Anyone been on the lower SW WI River?

-- Last Updated: Sep-28-10 11:07 PM EST --

I mean recently.

Thinking of doing a trip from Boscobel to Wyalusing. If the water levels stay high, we will have to do it in one day since there will be no sandbars to camp. How challenging is the water? I remember standing in the middle of the river dragging my canoe over a sand bar. TIA.

You can do it, …IF

– Last Updated: Sep-29-10 12:39 AM EST –

I think that trip covers about 25 miles, which would be a very easy distance to paddle in one day when the water is as high as it is right now. The water should be a little lower by this weekend, but not dramatically lower, especially since the peak flow and highest water will occur on that portion of the river this Wednesday and Thursday.

I wouldn't hesitate to do that trip with many of the people I often paddle with, or even by myself, but I'd recommend that NO one who lacks pretty good maneuvering skills venture out on that river right now. Sure, paddling the river itself is easy, even with the water this high, but I can't say that YOU will be safe out there since I don't know if your paddling skills are good enough that you can be confident of your ability to pull out of the main flow and into the flooded forest on either side without hitting a tree (or two or three) and flipping. I thought of this because most good paddlers almost never need to drag their canoes over sandbars when the river is extremely low as you described because they can can see the difference between deep and shallow water on that river hundreds of feet before they get there (though running aground happens to all of us once in a great while when we get carried away with conversation while paddling).

You should know that there will be one obstacle in particular that is potentially dangerous, and that's the railroad bridge at Woodman, but if you can safely dodge into the woods as mentioned above, you'll have no problem there. Some spans of that bridge, perhaps even all of them, may not have enough clearance during high water to let you pass beneath, and you don't want to be "right there" in the strong current when discovering that there's not enough space to let you through. I've seen one case when there was barely enough room for a canoe beneath one of the bridge spans (and the water was lower than it is right now), but I don't recall which span it was. You will have a choice of four different channels for crossing the railroad. There's a big island at this location, and when searching for alternate channels and bridges to pass under, there's the left channel (that's the main channel), the right channel (that's the secondary channel), and two big flood channels. One big flood channel is within the island, only about 150 feet to the right of the main channel, and the other one is way back in the woods to the left of the main channel. If there's no clearance beneath the bridge in your channel, paddle into the woods and find another channel, or just go into the woods and portage over the tracks between bridges.

If you have the skills to exit the river into the woods, you also won't have a problem dealing with swirly current around bridge pilings elsewhere along the way, but those "swirlys" can be really powerful and could easily flip the average beginner or "part-time paddler" when the water is this high.

I pasted the dam yesterday

– Last Updated: Sep-29-10 8:06 AM EST –

(edit)my brain must not be functioning; Pasted?(/edit)

at Sauk City, It was wide open. This time of year the River averages 4500 cfs. It just past 50000 cfs and is still climbing. At those rates, a strong paddler could practically do the entire lower Wisconsin in a day. The river's moving at about 7mph which means nothing short of a race boat will be able to paddle upstream. Keep that in mind when it comes to safety; you won't be able to turn around to assist anyone behind you. Give the river another week to calm down if you can.

Current Speed
7 mile per hour might be the case in the confined channel that’s present for the first mile or so below the dam (maybe - nearly everyone over-estimates that river’s speed), but I’ve paddled below Lone Rock in flood conditions that were roughly one foot lower than the level of the river right now, and going upstream was not impossible, just very slow, and that part of the river is as fast as any other during normal flow. I did it in a canoe that won’t even go 5 mph. You are correct about the need for being safety-conscious though.

Not the Wisconsin but the Mississippi
At the risk of being chastised for posting OT (isn’t actually) or posting a negative post (rather than a “I’ve had a fun, happy day paddling” one), I wanted to share this information because it relates to Mississippi R. levels upstream from Waylusing. Fort Snelling MN State Park in the Twin Cities has been closed because of flooding. Site says Mississippi level was at that experienced in Spring 2010 flood levels:

Not in a long time
You have to go back to 1993 for the last time the Wisconsin River had a stream flow this high. Spring flood on the Wisconsin is usually around half this fast. Not only are dams on the Wisconsin wide open, but many of the locks on the Mississippi are also open. I saw a rooster tail being created by a channel marker downstream of the locks by La Crosse yesterday. The water has someplace to go whereas in Spring, usually the Mississippi can contain extra run-off from the Wisconsin.

While I agree most people over-estimate river currents, 7mph is pretty close to what I observed. At 6mph, it takes 2 seconds for something to move 17 feet. at 7mps, 2 seconds will move something 20 feet. Just watching sticks float past gave me a pretty good feeling for speed.

Took my Chevy to the levee
and the levee was gone.

Okay, that’s fine

– Last Updated: Sep-29-10 2:41 PM EST –

As I said, where the river is confined below that dam, perhaps the current is that fast. However, not far downstream, the river gains two- to three-thousand feet of additional width at times like this (and a lot more in many places), which greatly diminishes the amount of current-speed increase. However, it's important to note that referring to the river being "half this fast" during normal spring flood is not correct, since there is no linear relationship between flow rate and current speed.

Flow rates posted by the USGS are based solely on river level, except on those occasional intances when they visit the gauge site to take measurements. The relationship between flow rate and river elevation is well established, which means that it's not hard to extrapolate expected river conditions based on past experience. From the current Muscoda gauge, you can see that a change of flow rate from 42,000 cubic feet per second (the rate of flow that was taking place on the day when I was on the lower river near Lone Rock and paddling upstream) to 50,000 cubic feet per second (the present rate of flow at the same location) represents an increase in river height of a little more than one foot, and that isn't much change once the river is this high (on a log scale, 42,000 feet per second is about one-third of the way above the line for 40,000 cubic feet per second, for anyone interested in looking at the Muscoda gauge readings). With any luck, I'll be paddling today in the forests below Lone Rock again, and I'll report back on what I find.

Just as a side note, flow rate provides a very deceptive indication of current speed. Some people may have noticed that flow rate is always graphed on a logarithmic scale, while gauge height is always on a linear scale, yet the two graphs are usually very similar in shape. That means that any change in the gauge reading corresponds to an exponential change in flow rate. At the same time, changes in current speed are even less pronounced than changes in gauge height. On the Wisconsin River, a change in flow rate from normal summer flow to flood-time flow represents a smaller increase in current speed than many would expect, partly because water within all those locations across the main channel where the current is normally very slow is now free move at the same speed as the main flow, and also because the volume of flow within the forests is huge, even if the current speed among the trees is fairly slow. At the location of bridges, the current speed will increase relative to flow much more than will be seen elsewhere. Also, "channel improvements" on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are responsible for present-day current speeds being much greater than they would be on those same rivers in their natural state.

High water

– Last Updated: Sep-29-10 4:01 PM EST –

The river(s), both the Wisconsin and the Mississippi, are very high. Unheard of for this time of year. I was at the Sauk dam on Sat. and spent the day working across from Peck's Landing in Spring Green on Monday. On Monday the water was up to the angled section of the bridge supports on the Hwy 23 bridge - maybe 12 feet from road height. The gage heights have only gone up since then, but I expect they're going to start dropping slowly soon. They may be down to mere flood stage tomorrow at Muscoda.

If you do the trip, watch out for the Woodman RR bridge as Eric suggests and also be a tad careful leaving the lagoon at Boscobel. There can be a pretty strong rip there as well. Right off the bat... No problem for a good canoeist who knows its there, but every year there are local stories of paddlers who swim there even at more typical water levels.

If you paddle through the woods, be aware that there is poison ivy climbing up many of the trees. While paddling in flood several years ago I went through a flooded island and came a half inch from brushing through some. It was muddy, not obvious, and would have gotten about half my body and maybe brushed my face - and I'd not have noticed or though anything of it till later - too late. You don't even have to get out of the boat to get into poison ivy in flood.

Keep in mind that if anyone takes a swim, its gonna be a very long one. The "yard sale" could cover several counties. You can't count, as is usually the case, on quickly finding shallows to get it all back together after a spill. So just don't dump.

In addition to what's been said there's something unverified by me but which I've heard of and believe might be a possible hazard at these water levels. August Derleth, a writer of some renown from Sauk City who wrote a great deal about the river, its ecology, and its history, has mentioned a whirlpool that sometimes develops (or used to) at the confluence of the Wisconsin and the Mississippi. I've never seen it, but that's right where you'll be going on the way to Wyalusing. IF (big if) its there, where (as of right now)51,000+ cfs on the Wisconsin meets 136,000cfs on the Mississippi, it could be a real doozy of a whirlpool. I'd imagine such a whirlpool could eat canoes and spit out the pieces somewhere near Illinois. Approaching the confluence I'd stay far to river left on the Wisconsin, over what used to be a large sand beach and will now be relatively shallow, as you approach the Mississippi. Just to be on the safe side - it may not be bad at all. I saw no sign of it when we did the Pnet paddle at high, but not this high, levels in Aug.

PuffinGin is right. The parking lot at the Wyalusing SP landing may be awash right now and not be safe to park in. It wouldn't be foolish to give the park a call, see what the rangers have to say, and plan accordingly.

The Kickapoo looks good right now.
Just sayin'.

Best to you wherever you go.

Hey Ginny-
could you email me? I thought I had yours but apparently not, and you don’t have a pnet email link.

I need some help finding a camp location for a field studies group in your neck of the woods this spring.


A Very Quick Report

– Last Updated: Sep-30-10 12:21 AM EST –

I paddled on the river below Lone Rock as planned, and the whole experience of feeling the power of the river and silently gliding through the flooded woods as evening came on was so amazing that I really hope to write more about it soon. I had nowhere nearly enough time to paddle the river as much as I would have liked to, but I made up for that by paddling a large backwater area late into the evening.

As to what it's like out on the river, as I arrived at the river by way of going cross-country through the woods, my first look at a side channel alongside a little island I often stop behind in summer made me think there'd be no way to paddle upstream, and it really did look to me as if the boils were moving close to 17 or 20 feet in two seconds, but that turned out to be an illusion of scale, since I'm not used to seeing the river in this state. I brought my GPS along just to satisfy my curiosity (I wasn't expecting anything faster than what I've paddled on at other high-water times), and it turned out that I had no problem paddling upstream at 2 mph in this channel. I paddled all the way upriver to the Lone Rock railroad bridge, and the size of the swirls there was amazing. There were circular flows, irregular unpredictable though they may have been, that were about 100 feet across at those times when their overall outline was clearly visible. I paddled a little downriver from the bridge and also to the other side of the river where I knew the current would be as fast as any location on the lower river, other than a couple of riverbank "hooks" 1.5 and 2.5 miles downstream which always have small, concentrated zones of faster water. The current along this bank was indeed faster than anyplace along the mile of river that I investigated, but not much faster than what it is at low water. With my paddle stationary in the water to insure by feel that I really was drifting the same speed as the current, the GPS said 3.3 to 3.5 mph, with the fastest stretch being 3.7 mph. In my tubby all-purpose canoe I could only comfortably go about 1 mph upstream along that fastest stretch.

There were boils popping up all over the place which would raise the water's surface a few inches for a distance of 6 or 8 feet, and curly-cue swirls would show up with the low spots being nearly big enough to hide a floating football from view if you were looking at it from some distance away with your eyes at water level. All the normal flat-water turbulence was magnified many times, but it was nothing scary for a person who's comfortable controlling their boat. Though I found this little outing to be extremely enjoyable for lots of reasons (including wildlife sightings and overall mood of the floodplain), I'd have to say that no occasional paddler or beginner should be out there right now. Still, I must say that the condition of the river was pretty much exactly as I expected.

Now that’s service!
Love this website.

Hi Ginny
Way to go. Sharp comment. I can just see the expression on your face as you wrote the post. :slight_smile:

Yes, it could be done but…
Give it a week or two. The lower is almost at 60,000 cf/s today. It’s doable in a day but you will be tired even at that flow (especially if their is wind).

Counting backwater, it’s actually 31.25 miles. Paddle it when you can enjoy it. It’s a beautiful stretch. I wouldn’t rush it.

I tried emailing you
Laurie, I couldn’t find your email in our address book so tried using your email link here. I don’t know if it went out (no copy in my “out” box). We’re travelling for a couple weeks so maybe it’s just this connection. Funny thing is I see an email link below my message. If you didn’t get the email I just tried to send you, maybe trying sending through Darryl’s link. If that works, I’ll get it. Got some ideas how to help you with this.

Vic, you are so right. That’s exactly how I looked. lol!

Other Fun Observations

– Last Updated: Oct-01-10 12:22 PM EST –

Yesterday I had a chance to look at the Prairie du Sac dam, and also the old railroad bridge at Sauk City.

The channel below the dam is much, much wider than I was picturing it to be in my mind, though of course it was familar to me once I was looking at it again, and I started to remember where the main current used to be, and how one time I took a canoe out there to play in the junction zones between current paths having various speeds. I can't say that the current looked as fast as I was expecting it to be, but I can say that I've never seen it run at a steady speed from bank to bank. It was quite an amazing sight, and definitely worth a look for anyone nearby who can conveniently make the trip.

The old railroad bridge at Sauk used to have a whirlpool below it when the water was high. Not a "dangerous" whirlpool, but one that was 50 feet across and very impressive to look at. Well, now that one pier of the bridge has been removed, there's no whirlpool, but there were occasional partial tracks of circular motion near where the whirlpool used to be. A friend of mine once ran a small fishing boat with a 6-horse outboard upstream under the bridge during a period of the lowest whirlpool-creating flow, back when the bridge was still intact. With three people on board, the boat was only able to "climb the hill" on the upstream side of the whirlpool at a very slow speed. Though the whirlpool wasn't there yesterday (and probably won't ever be there again), the water was very powerful beneath the bridge and very turbulent just downstream. I saw boils which would rise nearly 1.5 feet and then disappear, and curly depressions which would be lower than the surface by almost that much as well. On the far side of the main channel it looked like the water was suddenly dropping about two feet as it ran up against a bridge pier and then curved around and through. Any number of places under and below the bridge looked like it a really fun ride, but it also looked a little scary to someone with my amount of experience. I wouldn't want to do it without air bags in the boat. That water was so turbulent that a swamped boat might disappear from sight for a while, so you'd need buddies along to have any prayer of getting it back.

Speaking of whirlpools, I'd personally be amazed to see one at the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. The Corp of Engineers and numerous other private and public agencies who "worry about such stuff" have demonstrated that water movements of even the biggest rivers can be accurately modeled on a small scale, and of the countless tributary junctions I've seen in my life, I've never seen one showing a trace of whirlpool formation. One really amazing thing that I have seen though, and this was happening a little bit on that last trip through that area that Pat mentioned, is that when waves move across one body of water (the Mississippi in this case) and run smack into the concentrated outflow of in incoming river (the Wisconsin River in this case), they will crowd tightly together and pile up pretty high. The mouth of the Wisconsin River might be pretty darned choppy these days whenever there's a strong westerly wind! That would be a sight to see too, but might also be something to avoid going through in the average canoe.

The pier remains at the Sauk RR bridge. They just took the span out. As I recall from reports at the time, a person crossing the bridge on foot though the bridge felt odd and reported it. RR officials went out to check and agreed. They sent divers down to the base of the pier to check it and they found it was three feet off the bottom of the river. The currents that caused that high-water whirlpool had also undercut the pier, which was hanging (?!!!) suspended from the rest of the structure. So they blew out the span before it collapsed and to prevent any possibility of a train getting on it.

Here are the photos of that demolition that I scanned from the newspaper at the time.

I, too would be surprised to see that whirlpool. I don’t believe its an impossibility though. It was reported and if ever there was a time when I would expect to see something unexpected down there, it would be in flood. So I mentioned it. August Derleth also wrote about that hodag thingie. I’d be even more surprised to see one of them.

One Pier is Gone

– Last Updated: Oct-03-10 3:12 PM EST –

Look closely at those two photos. In the first photo, the first truss-style span that is located to the left of the center-pivot section is exploding. Look at the junction of that right-hand end of that truss section with the left-hand end of the center pivot. There's a pier there, which orginally supported one end of the truss section and one end of the center pivot. In the second photo, that pier is gone, and the left edge of the center pivot has nothing below it (in the absence of any trains, the center pivot needs no support at each end as long as its own center pier is present). The photos don't show the demolition of the pier, so I expect it occurred a split-second after the demolition of the truss, and that explosion was already finished by the time the second photo was shot (very small time-delays between explosions at different locations are commonly employed during demolition, and even during rock blasting). Even if this couldn't be clearly seen in the photos, you know that there MUST have been a pier there to hold the right-hand edge of the truss, since it couldn't have been supported by the left edge of the center-pivot span, "especially" at times when the center pivot was rotated out of the way ;)

Oh yeah, the pier in question wasn't "hanging". Since a truss needs support on both ends, each end will go whereever the point of support takes it. I suspect that must have been something reported by another idiot news reporter (like the ones that spent half a day earlier this week telling us that the dike at Portage had completely broken, and then spent the second half of the day telling us that there was a chance it might break. Odd that such an event could be misunderstood by a bunch of reporters who were actually there, but clearly they could not understand what site workers where trying to explain, which is why I call them idiots). I visited the site of the bridge during preparation for its demolition, and saw that one edge of the pier had settled so much that the resulting tilt had moved the bridge-support point a few feet to one side and a little bit downward as well. The pier took the left-hand end of the truss span with it when it tilted, but the center-pivot section simply released since it needed no support there, creating a very crooked shape in the rails where they crossed that junction.

Oh, I should add another comment about that "hanging" pier. It's quite likely that what you heard was that there was a gap of several feet below a portion of the pier. The way it tilted, that could easily have been what the divers found.

Here's another thought. I wonder which was built first, the railroad bridge or the dam that's a few miles upstream. My guess is that the railroad bridge is quite a bit older than the dam, but if the dam was there first, the piers of the railroad bridge were definitely set too shallow. One of the piers on the other side of the channel settled too, and some time in the 1980s they jacked up the affected spans and installed shims to support them at the proper height. Anyway, I wonder about this "which came first" issue because the whole riverbed in that area dropped by 8 feet immediately after the dam was built, and probably a lot more than that at locations where the nature of the bedrock would allow (all that rock in the "rock bar" just downstream of the bridge came from the local bedrock under the original sand bottom of the river). What could have seemed like a very safe elevation to excavate to when starting pier construction could have turned out to be much too shallow once the riverbed became so much lower. On a related note, at the time the dam was built, it SHOULD have been common knowledge that the river just downstream would erode to much greater depth than that originally established "by Nature", but engineering in those days had a lot of holes in it, as far as knowing what things to worry about. A lock was provided in the dam to allow boats to pass through, probably to satisfy the same law that required all the bridges to have either a center pivot or a lift-able span, but elevation of the river on the downstream side of the dam had already dropped to an elevation well below the bottom of the lock before construction of the dam was completed, rendering the lock useless before it could ever be used. In fact, the only boat ever to pass through that lock did so while the river was still unaltered, before the full structure of the dam was even in place! Anyway, I think stuff like that is interesting.


I just looked at those photos again, and when the first photo is viewed full-size it is quite clear that clouds of debris are flying out of the pier itself, so it really was exploding at the same time as the truss, not a moment later as I'd been thinking.