Monday, June 2, 2014

Year's first paddles, in a word, pleasant

Paddling the Kickapoo required that we be attentive for fallen trees.
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By David Horst

WYALUSING -- Thinking about the first weekend of paddling for this year’s Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle series, I keep coming back to a word … pleasant.

The people, the paddling, the pace. The scenery, the socializing. The weather and the music — all pleasant.

The people numbered more than 30 kayakers and canoeists. Most were from the Fox Valley, but a few from the Milwaukee area.

The paddling Saturday, May 17, included the last stretch of the Wisconsin River and a short piece of the Mississippi — Bridgeport to Wyalusing — for a total of eight miles. Thanks to high water, the pace was 3 mph when we weren’t paddling, twice that when we helped.

The scenery was towering bluffs, overflowing banks, lots of turkey vultures and bald eagles — seven of them. On one island in a channel of the Wisconsin, we watched two mature eagles and one immature flit half-hidden from one perch to another.

Orioles were out in substantial numbers, though sun-bathing turtles were absent.

Our pleasant pace carried us quickly under a railroad trestle and to the final curve before the confluence of the Wisconsin and the Mighty Mississippi. Along the way, we told tales of even experienced paddlers shaken by the combination of huge barges, speeding recreational boats and a hard head wind that met us at the Mississippi in 2011.

On this day, the Mississippi was less mighty and more like a peaceful, quiet backwater. Pleasant.

We circled around Wyalusing State Park, where we had set up in a group campsite, and landed at the town boat ramp on County X. Not only the parking lot, but also the road to it, was under water.

That evening, we gathered in a park pavilion for “CANOEtenanny,” with live music provided by Milwaukee’s Coventry Jones. He played Neal Young, John Lennon, J.T., Cat Stevens, Billy Joel and other songs I knew complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes. Pleasant memories.

Sunday morning, Jon Blough’s Coleman drip coffeemaker and my wife’s homemade scones slowly drew paddlers out of their tents. We packed up and headed to the Kickapoo.

The road down to the landing at Plum Creek drops precipitously from County N and has no road sign, so many of us took a little drive along the ridge before doubling back. The landing is a flat patch of grass and a gravel parking lot, with one muddy break in the river bank for launching.

The limited access and swift current made for a challenge to keep the group in place to leave together. 

The Kickapoo is like an old character actor of a river. It twists through woods and farm fields in what we were told was the second-poorest area of the state, behind the Menominee Reservation.

The river is wide enough to navigate a long kayak between snags and tree falls, but small enough to give you a close, pleasant river experience. This is the less traveled portion of the Kickapoo, and that did make all the difference. We didn’t encounter any other boaters.

These trips become a floating mixer. Depending on the speed your immediate mood generates, you move from one grouping of paddlers to another, discussing where they’re from, what they do or where they paddled last. Nearly every conversation included the declaration: “The weather is perfect.”

About 70 and alternating between sunny and shade from a passing cloud, if it wasn’t perfect, it was at least pleasant.

The last couple miles took us past pastures open to the river, with cows and horses giving us quizzical looks. Definitely not the best conservation practices. The animals trod down and erode the banks as they step down for a drink, or to deposit an earlier one.

Ecology can be an early victim of poverty.

We glided into yet another flooded landing at Wauzeka’s Veterans Park. It suited our purposes well, with both parking and rest rooms.

The paddlers helped each other load their boats and gear. A few pop-tops fizzed to celebrate the trip, and we drove back to the regular part of our lives, bolstered by a few hours in each of two days thoroughly enjoying being where we were.

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