Wisconsin River – Pine Island
Date Paddled: May 25th, 2020
Put-in: Pine Island Boat Ramp
Take-out: Hwy 33 Access
Distance: 6.0 miles
Time: 3 hours 6 minutes
Gradient: 2.2' per mile
Water Level: Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Dells 6540 CFS or 3.9'
This is a tweener section on the Wisconsin River that isn’t popular for various reasons. It of course can’t compare with the Lower Dells and its famous rock formations located a bit upstream. Downstream from Portage, the river gets big enough for serious motorboat traffic and it’s a very popular “party” section. Yet few venture on the Wisconsin upstream of Portage and I was intrigued to learn more.
My trip started at the base of Pine Island (which is actually a series of islands). The river here is generic but pleasant. In the first few miles there are a large density of islands and sandbars which create fun back channels and sloughs to explore. The sandbars were actually surprisingly nice and this is a seriously underrated camping leg (as long as you go when the water is low). Unlike the Lower Wisconsin, which can be quite competitive when it comes to sandbar camping, you’ll have your pick among many here.
But there are reasons that most paddlers prefer the Lower Wisconsin. The terrain on this trip was flat and lacking bluffs or sandstone outcrops. In the distance I could hear Interstate 90…at ALL times. Lastly this trip heads east (unlike the Lower Wisconsin) so morning paddlers (which is most of us) will have to paddle directly into the sun and washed out scenery.
One of the unique highlights on this stretch are the historic levees. North of the river is the smaller Lewiston Levee (four miles long) and along the south shore is Caledonia Levee which stretches for an impressive ten miles.
These levees serve an important purpose. The Wisconsin River by Portage is 8′ above the nearby Fox River (and this difference can approach 20′ during flood stage). Back in the day, before the levees, the Wisconsin would routinely split at Portage during flood stage and send a significant portion of its discharge to the Fox River. That was a remarkable geological phenomenon…in essence the Wisconsin River would fork and the Eastern half of the United States would become its huge island (well abstractly).
In 1880 a make-shift dike burst near Portage and the overflow into the Fox River created a lake 100 miles long and two miles wide. Fond du Lac and Oskhosh were mostly submerged under water. History could actually repeat itself. Neither of the levees is in good shape and both are quite old (about 125 years). If the Caledonia Levee burst it could cause havoc for Northeast Sauk County and I-90…while a compromised Lewiston Levee could cause problems from Portage all the way to Lake Winnebago.
This trip went surprisingly fast as there were no winding turns or downed trees to slow me down. Before long I came to busy I-39 were fishermen where fishing along the south bank. There’s actually a decent-size sandbar directly under the interstate and in theory you could camp here, which is a novel thought. I suppose in a rain storm the large bridges could keep your tent dry… Past I-39 was the city of Portage where residential homes hide precariously behind the Lewiston Levee. My take-out was at Portage’s second bridge (Hwy 33) which has a nice carry-in access.
In summary this was an ok trip, but not an elite one. The trip’s best parts were its sandbars, islands and side sloughs…but given that so many other Wisconsin River legs have these features and more…I’m not sure I can recommend this trip for these merits alone. The one advantage this section does have is its relative solitude. It just doesn’t see that many paddlers and it becomes too shallow for motorboats during low flows. So canoe campers wanting seclusion and their choice of prime sandbars may enjoy this section (as well as the previous 10 miles from Indian Trails Parkway).
Pine Island State Wildlife Area: This is an expansive wetland located south of Levee Road. There are numerous pull-offs where you can park and explore. The wetlands do include several small lakes, but I don’t believe they are practical for kayaking.
The Leopold Center: This is a nonprofit organization which promotes environmental education through a series of interactive exhibits and programs. The reserve includes the famous shack where Aldo Leopold, the father of the conservation movement, wrote his famous book, A Sand County Almanac. Unfortunately the visotr center has been closed until further notice.
Pine Island Boat Ramp: This is a popular boat ramp located just south of Pine Island. If you leave your car here make sure to leave room for trailers to turn around. No fee is required to use this launch. There are no outhouses at the landing.
- Indian Trails Parkway (9.8 miles upstream): There is a small but nice public access located here. This upstream leg isn’t super interesting and lacks the cliffs of the Lower Dells…but it does have many nice sandbars.
Hwy 33: There is a nice carry-in access located by the Hwy 33 bridge south of Portage. Carry-in means there isn’t a ramp for big boats, but paddlers can use this access no problem. No fee is required to use this launch.
- Sunset Park Boat Ramp (across the river and just a bit upstream): This is the main boat ramp for the city of Portage and is a good access option. I simply chose Hwy 33 because it shortened my bike shuttle.
- Thunderbird Road (5.6 miles downstream): There are actually two public launches here to choose from. The stretch from Portage to the Baraboo River is a good one with nice sandbars, but it can get busy and crowded on summer weekends because of its proximity to Lake Wisconsin.
- Lake Wisconsin Access Points: There are of course numerous alternate take-out options available the closer you get to Lake Wisconsin. See the overview map for more details.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Hwy 33 to Pine Island Ramp: (5.9 miles) This is a relatively long bike shuttle but is quite nice. Levee Road is a Rustic Road that parallels the historic Caledonia Levee. The shuttle route is flat with little vehicle traffic.
Hazards and Concerns:
- Strainers: Really this is a safe trip…but there are downed trees and fast current next to the shoreline. Alert paddlers should have no problems.
- Wind: This is an exposed stretch and wind direction and speed will be important considerations. Avoid a headwind great than 10 mph.
- Drop-offs: Most paddlers will likely take sandbar breaks on this trip. If you do so be careful where you wade as there are surprise drop-offs and undertows.
River Depth and Navigability:
Nearest Gauge: Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Dells – 6540 CFS
- 0-4,000 CFS: A very low depth. Monster-sized sandbars.
- 4,001-6,000 CFS: An average summer depth. Good-sized sandbars.
- 6,001-8,000 CFS: An average spring depth. Some decent sandbars.
- 8,001-10,000 CFS: Hardly any good sandbars.
- 10,001-13,000 CFS: A very high depth. Likely navigable but not very inviting.
- 13,001+ CFS: At this point this section might be unsuitable for paddling unless you’re an experienced paddler.
Other Wisconsin River Trips:
For details on access locations, see my Wisconsin River Overview Map.
- Castle Rock Lake to the Lemonweir River: 10 miles. An ok section.
- Lemonweir River Mouth to the Two Rivers Landing: 7 miles. The first half of the classic Upper Dells.
- Two Rivers Landing to Blackhawk Island: 6.5 miles. Second half of the classic Upper Dells known for its fantastic outcrops. Note, the Blackhawk Island landing is no longer accessible without special permission from the local 4H club.
- Black Hawk Island to Wisconsin Dells Dam: 2.0 miles. More nice sandstone outcrops. You can take out at a public ramp off Indiana Ave or portage the dam and take out SW of the dam by a launch off Wisconsin Dells Pkwy/Hwy 12.
- Dells Dam to Indian Trail Pkwy: 6.4 miles. Classic Lower Dells section.
- Indian Trail Pkwy to Pine Island Boat Ramp: 9.8 miles. Few paddle this stretch as it isn’t as interesting. But…it does have a good concentration of sandbars and few competing paddlers for them.
- Pine Island Boat Ramp to Portage/Hwy 33 Access: 6.0 miles. Not an elite section that is lacking in cliffs and bluffs. It does have good sandbars though.
- Portage to Baraboo River/Thunderbird Road: 5.2 miles. A good section with great sandbars, but can be crowded in the summer.
- Baraboo River to Dekorra Park: 2.5 miles. River splits into several channels which can be fun to explore.
- Dekorra Park to James Whalen Memorial Park: 6.6 miles.
- Dekorra Park to Camp Rest Park: 5.1 miles. A terrific section with rock outcrops, large island deltas, hidden sloughs, and nice sandbars. Unfortunately this part of the river is popular with motorboats and jet skis which can be a plague. Multiple alternate access options.
- Camp Rest Park to James Whalen Memorial Park: 1.5 miles. Not a great section because of the open water paddling, powerboats and big waves. The west shore though does have nice outcrops.
- James Whalen Memorial Park to Prairie du Sac Dam: 14.5 miles. The river turns into “Lake Wisconsin” here…an inadvisable section due to the amount of open water paddling required. There are many intermediate access options.
- Prairie du Sac to Mazomanie: 8 miles. An ok section of the Wisconsin but lacking in sandbars.
- Mazomanie to Arena: 9.7 miles. A great section with nice sandbars and scenic bluffs.
- Arena to Hwy 14: 8.0 miles. Good section with a high concentration of sandbars. One of the more popular legs on the Lower Wisconsin.
- Hwy 14 to Hwy 23/Spring Green: 2.2 miles. Neat mini-section with sandstone outcrops. Very popular in the summer.
- Spring Green to Lone Rock: 7.4 miles. Another fine sandbar/bluff section with some nice rock outcrops too.
- Lone Rock to Gotham: 8 miles. This stretch has super impressive rock outcrops and sand banks.
- Gotham to Muscoda: 7 miles. Cool limestone rock outcroppings.
- Muscoda to Port Andrew: 7 miles.
- Port Andrew to Boscobel: 9 miles. Wooded islands start to get massive.
- Boscobel to Woodman/Big Green River: 9 miles and start of the less paddled stretch of the Lower Wisconsin. Far fewer sandbars from here to the mouth, but good bluffs and side sloughs to explore.
- Woodman to Adiantum Woods State Natural Area: 3.9 miles.
- Adiantum Woods State Natural Area to Millville: 3.8 miles.
- Millville to Bridgeport: 5.3 miles.
- Bridgeport to Wyalusing (the mouth): 9 miles.