“On Thursday night, May 17 a party of canoers (sic) consisting of three men and three boys camped overnight upstream from the bridge over the Kickapoo on the north side of the tunnel. This party had launched their two canoes in the river someplace between Rockton and La Farge.”
So began a front-page article in the May 31, 1962 issue of the La Farge Enterprise weekly newspaper. The article went on to describe the group of people on that canoe trip on the Kickapoo River, “One was an elderly gentleman along with his son, son-in-law, and three grandsons (about 6, 8 and 10). These campers make many canoe trips in different parts of the state. They said they especially enjoyed the scenery in this part of the state and that it was one of the most beautiful trips they had made.”
Bernard and Jeanne Smith, who lived nearby on Tunnelville Road, visited the group of canoeists in their riverside camp and found out more on how the group happened to be on the Kickapoo. “Their trip on the Kickapoo may have been prompted by the article in the Milwaukee Journal about the La Farge dam. They had the newspaper clipping with them. They were interested in the project and thought it would be a wonderful thing for this ‘undiscovered’ country.”
As we continue to look at the evolution of canoeing on the northern Kickapoo River as a major recreational activity, this newspaper article from the past can almost serve as a launching place for this story. I find it interesting that the May 1962 canoe trip was newsworthy enough to get front-page coverage in the local newspaper. But for that time, the trip is so unique that it draws that kind of attention. Because of the impending dam project, the river was becoming known for more than just periodic bad flooding. By October of 1962 Congress would authorize the go-ahead for the flood control dam to be built north of La Farge and the federal project would start to move forward.
One of the first aspects of the dam project to be seen in La Farge was the study of the land along the river that would be affected by the impoundment of water behind the dam. By 1960, research crews from the Wisconsin Historical Society had come to the La Farge area to look for archeological and historical sites in the Valley that would be affected by the dam project. During the following decade that research would expand to include a listing of several hundred sites.
Other researchers from the University of Wisconsin - Madison came to the Valley to study the flora of the area. Much of their initial findings were conducted from the river as the two botanists paddled down the Kickapoo in a canoe from Ontario to La Farge. When the pair hitched a ride back up river with a local, the story of their canoe trip on the river amazed the Kickapoogian. More people from outside the Valley started to look at the Kickapoo River as a recreational canoeing venue. In April 1965 a family of four from Madison capsized their canoe in the flooding Kickapoo and were rescued. The brief article in the La Farge newspaper noted that the family was lucky to survive.
Later in July of 1965, a tourist group was formed to promote the Kickapoo Valley and that group met for the first time in Readstown. At that initial meeting, much of the discussion was about ways to promote canoeing on the Kickapoo River. Later in September, the tourism promotion group, then going by the name of the Kickapoo Trails Association, met in La Farge. Fifty-eight people were in attendance at that meeting as interest in tourism was apparent in the Valley. Plans were discussed on holding events to attract people to the Kickapoo Valley. Over the winter, the organization changed its name to the Kickapoo Valley Association (KVA) and Harry Lounsbury and Bernard Smith, who served as an early president of the organization, represented La Farge on the board.
On May 15, 1966, the KVA sponsored an Arts & Crafts Fair in Gays Mills as part of the Apple Blossom Festival. By the following spring, the KVA was sponsoring a river cleanup campaign to open up canoe trails on the Kickapoo. In late September 1967, the KVA sponsored a special Fall Colorama canoe trip on the Kickapoo from Bryant’s Bridge at Jug Creek to the Bacon Bridge located just north of La Farge. Newspaper writers and photographers from around the state were invited on the trip and seventeen canoes with thirty-seven people made the paddle down the Kickapoo. Ironically, Harry Lounsbury, the local druggist and an avid outdoorsman and canoeist, was dumped in the river immediately when his canoe capsized. Eventually everyone completed the scenic canoe trip and was treated to Dale Sandmire’s bar-b-queued chicken in La Farge’s Village Park.
Because of that KVA sponsored canoe trip, articles soon appeared in the Milwaukee, Madison, LaCrosse and other newspapers lauding the Kickapoo River for its beautiful canoeing vistas. Later that fall, Bernard Smith reported at a KVA meeting on the canoe trail progress. He noted that all of the bridges over the Kickapoo had been numbered and signed from Ontario to Seelyburg and work was ongoing on timing the canoeing intervals between the bridges and roads along that section of the river.
In June 1968, the KVA began sponsoring what would become an annual Father’s Day Kickapoo Canoe Race on the river and forty-seven people participated in the first race held on a course on the river near Readstown. More and more people were canoeing on the Kickapoo as these events were publicized. Through Harry Lounsbury’s influence, Boy Scout groups from throughout the area were soon canoeing the Kickapoo River. Brent Waddell and his dad Gordon took a group of boys from LaCrosse’s St Michael’s Orphanage canoeing on the Kickapoo in August 1968. Later that year in October, the KVA sponsored another Fall Colorama on the Kickapoo, which included canoe trips on several parts of the river. The event again drew hundreds of people to the Valley, many of whom canoed the river.
Soon a need arose for better services on the river for people wanting to canoe. Bernard Smith bought a dozen aluminum canoes to rent and put in a canoe landing at his Tunnelville Road farm. Upriver on the Kickapoo, canoes could be rented at Duane Obert’s BeautiView Resort at Wildcat Mountain State Park and a canoe route was cleared from Ontario south to the lower park. The recreational activity of canoeing the Kickapoo River had begun.
On July 18, I took a canoe trip on the Kickapoo River. Our group of canoeists put in at the Bridge 10 canoe landing north of Rockton. As we rounded the first bend of the river, there was a family of people swimming at Bare Ass Beach, just as people have been doing on warm summer afternoons for decades. Down river, our meandering course straightened as we paddled through the old millrace at Rockton and then glided under the “Million Dollar Bridge To Nowhere” that stretched far above us. We passed the new canoe landing below Rockton then drifted upon the old rusty piers of the Jug Creek Bridge and remembered the old canoe landing located there. Further down the river we glided under the weeping sandstone cliffs with their green walls of lichen, mosses and flowers. We spied some Northern Monkshood clinging to the magnificent and sheer sandstone walls north of Bridge 14. We departed the river there at that canoe landing – eleven canoes and twenty-two people having spent a couple of serene hours canoeing the beautiful Kickapoo River.
But before we leave the story of the winding river, we need to revisit the mention of the canoe built by the La Farge Boy Scouts that I alluded to in my last entry. The local Scouts on a couple of occasions built canoes as part of their troop activities. I was involved with one of those canoe-building projects, but I’m still not sure what happened to that canoe. Later, when the La Farge Scoutmaster was Melvin Hanson, the troop built another canoe and troop members Kevin Alderson, Tony Benish and Phil Muller decided to take it out for a spin on the Kickapoo River. According to Kevin, they launched from the Seelyburg dam area and headed up river. It was early spring and there was still ice on parts of the river. As they were negotiating around some snags in the river, a tree limb punctured the canoe’s fiberglass prow and slashed open the side. Water poured in and soon the canoe was sitting at the bottom of the Kickapoo. Tony thought that he was going to drown until he was told to stand up in the less than three feet of water, Phil couldn’t stop laughing as the trio floundered in the water and Kevin was properly aghast at the demise of the troop’s new canoe. Eventually they were able to get the damaged craft back to the Seelyburg Bridge and drag it up to the old river road. That canoe’s days on the Kickapoo were definitely numbered.