By Darren Bush
“Yes, in my own backyard”
I find it interesting when you talk to a native of a particular place that’s famous for a particular landmark, only to discover they’ve never been to said landmark. New Yorkers who have never been to the top of the Empire State Building are commonplace. As Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
Maybe I esteem too lightly a local river, the Kickapoo, often called the “crookedest river in the world.” Not sure if it’s true, but the name comes from the Ojibway for “he who stands here, then stands there.” A river of an indecisive nature, so to speak.
If you haven’t had the pleasure (because you obtain too cheap), the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin is a classic driftless area stream – well-known and iconic. I have no idea how many thousands or tens of thousands of people paddle it every year. It’s gorgeous, and only a few hours from my home. Yet, it had been over two decades since I had paddled it.*
We had two days off in a row, and my wife suggested we made a trip to the Kickapoo after the significant hiatus. I asked if we could take solo canoes and Stephanie agreed, with a little bit of reservation. She knows how to paddle a solo canoe quite well, but it would be an all-day affair, over a dozen miles of twists and turns. This is something we usually do in a small, maneuverable tandem.
That said, I think the driftless region rivers were made for solos – shorter canoes with a bit of rocker for maneuverability. Twelve miles in a solo would be a long day, but we’d have fun in any event. We strapped a couple of Argosies on the truck and headed up Highway 33 to Ontario, taking the slow road through Amish country.
We met our shuttle driver at the put-in and we headed for the take-out to drop my truck. On the return trip, we shouted a conversation due to the loud, rattling bus so common with livery vehicles. Piloted by a nice gentleman, a local who left the area, but missed home and returned to start this business. He had almost a hundred boats, which made me glad we were paddling: a) during the week, and b) early in the season.
The river’s personality changes with every turn. Glacial temperatures pushed big white pines south, and due to their precarious perches, loggers left them alone. There was just enough wind through the boughs to create that wonderful northwoods white noise that has lulled me to sleep so often, along with a perfume that takes me back to my childhood in a nanosecond.
Although the glaciers pushed temperatures down, they didn’t reach the limestone bluffs that line a good part of the river. On these bluffs grow mosses and small ferns that invite a soft touch, the mosses springing back to a gentle poke. The smell from the damp limestone and organic matter that clings to it is an earthy scent and invites the nose closer, which can cause a swim if you’re careless and lean over too far. Best to paddle under an overhang and sniff upwards.
The nice thing about solo paddling is the unobstructed few. Stern paddlers have their view blocked by a bow paddler’s torso, but a solo paddler has a clear view, 360 degrees. I purposefully let Stephanie paddle in front of me, since I hadn’t watched her paddle a solo canoe in ages. She’s not a particularly powerful paddler, but she makes up for that with graceful efficiency. She understands water, and it’s fun to watch her play.
She disappears for half a minute, then pops back into view when I clear the corner, just in time to see her slip away again. The river is narrower here so it’s harder to paddle side-by-side, but every so often we can meet up and chat a little, exchanging water bottles and ziplocs of cashews, a favorite river snack. Seemed like we’d just get going side by side, and a fallen tree would force me to fall back.
Crack. It sounded like a gunshot, close, less than a hundred yards away. “Great,” I thought. “Someone’s out plinking. I hope they’re not shooting toward the river.” Smaller cracks. Then a big crack again. We round the corner to see a huge cottonwood. One of its branches is a good foot in diameter, and it’s cracking and splitting, the bough easily spanning the whole width of the stream. Crack. BIG crack.
We were ten yards upstream, trying to analyze how much longer the limb would hold. We decided to shoot through as fast as we could, eddying out just downstream. We watched, listening to popping and ripping sounds as the limb shuddered and crashed down into the river, blocking it entirely, 30 seconds after we passed under its bulk. The outfitters would be there the next day with a chainsaw to clear a pathway.
Soon it was time for lunch and we found a lovely little beach and pulled out. It was right across from a large cliff and the swallows were picking off bugs that dared to stray from the rock face. It was May, but early, and the sun was nice. Time passes quickly on a sandbar, and before we knew it an hour had passed.
We didn’t know where we were, but we weren’t lost. Distance on a river like the Kickapoo is measured in hours and bridges, not miles, and we had calculated six hours for the trip. We knew we were coming up to the take-out as soon as we passed Bridge 11.
There’s a lovely symmetry to loading up two identically-shaped canoes on a truck. We worked as a team, putting up our boats and I tied them down as Stephanie loaded gear in the back. We’re a well-oiled machine and we were loaded and ready to go in minutes.
The nice thing about solo paddling is that paddling together is a choice. Much like relationships, the best ones exist where people choose to be together. Maybe that’s why after 32 years of marriage, we paddle more and more in solos, no matter what the craft; canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. Together by choice.
We won’t wait two decades until the next trip to the Kickapoo. My guess is we’ll be back this fall again, soloing together.
*Maybe it was because of the encounter I had with the local bully, a sheriff who thought I looked like a drug dealer and I wouldn’t let them search my car. Because the canoe on the roof, my pregnant wife and four year-old in the booster seat was just a cover. Eventually they smiled and let me leave when they ran my plates and the FBI assured them I wasn’t Pablo Escobar. Sheriff Banta retired a decade ago, taking along with him the large portrait of John Wayne he kept in his office. No kidding.