Time needed on the Lower Wisconsin River
by Darren Bush / Ply me a River
I needed this trip. When I called my friends to invite them to go for a paddle, they all said, “Yeah, I really need this.”
Funny how that works. I needed a paddle, and my friends needed it too. Not a long trip. In fact, we had just 24 hours, start to finish. Just four people, small enough for a two-car caravan.
Because all the pictures I took had time stamps on them, it makes it easy to reconstruct the trip. That means I get to live it over and over again. Thank you, pictures; thank you words.
1600 hours: Three guys roll up to the house. Bill in his Jeep, Brad on his Xtracycle cargo bike, and Brent is dropped off by his wife. (I’m the token non-B name.)
They dump their gear on the grass and we reload it in my truck. I’ve hooked up the baby trailer and it is loaded with two canoes for Brad and Brent. My trusty Curtis Companion is on top of the truck. Bill has his own.
1630 hours: We pulled away from the house. We should have left at 1600 hours but I had my priorities backward, choosing to spend time loving up my canoe by sanding and varnishing the gunwales and polishing her hull. It’s just dumb to have a gorgeous boat on the car and a pack that’s missing gear. I had to rush a little, which meant I forgot some things. But I can live without anything for 24 hours.
1640 hours: We stopped to check straps. One of the boats on the trailer was wiggling a little. With one strap cinched a little tighter, we were on our way again.
1735 hours: We arrived at the State Highway 23 landing near Spring Green, a popular take-out on the Lower Wisconsin River. It’s less popular as a put-in, which is why we went there. Where most people stop their trip, we started ours.
We unloaded everything and Bill and I took off to run the shuttle, 26 miles downstream in Muscoda.
A dusk launch
1830 hours: Within a few minutes back at the put-in, we loaded up and pushed off, paddling into the fading light. It was about 35 minutes before sunset. The cloud cover was such that we don’t expect anything spectacular.
1857 hours: The sky was on fire. Against the canvas of thin and wispy clouds, nature took over with gusto. Pinks and purples, that’s it; no oranges or yellows broke through. It was spectacular.
I shot 26 photos in three minutes, trying to capture it all as best I could. Then I just put down the camera and stared. No one else was paddling either. We floated until the last vestiges of purple faded to black.
1920 hours: The sky in the west was dark, but I could see my own shadow on the packs in front of me. With the supermoon just shy of full, I could read by the moonlight. In fact, the moon was too bright to look at comfortably.
The good news was we could make out the white sandbars where we’d be camping. We started sweeping the horizon for potential sites.
1940 hours: As we paddled by an invisible sandbar, we heard the nervous murmur of a large flock of geese. As we got closer, a rush of wind and a cacophony split the quiet evening as a hundred geese took off. The sound lasts for two full minutes: I know because I recorded it. Sandhill cranes joined in out of sympathy, I think.
2008 hours: We spotted a perfect campsite, a sandbar that was under water a week earlier; clean and flat. I started a fire with cedar scraps. About 45 minutes later, I took a picture of a nice bed of coals with dinners wrapped in foil and sizzling.
In the meantime, we erected our tents by moonlight. I bucked the nylon trend and set up my canvas lean-to, facing upstream so I’d get a nice view of the sunrise, unobstructed by mosquito netting.
2115 hours: Dinner was served on plates. We picked gingerly at the foil until open. Our food was steaming and too hot to eat but we tried anyway because it smelled wonderful.
Everyone stayed at the campfire while more wood was added. We rationed some for a breakfast fire. We talked until we all start yawning, then crawled off to our respective shelters.
2310 hours: Lights out, except for the moon. I stared at the water sliding noiselessly through its bed until I fell asleep.
0418 hours: I woke up because I wiggled off my mattress. I adjust everything and went back to sleep watching the water again.
0636 hours: My camera is already on a tripod, covered with my waxed cotton hat to keep the dew off. As soon as I had light, I started shooting. I took a shot every few minutes as the light changed. The exposures start at 20 seconds and gradually move to 1/60 and 1/120 and end at 1/800.
0716 hours: I got up and coaxed a fire from the previous night’s coals. We didn’t cook anything on the fire, we just wanted it to warm up a little from the chill and damp that comes from 110 percent humidity. There’s a thick layer of dew on everything that was exposed to the sky. I was bone dry under the lean-to, but the Pelican box for my camera was half exposed and therefore half wet.
0727 hours: I cooked porridge on a Coleman 502, a vintage one-burner that still cooks better than most of my modern stoves due to its super-controllable flame and stable platform. Steel-cut oats with dried cherries, walnuts and brown sugar made for a rib-sticking breakfast that fueled us all day.
0909 hours: We put out the campfire and packed up. Since it’s a 24-hour trip, we were less than careful about stashing gear since we’d yank it all out anyway when we get home. My lean-to weighed five pounds more than when I set it up.
We launched into the current and drifted slowly, past multiple islands with sandbars that were suitable for camping too. I made a note of the bars too small for a group but would be perfect for one or two people. I expected to be back.
0930 hours: We paddled past limestone bluffs, enjoying a light tailwind. We moved down the river, sometimes paddling together, sometimes stretching out. The opportunity for photos was good, the light excellent, but I noticed big chunks of time during which I took no pictures, which is good. I am sometimes accused of taking too many pictures instead of just looking. I’m getting better.
Trip winds down
1218 hours: We stopped for a quick snack. Brent brought guacamole and chips and bacon jerky. We sat in the shade, the sun surprisingly hot for a late September paddle. The wise among us had applied sunscreen. I didn’t.
It’s a pleasant stretch of the river with sand dunes across the way, lots of logs and turtles sunning themselves.
1428 hours: We arrived in Muscoda and reluctantly unloaded, slowly and sloppily, throwing bags and gear on the grass in piles, and loaded the canoes. That’s not the time to hurry. We were still on river time and didn’t want to turn the clocks back to real time.
1600 hours: We were in our cars and driving back home, 24 hours after we left.
Twenty-four hours doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how much you can do. I felt refreshed and so did my paddling partners. We all had a break from the day-to-day, a chance to talk about things that are important rather than urgent; a chance to decompress. I felt myself breathing more slowly, audibly exhaling, letting out stress and negative energy. In yoga the breath is all-important, and paddling for 24 hours felt like yoga.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking a trip has to be a week or two, or even a long weekend. Allow yourself the idea of a 24-hour trip. You’ll be glad you did.
Darren Bush is owner and chief evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin.