Kickapoo River I
Ontario to Rockton
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
After five years, we finally paddled the beloved Kickapoo, an absolutely gorgeous river, flowing through one of the most beautiful areas of Wisconsin. By canoe or kayak, you must experience the paddle from Ontario to Rockton. It’s as pretty and scenic as a paddle gets in Wisconsin.
September 7-8, 2012
Riffles + Class I
This was below ideal levels but fine nonetheless. We recommend 60-100 cfs for a scrape-free journey. In general, for the Ontario to Rockton stretch, 60 cfs is the minimum and the sweet spot is between 70-100 cfs. The Rockton to La Farge segment is more forgiving with less of a gradient and more mud.
Landing 1, Ontario, Wisconsin
Landing 12, Rockton, Wisconsin
Day 1: 9.7.08
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:15p.
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Day 2: 9.8.08
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 12:30p.
Miles Paddled: 1
Total Time: 4h 45m
Total Miles Paddled: 12.5
Hawk, eagle, deer, crane, ducks, muskrat, a leech, slug and cows.
What we liked:
Ever since taking up kayaking and starting this site, I’ve often been asked if we’ve paddled the Kickapoo yet (yet being the key word). For no reason in particular, it took us a long time to pull the trigger on this trip. But unable to paddle many of our planned destinations this summer due to low water, the Kickapoo looked like it was holding steady so we set out to see what we were missing. We chose the two most popular sections for our initiation. They’re popular for a reason. It’s an absolutely stunning paddle, dotted with limestone cliffs throughout, that leaves you in awe of this driftless region.
The night before our trip, I stayed at Wildcat Mountain State Park before meeting up with the guys in the morning. It’s set between Ontario and Rockton and in fact, you paddle within its boundaries between bridges #4 and #5. Contrary to the name however, I didn’t spot one wildcat but I did enjoy the sound of coyotes howling and yelping me to sleep. My time there was short but it was another great Wisconsin State Park to check off the list.
In the morning, I stopped at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to clarify how camping on the Kickapoo works. Many, if not most of the sites are paddle-in only. What was confusing was the first-come, first-served aspect. First-come, first-served means inhabiting the campsite with some gear. But the paddle-in factor makes this process a luck of the draw. What if the spot you choose is taken when you get there? Well, it turns out you find another one and simply change the campsite letter on your slip. The Reserve recognizes that you paid for camping and may have to move if your chosen site is occupied. You’ll find self-registration posts at the landings along Highway 131.
It was also at the Reserve where I met a most entertaining fellow by the name of Eugene who spoke in old-timey language (That “He was twenty-stories tall if he was a foot” – kind of dialogue) and had story after story for me (with no pause for me to get a word in edgewise) about the valley. He laughed at my “paddling it all” (meaning bridges 1-20) and how it paled in comparison to his story about paddling the whole river all the way to the Wisconsin River 40 years ago on a makeshift pontoon that he and his brother built. When they couldn’t get the pontoon over flood trash, they poured gasoline on it and burned their way through (talk about different times…). Eugene offered me his business card and invited me to his Old-Fashioned Shoeshine stand in Viola. I told him the next time I’m in the area wearing something other than Chacos, I’d stop by.
Unique to both of these sections on the Kickapoo (Ontario to Rockton, Rockton to La Farge) are 20 bridges which are almost perfectly spaced. Technically, there are only remnants of bridge #12 and I heard the same of bridge #17 but we never spotted any sign of #17. They are almost all clearly marked from the road and from the water too which makes map reading particularly easy.
Between bridges #1 and #12 are three convenient landings off of Highway 131 (five if you include the landings at #1 and #12) and one off County Highway P. The stretch between bridge #4 and #5 is the longest you’ll paddle without seeing a bridge as you make your way through the land of Wildcat Mountain State Park. The park has its own landing simply called “Wildcat”. All the landings between bridge #1 and #20 are excellent, offering a pit toilet, registration stations and garbage and recycling cans. Having these numerous access points makes it incredibly easy to tailor your day paddles.
The put-in at Ontario (The proudly-proclaimed “Canoe Capital of the Kickapoo”) is just north of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve boundaries so there is no need to pay for parking. The take-out in Rockton is within the boundaries of the Reserve so a $4.00 parking fee is required unless you’re camping, in which case, parking is included.
Ontario has a rather large number of outfitters for a town with one gas station. Mr. Duck’s, Titanic and Drifty’s are all based at Landing 1. I stopped at Drifty’s to inquire about paddling time to Rockton. They were very friendly and helpful in answering my questions. They said it takes 5 hours between #1 and #12. It wasn’t necessarily because of low water in their opinion, just that it was a crooked river and sometimes you paddle north.
That estimate felt a little high because the general rule of thumb is that you paddle about 3 miles an hour (of course, wind and current have a say in that too) but they were correct in that timing. We averaged a solid 3mph but if you add in breaks (of which, we took a couple of course) we were almost spot-on at 5 hours.
After completing our shuttle and loading our boats, we set off on our first part of the trip. We were immediately struck by the beauty of the river and just kind of knew it was going to be a great couple days. The Kickapoo gently meanders back and forth between the beautiful limestone and sandstone cliffs created by the glacier. To paddle this for the first time is a special experience as rounding every bend brings something new. It’s never boring as there are too many curves to keep you occupied. It’s sometimes riffly and sometimes the current can get a little pushy but it’s generally a very leisurely paddle. There is one short little drop about a mile into the trip but nothing too significant otherwise.
Water levels were a bit below normal, as expected since practically all of Wisconsin has suffered from the drought but it didn’t adversely affect the paddling. Early on, there were a couple times where we misread the current, got hung up in the shallows and got out instead of scooting but those portages were nothing more than a few feet of walking. There was almost always an obvious channel to follow as the water moved from bend to bend.
The water is quite clear and appears generally shallow, but don’t let it fool you, it does get quite deep especially where the current meets the rock walls and tight turns. It’s mostly sandy-bottomed along the entire stretch but you will encounter some rocky and riffly areas as well as some sand that takes on the personality of mud.
The Kickapoo offers much more than geologic-love. It’s also home to many species of flora and fauna unique to this valley. We didn’t spot any of the rare turtles (as expected) but we did come across a hawk, a bald eagle, crane, a muskrat, a leech, a couple slugs and cows. The cows were polite and moved from the river up the bank in a brisk manner. We saw evidence of fish and we assume they were trout (restoration efforts have made this a popular trout stream once again) since we noticed some snapping at insects on the surface of the water.
One of the great encounters we had was while rounding a bend. Brian came upon a buck. I can safely say the point-size was a minimum of 10 (and that is almost definitely on the low-end). The rack was really ornate and sculpted. And the coloring of this guy was really unique. You could tell he’d been around awhile. I often startle deer on the river but I’ve never seen a buck and as luck would have it, we came across two more that were straddling the side of a rock wall river-left a few miles downstream. They had smaller racks and were closer to 6-8 pointers. They quickly turned around and headed the other direction.
We paddled this first section on a Friday and didn’t come across any other signs of human life. It felt remote but in reality, we knew we’re always just around the bend from another bridge or take-out and you’ll hear the sounds of vehicles throughout.
We camped a little earlier than expected but only because we came upon the beautiful campsite W, located on a hair-pin turn, up a steep bank, with two gorgeous limestone walls surrounding us. It definitely made my top-five favorite campsites based on sure beauty. And at night, I was once again serenaded by the sounds of coyotes (amongst other critters of the night). We should point-out that the campsites on the Kickapoo are the definition of primitive, much like Lower Wisconsin River camping. Be prepared to pack-in and pack-out, have a saw handy for downed wood to burn and bring a shovel. On our way down the river, we did take note of other campsites for future reference, some of which were equally stunning from our view on the water.
We calculate mileage using Google Maps mapping feature. However, sometimes it’s a little squishy in its accuracy. This was mapped to be 13.75 miles (which seemed high). The map from the Reserve has it logged at 12.5 miles and Mike Svob’s writeup in Paddling Southern Wisconsin has it mapped at 11.5 miles (which seemed low). So for this trip, we took the average of 12.5 miles which seemed to align with our paddling time of 3mph and time spent on two breaks for a total of 4 hours and 45 minutes (split over two days) between landing #1 and #12.
What we didn’t like:
Not a thing (except Jason expressed a wish for more riffles – he’s a tough customer).
If we did this trip again:
The Kickapoo River, like the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, is a staple for canoeing and kayaking in Wisconsin. It’s more stunning with every stroke that carries you down river. Of the two sections we paddled (and this is solely our opinion and it greatly differs from Eugene’s), we had the slightest preference for this upper Ontario to Rockton section. They are incredibly similar but there was just something a little more unique and grand about the first 12.5 miles.
But you shouldn’t have to choose if you’re already in the area. We recommend you make it an overnight (or possibly extend it into two nights) and continue down through the beautiful Rockton to La Farge section as well. It truly is a memorable journey and it’s hard to believe it took us this long to experience it. I’m already looking forward to the next time we visit.
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Kickapoo River III: Landing 4 to Landing 14
Miles Paddled Video: Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Camp: Wildcat Mountain State Park
General: Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Good People: Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Drifty’s Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Mr. Duck’s Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Titanic Canoe Rental
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River
Miles Paddled Video: