“I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer.” Aldo Leopold penned this beautiful line in his seminal work Sand County Almanac in 1949. Grant County appears unchanged since this time. The evanescent river campsites continue to hide from the camping hordes. The wandering deer and a few fortunate canoeists who paddle the Wisconsin River continue to enjoy the solitude found here.
Wisconsin River off the radar
When outdoor adventure seekers think Wisconsin, the north woods or Door County come to mind. The Lower Wisconsin River Valley does not make the radar for most that seek escape in the wilds of Wisconsin.
This is odd because the river affords the best river camping in the state, the Midwest, the country, and arguably the world. From Sauk City to the confluence with the Mississippi the bottom of the river is almost completely made up of sand; the river is a 92 mile beach. Wisconsin’s leading voice in conservation opined eloquently about the wonders of this area yet few heard then, and they continue not to listen still as the area remains relatively untouched.
Those who have discovered the region take to the far Eastern section near Sauk City. This section is closer to the metropolitan areas of Madison, Milwaukee, Rockford, and Chicago. It leaves the far western stretch from Boscobel to the Mississippi for those who enjoy solitude.
Boscobel lies less than four hours from Chicago and less than two from Madison. The self proclaimed turkey capital of the state might also be the river camping capital as well. The sand bars just west of this quiet river town lurk in the shadow of scenic bluffs that overlook the town and the river.
Paddle the Wisconsin River
The sand rules here and is omnipotent. As long as the water level is normal the sand bars line the river and invite superior river camping. The camping is not for the fastidious as sand gets into everything. One must accept this fact and embrace it.
Sand will fall from the camper’s hair when it is brushed, it will provide an extra crunch to one’s oatmeal, and it will line finger and toe nails. If one can overlook these inconveniences, it will open up an amazing adventure.
A fact of life for campers is the cost of a camp spot and registering for permits. This task and these fees do not exist here. Canoeists on the Wisconsin River only need to arrive at a sandbar first in order to claim it.
At a time when everyone’s travel budget is tight the Wisconsin River is a great option as a tent spot on a sand bar is free. There is no paperwork involved and few rules. No glass containers and one life vest per person is the short list of the Wisconsin River rules.
The Driftless Region
Leopold chose well when he used the painting metaphor to describe the sand county of the Wisconsin River. With golden sand bars, picturesque bluffs lining each side of the valley, and lush shorelines with a thick green tree canopy the Wisconsin River resembles a 92 mile French Impressionist masterpiece.
This region is not a wilderness. The river never ventures too far from a road and every six or seven miles there is a bridge crossing. Despite this fact, many moments on the river make it feel like a wilderness experience. When night falls this sense increases as a cacophony of sounds emanate from the woods and interrupt the campfire.
When a clan of Coyotes yips on one side of the river and another responds from the other side it feels like a wilderness. When Barred Owls hoot from the woods all night it feels like a wilderness. When the kerplunk of a Beaver’s tail splashing thirty feet from the tent disrupts the sleep of campers it feels like a wilderness.
Bird and animal life
Wildlife is often a meter for the quality of an outdoor adventure. The richness of bird, plant, and animal life on the Wisconsin River is impressive. Mammals often seen on the river include Beaver, White-tailed Deer, and Coyote.
The bird life is off the charts here. Laughter from the pileated woodpecker echoes from the woods. The belted kingfisher chatters as it cruises the shorelines. Then it hovers in the air before it diving to catch a minnow. Great Blue Heron quietly loom on dead falls waiting for a fish or toad. The sandhill crane croaks like someone who swallowed a wind chime as it floats down into one of the river estuaries or sandbars. The woods along the Wisconsin maybe the state’s best for abundance of birds, but the king of the river in the avian world is the Bald Eagle.
It seems a bald eagle sits on every dead tree. These majestic creatures once perched on the verge of extinction, but now they soar up and down the valley in increasing numbers. According to wildlife biologist Daniel Goltz with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 25 eagle pairs make their nests between Prairie Du Sac and Wyalusing and another 12 within 10 miles of the river. Most likely, more exist in the area that have not been counted.
It appears the current barely moves with the naked eye. While in a canoe a glance at the shoreline rushing by prove the sleepy river appearance false. The current runs around 4-7 mph and even faster with high water, so it is easy to make good time in the canoe even while at drift.
River camping on the Wisconsin River is a recreation that appeals to all ages. This makes a trip on the river a wonderful family excursion.
As noted earlier, the river is a 92 mile beach and also a 92 mile sandbox. There is no one that loves a beach and a sand box more than children. Where one finds happy occupied children who can frolic on their own then one will also find happy adults. Free from having to entertain the young ones adults are able to sit around the campfire and enjoy the experience. Just be sure the children swimming have life vests. The river looks placid, but it can be dangerous despite its peaceful soft flow.
The camping along the river is not just great for families as young adults can enjoy the trip as well. Camping with friends is a great back drop to where young people can socialize face-to-face and leave behind the social networks of Facebook and I-phones.
Wisconsin River Outings
It helps to have a canoe and equipment, but it is not necessary. Wisconsin River Outings rents canoes and provides transportation to individuals and groups.
Owner Scott Teuber has been sending people on the river for ten years. His favorite stretch of the river is the area just west of Sauk City. He enjoys the solitude and the remoteness of the area west of Boscobel as well.
The Wisconsin Northwoods and Door County get massive amounts of attention and visitors for a reason. They both definitely merit a visit. However, for the best river camping in the state the stretch of bluffs and the sand bars west of Boscobel feature the best that the great adventure state of Wisconsin has to offer. It is time to paddle the Wisconsin River.
To inquire about renting canoes call Wisconsin River Outings at 1-866-412-2663.
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