Paddling the Lower Wisconsin River
Next to the St Croix River, the 92 mile stretch of the Wisconsin River from Sauk Prairie to the Mississippi River confluence may be the most popular paddling river in Wisconsin. Canoers and kayakers will find a wonderful flatwater, 'big river' experience. There are no rapids, and with no dams this is one of the longest free-flowing stretches of river in the Midwest.
Beautiful wooded islands are especially common. Yet it may be the hundreds of sandbars which provide the strongest attraction for many seeking a fun recreational release from their busy lives. Canoe/kayak camping on the islands and sandbars is extremely popular during summer weekends and holidays. An awesome river, easy shuttle routes, numerous access points, free camping (on islands and sandbars only!), and no dams make it fun and easy for paddlers to take trips of varying lengths, from a few hours to several days.
Besides the beautiful scenery, paddlers will find an incredible amount of birdlife throughout the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. More than 285 different species of birds are either part-time or full-time residents! The majority of species are songbirds such as warblers, finches, sparrows, thrushes, and meadowlarks. Other, less sonorous species include herons, cranes, sandpipers, ducks, hawks, osprey, turkey vultures, and of course the rivers most famous inhabitant, the bald eagle.
This entire reach flows through the 'Driftless Region', meaning the surrounding area was untouched by glaciers during the Ice Age. Tall bluffs and steep hills rise beneath canopies of dense forests, often overlooking the river providing gorgeous scenery as you glide along. However, the landscape surrounding the river varies greatly. Besides the many tall bluffs, paddlers will float by dry sand barrens, high sandy banks, open prairie, oak savannah, dense thickets, lush hardwood forests, bottomland forests, numerous sloughs, and open marsh.
Fishing is very popular as well. The river is well known for smallmouth bass, walleye, and northern pike, along with significant numbers of panfish such as crappie, bluegill, white bass, and rock bass.
The entire 92 mile stretch is flatwater and is suitable for paddlers of all skill levels.
Please read the section below titled 'River Hazards' before you paddle the riverway!
The Wisconsin River is in a constant state of transition. Consider the evolution of a sandbar of which there are hundreds at any given time. First a sandbar is created, then reshaped, then shifted, then swept away, while another mysteriously appears nearby and undergoes the same metamorphosis. The same can be said for the river channel, which often shifts, splits and then rejoins itself again and again. And, to make it even more interesting, the river does not move at a constant speed at all! In fact, it often fluctuates as it runs its' course, from less than 1 mph to more than 5 mph.
Shifting sandbars, a moving river channel, and dynamic rate of speed are a few of the contributing factors to a couple of hazards paddlers need to be aware of. First are sudden dropoffs, where the river can go from a few inches deep - to several feet deep in one step. Second are 'layered' currents, where the current can appear to be slow on the surface but will be fast and powerful enough to sweep your feet from under you just a few inches below. Both hazards are especially common in the lee of sandbars and islands, places where you should never wade! When you do wade into the river, say off a sandbar, make sure you do it near the 'head' or 'up-river' side, and try to have your feet and knees pointing up-river. Remember to always wear a pfd! (personal flotation device)
Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board
The 92 mile section of the Wisconsin River below the Sauk Prairie Canoe Landing lies within the boundaries of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, a State Natural Area which can be best described as follows:
"The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway was enacted in 1989 [called a different name at inception], the project seeks to protect and preserve the scenic beauty and natural character of the river valley, seeks to manage the resources of the area for the long term benefit of the citizens of the state and seeks to provide a quality public recreational area in a manner consistent with the resource and aesthetic protection goals and objectives. The agency responsible for assuring scenic protection of the valley is the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, a nine person citizen board with headquarters in Muscoda..."
"...Administration of the Riverway regulations and protection of the resource is very much a cooperative endeavor. While the board is responsible for the scenic protection regulations, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for resource and recreational management issues and land acquisition. In the shoreland and floodplain zoned areas, each Riverway county administers local zoning ordinances which require minimum setbacks for buildings and limits on the amount of woody vegetation which may be removed. A partnership has been established between the board, the county zoning administrators and the DNR to assure the goals of the Riverway are achieved and the responsibilities of the respective jurisdictions are met. Much of the success of the Riverway is the result of the cooperation between these governmental entities..."
"...The Riverway law is indeed unique and innovative and is another example of the proud tradition of resource protection in Wisconsin. With the law in place, the people of Wisconsin are assured that the beauty and biological diversity of the river and its valley will remain for generations to come. With the continued sound stewardship of the land by private property owners, the effective and thoughtful management of the resource by the DNR and local authorities, and, with the scrupulous administration of the aesthetic protection regulations by the Riverway Board, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway will remain one of the gleaming jewels in Wisconsin's natural resources crown..."
The river is usually navigable throughout spring, summer, and fall. It can be scrappy in places during periods of little rainfall in summer and fall. Paddlers should avoid the river in early spring, whenever water levels are very high.