Touring Lake Columbia in Columbia County:
A human-made lake containing the discharge water to cool off a coal-fired energy plant, this surreal pool of super-heated water (around 70 degrees warm even in the dead of a Wisconsin winter) provides for an ethereal experience of paddling through endless curtains of wraith-like fog while passing frost-covered plants and rocks. Plus the wildlife is abundant.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: February 2, 2015
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 4
20 bald eagles, 100+ geese, 12 deer, 40+ mergansers and 10 cormorants.
A brief explanation: the Alliant Energy power plant near Portage draws water from the Wisconsin River near the mouth of Duck Creek at a rate of 10,000 gallons per minute and deploys this water to cool off equipment used when burning coal for power. This superheated water then is discharged into the huge pool called “Lake Columbia” where it will circulate and be reused a second time before returning to the river in a cycle that takes five days. During the process, the water temperature will range from 70-80 degrees in winter to 100+ in summer. Burning coal of course, is awful for the atmosphere but the water itself remains remarkably clean.
I had first heard about paddling here in winter a few years ago from the same beloved friend who introduced me to kayaking in the first place. To wit, there’s a group paddle each New Year’s Day cleverly called the “Fog Bowl.” I’m usually not in Madison or the area during New Year’s, so I continually miss the interesting event. This year was no exception. But it’s been itching in the back of my head for a while now and I thought the time was nigh to check it out. With a weekend weather forecast in the single digits, where else could a paddler expect to find open water than on a body of water artificially heated? And what could be more romantic than kayaking during zero-degree wind chill the day after Valentine’s? Warms the cockles of the heart, no?
What we liked:
The landscape is surprising intriguing. I was expecting little more than a concrete-lined pool with little else beside industrial buildings to look at. I was expecting that the novelty experience of paddling through wispy fog in February would be the only thing capturing my attention, or affection. The bar was set somewhat low, believe me, I don’t care much for paddling lakes, let alone unnatural ones in front of mounds of coal to feed the insatiable gluttony of a gigantic energy plant! But as soon as I stepped out of my warm car, the cold air on my face like a harsh compress, I could tell that this was going to be something special.
First, because there is constant fog/steam rolling off the water (warm water + cold air = fog, and in this case, a whole lot of fog) and the warm, wet air hits the frozen rocks and plants and freezes on contact, usually in the shape of delicate crystals and feathery hoar frost filigree. If you like natural fractals – and really, who doesn’t? – this is your landscape! It’s worth coming out here just to walk around the shore and comb through the rocks and tufts of grass and weeds. Rather than color bombing something, it’s like ice-frosting, hot breath from the throat huffing onto an object, coating it instantly in something essentially ephemeral.
OK, enough mystical gibberish. The “lake” is almost entirely bisected into left and right pools by a thin strip of land that I guess is a dike. If I understand it correctly, the water comes from the river on the west and is drawn into the plant via the “left” pool. It’s then discharged into the right pool (east) where eventually it will circulate clockwise back into the plant. As such, the right side will be warmer and thus produce more fog.
The feeling of paddling through huffs of fog is mostly mental/spiritual (if that’s not too grandiose), not so much physical. Maybe your eyes will tear up a little but the fog doesn’t provide a whole lot of warmth. You want to be smartly dressed, especially if you paddle this on a windy day when the lake gets wavy (which by the way, I definitely don’t recommend whatsoever) and thus your potential for capsizing greater (It’s winter in Wisconsin, the cold ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, so why not wait to do this trip when it’s not windy?).
I wore wool leggings, wool socks, waterproof boots, snow pants, four different layers for my torso and a waterproof jacket, plus a wool cap. I didn’t wear a balaclava, but you might want one. Altogether, I felt fine, but I did begin to feel a bit chilly at the end. The effect of the beer? Who knows?
Being a lake, you can go in any direction your heart desires. I chose a counterclockwise itinerary for no particular reason. Looking out west from the right side of the lake allows for a few pretty views of the Wisconsin River bluffs. It’s a distant vista, but pretty nonetheless. About midway on the right is a large island where I saw four bald eagles in the trees, the first of at least 20 during this trip. One of the highlights was watching two still immature and speckled birds joust in the air, locking talons at one point and swirling in the air like two swing dancers joined at their elbows.
After the island you’ll see the train that I assume transports the coal, for just after it is a huge mound of coal at least 50’ high and very black in contrast to the white colors of snow, ice, clouds, and fog. From there you’ll see the conveyor belt taking the coal to the main building, below which the water is released into the lake. On a small hill to the right I had to do a double-take to make sure I really was seeing a herd of a dozen deer munching on the grass. Sure was. There’s not too much to see at the plant itself unless you have a wild hair for engineering or industrial architecture. Rather than paddle south to then make a U-Turn around the dike, I just portaged over it and continued into the left pool.
Paddling south now, away from the plant, you’ll see a separate holding pen on the right-hand side. It was mostly frozen at the surface but at the northern end of it, where there is a lip like a lowhead dam, the water was open and spilling down into the lake. If you follow this pen to its southwest corner and get out of your boat to walk up the levee, you’ll see where the water from the Wisconsin River is drawn from. (Incidentally, you can explore the backwaters of Duck Creek to see this or if you paddle the Wisco from Portage to Dekorra you can find this as well.)
Let me be the bearer of bad news: you cannot directly paddle from the river to the lake. First off, it’s physically impossible, as earthen dams separate the connection. Secondly, it’s all private property and signs are posted all over the place lest you got any ideas. That said, there’s a second point of interest just south of this. From the lake you’ll see a concrete ramp of sorts on the right where it’s easy to take out. The ramp plateaus at the top of the levee, then lowers down into a marshy meadowland where you could paddle into the Wisconsin River. For point of reference, this access is just north of where Rocky Run Creek enters the Wisco.
The surroundings are wild in the southwest quadrant of Lake Columbia. At one point I spooked a giant flock of over 100 geese that shot out at once, barking berserk, flapping frantically, a loud, dark, wide net of wings made its way across the horizon hidden through wisps of fog. Of course by that time my camera had stopped working, which will happen in extreme cold. No matter; the moment could never have been conveyed anyway. A pleasant way to finish this min-trip was the 30’ levee hill on the south side of the lake, just a pleasantly beveled line of ground coated in frost, encased in ice.
Lastly, on the subject of difficult to convey, I’m at a loss of how to describe the unique effect of paddling through the fog, particularly when just for a moment the sun peaks out of the clouds to pierce through the wisps. The water was gray, the cloudy sky slate. Curtains of fog move sideways on invisible tracks. Then suddenly the sun comes out, a streak of light like a golden lance from the firmament. It radiates silhouettes in the fog, dapples the surface of the water. And then mergansers fly low like flung darts, or two appear from out of the fog shockingly close to you and freak the heck out. The experience is simply exquisite and totally worth the short-lived experience of being a little chilly.
What we didn’t like:
For what this is, there was nothing I disliked. Given the tropical temperature of the water, some flamingos would have been welcome, maybe a tiki bar for a quick mai-tai, but I realize that’s unreasonable.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this again, though maybe not in the single digits!