Wisconsin River camping
The Wisconsin River is one of the most awesome and unusual camping areas that I have ever been to. There are no permits and no fees for canoeing and camping on the sandbars along the river. There are not many camping spots like this that are free.
The one hitch in the plan is that Mother Nature is in charge of providing the camp spots. The sandbars only appear when the water is at normal water levels. When the water is high, many of the sandbars are covered. You can still camp in the woods, but the woods here are swampy and full of poison ivy and mosquitoes. The amazingness of paddling the Wisconsin River is not the same unless you have the sandbar camping experience.
When the water level is high, or on busy summer weekends lack of sandbars can create conflict with campers. I have been on many a sandbar and seen jealous canoes roll by later in the evening looking for a spot onshore to camp. The pressure for sandbars is especially keen on Saturday nights in July and August.
Sandbar invasion last year
In fact, a group of guys pulled into our sandbar last year and camped on the other side. In my 30 years on the river, this had never happened to me before. This is usually seen as bad etiquette camping to impose on another party’s solitude. These guys moved farther away into the brush and they did not bother us. The next morning when we paddled past, they apologized for moving in, and they explained there were no other spots in the area open.
Canoeing the Wisconsin River with the Friends of Chicago River
This past weekend, I joined fellow guides from the Friends of the Chicago River for a weekend paddle on my favorite river. We had a sandbar in mind, and we paddled steadily all day in hopes of getting it before someone else. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was taken.
We paddled downstream for a couple of miles, and the only sandbars we found were either too small for our group or other campers were present. Then we came around the corner and there was this majestic, beautiful, golden brown sandbar. It was the size of three football fields. Way on the far west side of the sandbar was one single tent.
We were tired and ready to stop. To make matters worse, the next day’s take out was only a couple miles away. If we did not find anything soon, we would just end up paddling in and missing out on the experience. The other option was finding a smaller cramped spot. Of course we could camp on the far end of the big camp spot. Surely the camper way across would not mind.
Bad etiquette camping on the Wisconsin River
We decided on the latter and soon began setting up camp. We could see the guy on the other side of the sandbar looking at us through binoculars. He was so far away he looked like an ant. When it became clear to him we were not leaving, he aggressively walked towards us.
He confronted our leader and informed him it was bad etiquette to move in on a sandbar that was already occupied. We told him we had no choice and needed to camp somewhere. He asked where we were from, and when we informed him Chicago, he said “figures,” and stormed back to his tent.
He does have a point. No one camping along the Wisconsin River wants a group of 20 people to set up shop on their camping spot, even if it is a quarter mile away; however, when sandbars are at a premium on a Saturday night in July, you may not get a sandbar to yourself. This is especially true when you are occupying a piece of ground bigger than Lambeau field and Soldier’s Field put together.
If you do want a sandbar to yourself then consider either taking a smaller space or come to the Wisconsin River and camp on a Wednesday night. His attitude was similar to a couple going into a busy restaurant on a Saturday night and expecting the 5 person roundtop booth.
When there are limited resources, it is necessary to share
The point of this post is not to call out the guy on the other side of the sandbar. I have been in his shoes, and I understand his point of view. This conflict is larger than a small tiff over a campground on the Wisconsin River.
It speaks about consideration, tolerance, and placing yourself in the other camper’s shoes. When the young men moved into our campground last year, we were all a little annoyed, but we did not go over and confront them. We were annoyed because we were only thinking about our own experience. When they apologized and told us that they had nowhere to go, we then saw things through their perspective and understood that they had nowhere to go.
I hope our neighbor went back to his campground and had at least half as awesome a time as we did. I hope our presence did not detract from his weekend paddle on one of the greatest rivers in the world.
If you are interested in camping on the Wisconsin River and do not have the gear. Wisconsin River Outings rents canoes and provides shuttle service.
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