Highway 131 to Ontario:
With water clarity as stunning as the sandstone rock outcrops before and above you, this “path less paddled” of the otherwise extremely popular Kickapoo River will dazzle newbies and delight old hands alike who sensibly wish to avoid the throngs further downstream. Water levels will often be low, and the put-in access might well be overgrown with brush and weeds in summer, but both of these caveats are well worth the price of admission to this extraordinary paddle trip.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 20, 2021
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
~4′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Ontario: ht/ft: 8.9 | cfs: 93
Ontario: ht/ft: 8.66 | cfs: 64.2
This is the minimum recommended level; below this would be a frustrating trip in Scrape City. Ideally, this section of the river should be paddled around 9′ to avoid the shallows but still lavish in clarity.
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 5:45p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Geese, wood ducks, hawks, muskrats and frisky fish.
6 miles, a straight shot on Highway 133.
Even the most casual, nondescript discussion of paddling in Wisconsin – anywhere – will surely bring up the Kickapoo River. And for good reason: the 30-some miles between Ontario and LaFarge are some of the most beautiful paddling to be had in the Upper Midwest, where the wayward river meanders around countless rock outcrops through a mini canyon surrounded by rolling hills and public land. It is an escapist oasis. For people who aren’t even paddlers per se, if there’s one time they were in an aluminum canoe – maybe as a kid or for a weekend in their 20s or for a bachelor party in their 30s – and that canoe was on a river and not a lake, there’s a real good chance that river was the Kickapoo.
But when people wax both poetic and nostalgic about the Kickapoo, it’s typically the stretch between Ontario and LaFarge that they’re moon-eyed about. Absent from the conversation or ovations are the many, many miles further downstream – where the stunning rock outcrops have been swapped with logjams and mud banks, not to mention a few flood-control dams. Furthermore, almost no one wonders about the river upstream of Ontario, where it humbly begins not far from the headwaters of the Baraboo and LaCrosse Rivers. In this sense, paddling the Kickapoo is like listening to Bob Dylan: everyone loves Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, but nobody says a word about his Sinatra period or that strange Christmas album.
Thus priding ourselves with an occasional credo to “explore the obscure,” we finally made the time to give the upper Kickapoo its due – and we were rewarded handsomely. This trip is loaded with rock outcrops and stunning bluffs, towering pine trees lush with green and alluringly clear water sparkling with peppy riffles for miles on end.
Our trip began at one of the gazillion bridges over the river on Highway 133 (this one by the Michigan Road intersection), on the downstream side of the bridge on river-left. It’s an OK access, a mix of brush, rocks, sand and mud. Bear in mind that we paddled this trip in March on virtually the first day of spring, so there were no unwieldy weeds or unruly brush between the road and the river to contend with. As we have (naively) learned from past, early-spring paddles done at a stream for the first time and then later revisited months later in the full throttle of summer, sometimes as simple a “landscape” as a right-of-way next to a bridge will look totally different depending on the time of year. This is true, too, of course for the ease of seeing/appreciating exposed rock outcrops before the sneaky leaves flush out with all their camo, not to mention the clarity/quality of the water in a river (or lake) before water weeds grow and phosphorous run-off inevitably leaches. Timing is everything.
Either way, you’ll pass a barn off to your left and will be immediately treated with a fun, easy Class I drop, in turn followed by the first of what will feel like an infinity of riffles. Following that is the first of the innumerable sandstone rock outcrops this trip will offer, here on your right at the base of a wooded modest bluff. And then the last first: paddling under Highway 131 only half a mile down the road from where you put in at. Save this pattern, as it will repeat over and over for the whole trip (up to an including paddling under Highway 131 a total of nine times!).
A gorgeous bluff lined with exposed sandstone lies along the left on the other side of the bridge. Because we were paddling this trip so late into winter/ early in the “normal” season, there still were vestiges of snow and ice both dangling from and frozen like blown glass onto the porous sandstone, making for truly exquisite scenery. Next thing you know, there’s another bridge at Highway 131. Again, repeat pattern.
To be sure, it’s not always this mesmerizing or notable; here and there are pastoral passes with “boring” eroded banks instead of rock outcrops, farm silos instead of pine-lined bluffs. But thanks to the general benevolence of the Driftless landscape, the manicured tincture of agriculture is the exception and not the rule on this trip.
In order to avoid unbearable repetition, or redundancy, we’ll spare you any unnecessary step-by-step description of this trip. Besides, we don’t want to sound as though we’re bragging (if anything, it’s the river who’s showing off!). Suffice it to say, this trip is stunningly pretty for mile after mile and from the beginning to the very end with essentially no breaks or banality in between. But there’s one unique novelty we’d be remiss not to mention: in the first half of the trip (after the third bridge) there’s a natural arch/ tunnel that the river has worn through the rock that you can paddle through kind of like a keyhole. It’s not long, but it’s still a cool thrill, and plenty big for a small canoe to fit through.
After miles of buxom bluffs crowned with balsam firs and pines, huge and magnificent rock outcrops and walls lining the very river, secretive hollows, sandy bottoms, and frisky riffles, you’ll start coming into the quaint hamlet of Ontario, which bills itself as “the canoe capital of the world.” That’s highly debatable, but there’s no doubt that it’s the canoe capital of Monroe County at least. The first indication of this will be a battalion of beleaguered rental canoes racked like phalanxes along the right bank, one of several outfitters in the area. But the beauty of this trip is nowhere near being done yet – neither are the Highway 131 bridge passages. You might notice one with the tell-tale USGS gauge appurtenances attached to it, thus correlating excellent water level data for this trip (as well as subsequent segments of the river downstream). This also will be the last bridge of the trip. Following it is one last spectacular rock outcrop bluff, a killer encore featuring a kind of song-cycle medley of a rock wall that is a thousand feet long and 30 feet tall (although the bluff itself is much taller than that). Brushy shrubs line the banks and lead to the nondescript (and somewhat easy to miss) concrete pad that marks the take-out landing. The current is strong here, and at least at our low water level, the pad itself was a little tricky to access. Nothing serious, difficult, or dangerous, just something to be mindful of. There’s ample parking here and a generous turnaround for trailers.
What we liked:
I’ve often said that my single favorite thing to do is go somewhere new, and this trip was a perfect example of why. And when that somewhere is a place I thought I knew but now discovered had so much treasure just hiding in plain sight, slightly past my peripheral vision while all the time I, like most others, had kept my eyes solely on the prize of the traditional Kickapoo section between Ontario and LaFarge – well, it all feels like falling in love with the girl next door who, now that you’ve gotten to know her better and not take her for granted, you learn is a brilliant mathematician and really funny – not to mention a drop-dead gorgeous knockout in her own right – and not merely the sweet neighbor who occasionally bakes cookies and muffins.
The exposed rock outcrops and fluffy bluffs along the river are among the best on the Kickapoo itself, to say nothing of any quintessential Driftless Area stream. Together with the river’s lively current and clear water, this trip is a keeper and highly recommended. We absolutely loved it!
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, nothing – we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But as mentioned above, whether the put-in access will be a Wild West show of unruly overgrowth is an unknown. Also, it can be well imagined that the take-out is an unruly throng of tubers and party-goers looking to begin their trip in Ontario. But for us we had blissful solitude the whole time.
If we did this trip again:
The only thing we’d do differently is paddle this with a couple inches more water and maybe check out a different bridge upstream. But by and by we loved this trip, had a fantastic time, and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Camp: Wildcat Mountain State Park
General: Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Good People: Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River
Miles Paddled Video: