Book review: Canoeing & Kayaking Wisconsin
The subtitle, “The rivers, the towns, the taverns,” of Michigan paddler Doc Fletcher’s latest book, Canoeing and Kayaking Wisconsin, tells most, but not all, of it. He came to Wisconsin to explore the dairy state’s rivers with a group of paddling friends and put together a list of liveries, campgrounds and “watering holes” at the end of every trip. On top of that, he sprinkles in the history of the towns along each route and a “river quote” from each float trip, courtesy of his fellow river runners.
Fletcher has written two books on paddling Michigan waters, Weekend Canoeing in Michigan and Michigan Rivers Less Paddled. This, his first book on Wisconsin rivers, is a refreshing take on canoe guidebooks. It has all the needed facts but goes beyond providing just that. It’s a kind of audacious project.
Fletcher includes a solid description of 20 float trips, including time spent on the water and river distances (thanks to his digital voice recorder, GPS and waterproof camera), highlights like the bluffs along the the Kickapoo, sweepers to be avoided on the Sugar, and currents, riffles and rapids that may be encountered. He criss-crosses the state to float rivers from the northwest’s Bois Brule and Namekagon to the more southerly Wisconsin, Sugar and Kickapoo rivers. Here are a few glimpses:
Bois Brule River
The Bois Brule is nicknamed “the river of presidents” after the five chiefs of state who came to fish for Brule trout en route to Lake Superior through the area that is now the 43,000-acre Brule State Forest. Its brook, brown and rainbow trout have lured presidents from U.S. Grant to D.D. Eisenhower. Most of the elevation drop, Fletchers says, is in the last 19 miles (328 feet). Not surprisingly, the river is rated “veteran ability.” The town of Brule is situated just about on the boundary between the Lake Superior and Mississippi watersheds.
The team of Fletcher and Kenny Umphrey pulled into camp on a day in June, listened to Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and others on their Bois Brule soundtrack, and went to the Kro Bar and Grill for walleye and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Umphrey’s river quote succinctly captures the Brule feeling: “Canoeing as it ought to be.”
The Namekagon, Ojibwe for “place of the sturgeon,” is quite the wildlife paradise, according to Fletcher. “While paddling through multiple riffles and Class 1 rapids in the shallow crystal-clear water,” he writes, fish “swim by in large numbers, including redhorse suckers, sturgeon, smallmouth bass and silver channel catfish.”
It’s a 10-mile, three-hour journey that finishes up at Pappy’s Leatherneck Tavern, another watering hole offering PBR. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has eight marked campsites along the route, and as a hint to the seclusion they offer, Fletcher says not a single house can be seen until the ninth mile
Once a logging and sawmill center, Trego has since become a recreational center on the Namekagon. Spooner, 10 minutes south of Trego, is the home of the Wisconsin Canoe Museum, with 29 restored wooden canoes on display. Opened a couple of years ago, the museum will appeal to paddlers who want a dose of history on their river trips.
The Kickapoo, twisting its way south through the Coulee Country of southwestern Wisconsin, is proof that Wisconsin rivers come in all sizes and shapes. It’s known among Wisconsin kayakers as “the crookedest river in the world,” and to the Ho-Chunk Nation as “he who goes here, then there.”
The river’s path was untouched by the glaciers that scoured most of the rest of the state. This “driftless region” is a place of water on the move. Fletcher’s “Kickapoo Kanoo Team” of five paddlers for a two-and-a-half-hour trip past sandstone and shale outcroppings (12 of them, by Fletcher’s count). One member of the group commented, “This is the most beautiful river I’ve ever been on.” Nobody in the party disagreed.
And, wouldn’t you know it, at the end of the Kickapoo trip, Fletcher finds himself in yet another Blue Ribbon tavern. “Walking into River’s End, you’re immediately welcomed by the Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer neon guitar sign hanging on the wall. Home sweet home.” Either Doc has his preferences or riverside taverns do. He rates this section of the Kickapoo at “beginner ability.”
The Sugar, which crosses the Illinois state line before it flows into the Pecatonica, averages two miles per hour, Fletcher says. But, he cautions, “Understanding how to steer a boat through the many obstructions is important if you want to enjoy your time on this trip.” He’s talking about “frequent deadwood and leaning branches” – sweepers that can rip you out of your canoe or kayak.
It took Fletcher 30 minutes to cover the first mile because of logjams and the need to portage. After 2.2 miles, taking an 1 hour to cover, he concluded it was “not a beginner-friendly stretch of the river. Big John and Brian have flipped twice.” Big John had his own river quote when got upright again: “Woo-hoo! On to the next tree!”
So the Sugar, which looks so docile when you’re standing on its banks, is not such a lazy river when you’re trying to navigate it in a little plastic boat. Perhaps the best river quote is one warning all paddlers not to underestimate the Sugar: “You boys did stitch your names in the collars of your shirts, didn’t you?” asked local historian Dave Pryce.
Doc Fletcher’s book offers a fresh take on Wisconsin’s favorite river trips. The quotes, the taverns and the towns and even a list of some awesome tunes are included. Read it to hear more about Doc’s 16 other Wisconsin river trips, including three different floats on the Wisconsin River. The last of this trio carries you down to its confluence with the Mississippi River at the majestic Wyalusing State Park. That one’s rated for veteran paddlers.
Canoeing and Kayaking Wisconsin: The Rivers, The Towns, The Taverns by Doc Fletcher is published by Arbutus Press and can be had for $18.95 at bookstores and paddlesports shops.
James Sajdak is an English teacher in Madison, Wisconsin.