Voyaging on the Lower Wisconsin River

Exploring the Lower Wisconsin River in a
25 foot Voyageur Canoe

I’ve canoed on the Wisconsin River many times before, but never in a 25 foot canoe with 6 other people.

Group photo
Paddling Voyageur style on the lower Wisconsin River. Photo by Alayne Hendricks.

The trip was sponsored by the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board and led by Mark Cupp, Executive Director of the Riverway Board. For the past 15 years, Cupp has been leading trips down the river in these oversized canoes. This trip, on June 27, was the first of eight trips that will take visitors on half-day paddles on various stretches of the Lower Wisconsin River.

Our trip was from Muscoda to Port Andrew, a roughly 7 mile trip that included a stop on a sand bar for lunch.

After slathering on the sunscreen, Cupp assigned us our seats in the canoe at Victora Riverside Park in Muscoda. With so many people in the canoe, it felt like a party! The person at the bow (front) of the boat is called the avant and is responsible for pointing out downed logs in our path. The person at the stern (back) is called the gouvernail, and is responsible for steering. In the middle are the minions, which is where me and my friend Sarah sat. Traveling in the canoe is meant to replicate the experience of the French Voyageurs who were the first Europeans to explore the river. Father Jacques Marquette famously traveled the lower Wisconsin with Louis Joliet in 1673. They were the first white people to map the Lower Wisconsin and the Mississippi River. Of course, native people had traveled these waterways for centuries prior.

As Cupp said, these trips are good for the soul and introduce people to the river and its beauty. As we paddled we saw turtles, sandhill cranes and several soaring bald eagles. He also described the various impacts of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway law, the landmark legislation passed 30 years ago in 1989 to protect the scenic beauty of the 93 mile corridor.

Cupp described the legislation as the last great bipartisan effort of the last 50 years.

“It wouldn’t have happened without both sides giving a little,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening today.

Cupp pointed out a brown painted house that was built using the performance standards designated in the law. The house blends in with the river because the performance standards state things like what color you can paint your house and how the property must be screened from the river. The law was controversial at first, but it has been proven successful at protecting the scenic beauty of the river. He also pointed out houses not governed by the riverway law at Richwood Estates. Cupp explained that some areas of the riverway were already developed with housing and were left out of the corridor. In those cases, landowners can voluntarily comply with the law. “Some do and some don’t,” he said. About 50,000 of the 95,000 acres included in the riverway, are in private ownership. The remainder is state-owned park and wildlife lands.

Canoeing by, there is no question that a white house stands out more than a green or brown house. We also saw two cabins right on the water that were grandfathered in and were allowed to stay as is. The law allowed for compromise.

We also canoed past about a mile of shore land owned by the Ho-Chunk Nation. In 1994, the Ho-Chunk purchased 3 farms and for a time held youth education at the property and had a bison herd. That is no longer the case. However, the property remains home to an Indian mound group know as the McClary Mound group. There are 16 mounds preserved out of 64 original mounds. Cupp said that most of the mounds in the region have been destroyed due to farming and other uses, which is why preservation and education is so critical. Since there was no fee for the trip, he suggested that if want to donate, we can donate to Cultural Landscape Legacies, an organization dedicated to preserving Indian Mounds in the upper Midwest.

At the end of our trip, I had a better appreciation for the law and how it works to preserve the scenic beauty of the riverway. After 30 years, it appears to be working. If you are interested in taking one of these canoe trips next year, you can contact the riverway board office to get added to the mailing list or check their website. The trips fill up fast so get your reservations in early.

Me and Sarah pose with the giant canoe.

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