This column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, September, 18, 2011.
After a challenging summer, we knew we had to get away before the weather changed. Something cheap and relatively close. Beth booked a trip down the mighty Wisconsin River from Sauk City to Spring Green, a 25 mile canoeing adventure over two days through the Driftless Area created during the last glacial period. All the provisions we would need had to fit inside a canoe, which meant Beth couldn’t bring a suitcase full of shoes.
The weather was perfect when we pushed away from the shore at the canoe rental shop where we purchased firewood and ice. We also rented a “dry bag” for our valuables in the event of a tipped canoe. We would not see a man-made structure for the next two days.
The Lower Wisconsin River Waterway is managed and protected by a state agency of the same name. If ever there was well-applied regulation, it is that no development is allowed in this zone. The entire area is pristine.
There are no cities, no porta-potties, no houses, no water slides and no place to charge your phone. Nothing but nature, as it has been for millennia.
The sandy shores of the river are hugged tightly by dense forest. There are many high bluffs, their layered faces shorn by ancient glaciers. As we glided down the river it was not hard to imagine being a native or explorer hundreds of years ago.
A quarter into our journey we passed the Mazomanie nude beach, an infamous two hundred yard stretch of sand at a wide point in the river that local authorities have grudgingly allowed for decades. I was in the back of the canoe and could see the bright, white untanned bottoms from a half mile away. There must have been over a hundred people. When Beth noticed a few minutes later, she turned around and whispered, “We’re near Mazo! That’s the nude beach!”
Most of the crowd was AARP-ish, and as we drifted past, it became clear that the manscaping paradigm had not yet reached this demographic. We’d seen nude tanning before on the European parts of Miami Beach, on cruise ships and on trips to the Caribbean. Beth, as she so often does, gave voice to my thought before I could; “Why does it seem like only old, fat people go to nude beaches?”
There were times when we would both stop paddling and just drift. You don’t realize how much noise is in daily city living until you’re not in it. There were literally hours at a time when we didn’t hear or see other people. We saw bald eagles and cranes. Turtles sunning themselves on fallen trees would jump into the water as we drifted by.
The river is wide, sometimes a full quarter mile, and shallow with a sand bottom. The majority of this section is less than four feet deep. Sandbars dot much of the river and this is where campers are required to stay; you cannot set up camp on the shores. There are hundreds of sandbars, and finding one is part of the process. We had our choice of great locations.
As we were setting up camp we saw thousands of geese fly overhead and Beth mentioned she thought it was early for migrating. They turned around and flew back over us, broke up into different groups and were all honking loudly. This continued for almost an hour; take offs, circling, landings, disjointed and unorganized V-shaped groups going in different directions amidst relentless honking. Neither of us had seen anything like it and I said it looked they were practicing, teaching the young who had never migrated before. The ones that don’t learn you see walking across the street near Tinsel Town.
“Are you going to do your fire tepee thing?” Beth asked. When I was a Boy Scout I earned a survival badge by going into the wilderness for two days with nothing more than a pot, a knife and flint. I work behind a keyboard and am not known for being a handyman, but if you need a fire started, I’m your guy. On this trip it helped that I had a mini Duraflame cheater log and a lighter. We were roasting brats and baked beans in no time. There is something hypnotic and cathartic about sitting by a camp fire.
We could not hear traffic or anything even remotely related to humankind. The only signs of humanity were the tiny flickers of camp fires, a mile up river and another one a mile downriver. That night we heard coyotes howling at the full moon; there were many and they were close. We packed all our food in the canoe in sealed containers, far from our tent. We were more concerned about bears than coyotes.
When I opened the tent door in the morning, our sandbar was completely enveloped in fog. We could not see the water or the shore. It was eerie and quiet and ethereal. As we packed up, the sun burned off the fog, slowly revealing the river and hills and bluffs. It was nothing short of magical.
I had an epiphany on this journey; at 44 years old I must face the cold, hard fact that I physically can no longer, will no longer, sleep on the ground. Tent camping is dead to me. We will enjoy the river and sandbars again someday, but only for a day, at the end of which will be a hotel attached to a different kind of bar.
I considered not writing about this adventure because I want to keep it to myself, but it’s too beautiful not to share. If you get the chance, don’t hesitate to go. Like seeing a game at Lambeau Field, Dells Duck rides or cream puffs at State Fair, you haven’t had the full Wisconsin experience until you’ve seen it from the river. But if you’re my age or older, you might want to bring an air mattress.