the tri-weekly water show put on by the Min-Aqua Bats, complete with a waterskiing clown. But it’s precisely that kitschy vibe that makes Minocqua so endearing, so traditionally vacation-y. It’s those shows and attractions your parents dragged you on in the family’s wood-panel Buick Roadmaster. You tried so hard to not crack a smile, but I think we can all agree; a waterskiing clown is amusing.

Minocqua’s current turn as a Northwoods getaway began in 1887 when loggers hungrily descended upon Northern Wisconsin cutting down every tree in sight. The booming industry attracted railroads and shops to sell goods to the loggers. When the forests were wiped out around 1910, the loggers left, but the shops and railroads remained. With pristine lakes and great transportation Minocqua established itself as THE place to vacation “up north.”

 

 

Much of the downtown was built in the 1910s and 20s, blending the rudimentary feel of a frontier boom town and Germany’s Fachwerk (timber-framing) style. Fittingly, a German-influenced Beer Garden sits next to a corner five-and-dime store, which neighbors an old-school barber shop, which butts up against an antique mall. Mostly, it’s fun, family friendly, and relaxing. It harkens back to a simpler time when you had to visit five, not one, stores to do your shopping. You had to talk to shopkeepers and customer service was more important than ease and speed. The town is easily accessible from the water, the highway, and a 375-foot long walking bridge connecting Minocqua to 26.5 miles of trails. What’s below the bridge is the real reason families flock to Minocqua.

Lake Minocqua, Kawaguesaga, and the chain

We brought my late grandpa’s 1952 fishing boat with his jimmy-rigged 1961 Evinrude motor along on the trip. The steering wheel is connected to a series of pulleys that run alongside the hull (kept in place with zip-ties) which are fastened to an eyelet on the motor. This beauty’s got a blue indoor/outdoor carpet interior and peeling beige paint. We call it the Stormin’ Norman. The Minocqua Chain holds 5,885 acres of fish-infested water. The main draws are musky, bass, walleye, and northern pike. Honestly, you’ll mostly see perch and bluegills, but that’s okay, they’re still delicious. Take two or three cruises across Kawaguesaga Lake and you’ll spot the honey holes. Boats with retirees, families, and locals crowd around certain stretched of shoreline, but don’t ask them if they’re catching any fish. The most you’ll get is a shrug and “It’s alright I guess. I’m probably gonna move soon.”

Fishing is the most popular water activity, but it’s only one of many. Two and three-man sailboats fill the water with their colorful sails, kids rip around on all sorts of crazy water tubes. My uncle rented a couch-style tube called The Big Mable. You’d think it’d be impossible to flip an eight-foot tube; you’d be wrong. Sections of both lakes open into wide, deep areas for water sports, but also tighten up into winding paths of water around islands, breathtaking forest, and endearing little cabins. One of those islands has a large sand-bar. We fired up the Stormin’ Norman (took about 10 pulls), tied up to a rock about 10 yards off the island, set up our food in the boat, blasted the radio, and swam around. I cannot think of a better way to spend a summer.

That Northwoods charm

Bear Skin Bike Trail

 

But what really sets Minocqua apart from other towns and resorts on lakes? Wisconsin has over 15,000 lakes, many much larger with more fish and closer to large populations. I spent my hour-long journey home down Highway 51 searching for the answer. No words came. Then the road went from two lanes to four. The forest faded and viaducts appeared every few miles. I felt a hint of sorrow leaving the tall pines behind, and I had a tiny epiphany.

Minocqua is special because it’s simple. Walk into town, bike on a trail, go fishing with your father and sister simple. Not once on my trip did I feel rushed nor bored. You can escape daily life’s responsibilities anywhere, but in our little cabin on the Kawaguesaga Lake I found joy and contentedness fishing off the pier, playing cards with my parents, driving my grandpa’s boat. I was surrounded by positivity and laughter. It’s the community, the fellow happy families, and the never-ending entertainment provided by open water and lush forests.

Or maybe I just love it because “I’ve been going there for as long as I can remember.”

 

Part 1: The road trip planner, mapping the perfect Wisconsin travel route.

View the introduction to Wisconsin summer adventures, a travelog.