Guide to Madison’s paddle city

Whether you’re snaking the Yahara River, floating on Cherokee Marsh or touring Governor's Island, Madison looks better when viewed from the water.
Dineo Dowd and her daughter on the water
Dineo Dowd with daughter Armani on Lake Monona (July 2021)
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

It’s almost as if Madison was designed for paddlers.

As one of only two major U.S. cities built on an isthmus — 17.24 of our city’s 94.03 square miles are made up of water — downtown Madison squeezes between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Along with nearby McFarland’s Lake Waubesa and Stoughton’s Lake Kegonsa, this chain of “Four Lakes” (or “Dejope,” the name its original Ho-Chunk Nation inhabitants gave the area) is fed by the Yahara River, which threads through Dane County from north to south. It winds and meanders through Madison and its surrounding communities, fed by streams, creeks and Lake Wingra in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum before flowing out to Fulton to meet the Rock River and, eventually, the mighty Mississippi.

Even without leaving Madison’s city limits, you may never run out of places to put in your rented, purchased or borrowed kayak, canoe or paddleboard. Dane County is also home to approximately 69 named lakes and ponds, and 52 rivers, streams and creeks. Beyond that, within easy driving distance, you can explore the spectacular Wisconsin, Baraboo and Kickapoo rivers. Wisconsin boasts dozens of Class IV and V whitewater rapids, and our state is bordered on two sides by Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The options feel infinite, like ripples on the water. So where to start?

“When people come in, the first thing we do is ask them, ‘What do you envision yourself doing? Where do you see yourself going?’ ” says Darren Bush, owner and “chief paddling evangelist” of Rutabaga Paddlesports. “When people say what’s the best boat, I say, ‘The one that gets wet the most.’ The worst boat is the one you spend $300 on, paddle once, stick under your deck and let it rot for 20 years, because that’s $300 per paddle — that’s a really expensive boat.”

Bush has been paddling since the 1980s and working in the industry since the ’90s. In that time, he says, he’s seen an evolution from essentially two basic choices — 16- to 18-foot sea kayaks that went straight or 10- to 12-foot whitewater boats that turned in circles — to nearly every imaginable combination of size, length, weight, hull shape, features, storage, seat design and materials.

“The industry will follow wherever consumers lead them. As more people got interested in kayaking, they said, ‘Wait a second, let’s meet in the middle, let’s get a smaller boat that still goes pretty straight but will have some maneuverability and stability so that if the average person wants to paddle, they have something,’ ” Bush says. “That kind of exploded into the largest category of kayaks now — recreational kayaks.”

three boys standing on paddleboards

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

That can be overwhelming, and no craft is perfect, so Bush takes customers through a series of questions to find the appropriate compromise. Will you be mostly floating on a calm lake or navigating currents? Are your go-to spots rocky-bottom or sandy-bottom? Will you need cargo room for camping, or will you mostly be slipping out for day paddles? How will you transport your boat? Are you physically able to lift it up? As a general rule, the lighter it is, the more it costs — and the same goes for equipment, like paddles. Bush is 59 years old and he has a really tall truck, so he’s invested in a 17-foot carbon fiber boat that only weighs 35 pounds. But younger folks who don’t need to worry as much about throwing out their backs can save a lot of money with something heavier.

Then there’s dressing for water conditions. The ideal season for most Wisconsin paddlers is mid-May to October, but experienced paddlers like Bush can hit open water year-round as long as they don a dry suit and check ahead on conditions. The nearby Sugar River, for example, still runs when it’s 15 to 20 degrees outside. Bush has also run the Wisconsin River when it was 10 degrees outside. A more likely problem for the beginning paddler is assuming that a gorgeous, breezy 65-degree spring day is perfect for paddling.

“If you tip, you’re in 40-degree water, and you don’t last that long in 40-degree water,” Bush says. Conversely, his favorite paddling season is October, when you can dress for cooler weather but the water temperature is still warm (and nothing beats spectacular fall colors, especially mirrored on the water). The most important clothing item you’ll wear, however, is a life jacket. These also come in a variety of choices that can feel overwhelming or even inconsequential — but investing in one you really like pays dividends.

“Find a life jacket that is comfortable enough that you will wear it all the time,” Bush says. “That’s the problem with a lot of life jackets — people don’t wear them. And a life jacket that’s not on you isn’t a life jacket, it’s a piece of foam.”

While numerous spots rent motorless watercrafts throughout Dane County and beyond — including Rutabaga, which has a test pond out back — Bush says it’s just as effective to try things out on dry land.

Darren standing in front of canoes and kayaks

Darren Bush Photo by Sharon Vanorny

“You want to sit in it. Get it adjusted, stay there for 10 minutes, sit there and read a book, whatever,” Bush says. “Because it’s like shopping for furniture. Every couch feels comfortable for the first 30 seconds. Then it’s like … my back hurts.”

In the right boat, Bush can forget about back pain or any other discomfort and let life’s nagging issues float away. There’s just something about water, whether it’s putting in at Spring Green for a three-day midweek trip down the Wisconsin River where he doesn’t see another soul; a quick lap around Lake Wingra, less than two miles from his home, to shake the day off; a two-hour drive to the Kickapoo in Vernon County, “the twistiest, limestone-iest, most beautiful river,” he says; or a couple hours floating the Sugar River with ice cream in Paoli at the end, Bush has yet to find a substitute for the magic paddling brings. (Find some suggested river routes here.)

“I call it kinetic meditation, because you get into this rhythm,” Bush says. “Within five minutes of being on the water, my breath changes. It’s super good head medicine.”

Read more about paddling below:

Madison’s Paddling Pros
Meet four locals who take to the water every chance they get.

Timothy Bauer
Dineo Dowd
Ashley Anderson
Melissa Finkelstein

Good Stewardship
Part of enjoying our local waterways is pitching in to keep them clean and healthy.

Rent One Yourself
Where to rent a paddleboard, canoe or kayak.

5 local Rivers to Run
Recommendations from Timothy Bauer, author of “Canoeing & Kayaking South Central Wisconsin: 60 Paddling Adventures Within 60 Miles of Madison,” as told to Maggie Ginsberg.

Water Bugs Unite
5 events and organizations in Madison focused on paddling.

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