Growing up I never really paddled except at summer camp, so when we arrived in Madison in 1987, I did so with little freshwater-paddling experience. Luckily, this didn’t deter paddling-loving friends from inviting my husband and me to join them.
While not a paddling expert, but someone in the travel industry who appreciates local adventures and new experiences, I believe paddling is a great way to explore Wisconsin! Take in the Wisconsin River from the viewpoint of a great blue heron or a bald eagle. Explore the entire margins of local lakes or access the hidden paths within a wetland to follow the paths of explorers and early settlers who used the waterways.
Some of Wisconsin’s unique geology and landscapes can really only be explored from the water. You might have heard of the Bayfield Peninsula Sea Caves—ice caves in the winter. The caves form when the sandstone layer erodes from wave action undercutting the face of the cliff. Door County also has caves along Lake Michigan’s edge. Cave Point County Park preserves some fine examples of wave-eroded limestone caves and features. The caves can only be viewed via kayak or scuba diving.
Door County Kayak Tours offers a range of day and multiple-hour paddles to unique natural areas, including Cave Point, their signature guided tour. The tour explores caves, coves, and ancient fossils and includes views of Whitefish Dunes State Park. Other tours explore the bluffs of Door Bluff County Park and the diverse wildlife and ecology of the local estuary. Many of the tours are suitable for beginners, and they offer kayak and paddleboard rentals.
Wisconsin’s culture and history can also be explored by water in both Milwaukee and Madison. In Milwaukee, Brew City Kayak offers Milwaukee River tours that cover the unique history and culture of the city. Brew City also offers rentals.
Whether paddling with your own boat or a rental, you can explore the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers using the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail. Descriptions and a trail map can be found on the Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s website. The map guides you through 60 miles of paddling, including access points and amenities, such as restrooms and picnic areas, as well as cultural, historic, and natural landmarks. The trail is a cooperative project between local parks departments and municipalities, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the National Park Service and has been designated a National Recreation Trail.
In Dane County, the Yahara Waterways Water Trail Guide provides a guided pathway through the Yahara River system. The guide book, produced through a cooperative effort, provides in-depth notes on the geology and history in addition to cultural and historic sites and outstanding natural resources along the trail itself. As you explore the area using the Yahara Waterways Water Trail Guide , you’ll find that the history of Dane County is deeply intertwined with its waterways.
The Yahara River watershed along with the other rivers and lakes in the area provide many recreational opportunities. Use your own boat or rent a kayak or paddleboard from Rutabaga or Madison Boats to get out on these local waterways. If you want to join a group, look for a full-moon paddle midsummer organized by Brittingham Boats. If you need to build skills, you can join the Madison City Paddlers or sign up for one of many offerings from Madison School & Community Recreation.
One of the favorite outings during the summer has to be a paddle on the Wisconsin River and sandbar adventures. Paddling a section of the Wisconsin River between Sauk Prairie and Spring Green may not be a solitary or quiet adventure, but you can still see a lot of wildlife and have a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Canoe rental companies drop you on the stretch you have chosen, and you paddle at your own pace to the designated pick-up point. Pack a picnic, sun hat, towel, swimsuit, and even some water blasters. Just leave any glass containers at home. Inevitably, you will want to explore one of the sandbars, take a swim, and perhaps throw a Frisbee around. And always keep a sharp eye out for resident wildlife.
Of course, a few hours on the Wisconsin River represent just the jumping-off point for river-paddling adventures. Because of the ease of access, numerous sandbars, and lack of dams along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, longer camping trips are a regular part of summer on the river. Wisconsin has over 15,000 lakes and 12,600 rivers and streams, so it would be hard to exhaust all the options with so many bodies of water to choose from as well as different types of experiences. And even if you are a novice like me, you might just get hooked on a new way to explore Wisconsin.
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .