Take Ten: beautiful, challenging places to canoe in Wisconsin


Guest columnist Lynne Diebel of Stoughton is the author of numerous books about the outdoors, and the most recent is Crossing the Driftless (University of Wisconsin Press, $20). The book is both a traveler’s tale and an exploration of the land the glaciers missed, an ancient landscape of bluffs, ridgetops and steep valleys that long ago was a seabed. Lynne and her husband, Bob, crossed the Driftless Area by canoe, journeying 359 river miles from Faribault, Minn., to their home.


There’s a moment when you slide your canoe into the current of a new river and take your first paddle strokes. For the devoted river rat, there’s so much promise in that moment. Here are 10 of my favorite Wisconsin rivers for you to sample.

The Grant River in the southwestern corner of the state offers a classic Driftless region paddle, swift and winding. It’s best on weekdays when the rental canoes and tubes are resting. You’ll float past rocky bluffs festooned with mosses, ferns and liverworts and dripping with spring water, then round a bend to find grazing cows. Begin southeast of Beetown, at County Road U, and end at Chaffee Hollow Road, almost nine miles downstream. Both access points are privately owned, so be considerate.

Another sweet Driftless paddle is the West Fork of the Kickapoo, best known as a trout stream. Paddle a shallow-draft kayak and go when the water is up or you’ll spend too much time scraping and dragging. It’s narrow, winding, occasionally blocked with deadfalls, and lovely as can be. Put in at the West Fork Sportsmen’s Club (ask permission) or at River Road, both just downstream of Avalanche on Highway S, and take out at Highway S two miles north of Liberty.

For an exciting 4-mile ride through the city of Baraboo, paddle the eponymous Baraboo River when the water’s up, dancing between the boulders on Class I+ rapids. When it’s low, you’ll scrape a lot but still have fun. Put in at Haskins Park and take out at the public boat landing on County 113.

Find solitude on the 13 miles of sandy Lower Wisconsin River between the Woodman and Bridgeport public landings. This is where the river narrows and the hordes of paddlers found further upstream disappear. The Woodman landing is actually slightly upstream on the Green River and if you’re feeling adventurous when you float past the mouth of the Kickapoo, detour upstream to the Wauzeka landing before continuing to Bridgeport: a three-river adventure.

Like the Lower Wisconsin, the lower reaches of the Black River offer the joys of rocky bluffs and plentiful sandbars. With good public landings and sandbar camping allowed, the 21 remote miles of the Black downstream of Black River Falls between Irving and North Bend make for wonderful canoe camping on a classic Driftless river. (As on the Lower Wisconsin, it’s legal to camp in the floodplain.)

Just a short distance south of Madison, Badfish Creek is a little gem of a stream. Riffly, fast, winding, sometimes blocked by deadfalls, the Badfish is not for beginners. Look for about 100-130 cfs (cubic feet per second) on the U.S. Geological Survey gauge and paddle in the morning. Put in at Old Stage Road north of Cooksville and take out at North Casey Road for a great seven-mile run.

Another appealing little stream within easy striking distance of Madison is Koshkonong Creek, flowing through lovely Cam-Rock Park. The patrons on the deck at Heather’s (aka Rockdale Bar & Grill) will applaud you if you do some fancy paddlework for them. Put in at West Water Street in Cambridge and take out at Highway B in Rockdale for a three-mile paddle, or at Hoopen Road downstream of Rockdale for six miles.

Another narrow, winding, intimate little stream, the Mecan River flows clear and cold over a sandy streambed. You’ll duck under low bridges and need good boat handling skills to navigate sharp turns, but you’ll be rewarded with fish and wildlife sightings galore. Like all small streams, it’s best when the water isn’t low. Put in at Highways JJ and Y near Dakota, and take out at Highway 22 for a seven-mile creek jaunt.

The Manitowish River, flowing quietly through a string of wooded lakes in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, is a wonderful place to watch wildlife: eagles, wood ducks, deer, beavers and just about every other Northwoods creature. Put in at Highway 51 west of Manitowish Waters and take out eight miles downstream at Highway 47. Along the way, you’ll find campsites accessible only by canoe.

Enough quiet streams. The Wolf River in the remote northern woods between Langlade and the Menominee Reservation is where my husband and I learned to paddle whitewater. Ten miles of quiet water are frequently punctuated with exciting Class II rapids. Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort offers excellent instruction and lodging, and once you get your paddle strokes mastered, there’s the Wolfman Triathlon – paddle, mountain bike, trail run – to consider.

Safety first: Whenever and wherever you paddle, be sure you and your comrades have lifejackets that fit and wear appropriate clothing. Choose a river that matches your skill level. Know your route before you launch and carry a map in a ziplock bag. Carry drinking water, food and a change of clothes in a drybag.