I’m a firm believer in the notion that the character of a river determines the tenor of a canoe trip. If it’s thrills I’m looking for, I’ll ride the pulse-pounding Gauley in West Virginia, where my heart is in my throat half the time. If I want to unwind, I find there’s nothing more soothing than a float down the unhurried Wisconsin River.
For 92 miles, the waist-deep Wisconsin cuts through a gorge lined with long ridges, past tallgrass prairies dotted with shoulder-high bluestem, and alongside football-field-size sandbars that invite you to pull over for an afternoon swim. A Class I ripple is about as close to whitewater as you’ll find on the Wisconsin. For excitement, you’ll have to settle for kicking up your heels to watch a circling bald eagle or red-shouldered hawk. Or dragging a fishing line to test your luck against smallmouth bass and channel catfish.
Better yet, watch the changing scenery float by. Near Tower Hill State Park, walls of sandstone thick with ferns, mosses, and swallows’ nests rise up from lush hardwood stands. Where the Blue River drains into it, the Wisconsin has a habit of braiding into multiple channels and quiet, blackwater sloughs. Detour off the main channel and keep an eye out for rainbow-colored wood ducks whipping through the swamp oak and maples.
As afternoon melts into evening, pull up to an empty island and stake your claim. Then, after night falls, follow Orion as he flees from Artemis across the sky. Until the coyotes begin to yap and the barred owls hoo-ah, you can hear something close to absolute silence.