Friday, March 9, 2018

Bikepackrafting the Wisconsin River

This past summer Devon had the genius idea of biking to the Wisconsin River, packrafting part of it, and biking home. I thought this sounded like a lot of fun until he made it clear that he wanted to do the whole thing in one big push, mostly at night, without stopping to sleep. This plan sounded more like a slog than fun. Of course, I was in and we started making plans.

I hadn't been cycling much so I went for a few long rides, made sure my commuter bike was in decent shape and bought some cycling food like caffeinated gels. Devon and I also did a test run where we biked to Lake Wingra, disassembled the bikes, strapped them to the packrafts, paddled across the lake, and biked home. Everything went well and I was surprised how easy it was to secure the bikes to the rafts and to paddle with a bike on top of the boat.

The trip is just getting started and things are already looking a little strange.
Since we would be paddling in the dark we decided it would be helpful and more fun if we paddled during a full moon. On Friday, July 9th I put on my cycling clothes, secured all my gear to the bike (including Ana's packraft) and biked over to the pile of footballs next to Camp Randall Stadium to meet up with Devon. The bike was heavy with all the gear but no worse than going bike camping.

We rode out of Madison on the Campus Drive Bike Path, then took the Blackhawk Path to Middleton. From there we went through Middleton on the road (where the traffic was less than friendly, there's always someone) and the crushed gravel path of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. From there we took the Highway 12 and the Highway 12 path the 20 miles to the Wisconsin River in Sauk City. I've never liked the Highway 12 path so if I did this again I might take one of the side roads for less traffic and a better view, though it might add miles and hills.

Devon and the boat on the bike.

It was just before sunset when we crossed the bridge over the Wisconsin River into Sauk City. We bought some food at the gas station (I couldn't find anything I wanted and should have brought some sandwiches instead) and then headed down to the river to make the transition from land to water. We quickly took the boats and bags off the bikes, removed the front wheels, pumped up the rafts, assembled the paddles, and strapped the bikes and wheels to the boats. Then we awkwardly slid down into the boats, and pushed off. I was careful not to step in the water as I got in, not wanting wet feet for the rest of the night. At this point we were 28 miles in.

Devon and the bike on the boat.
Planning to take out at Spring Green, we needed to cover about 23 miles on the river. While the Wisconsin River does have a current, it is too slow to move the boats very quickly, meaning that we would need to paddle continuously to make it to the take out in a reasonable amount of time. We did not want to be on the river in the morning when the wind was expected to pick up since wind can really make paddling a challenge, especially in a packraft since they don't track very well anyway.

Wow, nice life jacket.
As we began paddling, there was a great sunset that quickly became darkness. Thankfully the moon was bright and we didn't need headlamps to see where we were going. For the most part, the river is wide and there is nothing much to worry about. Occasionally we had to navigate around a sandbar. Once in a while shallow water would surprise us, we'd get stuck, and we'd have to jump out of the rafts and drag them across. The Wisconsin River can be dangerous but we wore life jackets and kept the boats tethered to us with a carabiner and a short rope.

Rummage sale foreground, sunset background.
It was surreal to pass by almost silently as campers and partiers did their thing on the sandbars and the shore. As it got later the fires were farther apart and the crowds were quieter if anyone was awake at all. When there weren’t any obvious lights it seemed like it could have been a thousand years ago.

Having paddled this section many times I was vaguely familiar with the occasional landmarks we were passing but it was hard to be sure at night. It seemed like we were making good progress. My arms were tired sometimes but I didn’t have any problems paddling. I had expected to run into trouble staying awake but the cool air and exercise kept us alert. I never opened any of my caffeinated gels or the Starbucks Doubleshot I had bought at the gas station.

We paddled for hours. I worked on efficient movement and I worked on being a better paddler. I worked on taking in the experience and I worked on not working on anything. Bluffs on the side of river came and went. So did thoughts of taking a break and bumming some beers from one of the groups on shore.

Good thing we didn't run into the DNR, there has to be something illegal about this setup.
Soon enough we saw the old railroad bridge with the turntable built in (just how big were the ships on the river when this thing was built?). Then we saw the Highway 14 bridge. There almost no traffic at, say, three in the morning. There wasn’t much more paddling and were at our take out, Peck’s Landing, right across from the Taliesin Visitor Center. It had been a well-paced paddle with no headwind and no flips. We were 51 miles in.

Our situation changed rapidly as the calm air turned from an advantage to a disadvantage. The mosquitoes descended on us in the hundreds. We were mauled as we, like poorly designed Transformers, slowly changed from rafting mode to cycling mode. All I could think of was the bee scene from Tommy Boy: Bees! Bees! Bees in the car! Bees everywhere! God, they're huge and they're stinging like crazy! They're ripping my flesh off! Run away, your firearms are useless against them! I might have been a little loopy from the lack of sleep. We finally got going and escaped the horrible mosquitoes.


The first climb out of the Wisconsin River valley came on suddenly and was like trying to ride up a wall, or at least it felt that way loaded down with a raft, a paddle, a life jacket, food, water, camera, phone, extra clothes, and whatever other gear I’m not remembering right now. There were a few miles of relatively flat terrain, then we gave back almost all of the elevation we had gained and started in on an even bigger, meaner climb just outside Governor Dodge State Park. Somewhere in the dark a farm truck flew past us on a narrow road, probably filled with organic, free-range kale for the Saturday Dane County Farmer’s Market.

Just after the last huge hill we turned east onto the Military Ridge State Trail and the sky started to get light. At this point, I was getting confident that this was going to work out and it was going to be a pleasant trip rather than a slog. The trail is relatively flat because it used to be train tracks and both Devon and I are very familiar with it. Devon had brought a portable speaker and a good playlist and we were rocking out.

Military Ridge State Trail.
We stopped to refill our bottles in Barneveld and I found my Doubleshot had somehow cracked open in the pannier. It was a real mess but there was no reason to worry about it, though the pannier would smell like coffee for weeks. The rest of the ride was uneventful and we made it back to Madison without any trouble. Our timing was perfect as a windy day was just getting started. We were 110 miles, 15 hours, and about 3000 feet of elevation gain in.

The old train depot in Mt. Horeb.


Back at Camp Randall!
Was this a good adventure? I think so. Was it the first time anyone biked to the Wisconsin from Madison, paddled it, and biked home? I suspect it might be, though I wouldn't be surprised if some crusty river rat did this same trip back in the day with a rusty Schwinn single speed and one of those rubber rafts that teams of prospective Navy SEALS carry around during Hell Week.

If you're interested, check out the route at Strava (might need to be logged in to see it).

Can you tell which part of the elevation chart is the river?

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