Tuesday, July 30, 2013

More Canoeing On The Kickapoo

“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.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Canoeing The Kickapoo

The month of June has been a tough one for visitors to the northern Kickapoo Valley who are looking to do some canoeing on the river.  There has been so much rain over the past two months that has saturated the ground in these parts, that any rain amount in the last few weeks has regularly sent area creeks to bank full status.  So, Weister Creek, Otter Creek, Bear Creek and the other area tributaries empty their full loads of water into the Kickapoo and soon the river is bank full or even out of its banks.  With so much rain in June, the Kickapoo has been high all month and not much good for canoeing.
            I happened to notice a group of campers at La Farge’s Village Park on a recent Saturday morning.  All of the vehicles at the campsites seemed to have two or more kayaks or canoes piled on top.  With the heavy rain of Friday evening continuing into that Saturday morning, canoeing or kayaking on the Kickapoo became a risky venture and that group stayed in camp throughout the morning.  (Later on that Saturday, in the evening, fifteen canoes were stranded in the high waters between Bridges 6 & 7 north of Rockton.  Eventually, those people needed rescue from the high waters by local emergency personnel.)
            Today, canoeing the Kickapoo has become a recreational summer staple for locals and visitors alike. But when I was growing up in La Farge a half of a century ago, it was unheard of to attempt to canoe on the Kickapoo River.   What has brought about this transformation in the recreational use of the river?  What is different about the Kickapoo today that affords thousands of recreational and sport canoeists to travel on its silt-laden waters?  Let’s go back and take a look.
            Several years back I was sitting at the Rockton Bar with Roy Stone.  Roy had dropped in for a bottle of “medicine” and I was there for lunch and to find out what was happening in the world.  There were maybe twenty young folk, clad in t-shirts, bathing suits and flip-flops getting ready to take off on an afternoon canoe adventure.  As we watched the group prepare for their afternoon of paddling the Kickapoo, Roy offered a story about an experience that he had on the river when he was a young lad.
            Although he didn’t give an exact date, Roy’s adventure on the Kickapoo probably happened in the 1930’s.  He and a friend hatched up an idea to get a boat and go fishing on the river for some big trout.  Roy said that they knew the best fishing holes on the river were far off the highway, so drifting down the Kickapoo on a summer afternoon was the trick to reaching those big Rainbows.  Roy’s friend had a small flat-bottomed duck boat of sorts with a couple oars.  They figured it would be dandy for making the trip.  They would float down to La Farge, fishing along the way, fill up their gunnysacks with big trout and then catch a ride with someone coming back upriver their way.  Roy talked his Mom into making a lunch for the trip and the two Rockton boys were off on their fishing adventure on the Kickapoo.
            They put in below the Rockton mill and headed down river.  They immediately came to a fallen tree blocking the river and had to portage around it.  They no more got there little boat back into the water then they came to another blockage and had to do another portage.  And so it went for several hours as the boys did more carrying their boat than paddling it.  At some of the smaller obstructions, they tried to maneuver their little boat through the trash and snags.  More than once, their boat ended bottom side up in the water, dumping the passengers into the muddy waters.  Their lunches were lost and the fishing was forgotten.
By the time they reached the Star Valley flats, the two teenage boys were soaked and beaten and hadn’t achieved the halfway point in their trip.  They pulled and pushed their boat over and through numerous snags and fallen trees as they tried to float the meanders on the flat.  The banks were so steep in that section of the river, that the boys eschewed portages and virtually walked their boat down the clogged river.  Roy said it seemed like they pulled their boat for miles through water too shallow to float the little craft.  By the time they reached Bacon’s Bridge (the Reserve’s Covered Bridge today), they had all of the river that they could take and hauled their boat out.  Far from the village that was their original ending point, the boys sat glumly, beaten by the snarls of the Kickapoo.  Wet, tired, muddy, and forlorn, the two must have been a pair to behold.
Suddenly a Model – A pickup came putting down off Norris Ridge to the south and crossed the bridge.  It was a neighbor heading back up river.  He stopped and asked the boys what they had been up to.  When he heard their story of woe, he smiled and told them to get in.  The back of the Ford was full of ground feed, so the boat would have to wait for another time, so off they went, back home to Rockton.
Roy never did know how the boat was returned, nor did he care.  When I asked if they had caught any fish, he guffawed as only Roy could do and said they hardly had time to get a line in the water.  “We never caught a dang one,” is how I remember Roy telling it.  As we watched that day in Rockton as the young folk headed out to canoe the Kickapoo, he still remembered that awful afternoon on the Kickapoo from over seventy years before and wondered why anyone would want to canoe that river.
I grew up in La Farge nearly twenty years after Roy’s little adventure, but I remember no canoeing on the river of any kind.  It’s not as if we didn’t hangout on the river.  As a kid, we fished off the old dam at Seelyburg and dropped our worms by the power plant there.  We skated on Darrell Hollenbeck’s Slough next to the river in the wintertime.  I speared carp in that slough a couple of times – a Rite of Spring on the Kickapoo carried over from the old days.  My friends and I were in the Boy Scouts, so we did lots of outdoors stuff and activities, but we steered clear of canoeing on the Kickapoo River.
It wasn’t like we were adverse to the activity.  When Scout Master Harry Lounsbury took us up to Camp Decorah on the Black River, we learned canoeing skills on the lake at the camp and then took our canoes out for an afternoon trip on the river. It was great fun.  But we didn’t canoe the Kickapoo because, as Roy and his friend found out, it wouldn’t be great fun.
In Scouts we even built our own canoe! It was a project that the scout troop tackled in the garage of assistant Scout Master Arnie Widstrand.  We worked on assembling the wood strut frame and covering it with canvas as a winter project.  We admired our canoe in the spring, but didn’t take it out on the Kickapoo.  Harry loved to fish at Petenwell Flowage on the Wisconsin River over by Mauston and it seems to me that we took the canoe over there to use.  I don’t know what happened to that canoe – hope Royce Gudgeon didn’t take it out on the Kickapoo.
Kevin Alderson and his group of friends came through La Farge’s Scouting program soon after.  They also built a canoe, but I’ll have to tell of the fate of that craft in the next entry.  We’ll continue this paddle through the past about canoeing the Kickapoo next time.