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Wisconsin River – Prairie du Sac Dam
Put In: Prairie du Sac Dam (VFW Park)
Take Out: Ferry Bluff or Arena
Distance: Ferry Bluff (8 Miles) or Arena (14 Miles)
Time: 3 Hours 20 Minutes (Ferry Bluff)
Gradient: 2.1' per Mile
From the Prairie du Sac Dam to the Mississippi River is probably Wisconsin’s most popular all-around canoe and kayak destination (well…if not top, tied with the Kickapoo and St. Croix for popularity). A number of reasons why this section is so popular:
On the flip side…the current is a little weak (not bad like Lake Wisconsin) and the large size of the river kind of swallows up interesting bends and quirks that small rivers have (although some side sloughs share these values). It is also in the open, so wind/sun/heat can be more so issues than with small rivers.
Don’t paddle the river during high water…it’s dangerous and all the sandbars vanish (lower is better when it comes to water level for the lower Wisconsin).
This section (to Arena from the Prairie du Sac dam) is a long one, and you’ll want to split it up probably unless you are camping. Again…use the Google map measuring tool and figure two miles an hour to calculate time. The most prominent feature right away is the dam itself. It’s the largest in Wisconsin and has one of the most problematic environmental impacts. The dam slows down Lake Wisconsin so much that a ton of (toxic) sediment has deposited behind the dam and will have to be dredged in the future or it will threaten the life of the dam. On the downstream side, the opposite problem occurs…the lack of sediment doesn’t protect the channel from erosion and the river has eroded 6-8 feet in the 100 years that the dam has been in operation. In fact, the erosion is so bad downstream that the locks (huge things in the middle of the dam) are unusable because they rise 6-8 feet above the water-line. For more information on the dam itself I suggest this article by David Blodgett.
As for a review on this section… You can subdivide this segment into two legs…one from the dam to Ferry Bluff (~8 miles) and from Ferry Bluff to Arena (~6 miles). Again, the dam is a minor tourist attraction in and of itself. You can check it out from a safe distance at the VFW public park (most popular), or if you are more daring, you can put in at the dam itself. Hoofers from UW-Madison (the university outdoor club) actually put in here and paddle against the discharge for whitewater training. The other attraction besides the dam are the eagles that flock here in huge numbers (especially in the winter). From the dam to Ferry Bluff honestly is very weak when it comes to sandbars (the lower Wisconsin’s best asset), thanks to the dam blocking upstream sediment. The first few miles after the dam you will travel through the twin cities of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City.
The next major ‘highlight’ is the old railroad bridge that is partially torn down. It’s considered dangerous because the current picks up there and turns at the same time. Generally speaking you should stay all the way to the right and avoid the pillars like a hawk (they create mini-whirlpools that can capsize your kayak). From here to Ferry Bluff you’ll enjoy a natural river front (but alas, few sandbars).
Ferry Bluff is considered the highlight for many canoers/kayakers in the area. It’s basically a large bluff that you can climb on top of for a very nice view of the river. The bluff extends all the way down as a rock face right into the river. If you want to check it out, head up Honey Creek and in just a bit you’ll find a public landing on your left. Hide your boat and scamper up the trail for a nice vista of the Wisconsin River. Honey Creek is actually a water body I hope to cover in more detail on another page. It’s the largest/longest creek in Sauk County, originating in the Baraboo Hills, and can be a cool/shady contrast to the Wisconsin river on hot muggy days.
After Ferry Bluff and going on to Arena, expect a LOT more sandbars and very nice ones at that. So if you want to do camping or like navigating around these cool sandbar islands this is a good stretch. The best sandbar sections (generally speaking) are from Ferry Bluff to Gotham. Second best are from Gotham to Wauzeka. Third goes from Wauzeka to the Mississippi (the closer you get to the Mississippi the weaker the sandbars get), and the weakest section is from the dam to Ferry Bluff. Granted, this is all subject to change based on the spring floods.
View Wisconsin River in a larger map
Third Party Resources
Many of these locations can be quite popular on summer weekends and reservations are recommended. If you're into kayaking many of these launches do rent kayaks but vary with quality...make sure you ask about the lenth of their kayaks (longer ones will track better and have much less paddling resistance and better top-end speed). Services ordered by base of operations from upstream to downstream.
Bender's Bluff View Canoe Rental - 608-544-2906
Sauk-Prairie Canoe Rental - (608) 643-6589
Jensen's Blackhawk River Runs - (608) 643-6724
Traders Bar and Grill (aka Sandbar Canoe Rental) - 608-588-7282
Wisconsin Canoe Company - (608) 432-5058
Wisconsin Riverside Resort (aka Bob's Riverside) - 608-588-2826
General Lower Wisconsin Information
Generally speaking I haven't spoken too much about trip times and distances as this can vary a lot depending on the type of paddler you are, the river conditions and your navigation style. Generally speaking you can calculate distance using google maps distance measuring tool and for times take the distance in miles and figure two miles an hour.
It can be helpfull to get a rough ballpark idea though...
The DNR has also put out a nice custom distance calculator which is quite handy:
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