The Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways Map

By Jared Wold
A Miles Paddler Contributor

In case you haven’t heard about it by now, I’ve been working on a map of Wisconsin that consolidates a fair amount of information we have about the rivers, creek, lakes, and flowages that we all commonly paddle. The Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways map project got its start back in January 2019 after almost everyone in my office got canned following a buy-out of our company. I had some time on my hands since the paddling and fishing season had not yet started, and I had severance to fall back on. So I decided to streamline the booth that my paddling club, Mad City Paddlers (MCP), puts on at Canoecopia, and decided to create a vertical banner that had our logo, a map of Wisconsin with all the bodies of water we have paddled, regularly paddle, plan to paddle, or just filled up an area of the map that was otherwise sparse. Since its creation, we put stickers everywhere we plan to paddle in the upcoming season on the map prior to Canoecopia.

Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways Map

The original map from the Mad City Paddlers Banner created in February 2019.

Fast forward to early 2022 when I joined the Facebook group Kayaking in Wisconsin. I immediately posted a few resources I created that I knew would be helpful. These included a PDF explaining how shuttling works, an image helping people realize their paddles are often upside-down, my blog post about how to interpret USGS streamflow data, and a relatively low-res image of the map portion of the MCP vertical banner. The response was immediate and very positive, but one important phenomenon was the amount of people who asked where they could buy the map. I responded that I would consider creating a version that would be available for sale. However, I was too busy to work on it at the time.

A month ago, a few questions and posts on that and other groups sparked me into action on the project, and I knew I had some time to get started. These questions led to a focus for this project – I wanted to create something that filled a key gap I identified in all of the popular resources for paddling in our state. These resources are:

The Gap

The gap I identified is that none of these resources tie together a single map of the entire state focused primarily on moving water and paddling where the information can be viewed at a macro level (without zooming in).

Tim and Svob’s guidebooks have excellent maps for each river section and a slight overview, but none cover the entire state and/or enough rivers and creeks to be considered comprehensive. Wisconsin Trail Guide has excellent maps and descriptions but no locator map and a limited number of paddle trails. Miles Paddled and Wisconsin River Trips have excellent descriptions, photos, and Google MyMaps of sections, entire streams, or the great Miles Paddled MyMap that IS a locator for every stream for which they have a report. Those work great when zoomed in on a device, but they suffer from lack of information when zoomed out. That’s the same drawback to information on the Go Paddling App. Kark and the American Whitewater site don’t have any useful locator maps. Lastly, the DeLorme atlas (and other similar publications) have many pieces of information that are useful to paddlers (such as access points with a distinction between canoe landings and boat ramps), but they are too detailed to focus on just the streams and paddling-related info.

Thus, I wanted to create something that would allow novices and beginners who aren’t familiar with all of these resources (or how to get the most out of them) to get quick answers to the following questions:

  1. What waterways are near an area I plan to visit or vacation?
  2. What waterways are near such an area that I have the interest, skill, and/or equipment to paddle?
  3. What waterways are near an area with slow enough current that up and back trips are possible?
  4. What areas should I avoid because there are few or no waterways that match my needs?

The Goal

These questions informed the mission, and my artistic and design abilities combined to form the primary goal: Create a printed poster and/or other maps that are more pleasing to the eye than most maps but have enough detail to be useful to the paddling community.

Because the first deliverables for this project are printed pieces, many suggestions that would be doable in an interactive map (which will be forthcoming) couldn’t be included. Some examples:

  • Dam markers – I considered including these and even imported a shapefile for them. I couldn’t figure out how to filter the 5,104 dams in the state down to just the ones on waterways that were included on the map. The dataset was also probably old – it clearly included locations of dams that have been removed. I’m out!
  • Access point markers – there is a DNR shapefile for boat landings, but I know that dataset is missing a lot of canoe/kayak access points where a trailered boat can’t launch. Moreover, the existing and updated map is just simply too small to include every road on it – it only has state and U.S. highways and expressways. The access point info would just clutter up the map while being essentially useless.
Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways Map

July 29, 2002: Jackson County is the first county to be completed as a test case with color coding and all other items added.

The Features
After entering a lot of data in my Google Sheet to help manage the project and finding the necessary resources to support my efforts, I came up with this list of features:

  1. Include every river (to the best of my knowledge) in the state except one – the 4th Black River has a tiny headwater and lake on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, but it flows almost entirely through Michigan to Lake Superior.
  2. Include commonly paddled creeks – just because a creek appears on a random blog like Miles Paddled does not mean it was included. Anything with tons of portages (for example) only made it in if there was space.
  3. Include popular paddling lakes and most flowages since those are part of the various river systems. Label many of these.
  4. Add numbers to each feature on the map to help with reference to the table of included features. That suggestion was helpful because it allowed me to omit text labels in places where I ran out of space.
  5. Include all State Park and Forest boundaries and reference them by number – figuring out where to organize paddles near our group camp events is one of my big tasks every year.
  6. Include a grid for reference
  7. A late addition – Native American reservation boundaries. Permit or permission explains why some river sections are not paddled.
  8. Legend items, abbreviations, compass rose, and map scale
  9. Explanation of methodology, disclaimer, acknowledgements

Color Coding
The most important contribution to the paddling community is one feature not mentioned above – COLOR CODING all moving water by rough difficulty level:

  • A color for known sections with slow enough current at normal levels for up and back trips
  • A color for riffles and Class I water – a hint that up and back trips aren’t feasible for most paddlers at any water level
  • A color for Class II and higher sections since that is where a lot of groups begin requiring helmets, spray skirts, and/or flotation
Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways Map

I used Grant County as a test case to decide how to handle the text labels. Everyone who saw this preferred the curved labels following the stream geometry.

The Process
To organize all this information, I used all of the resources mentioned earlier except the Go Paddling App. A lot of spreadsheet work was done before I even started doing any work in Adobe Illustrator. The only Illustrator work I did at that point was to figure out IF this whole project was feasible – could I get the text to be big enough on both a 24″ x 36″ poster and an 11″ x 17″ foldable map for anyone to be able to read it without a magnifying glass? That answer was YES, so the remaining steps were as follows:

  1. Using all available resources, decide which creeks, lakes, and flowages would have a number/entry in the table.
  2. Flesh out all available information in the spreadsheet, including which resources had information on each feature and which counties they were in.
  3. Add river, creek, or lake/flowage geometry from the DNR Trout Stream PDF Maps (the sources for my original map). I would later regret that I didn’t learn some GIS tools sooner.
  4. Add text labels to all waterways if they fit.
  5. Import shapefiles for State Parks and Forests, Great Lake boundaries, etc.
  6. Add numbers to all features.
  7. Pause to create both the visual grid as well as a reference grid to help me add the grid location info to the spreadsheet.
  8. Add grid info to spreadsheet.
  9. Copy and paste spreadsheet info into text objects in Illustrator.
  10. Format table.
  11. COLOR CODE!!!!… I thought that would take at least two or three weeks. It ended up taking about five days with more hours put in than I had planned.
  12. Import shapefile for Native American Reservations.
  13. Create legend, abbreviation list, map scale, compass rose, other text blocks.
  14. Add additional city and town labels where they fit or were commonly known references for access points.
  15. Add highway numbers where they fit.
  16. Fix text errors, misspellings, typos. I found only one.
  17. Print a proof copy at FedEx Office.
  18. Tweak a few colors.
  19. Send final poster to print at my brokerage.
  20. Adapt artwork to 11″ x 17″ waterproof foldable version (plenty of city names, road numbers, and text labels for features had to be removed.)
  21. Print a proof copy at FedEx Office.
  22. Send 11″ x 17″ to print at my brokerage.
  23. Create 12 page gazetteer version.
  24. Design a new logo for the business, create images for the website, set up new web hosting and WooCommerce store, populate it with products (four hours last Friday)
  25. Promote everything on social media.
  26. Write this article!
Wisconsin Rivers and Other Popular Waterways Map

August 3, 2002: The 24″ x 36″ poster is ready for proofing.

The Results
I still need to get a proof print of the gazetteer done and then send that to print. I will start work on an interactive version of all this, which will include additional info such as runnable water levels. This will take the form of at least a searchable database on my website. It might include a filterable map if I can figure out how to do everything to accomplish that. It might also include an app that is much more useful than Go Paddling.

For now, I welcome everyone to visit the shop. There you will find 1, 5, and 10 packs of the three printed versions of the map as well as a PDF download. It is detailed enough to zoom in on your device but doesn’t have enough resolution to be printed at a size big enough for someone to print and sell themselves. Pre-orders are 20% off until August 19. I will begin shipping posters around August 16, foldable maps around August 18, and gazetteers a week or two after that.

Thanks to everyone at Miles Paddled for all their support while I tackled this project, especially since they invited me to share an article about it and plan to help promote the finished maps.

I appreciate everyone else’s support too, and happy paddling!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    August 22, 2022 at 7:35 pm

    I love this map, I ordered 5 of them. One now hangs in my home office as a motivator to get my work done, so I can get out and explore, and the others will be Christmas presents for my paddling friends

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