Kickapoo – Far Upper
While the Kickapoo is one of the most popular paddle rivers in the Midwest, virtually nobody does the sections upstream of Ontario. Before doing this trip I had heard mixed stories about the navigability of the far upper sections. I emailed a local tour operator (Fred Flasher) who said he had actually done the Kickapoo all the way from Wilton to Ontario (at least 22 miles). While he liked this section and said it was very scenic with riffles, he did end up having to pull his canoe a lot over shallow water, which made for a tiring trip. Not to mention run-ins with electric fences. He did say the section close to Ontario was much more navigable, as the Kickapoo grows quite a bit in size over the length of this segment. Talked to my coworker, who had done part of this section putting in below Oil City, and was encouraged. However, when I called the Titanic livery service they said nobody does this section because it is too shallow. I asked if he knew anybody who had attempted it and he said no…which was a green flag for me.
For the trip, I obviously didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew, so skipped Wilton and a good portion of the extreme upper reaches and settled for a 4-5 mile trip from one of the bridges. The water was up, which was perfect for this type of ‘marginal paddling’. So, I paid the livery service to drop us off upstream of Ontario (which really baffled them and they were asking each other if they could do that). Initially I was eyeing the bridge above Oil City (or downstream of the ‘Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton‘ school). But examining the put-in, it looked like tough sledding. While downstream of Ontario the landings are frequent and excellent, there is almost no infrastructure upstream of the city (although there are lots of bridges). We settled for a bridge upstream of my original put-in idea (this would be upstream of the school). The grass was very thick and high, which made it difficult to carry our kayaks down, but it could have been worse. There was a bit of a steep muddy drop-off leading into the river there, but with rope leading the kayaks in, it was manageable (but not ideal…the put-in might have been the low-point of the trip, minus the woodchuck family that greeted us).
Right-away you realized the effect the high water had on the river, as it was fast, high, and muddy. We did see evidence of some chainsaw work, so somebody had worked on this section in the past, but when we did the river, there were some tight fits (which I’ve tried to mark on the map from memory). Some of these were tricky because of the fast water, and with a longer kayak or canoe might have been really tough. There were also some low hanging branches that we were able to duck under that would give grief to a taller canoeist. Under different water conditions the log situation might have been better or worse…not sure, although we were definitely paddling over a number of logs. The first log situation came up soon after put in, which required very careful navigation. Now, all things being said with my talk of logs…I don’t want to oversell how bad this was, as we never once had to get out to go around a log jam or for shallow water (nor did we see electric fences), which was a major plus. After Moore Creek kicked in, we didn’t encounter any tight situations that I remember. Don’t be discouraged about putting in where we did though, as there are some very nice bluffs that you will miss otherwise. Just paddle with a shorter kayak and make sure you have some experience with class 1-2 rapids.
Soon after put-in, we encountered our first bluff, which was quite nice. I’ve marked the best bluffs on the map below, but really, they’re easy to find by using terrain view of google maps. The entire section of the river is very scenic. Even when you’re not paddling by bluffs, the towering white pines are quite photogenic, as are the hemlocks which grow by the river. Another highlight was the the two eagles were saw on the River.
After the Oil City bridge, we encountered a significant drop (see map/photos/video). You should hear this first (quite loud) and definitely want to give this a lot of due diligence….this would be a serious class 2 area. There is an overhanging trunk on the left fork…avoid that side. If the water levels are right, you can do as I did and gun over the right ledge (go fast to avoid the back current), and try to avoid any underwater obstacles at the bottom (I had to turn slightly right). You’ll be met by some choppy rapids.
Use basic white-water techniques. Paddle hard through the valleys and avoid the ‘mountains’. Keep your kayak straight downstream at all cost. Never turn a boat sideways to fast current and avoid underwater obstacles that will force your boat sideways. If this does happen, tilt your boat so the water flows underneath the hull. Never tilt your boat toward oncoming water. Water getting on top of the boat means you’re in trouble. Even with ocean ships, water going over the hull is one of the few things that can cause a modern ocean freighter to go over.
While this was the most extreme rapids, there were plenty of riffles that might have been interesting at lower water levels. All in all, this was a fun addition to the trip though and reminded me some of Badfish Creek or Spring Creek. After the ‘big rapids’, you’ll have a long, straight section and then some of the nicest bluffs on the trip. First, a nice sheltered area before the last bridge, and then a nice open bluff after the bridge that actually had perfect sunlight for pictures (taking pictures of dark bluffs and bright skies really confuses the dynamic ranges of most digital cameras).
We took out at the Titanic landing, which is the first canoe livery in town. This is easy to miss though, as you’ll shoot around a corner on some rapids and, if you’re not careful, will end up paddling too far downstream. However, if you don’t prefer private take-outs, there is a nice public take-out just a bit further downstream (marked on the map). This is hidey in fast current though, so you do want to be vigilant (it will be on your left).
All in all, a pretty positive trip that had great scenery, bluffs, and rapids. On the downside, some of the logs were tricky and the water was not as clean as it normally is because of the heavy rainfall. There were also a couple of dead animals in the water that were quite pungent. If you’re new to the Kickapoo, do the downstream sections first (which I also review). But if you’ve done those sections and the water is high…then consider the upstream sections as well. If you go during low water, this may actually be a plus, as the water will be much cleaner and peaceful (albeit still swift). Definitely bring towing rope with you as it is great to lead boats down tough landings and if you have to tow a boat over shallows or around log jams, rope is a life saver. With low water you’ll also want aqua-shoes or boots in case you do have to do a lot of wading as well. If you go during high water, be careful, as even the upper Kickapoo can get too high (I was told this section was in bad shape on June 22, 2013, but when I went on June 16, it was perfect). You may want to study the USGS gauges and call the local livery companies to get a feel for the river. When I called Titanic recently, they said the river by their livery was only a foot above normal. While that was an understatement, it is a relative gauge you might be able to go by.
For the trip, our USGS reading at Ontario was about 120 cubic feet per second (this can vary a LOT quickly though…just a couple of days later it spiked to 700 cfs so keep an eye on the gauges and weather). For our depth gauge measurement at Ontario we were at 8.8 ft. Because of the bluffs and small size of the stream this far north, it does seem to be prone to flash floods so be careful.
If you’re in the Ontario area, make sure to check out Wildcat Mountain State Park. Besides the nice trails and camping options they have, there is a terrific lookout overlooking the valley and the river (see video).
- Wilton to Ontario: 12 miles. This stretch is seldom paddled, but is cleaner and faster than downstream legs. Those willing to endure weedy bridge accesses and occasional snags will be rewarded with spectacular outcrops. A very underrated part of the river.
- Ontario to Rockton: 13.5 miles. This is the most popular section for kayaking on the river (if not the entire state). Highlights include many spectacular sandstone outcrops. This stretch can easily be subdivided. Shuttle services are plentiful, but this leg can get crowded and noisy during summer weekends.
- Rockton to La Farge: 11 miles. This is the second most popular stretch of the river. While the outcrops here aren’t as numerous as the Ontario leg, they do tend to be larger and more impressive.
- La Farge to Mouth: ~90 miles. After La Farge there are few rock outcrops and the river becomes much less interesting. The lower Kickapoo is a generic hardwood floodplain that is at best a mediocre paddle.
- Kickapoo River – West Fork: While lacking the outcrops of the main branch and a bit shallow in spots, this is a very underrated river with many fun rapids.
- Billings Creek: I actually like this creek better than the main river itself. There are just as many outcrops, and the water and banks are much cleaner.
- Tainter Creek: While not very big and lacking in outcrops, it’s still a cool creek with very swift current.
- Upstream of Wilton: The river here is but a small creek, navigable only in high water. Highlights include scenic outcrops, hidden ravines, and cool stone arch bridges that run under the Elroy-Sparta Trail. But logjams might be a bit much.
- Wilton Campground to Hwy 131 (East of Midge Road): 3.4 miles. This stretch was guest reviewed in 2016. At that time there were many logjams, but I suspect most have been cleared out. This stretch should have good outcrops, but likely not as nice as those just downstream from Black Valley.
- Wilton Community Campground to Hwy 131 (by Posey Creek): 1.4 miles. A narrow fast stretch with maybe 3 outcrops and 1-2 logjams. I definitely saw a major logjam blocking the river upstream of the Wilton graveyard.
- Hwy 131 (by Posey Creek) to Hwy 131 (by Mica Rd): 1.3 miles. A more open stretch with perhaps 1 logjam. I think there is only 1 outcrop, but it is part of a much larger ridge that could be very cool.
- Hwy 131 (by Mica Rd) to Hwy 131 (East of Midge Rd): 0.7 miles. Some snags to deal with and one cow fence that should be easy to duck under. Likely 1-2 small outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (East of Midge Road) to Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave): 4.1 miles.
- Hwy 131 (east of Midge) to Hwy 131 (by Michigan Ave): 0.5 miles. A good leg with a one nice set of outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (by Michigan Ave) to Hwy 131: 0.6 miles. Another good leg with 3 outcrops. Some minor rapids including a 4-6" ledge.
- Hwy 131 to Hwy 131 (by Nisswa Rd): 0.6 miles. One of the best legs on the Upper Kickapoo which features 6 noteworthy outcrops and terrific ice flows.
- Hwy 131 (by Nisswa Rd) to Hwy 131 (by Nordale Ave): 1.1 miles. Not as scenic as other legs with messy shorelines and eroded banks. There are still a few nice outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (by Nordale Ave) to Hwy 131 (by Nicollet Ave): 1.3 miles. Another one of the Upper Kickapoo's best legs with ~6 outcrops including a small natural bridge one can paddle through.
- Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave) to Ontario: 5 miles.
- Hwy 131 (by Nicollet Ave) to Hwy 131 (Oil City): 2.3 miles. Two long stretches of bluffs contain great outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (Oil City) to Hwy 131 (Kickapoo Wild Adventures): 1.4 miles. Terrific stretch with two major outcrops. One set of Class 2 rapids.
- Hwy 131 (Kickapoo Wild Adventures) to Ontario (Brey Valley Road Park): 1.5 miles. One set of outcrops.
- Ontario to Hwy 131/Bridge #4: 3.6 miles. A more open and flatter stretch of the Kickapoo. There are still 3-4 outcrops. This is THE most popular leg on the entire river.
- Bridge #4 to Bridge #7: 6.0 miles.
- Bridge #4 to Wildcat Landing: 3.1 miles. A super popular stretch and the most scenic on the Kickapoo. River flows past steep hillsides and many outcrops (at least 16).
- Wildcat Landing to Bridge #5: 0.9 miles. River opens up a bit, but still three super sandstone outcrops.
- Bridge #5 to Bridge #7: 2.1 miles. A good stretch with seven major outcrops and one cave.
- Bridge #7 to Rockton/Bridge 12: 5.1 miles.
- Bridge #7 to Bridge #8: 1.2 miles. From bridge #7 onward, the Kickapoo becomes much less interesting. There are still some good spots though. This stretch has maybe 3 outcrops.
- Bridge #8 to Bridge #10: 2.5 miles. A good stretch with 5-6 outcrops.
- Bridge #10 to Rockton/Bridge #12: 1.4 miles. This stretch is more open, but still perhaps 3-4 outcrops.
- Rockton to La Farge: 10.4 miles.
- Rockton to P/Bridge 14 Canoe Landing: 2.4 miles. An ok stretch with 3-4 outcrops.
- P/Bridge 14 Canoe Landing to La Farge/Bridge 14 Landing: 8.0 miles. A great stretch with a covered bridge and 4-5 outcrops...several of which are huge (the largest on the river).
- La Farge to Hwy 131 (by Ski Hill Road): 6.8 miles. Nice section but with a few jams.
- Hwy 131/Ski Hill Road to Viola (Banker Park): 7.0 miles. Maybe 2 bluffs, but mostly open I think. Have been told there are 26 portages between La Farge and Viola, so beware.
- Viola to Readstown: 12.5 miles. Should be able to subdivide. Not sure if any rock outcrops and might be some jams.
- Readstown to Soldiers Grove: 6.7 miles. Should be clear of jams and perhaps the most popular section on the lower Kickapoo. But it does not seem too special and I doubt there are rock outcrops.
- Soldiers Grove to Hwy B: 9.0 miles. I doubt there are logjams, but I think this stretch would not be very interesting.
- Hwy B to Gays Mills: 4 miles. Probably not interesting. A dam and flowage to contend with near Gays Mills.
- Gays Mills to Hwy S: 4.6 miles.
- Hwy S to Haney Valley Road: 5.8 miles.
- Haney Valley Road to Taylor Ridge Road: 3.6 miles.
- Taylor Ridge Road to Steuben: 5.0 miles.
- Steuben to Plum Creek: 13 miles. Maybe not interesting? Think you can subdivide this if need be.
- Plum Creek Landing to Wauzeka Boat Landing: 9.8 miles. Non-exotic but flows through a wildlife area. A landing at Hwy 60 allows you to subdivide the trip.
- Wauzeka to the Wisconsin River: 0.9 miles. The last stretch before the Wisconsin. Numerous take-out options on the Wisconsin River itself.
View Kickapoo River - Far Upper in a larger map