Timothy Bauer paddles for miles upon moonlit miles

Despite growing up near the Atlantic Ocean and feeling naturally drawn to water, Timothy Bauer didn’t fall in love with paddling until five years after he moved to Madison.
Timothy Bauer on the water
Photo by Patrick Stutz
Timothy Bauer

Despite growing up near the Atlantic Ocean and feeling naturally drawn to water, Timothy Bauer didn’t fall in love with paddling until five years after he moved to Madison. Once he accepted an invitation from an avid paddler friend around 2008, he was instantly enamored. “The joke I like to tell about all this is that I got into paddling to impress a girl and that it’s been a love affair ever since — the paddling part, not so much the girl,” laughs Bauer, who these days paddles solo, with friends, or occasionally with his Boston terrier, Wiggs.

The more Bauer explored the seemingly endless routes throughout Wisconsin, the more he wondered about what he couldn’t find in the guidebooks. He joined a local website called milespaddled.com — which was founded by Barry Kalpinski and is open to contributions from the general public — and began documenting his trips in blog posts. “What I liked, what I disliked, what kind of wildlife was along the way, was the river really high, really low, how long did it take, what are the things I’d recommend,” Bauer says. “Whether it was, ‘Don’t ever do this trip again’ or ‘Stop everything and do this because, trust me, it’ll knock your socks off.’ ” Before long, Bauer had amassed hundreds, then thousands of detailed miles. To date, he’s written “a bazillion blog posts,” he says. “I think we’re close to 4,000 miles that we’ve tracked.”

Eventually, Bauer’s posts led to a book. “Canoeing & Kayaking South Central Wisconsin: 60 Paddling Adventures Within 60 Miles of Madison” was published by Menasha Ridge Press in 2016. When asked to pick his favorite local lake route, he’ll give you three (Governor’s Island, only a block away from his house and rife with sandstone rock formations and wildlife; Lake Monona during fireworks, when the explosive colors are reflected on the dark, glassy ripples; and Lake Wingra through the Arboretum during a full moon at night). Make him choose a favorite route outside of Dane County and he’ll narrow it down to three more (Black River Falls, where he can spend two weeks and not travel the same challenging, beguiling stretch of river twice; the Stevens Point/Waupaca area, with its terrific vibe and paddling community; and anywhere in the Driftless Region, which Bauer calls his “love song”). Bauer also offered five local river routes but says, ultimately, the real answer is none of these.

“I mean this with all sincerity,” Bauer says, “my favorite place to go is where I haven’t been yet.” That’s not to say he recommends just setting out for anywhere at any time.

Timothy Bauer on the water

Photo by Patrick Stutz

“Not all rivers are equally paddle-able at any time, just because it fits with your schedule,” Bauer says. Just recently, for example, he took the day off work in anticipation of enjoying what promised to be high 60-degree temps — but at the last minute, he says, Wisconsin served up 45-mile-per-hour winds. There’s also nothing worse than packing up, putting in and setting out — only to get caught on too-shallow sandy bottoms or swept up in swift currents and flood-like conditions. Bauer is a big believer in what he calls the “Double Dubs” — weather and water levels — and he recommends checking both USGS.gov and weather.gov before every trip, especially if it’s on a river. For help navigating these websites, Bauer points to a step-by-step guide on milespaddled.com. He also recommends keeping a small, DIY first-aid and necessities kit in a dry bag with a spare set of clothes, socks and shoes.

But once he knows that the weather conditions are right, water levels are safe and he’s prepared, it’s everything you can’t predict that keeps Bauer hooked on paddling. He loves the sense of humility brought by powerful waves, swells, tides and cross-currents. The curious itch scratched by finding out what’s around the river bend. The delight in scaring up a great blue heron or a snapping turtle laying eggs.

“There’s something about the visible you can see and then the kind of spooky, murky, totally unknown below that,” Bauer says. “We live on solid ground for pretty much 24 hours a day. There’s something very neat going on when you’re simply floating on water. It’s like you’re almost tricking gravity.”

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