Canoeing the Kickapoo

By: Kylie Compe –

One of my favorite things about living in Wisconsin is the character of the seasons. Each holds their personality, but none can compare to the fiery auburn autumn with her brisk morning frosts and pockets of sunshine. Despite the craziness of the past year, I have been determined to make the most of my favorite season by mixing the typical fall celebrations of apple picking and corn mazes with spontaneous weekend trips, like canoeing down the Kickapoo River to enjoy the beauty of the fall colors. My drive into the area was almost as beautiful as the bluffs themselves — the winding road surprised me with more colors around every turn, hills scattered to the horizon with perfectly painted reds, oranges, and greens.

My friend and I traded our car for a canoe at Drifty’s Canoe Rental in Ontario and set a pick-up time for about three hours later at Bridge Five. The process was super quick and painless, and once on the water, we realized we had overestimated the fall chill and ended up shedding our layers back down to our t-shirts. The sun shone down onto the river through gaps in the trees, and I often purposely steered us towards the sunny spots. In the shade of the bluffs, I could smell of the musk of the sandstone and the damp familiar odor of wet leaves as they floated alongside us. Our paddles barely needed to touch the water; the current did all the hard work for us so we could enjoy our Saturday morning coasting peacefully amongst the bluffs.

We breezed through the first four bridges on our route in less than an hour and figured we should probably slow down or we would hit our take-out point too early. We pulled our canoe onto a sandbank and enjoyed our sandwiches in the warmth of the sun as other canoers and kayakers passed us by. It seemed to be a busy day on the river, everyone desperate to enjoy the last few nice days of the season. As more paddlers passed, we decided to pack up the cooler and get a move on. Turns out we had severely overestimated our abilities and, while we thought we were way ahead of their estimated three hours, we had fallen far behind.

Since we began in Ontario and were on a time crunch, the segment of the river we got to see was the part that meanders through Wildcat Mountain State Park finishing right before the Kickapoo Valley Reserve — a little over a 6.5-mile trip. The Kickapoo River is 126 miles total and is one of the oldest river systems in the world. A worthwhile trip for all levels of paddlers — easy enough for beginners, yet scenic enough to be enjoyed by experts.

Our next stop was to head further down the river to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for some short hikes around the Visitor Center. We explored the short loop hike around the center before heading up to the Wintergreen Bluff Trail to see some impressive lookouts. The trail leads up to a tall ridge where the earth falls away on either side held together by a plethora of trees. Through the trees, the river is visible in blinding glints far below.

We set up our hammock and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon under the trees before reluctantly beginning the drive home.

On our way back, we stopped for dinner at Hillsboro Brewing Company, an absolutely stunning restaurant and brewery with some of the best wings I have ever had. Looking forward to making this trip a yearly tradition!