Solo Canoeing the Wisconsin River (420mi)

For school, I am doing an independent study and will be solo canoeing the Wisconsin River, that starts at the Lac Vieux Desert in the Land O’ Lakes and stretches 420 miles southwest and dumps into the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chein. I’m wondering what your average speed is on a solo canoe? I understand there are many factors that come into play but I’m looking for a rough estimate. I am going May 1st - May 27th, which allots me with an average of 15.5mi a day. Is this doable in your opinion? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I’m down on the lower section near Sauk City and 15.5 mi/day is easily doable down here, even in 20+mph winds - though it’ll make you tired. Once past Sauk the river turns west or a little south of west and you’ll often find yourself facing some sort of headwind. The question for the overall trip is how well you can maintain a similar pace on the many reservoirs, some of which are quite large. Lake Wisconsin in particular can get quite rough. There might be days when you’re windbound. You’ll probably lose some serious time on some of the portages around the dams. Durangoski, who used to post here and might still be lurking around somewhere, took a full day on one of them, though i don’t recall which one. Hopefully he’ll chime in…
I know a fellow who did it in ten days and a few hours change, but he was a very serious racer and paddled through some nights. It was a record at the time, though I don’t know if it still stands. That comes in at about 40mi/day. That’s some really serious paddling, IMHO.

My first advice would be to practice on as many day trips as you can beforehand, since the nature of your question suggests you are pretty new at this. You may not know that spending long hours in a boat is surprisingly difficult when you are first starting out, and that’s even true to some extent when getting back into the swing of things after a long winter.

As to speed, I almost never keep track of it, but I’ve seen on most trips that if people assume an average travel speed of 3 mph, it usually works out to be a reasonably close estimate by the time all is said and done. You’ll probably have a 2-mph current helping you when you are not on the flowages, but as PJC points out, a strong wind can change everything.

15 miles a day is definitely doable if you are a competent paddler, and not even that bad for a beginner as long as conditions are favorable. A lot of the solo canoers I know use a double-blade paddle, which is definitely a “shortcut to competency” if you haven’t worked very much on single-blade paddling.

The load you carry and the type of boat you use will also make a big difference in how much effort you need to expend between Point A and Point B. Some boats cruise much more efficiently than others, and in general, the more weight you carry, the harder you will work. For what it’s worth, on one small, twisty little river that’s a favorite of mine, I’ve paddled 11 miles upstream and back again in one afternoon. Doing that trip on that river isn’t terribly difficult for me but it is a longer trip than I usually prefer. When I’ve done it, I’ve had two things going for me - an efficient boat and very little extra weight on board. Had I been carrying a load of camping gear (as you will be doing) or been in a less-efficient boat, the trip would be much more difficult and likely something I wouldn’t typically want to try to complete in one afternoon.

And one can never stress the importance of wind too many times.

I think averaging 15.5 miles a day is fine. Just understand that there will be days you do far less, especially when you have portages to contend with.

Discipline is key. Get on the water early in the morning when winds are usually at their quietest. That means having a simple camp that packs up quick and a fast, simple breakfast. No fire, bacon and pancakes! Stay on the water and keep moving when the conditions are good. There are some days you might do 30+ miles. If the wind is low in the evening and you have good camping prospects five miles down river keep going. Besides, evenings are often a real pleasant paddle.

If you have an opportunity to go and scout your portages before your trip it will help you get through them efficiently.

Enjoy your adventure! It a good one!

Year ago I did the Lac Vieux Desert initial section. Pretty. Its tight & twisty but 15+ miles is well within range.

There was a presenter at Canoecopia who did the same trip. I’m sure she’d be glad to share her experiences. I forget her name but she’d be in the presenters list at

id try it

Have the record for solo running of the WISCONSIN. If you need info give me a ring. Every now and then I do a 60 mile section just for old time memories. You should easily do 15 miles and that is not pushing it. As guideboatguy said, pick your boat and equipment well. I did it in 150 hours and that was in 198?. I used a Sawyer Loon. That is a Verlin Kruger boat. The last time I tried it I used a much faster boat to try and break 100 hours.

Well, howdy kayakracerone…
I remember that record run. A friend, his father, and I were were out doing a leisurely camping trip (his father’s last, I believe) when you passed us during your run, near Millville if I’m recalling correctly. You asked us what time it was and we felt rather like we were holding you up while we searched our packs for a watch. You had some serious weather - a near tornado on Lake Petenwell, I think - if I’m recalling correctly. That was a heck of a paddle you did there. Once again I congratulate you, as I think I did once at the Callie Rohr race where our paths crossed some years ago. (On that occasion you were acting as photographer at the race, I believe.) Glad to see you’re on the board. Does that record still stand?
Here’s hoping MidwestPaddler has better weather on the lakes!

Yes as far as I know I still hold the record. Planning on setting up a 100 mile race on the Wisconsin for next year. Would be called from prairie du sac to prairie du chain or the prairie to prairie race. You were a good distraction and I was having fun because the end was in site. I paddle the Muscoda to Boscobell section two weeks ago with my wife and friends. We should get together some time and paddle

Sure enough. Let me know, maybe Rena and Guideboatguy would be interested as well. Last time I was out was the week before you, I think. I camped between Lone Rock RR bridge and Pine River. Water was high and it was windy, but the river’s MUCH higher now. Sandbar camp sites are rare at present.
There’s a side branch through Avoca Prairie and Long Lake that might be navigable now with the high water. I’ve never tried it but to those who read this and are young and adventurous, it might be worth a try soon while the river is up. But then again it could turn into a really muddy slogging mess - such is the nature of exploration. The cut off is on river left just before where the river bends north toward Buena Vista and the Pine River landing. Look for a current heading inland. That branch rejoins the river just upstream from Muscoda. I’ve tried heading up from the lower end and not gotten through due to downed trees that could probably be gotten around at higher river levels.

Young and adventurous? And here I thought you had paddled that cutoff channel one time, I guess simply because you even know about such an obscure river feature. And funny thing is, I’d recently been considering doing that very thing. The only trouble is, for a solo trip, it would make the most sense to go down the main river from Pine River Landing, then upstream on the cutoff, then, after following the cutoff to its source, to go back down the main river to Pine River Landing again. That makes the prospect of turning back pretty unattractive if progress through the woods is tough, because the right boat for the back channel is the wrong boat for going upstream on the main river, at least in my case. Anyway, for the benefit of anyone wondering about this, that little cutoff through the woods is as long as some paddling trips! I figure it’s a bit more than 5 miles.

Here’s what the inlet to the cutoff looked like just a few weeks ago when the water level was high, but roughly two feet lower than right now. This is looking upstream toward the main river on one of the outlet channels that feeds into the cutoff:

And this is the view downstream on that same feeder channel, through the area where the last two feeder channels merge, and also showing the place where the cutoff disappears into the forest:

I’ve been by there three times this summer, and the flow into the cutoff has been pretty robust.

Well, it was drizzling this morning, lawn was too wet to mow, the yard where the new holding tanks were buried was too wet and sticky to shovel to an improved grade and state of smoothness - so I went out to check out the river with that cut-off run in mind. The Pine River was roaring and the parking lot spongy, Otter Creek landing was OK but the creek was roaring and was filled with lots of downed trees. All the forest floor next to the river was juicy at best, but mostly shallowly submerged. Willow saplings were maybe 1/4 submerged and major trees had wet feet. All the sand at our Pnet island gathering spot at Muscoda was under. Practically no camping sandbars anywhere I looked from Arena to Muscoda, though I saw a bus load of renters and maybe twenty tandem canoes putting in at Arena with camping gear. Where they’ll camp is a mystery to me. I wish them nothing but luck. There were four tents set up on the Gotham sands on a pitiful little beach that forced them to pitch tents so close together they could have attached their tents to shared tent stakes.

One entrance to the Avoca Natural area, where I was hoping to get a look at the cut-off, was gated and locked. I’m guessing that’s to prevent folks from going back there and getting stuck. That entrance gives access to a low water crossing that would need to be flooded by about a foot to get through, so I couldn’t get to that to see how deeply submerged it is right now. The second Natural area access area got me to the place where the cut-off rejoins the river. It was flowing nicely at that point, the color of chocolate milk, and looked easily passable where I could see it. It would be a fast ride though… But the car got absolutely swarmed with deer flies. Didn’t really make me want to paddle through there just now.

I think its going to be a couple days for things to calm down and drop a bit so it would be possible to get out and walk around any downed trees without getting into the boot-sucking kind of mud in swarms of biting flies. Those flies got me thinking I’m just not that curious about the route today.

Great day for the racers though… there was some serious acreage of water flowing fast out there. I think we’re well over 20,000cfs at Muscoda. Right now the OP could easily do his 15 miles/day, most likely without picking up a paddle other than to steer.

The color of chocolate milk? The cutoff must also pick up a tributary to two along the way.

I vaguely remember crossing the cutoff on the access road to the Avoca Natural Area and also checking out the next Natural Area to the west many years ago, before I took up canoeing, but I didn’t know exactly what that little stream was at the time.