Plum Creek Road to Wauzeka:
An easy, pretty, and primitive trip, this final stretch of the meandering Kickapoo is not endowed with the spectacular rock outcrops and canyons as found in the popular Ontario to La Farge section – but neither does it have the crowds or the clamor of rental trailers with aluminum canoes. What it does possess, in glorious abundance, is mile after mile of undeveloped public land and private land easements comprising ginormous wildlife areas.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 21, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
~1′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Steuben: ht/ft: 7 | cfs: 560
Steuben: ht/ft: 6.66 | cfs: 489
Water levels are almost always reliable. The Kickapoo is prone to flooding, so keep off during high-water events.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Bald eagles, sandhill cranes, turkey vultures, geese, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, hawks, muskrats, turtles, swans and one rascally raccoon.
3.2 miles – at first all uphill, but then all downhill, including a breathtaking view from the top of a ridge looking down on the river at an oxbow meander not unlike that oft-photographed bend of the Green River in Utah.
While I paddle at least once a month year-round, the first “new” trip each year, in early spring, is always a special and momentous occasion. Last year, in late March, an adventurous lot of us pioneer-paddled what is probably the only viable upstream stretch of the Kickapoo River (which ended up being one of our best trips in years – see here). This time around, exactly thirteen months later (thanks to a late and very indecisive spring), I felt a natural draw to the other “bookend” of the meandering river and wanted to paddle the most downstream segment before it flows into the Wisconsin River, which is this trip.
As we mentioned last year, most folks think of the Kickapoo River in the 30-some miles between Ontario and La Farge – and for good reason: that unique section of the river is utterly extraordinary and offers some of the most beautiful paddling anywhere in the Upper Midwest. But this trip is way downstream from there, 80 miles more or less. You won’t find stunning canyons or studded outcrops of sandstone and limestone. Instead, here you’re in a sweeping valley of wooded bluffs, rolling hills and steep ridges. And whereas the more popular upstream portion is teeming with tourists – think throngs in thongs, flip-flops, coolers as big as canoes, and a blare-barrage of Bluetooth music – down here it’s damn near wild and wonderfully isolated.
Unlike most trips, the put-in is not at a bridge crossing over the river, but rather an unmarked, nondescript wayside on the west bank of the river. Access is excellent, thanks to the low-lying gravel bar/gulley wash. In half a mile you’ll pass a farmstead on the right – the only building you’ll see until the next access, at the Highway 60 Boat Launch, six miles downstream. Think about that for a moment: six miles of no development – no farms, no fields, no flags of whatever persuasion in somebody’s backyard. Sure, there’s a road that runs along the west bank of the river for a few miles – the road you took to get here in the first place – but there’s hardly any traffic on it. The river is otherwise entirely surrounded by two wildlife areas: the Kickapoo River Wildlife Area and Kickapoo Wild Woods State Natural Area, together comprising some 5,700 acres of undeveloped, unspoiled land. That’s a lot of land! Some of the bluffs and ridge tops rise 350′ above the river, so the sense of scale here is truly impressive. And some of the largest swaths of old-growth forest in the Driftless Area are preserved here, too.
That’s the draw to this trip, the real feeling of being in a wild (and winding) place. There are no rapids, no rock outcrops. There’s a lot of meandering and “switch-backing,” but thanks to the river being relatively wide (~70′), whatever downed trees there are shouldn’t be too obtrusive (unlike some notorious sections upstream that are prone to logjams and pile-ups). So, take your time and soak it up. What’s the rush? There’s only our own dumb lives to get back to back home…
As simple and back-to-basics as this trip is, it comes with two take-out options – at Highway 60 (6.5 miles) and in “downtown” Wauzeka (8.8 miles). Both are excellent and developed. After the Highway 60 bridge the river heads south and then swings west (a significant shift after flowing south and east up to this point). There’s an attractive ridge on river-right (north) way in the backdrop, but the effect is a bit distracted by the sounds and sights of traffic on Highway 60. There are no bluffs on river-left because at this point you are entering the bottoms and floodplains of where the Kickapoo will soon meet up with the Wisconsin River. In other words, watch out for wind in the next two miles.
There’s a stretch of houses off to the north (river-right), but plenty of meadowlands and marsh in between. Other than a set of power lines and a set of railroad tracks, there’s really nothing else. You’ll soon see more buildings downstream (Wauzeka proper), and the easy, convenient boat ramp on river-right, approximately three-quarters of a mile upstream of the Kickapoo’s confluence at the Wisconsin River.
What we liked:
To take a cue from both British history and Warren Zevon (how often can you do that?), it’s the sense of splendid isolation that makes this trip special. There are no individual rapids to await or suddenly stunning moments of geological grandeur. No, it’s all apiece here. The journey is the destination, and it’s all about the forest, not the trees. The wildlife is abundant and wonderful – especially during migration patterns in spring and again in autumn. And the dwarfing sense of scale surrounded by all of these huge bluffs and ridge tops is pretty impressive.
What we didn’t like:
The wind. There’s no escaping it, and the only way to avoid it is by being indoors – but that was not an option for the first mid-60s and sunny day in weeks. I chose this leg of the Kickapoo in no small part because I knew that the wind would be at my back for most of the trip thanks to being socked in by the steep bluffs but also the south- and eastward course of the river. But all of that changes on a dime by the Highway 60 bridge, where the river flows west and all of the big bluffs are in the distance. Enter the windswept bottomlands. I’d swear that it took me as long to paddle those final two miles as it did the 6.5 up to that point! At one point I got out and walked my boat because it was all just too ridiculous being in a 15′ canoe straight into 20+ mph headwinds, going backwards against the current.
Likewise, the bike shuttle – mercifully short at least – going both uphill and upwind was a laughable debacle.
If we did this trip again:
I’d skip the two miles leading to the Boat Landing in Wauzeka and take out instead at the Highway 60 Boat Landing – especially if/when the wind is out of the west (which it usually is). There’s nothing especially interesting in these two miles, unless you’re just looking for an excuse to be on the water a little longer.
Alternatively, if one wanted to paddle a two-for-one bigger trip, one could fly past the Wauzeka Boat Launch, turn right at the mouth of the Kickapoo and into the Wisconsin to Millville, Bridgeport, or even all the way down to the Mississippi, making for a fun overnight expedition.
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Kickapoo River III: Highway 131 to Ontario
Kickapoo River V: Steuben to Plum Creek Road
Camp: Wyalusing State Park
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River