Canoe the Dells for scenic paddling

Canoe the Dells for scenic paddling
Bill Coady of Madison enjoys the beauty of the Upper Dells from his kayak.

Mention Wisconsin Dells and many Madisonians think of big hotels along the Interstate, crowded amusement parks and schmaltzy souvenir shops.

But the actual dells—the 15-mile Wisconsin River gorge lined with serpentine canyons and dramatic sandstone outcroppings—provides some of the most scenic paddling within an hour’s drive of Madison.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit I’d never toured the Dells—the nickname for Wisconsin Dells—by water until a recent kayak outing introduced me to places like Witches Gulch, Blackhawk Island and the narrows. Now, I’m advising those who might otherwise have skipped this historic piece of the Wisconsin River to check it out.

One note of caution, however: Plan your paddle outing for early in the morning before the high-speed tour boats and the Original Ducks hit the water at 10 a.m. We visited on a Monday morning and, with the exception of a few anglers and a couple other kayakers, had the place to ourselves. Locals advise that fall and spring are also good times to explore. Weekends are to be avoided.

Unfortunately, those who are looking to drop a canoe or kayak into the Upper Dells are facing some challenges other than jet skis and cigar boats.

For decades, nature-loving paddlers would park their vehicles along County N for quick access to the secluded no wake backwater channel around Blackhawk Island. This spot provided some of the best refuge from the powerboats that race around the wider sections of the Wisconsin River during the summer.

But the popular put-in two miles northwest downtown Wisconsin Dells was closed this spring by the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which owns the property along the river. A large fence and several no parking signs now greet people who are looking for some quiet water recreation amid the commotion.

Managers of the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center announced the closing, citing safety and liability concerns in the decision to block the launch spot. Upham Woods hosts thousands of school kids annually for outdoors programs and noted concerns about controlling access to its campgrounds.

“We’ve performed a risk management review and have determined that the little piece of Upham property presents us with significant risk management issues,” Upham Woods Assistant Director Toby Grabs wrote in a letter to Stewards of the Wisconsin Dells of the Wisconsin River.

The decision was a surprise to the local paddling community.

“This provided access to the most beautiful section of the river corridor,” Stewards of the Dells of the Wisconsin River president Debbie Kinder told me last week. “We couldn’t believe it when they put up a big fence.”

Kinder doubts that solitude-seeking canoeists pose any threat to the children visiting Upham Woods and said she thinks the group’s decision is an overreaction to potential risks. She also says paddlers are paying the price for problems from boaters pulling up illegally on the beach at Blackhawk Island and leaving behind trash.

On our recent outing to the Upper Dells, we launched kayaks at the public landing operated by the town of Lyndon another three miles north of Upham Woods on County N. It wasn’t a bad option but did require a long open water paddle that might prove difficult for those with less energy or boat-handling experience.

If you do put in at the Lyndon boat landing on River Bay Road, make sure to hug the western shore of the river and tuck behind the little island just south of the landing. This shortcut trims a bit off the trip and also protects paddlers from the wind and boat wakes from the wider section of the river channel. Hugging the shore also provides a close-up view of the 50-foot Stand Rock, a ceremonial site used by the native Ho-Chunk people long before any Europeans viewed the dells.

As an easier alternative to the River Bay site, the Stewards of the Dells group and the tour company Vertical Illusions are working on a new floating canoe and kayak dock at the Illinois Avenue boat docks on the northeast side of downtown Wisconsin Dells.

Kinder is hoping that facility can open sometime this summer—and if so, I will make sure to check it out. Lots of water to explore up there, for sure.

In fact, tourists have been enjoying the natural beauty of the Dells since 1856, when an entrepreneur named Leroy Gates bought a rowboat and advertised excursions “for the purpose of penetrating the numerous occult caves of the Dells.”

Later, photographer H.H. Bennett used a rowboat to lug his heavy camera and took the pictures that introduced the area to the world. By time the first steamboats arrived in 1873, Bennett was shooting pictures of passengers and selling them back as souvenirs.

Bennett’s famous 1888 stop-action of his son Ashley leaping the chasm of Stand Rock remains a classic today and reminds us that the Dells refer to the amazing sandstone cliffs along the Wisconsin River—not the water slides and roller coasters of the 21st century.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.