Pine Island to Portage:
A mostly uneventful but still pretty section of the Wisconsin River located downriver from the Dells but before the Driftless bluffs of the lower 92 miles. The best this trip offers is plenty of sandbars and fun side channels to paddle down.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 13, 2014
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 4′ | cfs: 5400
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 3.37 | cfs: 5590
We recommend this level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin.
Pine Island boat landing off Levee Road
GPS: 43.54304, -89.58245
Highway 33 Landing, Portage, Wisconsin (Sunset Park boat landing is an easier access point, just upstream.)
GPS: 43.53563, -89.47351
Time: Put in at 3:10a. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 1h 20m
Miles Paddled: 5.75
Phonebook-sized turtles, tiny guys, bald eagles, one great blue heron, ducks and cormorants.
Probably more scenic than the paddle itself, as it runs entirely along Levee Road, a designated rustic road of Wisconsin (incidentally, if you follow the road past the turnoff for the put-in you will come upon the humble Aldo Leopold shack).
If you’ve never paddled the lower Wisconsin River, don’t let this trip be your first experience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong about it but there’s nothing really remarkable about it either. It has neither the gorgeous sandstone in the Dells nor the beautiful bluffs downstream of Prairie du Sac.
The river here is wide and sandy. Its best feature may be the entirely protected shoreline on river-right (which the Pine Island State Natural Area comprises) thus, there is no development whatsoever on that side (unlike the left shore, where there are some houses dotted in between the put-in and takeout).
As you might’ve guessed from the name of the road at the put-in, (a quick note, if attempting this trip, you’ll want to look for the power lines in order to find the turnoff for the put-in) there is a levee along the right shore and as such, you have no real view of the Baraboo Range beyond (this might be different in early spring or late fall, without leaves on the trees). However, you’ll hear the background din from interstate highways almost the entire time on the river (depending on the wind direction). Still though, they’re some aspects about this trip worth doing.
What we liked:
For the first time this year they’re exposed sandbars and islands on the Wisco! It was also my first barefoot paddle this year, which was a delightful treat. The river here is very wide but a variety of islands, large blobs and thin spits alike, split the mainstream into pleasant side channels giving you the sense of being on a much more intimate creek at times. The zero-development on river-right shore is most welcome and appreciated too, of course. For the first three miles or so I hugged close-right and enjoyed the nuanced backwaters with just enough water to keep afloat and paddle through.
The other cool thing (spectacular actually) was watching a bald eagle fly no more than 20’ to my side, hover above the water with talons full-out (and game-on) and dive not once but twice for a fish. I was spellbound by the unabashed display. I don’t think it caught anything (lucky for the fish) but it was quite a show nonetheless!
What we didn’t like:
The constant background noise of I-90/94 at the beginning and then I-39 towards the end. It definitely takes away from the experience. Also, this stretch of the river is just a little boring.
If we did this trip again:
No thanks. First, I’d actually hoped to paddle the Castle Rock dam to the Lemonweir River mouth segment of the Wisconsin River but after doing some simple math in my head while driving on the interstate out of Madison I realized I didn’t have enough time for that (given plans I had had already made for later that night and yes, this does happen to me a lot!). Instead, I accepted that a short late-afternoon paddle would be perfect and still allow me time to come home and make a pizza for dinner. In the end, I’m glad it actually worked out this way because a) it was just the right amount of time and b) that other stretch of the river doesn’t sound all too great in the first place (from what I’ve read).
The Upshot: If you’re looking for a “quickie” in this area, put in at Dekorra and take out in Whalen Bay (see here for the goods). It’s far more interesting and pretty and is a kind of microcosm of the best the lower Wisco has to offer: sandbars, islands, bluffs, and cool rock exposures.
Or, if you have more time (as in, way more time) and want a taste of this and that, put in below the dam in downtown Wisconsin Dells and paddle down to the put-in for this trip to use as a takeout for a 15.5-mile trip. I did it once, many moons ago before my own Miles Paddled days. The Lower Dells are gorgeous but short-lived and begin immediately after putting in, so 13 of those miles will be pretty but unspectacular.
That’s the thing about the Wisco, after being mercilessly dam’d so much up in northern and central Wisconsin, (too often to degrees that make paddling almost pointless – almost!) the river comes out of the gate swinging and singing by the Lemonweir down to the dam in downtown. With some notable exceptions, from the Dells to Portage and then from Portage to Dekorra the Wisco is flat and featureless. But below the last dam in Prairie du Sac it just kicks ass all the way down to the Mississippi River. That’s why this trip shouldn’t be your first exposure to the Wisconsin, there’s just so much more to ignite one’s soul!
Wisconsin River V: Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River X: Portage to Dekorra
Wisconsin River XIII: River Bay Road to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River XIV: Castle Rock Dam to Lyndon Station
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River