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By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA


Polepunt in Canoeland – Lower Wisconsin River

I’m lucky enough to live near the Lower Wisconsin River – 93 miles of primitive, undammed river. It is shallow and full of sandbars that are open to the public. Some have enough vegetation to be true islands. Jim Michalak designed Polepunt for exactly this kind of water, and Wojtek Baginski built the prototype for the eerily-similar Wistula River in Poland. HERE is a link to Wojtek’s adventures.

We made a family event of taking an afternoon to paddle seven of those miles. My parents rented a Grumman aluminum canoe from one of the outfitters in Sauk City, and were kind enough to pay the $5 to have the Polepunt shuttled back as well. We were very fortunate to have several days of 75 degrees F and moderate humidity. Normally southern Wisconsin is far more tropical in July.

(click images for larger views)

It pays to call around about the cost of having them shuttle your boat, as prices vary wildly. Another place wanted $20, but for $5 there is no point at all in doing your own shuttle or poling upstream.

Here’s the upstream view from the launching point.

Note that I’m actually in the picture. As an avid (more like rabid) photographer, my dad took many of the photos in this article. Here’s the downstream view.

Not far past that highway bridge is the only sort-of scary obstacle. There is an abandoned rail bridge that offers safe passage to canoes only to the far right. There are whirlpools elsewhere that can capsize canoes and hold swimmers under for a long time. Here is a photo from downstream, since upstream we were busy making a fast paddle to the right to get in the right place.

With the drought conditions, the dam at Prairie du Sac was letting rather little water through. So the current was slow and the whirlpool didn’t look all that scary. I would still have stayed away in a tippy canoe, but I bet the punt could have bulldozed right over it with a few powerful strokes. It is right there in the photo, under the trussed section. It just doesn’t look like much.

Shortly after the rail bridge we were rewarded with a view of a blue heron.

Here are the grandparents paddling.

…and here they are aground. Most of this river is ankle deep, so you get used to this. Or you learn to tell the difference between riffles over a bar and wind ripples. It is not easy when the current is light like this.

But this is an interesting point of comparison between the punt and the canoe. The punt floats in less water than a canoe, and sometimes we could drift over bars that would ground the canoe. But the canoe is a lot faster at getting to the right part of the river to miss a bar. Basically, the grandparents could paddle slow and easy and had no trouble keeping up even with arthritic joints. We had to paddle pretty hard a few times, and use the pole once when we were upstream from a bar I was pretty sure would ground us hard.

But the payoff is in stability. You get to stand up to survey the river ahead, and it is no big deal if both kids rush to one side for a better view of something.

Here’s a taste of the scenery on the upper stretch, just around the bend from the rail bridge.

Not far into the trip, the kids discovered the joys of a very stable boat. Rhea liked dragging her feet in the water, and Thalia attempted to assist the boat’s propulsion by splashing her feet.

Thalia found another way to amuse herself when the splashing got too annoying to adults trying to talk.

A bit before halfway down we saw our first trace of motor traffic.

Halfway down is the boat landing at the Mazomanie Oak Barrens on County Highway Y. Mazomanie, my home town, is not directly on the river, and a bit further downstream, past our take-out.

And just downstream of the landing is some impressive turbulence. It almost looks like a wing dam, but I don’t think they have any on this river. I didn’t get close enough to determine what caused it either.

The Wisconsin DNR makes it legal to camp on the sandbars. They don’t even charge a fee! But you have to pack out everything you bring in, and the fine is very steep if they catch you with any kind of glass container.

You can see how massive some of the bars become. Of course even more of them are just under or at the surface. The big islands are best for “nature breaks”, but come prepared and be watchful for poison ivy. There’s plenty. Also be aware that some of the islands are privately owned and posted. Stay off of these.

Remember that stability I was talking about? Just try either of these tricks in a canoe. Here’s mom surveying the situation and Rhea dozing on the foredeck.

Speaking of redheads dozing on the foredeck, you had better believe we had lots of sunscreen on for this experience. But strangely, we encountered almost no bugs, and thus no need for chemical repellants. Maybe the drought has been hard on the mosquitoes. (I’m really trying hard to feel bad about that.) There was one notable bug, though. This little fellow waited patiently on the foredeck while I changed memory cards in the camera.

Just around the bend after the Mazo landing, Ferry Bluff comes into view. As one might guess, this was once the site of a ferry. Probably because this tall chunk of rock is easily visible from several miles up or downstream. Good advertising, I guess.

After this point the river starts getting more scenic.

In this stretch, turtle-sighting became the kids’ favored pastime. Mine too, truth be told. To get close enough for a good photo you need to paddle silently, turning the blade sideways in the water for the recovery stroke, and never lifting it to make a splash.

By the way, the deep side of the river is probably the one where the bank is actively eroding.

Remember that airboat at the mazo landing? Here it is parked on a bar while its owner suns himself.

This, by the way, is the best way to encounter an airboat. They are quite noisy even at a distance. But I guess nobody would debate their facility in skipping over sandbars at great speed.

At the foot of Ferry Bluff is Honey Creek. The take-out is a short distance up this creek. It is navigable, but only just. You have to stay right around the first bar, then cut radically left to stay in the deep channel. By “deep” I mean maybe three feet, and by “channel” I mean maybe 4 feet wide. And of course this will probably be different after the next big rainstorm. (This trip was July 1, 2007) The majority give up and wade.

We saw hardly another soul until the take-out. But once there, fellow paddlers and outfitter staff alike commented on the punt, and all were quite impressed that it would be poled upstream with little more effort than paddling. In particular, an eastern European gentleman was asking for all the details on the boat. Fool that I am, I didn’t even think to mention that the prototype was built in Poland! My excuse is tired children. (Sorry Wojtek!)

The outfitter arrived right on time with a blue schoolbus and large canoe trailer. They were going to send a van with roof rack for the punt, but the van got stuck waiting for one of their clients at the Arena landing downstream. The ingenious proprietor devised a solution.

I didn’t have to lift a thing. You better believe that’s a bargain for $5! Kudos to the outfitter.

I have the feeling that this tiny adventure is just dipping our toes into what this boat can do. Time will tell, and rest assured that you’ll read all about it.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

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