Everyone is familiar with the stages of recovering from grief. However, few know about the stages of a Wisconsin River canoe camping trip and how it heals the stressed out soul. During the summer, I drive for Lyft and Uber, and driving many hours in the mayhem of Chicago traffic was putting my stress level at a maximum levels.
This all changed when I exited off of the interstate in Madison and headed towards the Driftless Region. It was time to enjoy the Lower Wisconsin River Valley for two consecutive weekends of canoe camping and river fun. The first trip was with my cohorts at the Friends of the Chicago River. The second was a trip with Bull Moose Patrol and Nick of the Woods.
Wisconsin River canoe camping never gets old
I have paddled the Wisconsin River over 50 times, and the experience never gets old. It is basically the same routine everyday, but with different people. Every time I go through the routine, I can feel my stress melt away as I watch the current slowly drift past golden sandbars, or watch a bald eagle fly over head, or wake up to a foggy river valley. Here are the stages of a Wisconsin River canoe camping trip.
Stage 1 – the Foggy river valley
I am not sure if I have ever woken up to a clear day camping the Wisconsin River. For some reason, the day always starts off in a heavy mist. At first you cannot even see across the river. Slowly the fog dissipates as the sun burns through it. I love waking up to this surreal world and watch the changes on the sandbar as the carpet of gray slowly lifts.
Stage 2 – the Paddling
After taking down the tents, it is time to paddle. The mist is now gone and a hot sun is beating down on your suntanned covered arms and legs. The current moves at about 3-4 miles per hour, so there is no need to dig in. Even a leisurely pace will cover ground. It does not look like you are moving too fast, but take a look at the shore. From the perspective of looking at the shore go by, you can see the camping sandbar is getting closer and awaits.
It can be tricky to watch for the main channel. This is especially important in low water. The main channel weaves left and right between islands and sandbars. The deeper channel usually hugs the higher ground. I also look to see if you can read the current. Sometimes though the lesser channel is the more interesting one and remains navigable. From the narrow channels you can see the shore better and marvel at the thick undergrowth and better see the birds and animals along the shoreline.
Wisconsin River wildlife
Great blue heron, cedar waxwings, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, and green herons are the usual culprits. If you are lucky you might see scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, river otter, barred owls, and beaver.
Stage 3 – Lunch and break stops
The Wisconsin River is not a river where you should paddle more than an hour or two at a time. Stop at a sandbar and swim, drink beer, throw the frisbee, and socialize. Sometimes the river breaks are more fun than the camping spot. Grab some shade and have lunch and then hit the water for some more swim time.
Stage 4 – the Campground – more river fun
The camping aspect has many facets. There is the arrival, setting up camp, and then more playtime. After setting up camp, it is time for more swimming or whatever you feel like doing. Some like to swim and play frisbee, others want to fish, one can read a book, sit in the shade and share stories with friends, or get back in the canoe and play around. This time is up to the individual. I prefer to do some swimming and then sit in the shade and just watch the river go by. This year I also got into the canoe and did some canoe poling up river.
Stage 5 – Sunset and the golden hour
I love Wisconsin River sunsets. I prefer a sandbar that has western exposure, but even if you are looking east the sky will treat you with a myriad of colors. After hours in the sun, the break from the rays and the cooling temperature is welcome. It is also mosquito time, so be sure to dope up. Grab a chair and enjoy the pastel of colors created by Mother Nature.
Stage 6 – The campfire
I keep thinking each stage is the best until I get to the next stage. The campfire perhaps is my favorite part. Telling stories around a crackling fire while barred owls hoot in the background is a most pleasurable event. On my Friends of the Chicago River trip we break out the guitar and pass it around until the wee hours while a bottle of whiskey is also passed around. The only rule around the campfire is no shushing. If you are a librarian at heart, then move your tent a good distance from the fire.
These are the stages of a Wisconsin River canoe camping trip. After going through this ritual one or two nights, you will be ready to rejoin the world and the hectic lifestyle we have created. Which stage is your favorite? I know there are some I left out like cooking, setting up and breaking down camp, or maybe there is a part of the trip you enjoy that I have not even considered. The people you camp with are also a crucial part of every stage. I lucked on and paddled with two amazing groups of people this summer on the Wisconsin River.
How to get started on your own Wisconsin River canoe camping trip
If this trip looks like fun to you, the best way to get started is to sign up with Wisconsin River Outings.
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