• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube

Lake Superior: Wisconsin’s backyard adventure

Nothing spells summer quite like a weekend road trip with a good friend to the southern shores of Lake Superior. The treasured Northwoods of Wisconsin hold a dear spot in my heart. So much that I need to make an annual visit to experience the waves that crash in, the vast view over the water, and the cute and quaint towns that lie on its banks.

The Bayfield Peninsula

We left on a Friday night, heading towards Washburn, stopping at a Wisconsin institution, Culvers. Trekking north and not too far out from the peninsula, we didn’t see a deer sprinting across the road, but a black bear quickly scampering right in front of us. What a treat to see him!  I had never seen one in the wild, even though they make an appearance in my central Wisconsin neighborhood from time to time. Once arriving in Washburn we hit the hay to gear up for a fun-filled weekend.

Saturday morning we headed to Bayfield for a tasty breakfast at the Manypenny Bistro. I had been here as a child when it was known as The Egg Toss, with fond memories of sitting on the (at the time) screened in porch with my family, enjoying the morning air coming off the lake. Now the porch is finished off, but still a delightful café with great service and even better food. Even stone oven pizza!

Next on our weekend agenda: the Apostle Islands.

Touring the islands and caves

The Apostle Islands, in Lake Superior, are truly one of Wisconsin’s wonders. They hold so much variety and beauty. One of the popular islands is Madeline Island, which can be reached by ferry or your own boat. However, you want to be well versed in traveling over big water before taking your own vessel, travel can become dangerous quickly. If taking the ferry, bring a bike along and ride the afternoon around the whole island, there are art shops filled with pottery, plein air paintings, and multi-media pieces, be sure to also stop at Big Bay State Park along the way. Our late morning trek led us to Stockton Island, just a few islands in from shore.

Swinging around the peninsula on the south side in my friend’s dad’s motorboat, we got an amazing view of smooth sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, where grassy sand dunes lined the back part of the beach. 
The dunes muted the loud sound of the waves coming in on the beach and small, tide pool like, puddles scattered the ground with a variety of flowers growing in each one. Working our way down the beach and towards the intriguing rocks, we found a plethora of wild blueberries.

We filled our mouths and carried some in our hands and made our merry way to the previously noted rocks. Much to our surprise there was a good, yet narrow path leading through more cedar trees just behind the rocks. I’m convinced all settings for fairytale books were based off of this small magical feeling forest; I half expected a gnome or a fairy to lead the way.  The trail eventually came out to this larger rock where Mother Nature had made a convenient pseudo staircase down to an even larger rock platform. Now, this wasn’t just any platform, see the water was up and the rock was unusually flat and 35ft in circumference, completely covered with a foot of water. Both of us sat down and just let the water crash into us like a waterslide in Wisconsin Dells.

The time came for us to head out from the island and back to shore, leaving the sailboats in Bayfield’s harbor and the sandy beaches of the islands behind. We grabbed a couple kayaks and wetsuits to traverse Washburn’s small sea caves along its banks that we had to check out ourselves. After all, it was only 2:30pm.

The first few caves we came across were small in size and barely allowed our kayaks into the openings. The further down the shore we went, the larger the formations got. One spot in particular had a few passages that our boats JUST squeezed through and opened up to a bright green mossy and fern display that blanketed the rocks. On our way back we came across a few other kayakers, exchanging information on what we had found along the shoreline.

Our final destination was Cornucopia and Herbster Beach where we set up camp for the night. When dusk settled, you could see not only the Milky Way, but the north shore of Minnesota, the bright glow of Duluth, the faint light of Two Harbors, and the signal from Historic Split Rock lighthouse; The perfect cap to an adventurous weekend on Lake Superior.

You often don’t have to go far to experience a grand adventure in the great outdoors. There is A TON to see between Washington State to Florida’s beaches, but for the Wisconsin weekend traveler, the statement is true “Don’t look any further than your own backyard.”

Enjoy the views along with a blueberry or two!

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