By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA


Polepunt in Canoeland - Wisconsins Kickapoo River

A previous article showed how well Polepunt can work for a day trip on the sort of river where canoes work well. It also has proved a good companion to camping. A backpacker or experienced canoe camper could live in comparative luxury while paddling down a scenic river. With a wife, two kids, and a big dog I don’t travel that light, but it is still far lighter than has been typical.

First let’s deal with some logistical details you’ll want to know if you try this trip.

Wildcat Mountain State Park

Wildcat Mountain State Park is the place to camp. For being in Wisconsin, it is quite reminiscent of the mountains in the Eastern USA. Just not as high. It even has some switchbacks on the state highway that gets you there, so take the speed limit signs seriously. “15” truly does mean “15” unless you’re on a motorcycle. I was shocked too.

Also watch yourself as you head up the road to the campground – there are no guardrails. I guess they figure the trees will stop you from rolling too far down. This isn’t such a big deal going up, since it is hard to go very fast up a slope that steep. But be sure your brakes can stop your trailer on a steep downgrade!

Nice shady sites are 1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15. Tent pad at #1 gets some sun in the afternoon. These are all tent-only sites, and mostly shaded. In fact the only tent-only sites I omitted are 13 (much less shade) and 16 (in the middle of a roundabout, which I don’t really like).

Here’s our site, which was #1.

There is a “scenic overlook” less than a half mile down a trailhead right next to this campsite.

Try to make your trip in clear weather, too. This park is far away from and high above any sources of light pollution. You don’t have to get very far from the bathhouse lights before the stars seem far brighter than usual. You can see many more of them than normal, too. A map of the night sky is available at the office for this reason.


It is important to be aware that firewood may not be brought in from outside of 30 miles surrounding the park, to prevent the spread of harmful insect life and tree disease. Because of this, firewood is available at the park office for $4 for each rather small bundle. This is quite convenient because they deliver it to your site, but is only available during office hours.

You can get a better deal if you are willing to haul it a couple miles up the road. At E13515 WI-33 you can get a large wheelbarrow full for $10 any time of day or night. You just leave a $10 bill in the dropbox by the gatepost.

Sure it looks a little like Deliverance, but I didn’t have exact change and happened to catch the proprietor cutting wood (what else?). I didn’t catch his name, but he seemed OK to me. More importantly, his business model is a boon to campers in little boats. If you wind up wet and cold, it is a great comfort to know you can get a lot of firewood any time of day or night to warm yourself up and dry your stuff out. There’s no comfort like sitting by a warm fire watching the steam come out of your shoes.


Canoe trips on rivers nearly always involve a shuttle. Of course Polepunt can be poled upstream, but it is obviously a lot more work. Rivers that are “developed” for canoeing often have shuttle service available for very reasonable fees. We got our shuttle from Drifty’s Canoe Rentals, mostly because they were the first place we came to, and the $15 they quoted seemed reasonable.

Most folks rent a canoe, tell the outfitter where they want to get out, and start paddling. Then the outfitter picks them up at the appointed time and drives them and the canoes back.

We did this a little different.

The first several miles of the river wind through marsh and farmland, much like creeks nearer where I live. I wanted to spend my time among the cliffs, so we went from bridge 4 to bridge 10.

We also did the shuttle all up front. I didn’t know how long it would take us in the punt, since it is slower than a canoe. And I didn’t want to have to wait for someone to pick me up. So before even starting we dropped the boat at bridge 4, drove to bridge 10, and had the outfitter immediately return us to bridge 4 to put in. This worked out quite well, but you have to be sure of how far you want to go. There is no cell phone signal at all in those valleys, and hardly any even at the hilltops.

Actually that brings us to another thing worth mentioning. All these canoe outfitters know each other. When we went back to the river for some fishing at dusk, a large group of 20-somethings was getting out two bridges too early. They asked if I could give one of them a ride to where they were supposed to be (no cell phone signal, remember?). I told them it wouldn’t be a problem, but within the 5 minutes it took me to unload, one of the competing outfitters pulled up and told them he’d take them to meet their outfitter. People don’t spend many winters out in the sticks without learning to help one another.

One last point worth making is that it is quite possible to shuttle yourself by bicycle. The climbs are fairly steep, but the distances by road are very short compared to how far you go on the meandering river. It is also near the Elroy-Sparta bike trail, which goes through some interesting old rail tunnels.

Trip Time Revisited

We put in at 11:00 am and took out at 7:30 pm, making our total travel time 8.5 hours. I figure stops for wading, resting and making sandwiches amounted to around 1.25 hours, leaving 7.25 hours moving time. The distance by river from Bridge 4 to Bridge 10 is 8.1 miles, so we made an average speed of 1.1 mph. This is pretty slow, but remember that this also includes winding around shallow parts (more than 8.1 miles), dragging the boat through riffles, jumping the boat over sunken branches, and a lot of coasting along slowly to look at scenery.

I think the punt probably could make 2 mph over such a trip if it wasn’t too hot and someone really wanted to move fast. But you’d be better off in a canoe and better still in a kayak if you want speed. Canoes passed us handily and kayaks fairly flew by. The outfitters estimate the run to take 4.25 hours in a canoe, which is nearly twice as fast as the punt.

But Polepunt lets you do this trip carrying more people and provisions, and if you travel as light as a canoe must, you can get out and drag it a lot less often. And of course it is a lot easier to move upstream when you can stand and pole with little fear of capsize. And of course Polepunt is built to take the bottom-dragging beating this river deals out.

Now that we have the details out of the way, on to the star of the show.

The Kickapoo River

We put in at 11:00 am. Here’s the view upstream from Bridge 4.

There was a bottom-scraping riffle right after the bridge, and we had to pole backward to get to the deeper channel.

With some rain we’d have shot right through. The outfitter said people had been making very good time because of a recent rain, but the increase in flow level is very transient on this river. Check out the data. When there’s a rain, you get a quick spike and then it’s gone. On the other hand, the river never really dries up because it is largely spring fed. But beware if it’s a big rain. Since the Kickapoo is largely confined in a small canyon, it can only go up. Here are some dead grasses washed into tree branches at standing head height. One should not assume this little river is always little.

After a short straightaway…

…and a couple more small riffles, we are back into cliffs.

We even got some of the scenery in miniature.

Not far downstream we saw a lovely example of a bittern.

I had the opportunity for an even better photo, but it was just as we were drifting under a rather active wasp nest. Silence seemed prudent.

Shortly thereafter were some of the greenest plants I’d ever seen. They were living in the shade, drinking directly from seeps in the rock. Natural hydroponics, I guess.

You’ll notice that by this time the adults had shed their lifejackets. We realized the river was almost entirely knee deep or less, with only a few small holes. The kids kept theirs on, given their affinity for dragging limbs in the water.

We saw the red canoes of the outfitters until the first bridge, but we were completely alone.

The one exception was at bridge 7 where some locals were cooling off, sitting in the shallow water in lawn chairs. I was too busy chatting to get a photo, but here’s one from later that evening of Colleen giving the kids some first fishing lessons in the same spot. One hopes the setting makes a lasting impression.

We got several nice views of a heron, but he wasn’t too interested in posing for a photograph. This is the best I could do.

Other wildlife I failed to get good photos of were sandpipers, kingfishers, and a number of smallish dragonflies with metallic green abdomens. Absolutely spectacular, but they are small and don’t hold still very long. (And I’m no Chartier-Bresson.) Hopefully the landscapes make up for it.

Sometimes we could see a row of three or four cliff outcrops all at the same time.

Or a fallen slab of rock with plant life still clinging tenaciously.

And there was an expanse of shoreline where the rock sloped down into the water, the opposite of the undercutting that is more common here.

Along the way there were several shallow caves. Not really caves, I guess – just places where the water had worn away the rock unevenly.

Looking up at one cliff, we noticed some interesting holes. Most are cut away in layers.

And some of the landscapes speak for themselves more eloquently than I can comment on them.

Near the end, we took the obligatory half hour stop for wading and cooling off.

Final Thoughts

In any ways a canoe is better adapted to this river. Polepunt is a compromise in that it serves other functions But it worked well enough to do the job reasonably well, suffering only in speed. Stay tuned for further explorations of those other functions.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

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