★ ★

Fox River I

Swan Lake to Portage Canal:
A trip that, in theory, would be pleasant and interesting but in reality, is a dud due to private property and shallow, impenetrable (sometimes disgusting) water.

Fox River

Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 14, 2014

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

1′ per mile


Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable.

Swan Lake (exact location is irrelevant, as it’s on private property and I was pretty much busted for sneaking in)
GPS: 43.54144, -89.38551
Jefferson Street, (not where I had intended) Portage Canal, Downtown Portage, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.54022, -89.4551

Time: Put in at 2:45p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 6.5

Wildlife: Sandhill cranes, marsh birds, turtles and wood ducks.

Shuttle Information:
N/A. Or a $10 cab ride ($12 with a tip).


The Fox River is an alluring one. For starters, it’s that rare river that flows north. Originating outside of the stupendously named town of Pardeeville, it flows west to Portage, then north, then northeast into the Fox Valley, through Oshkosh and into Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, past Appleton and all the paper mills and finally into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

Also, its name is Fox, an animal I have identified with since I was a child and my nickname that the best friend still calls me. And the Fox River up in the Lake Winnebago area reminds me of my childhood growing up in New Jersey: crazy drivers on super-fast highways, huge ugly billboards, outlets and strip malls, porn stores and fireworks, foul-smelling pollution in the air and water. We had Jimmy Hoffa, you had Joe McCarthy.

Add to that my unbridled nerdery in all things historical, such as the canal in Portage that connected the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway with the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico via the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, respectively, then this short afternoon paddle seemed like a great idea. As an idea, it was – still is! But it’s problematic from the very beginning to the end.

I had seen from a satellite map that there appeared to be a boat launch at the western shore of Swan Lake. From there, an outlet allows the river to meander towards Highway 33 in Portage. I’d also seen from said satellite map that the surrounding area of the boat launch looked like a subdivision of condos, a golf course and suburbia, not usually a fortuitous sign for outdoor recreationists seeking public land. But I thought I’d try my luck just the same and paddle out of the lake, into the river and then into the canal itself (about half a mile downstream from Highway 33) and then up the canal as close as I could to where it meets the Wisconsin River. It seemed like a great idea but the reality was more complicated.

First off, the boat launch is exclusive and proprietary. I had only just parked and taken the boat off the car before someone came up to me in a golf cart and asked me what I was up to. To be fair, he was only doing his job. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, he was a very nice, generous and forgiving fellow who gave me no hassle and allowed me to use the boat launch, even though we both knew I had no right to do so. He allowed that he himself had just bought a couple of kayaks. I gave him the official Miles Paddled business card, our sticker.

So unless you live in this condo association, are visiting someone who does, or have permission from someone who does, this put-in must be considered a non-option to the general public. Compounding this access issue is that it doesn’t appear from the satellite map that there is a public boat launch or even public blade of grass anywhere around the north shore of Swan Lake at which one could put-in. This is relevant because if you put-in on the south shore (where it does look like there may be one or two places) the only roads west to Portage are significantly indirect and out of the way, which for the purpose of a bike shuttle is a possible deal-breaker but even in a car one has to wonder whether all that going out of the way would be worthwhile.

Also, the canal itself was crap but I’ll get to that in a moment.

What we liked:
Notwithstanding the prohibited put-in, the short segment between Swan Lake and Highway 33 is really quite lovely. I was expecting a monotonous marsh and it is a marsh but the water is crystal clear, the bottom sandy, the meanders fun, the current decent, the wildlife abundant, the scenery splendid and almost all of the area is public land (except the put-in).

A few times the river will bend to the left and you’ll be facing west with pretty vistas of the Baraboo Range off in the near distance, which makes for a nice contrast to the otherwise flat marsh. Just before you pass the Highway 33 bridge, the historic Fort Winnebago Surgeon’s Quarters is on river-right, one of three forts along the Fox-Wisconsin trade route (the other two were at Prairie du Chien and Green Bay) whose function was to protect commerce. A half-mile of still clear but very shallow water follows before the canal appears on the left. And here begins the other problem…

What we didn’t like:
The canal itself was crap, at least figuratively speaking (but I’m pretty sure literally too). To begin with (from the direction I was coming from, which is to say north via the Fox River), there are the ramshackle remnants of a lock only 30 yards or so that require a portage. No problem, I thought, it only seems appropriate to portage in the city that got its name from this very action. It’s an easy portage too. And the surrounding area is pretty. The Ice Age Trail runs through this and the historic Indian Agency House remains in its original location at the spot of the portage from the Fox River to the Wisconsin River.

But only 30 yards or so after the lock remains one encounters a 30-yard section of repugnant impenetrable mucky sludge. Too thick to actually paddle through, yet so foul and odious you want it to be over with as fast as possible. Even from the satellite image way up in space you can see this squalid morass! Best to avoid this by continuing to portage after the lock remnants.

After that, you’ll pass under railroad tracks where I saw the Amtrak train barrel past (you know, that crazy concept of light rail travel). After this the canal lies like a stagnant cesspool behind some warehouses, a retro-cool sawmill and some residential backyards. As a bridge comes into view with a culvert tunnel, the weeds become horrendous, the depth of the water shrinks to virtually nothing and all of a sudden you are going nowhere, no matter how damn hard you try. It was hopeless and miserably pointless. I still had 30-50 yards of this dead zone to get through before the bridge and Lord only knows what was on the other side of that bridge (turns out it’s the nice part of the canal and what I had wanted to experience all along, but more on that in a moment.)

The other problem was I had a time conflict. I had to be back in Madison by 6pm at the latest to get together with friends before seeing a Neko Case concert. As it was, part of my rationale for entertaining this impromptu trip (besides having the afternoon off) was I first fell in love with Neko Case after her Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album came out and a quick paddle on the Fox River with flooded vestiges on the Wisconsin River seemed all too appropriate. But I had known that I was running late since the Swan Lake to Highway 33 section was so shallow, slow-going and dead against the wind. Both it and the canal also were longer than I had thought. I had planned on a 5.5-mile paddle but in truth, it was seven miles… or would have been had I finished it.

Stuck in the muck, I had to get out regardless. As soon as I stepped into the water my leg plunged into the stinky dank knee-deep into the slop. Aw, crap! It took a few minutes just to slog to the bank, at which point I was too cranky and disappointed to care that I had to cross through someone’s backyard just to get to the street and figure out where the hell I was. Have you been in this scenario before? Not exactly the same but out of the river, finding it impassable and now stranded somewhere between the put-in and take-out with no vehicle? Let me tell you, it sucks. Especially when you’re running late and people are depending on you. And where are you? Portage, Wisconsin, smelling of shit and looking like a hot mess. Awesome.

I took my phone out of my dry bag and saw that it was 4:45 pm, which is precisely when I wanted to be back on my way home. I walked up to the street corner to get a sense of where I was and reasoned that I was a half-mile to a mile walk away from my bicycle at the take-out and then still had to drive five miles to the put-in, where my car was. I had given up on paddling the damn canal, this was a debacle! Talk about a plot twist.

But to my utter shock and all but unprecedented good fortune, I saw a cab across the street, asked for a ride back to my car, and the whole thing cost only $10, yet saved me an hour at least! Turns out the driver used to canoe the Wisconsin River with his wife all the time back in his day. He laughed at my story. I was beginning to as well. I picked up my kayak stashed behind a garage, then my bike, then drove back home to town with just enough time to rinse off, change my clothes and get ready for the show. I definitely dodged that bullet!

And here’s the funny postscript. On the other side of the bridge before which I gave up and got out is where the “historic” part of the canal is located. I did all of the crappy, mostly ugly part of the canal and stopped just before it gets interesting. The very part I wanted to do all along, the concrete-lined, canal-looking part through downtown Portage towards the Wisconsin River, which apparently is only a ¼ mile long, even though the whole canal is 2.3 miles long.

If we did this trip again:
Hell no, I won’t! Period. Ever.

Related Information:
Fox River II: County Road O to Endeavor
Fox River III: Highway 33 to County Road O
General: The Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Water Trail
Wikipedia: Fox River

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Aaron Smith
    May 26, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    It's too bad to hear about your misadventures with the canal. I had a generally positive trip myself.

    For doing a bike shuttle, I assume the South road ramp on Swan Lake (8 mile bike ride to 33) would be best. The public ramp on Spring Lake would make this a 10 mile shuttle.

    The floating sludge 'Armus' is a pain, but I was able to cut through with my 12.5' yak…and I noticed you were using your short kayak which may have made this impractical.

    Lastly, you were so close to the good part of the canal at the end! It's hidey, but in your last picture there should be a small stream on the far right you can sneak though. I went during very high water, so perhaps it was different for me. Portage paddlers should eyeball the weedy section from the Thompson Street bridge before committing and/or call the Portage Chamber to inquire about depth/navigability.

    'Portage Canal Days' is next week so hopefully the canal is in better shape for paddlers then!

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    May 27, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Hey Aaron — thanks for the response. We linked your paddle trip on the canal precisely because I myself envied your experience! I had not realized how painfully close I was to the good part of the canal — the canal-like part of the canal — til after I returned home and checked a map. It wouldn't have mattered much, as I had run out of the time I allowed for this mishap. In retrospect, blah blah blah. I absolutely agree that local paddlers should first scope out water level via the Thompson St bridge. When I paddled this (and I use the verb "paddle" lightly!) in the weedy section by the Thompson Rd bridge there was at best half a foot of water. The low water combined with all the weeds made for an abject, incontestably unpaddleable situation. I'm a stubborn guy who portages only when there are zero options or remedies, and this was one of those.

    I hope it's in better shape for Canal Days. Though perhaps it should be called Canal Daze…

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