It would be mighty unusual if you drove down Main Street of La Farge on any of these late summer days without seeing a kayak. Now I realize there has been a kayak hanging in an advertising display at the Z-Zip Stop for several weeks of these summery September days of 2015. But not counting that red kayak hanging above the gas pumps, you still would probably see a kayak hanging on top of a vacationer’s car or plopped in the bed of a pickup. All of those kayaks are headed for the Kickapoo River for a summer c(k)ruise. (Pardon the alliteration in use here. I just can’t help myself when it comes to this kooky Kickapoo kayak kruise kraze. Again, I apologize.)
It appears to me that the kayak has really caught on this summer as the new aquatic vehicle of choice for floating on the Kickapoo. The kayak has been seen more and more frequently here in the Kickapoo Valley in recent years, to the point that now it seems to rival the canoe as the conveyance of choice for maneuvering on the waters of the Kickapoo.
Maneuvering might be the key to the kayak’s upsurge in usage on our “Crooked River”, the Kickapoo. The river is notorious for sharp turns, bottom-scraping shallow water, snags of all descriptions, fallen trees to twist around and numerous sand and gravel bars to traverse over and/or around. This makes for difficult going for even the most experienced tandem paddlers in a canoe. Indeed many a friendship or family fondness has been shattered by the cursing and screaming of “No, No, you idiot, paddle the other way!” and “Back up you imbecile, we’re now hung up on this snag!”
With a kayak, it’s a simple right stroke here, back some water here, bring the rear around this way and one glides past the troubles in those roiling waters of the Kickapoo. Beaming kayakers gliding gleefully past the marooned cursing canoeists, stuck on the snarling snags. Life is good in an easily maneuvered kayak.
Cost is also a factor here in comparing the kayak’s continuing climb in popularity for use on the Kickapoo. A brand new beauty of a kayak can be had for a couple of hundred dollars at area purveyors of plastic aquatic conveyances. If you want to go top-end on your kayak purchase, doubling that amount will bring you a craft with all the bells and whistles like AM/FM radio, power windows and electro-magnetic depth finder plum-bob.
So, canoes are less maneuverable and more expensive than kayaks. Since canoes are larger than kayaks and generally need two to paddle, that’s a given, I guess. But let us not too soon trumpet the ultimate demise of the canoe as the conveyance of choice on the Kickapoo. After all, you must remember that kayaks have very little if any storage capability. Since some groups of people who canoe the Kickapoo are very interested in floating along with the current while consuming adult beverages and snarling down salty snacks, the canoe’s ability to safely store coolers and such will probably always be needed.
After all, fifty years ago, very few would have thought that the canoe could adequately navigate the tortured torrents and stupefying snags of the muddy river. Indeed, native Kickapoogians avoided navigating on their river at all costs. (I’m reminded of a story that Roy Stone told me years back of when he and a friend tried to float down the Kickapoo. Then boys in their teens, the two set out from Rockton in a flat-bottomed duck boat to catch some trout. When I asked Roy how the fishing had been on that trip, he guffawed and said there never was any time to fish. The two lads had to spend all their time keeping the boat from going aground and getting caught up on snags. As they were trying to float down the river, they had to portage around several huge blockages in the river caused by fallen trees and accumulated flood trash. By the time that the weary boys climbed out of the river at Bacon’s Bridge just above La Farge several hours later, they had HAD IT with any thoughts of floating on the Kickapoo. Years later, Roy related this story to me as we sat and consumed adult beverages in the Rockton Bar one Saturday afternoon and watched as a couple of dozen folks were heading out to canoe the Kickapoo.)
In May 1962, two canoes containing three men and three boys floated down the Kickapoo River from Rockton to Tunnelville south of La Farge. The group of canoeists was from Pewaukee, Wisconsin and had canoed on many different rivers and streams in 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.” The quoted sentence is from a front-page article in the May 31, 1962 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper. That’s right; for anybody to canoe the Kickapoo was so rare that it made front-page headlines in the local paper.
Later that year, Congress passed the bill authorizing the La Farge Dam Project and soon professors and students from Madison were canoeing the Kickapoo looking for rare plant species and archeological wonders. Everyone enjoyed those voyages so much, they returned for more. The word got out that a canoe trip on the Kickapoo could be a pretty neat thing. Soon canoes were being rented out at the Beauti-View Resort in Wildcat Park near Ontario and at Smith’s Landing south of La Farge. The canoe craze on the Kickapoo had begun.
Now all the main canoe livery businesses on the northern Kickapoo rent out kayaks as well as canoes. The Kickapoo Yacht Club based out of Rockton has rented kayaks for a few years now and most weekends has them all rented out, as do most of the rental outfits at Ontario. As the demand for the one-person float craft increases, more kayaks will need to be purchased as the Kickapoo Kayak Kraze Kontinues!