Some people claim that the Kickapoo River, which meanders through the rolling countryside of southwestern Wisconsin, is the oldest river in the world. (The New River in West Virginia is also in the running, along with a nameless river in Antarctica.) In any case, it's been cutting its way through the sediments of the region for roughly 500 million years. Geologists estimate that the Grand Canyon, by way of contrast, could not be more than 70 million years old.
Of course, the Kickapoo is not nearly so grand as the Colorado. In many places it's hardly more than fifteen feet wide, and its pace tends to be gentle as it wends its way past farms and pastures, woods and small cliffs. (After a few hundred million years, even a river gets tired.) People in search of adventure take two-week rafting trips down the Colorado. People in search of relaxation take three-hour tubing trips down the Kickapoo, drinking beer the whole way down.
We "did" a stretch in early May, before the summer hordes arrived. During our four-hour descent we met only one other group - a party of young men taking a break on a mid-river sandbar. It was more common to come upon fly fisherman standing on the banks, especially during the early part of the trip. The current was moderate, the paddling was easy and often all but unnecessary.
The logistics are simple. There are five outfitters in Ontario, a small riverside town a half-hour southeast of the freeway exit in Sparta. We went with Titanic Rentals, simply because it was further away from the highway and perhaps needed the business. The owner was a man of few words. "The water level is low for this time of year, but it will be fine," he said. He handed us two life jackets and two paddles. One size fits all.
"The canoes are down by the river," he said. "Pick one you like and get going." He had trips of varying lengths on offer, from two to six hours, though they all cost the same amount: $30 per canoe, including a shuttle back to your car. We chose a four-hour trip—we'd arrived after lunch. The bridges downstream were numbered and the man assured us that the Titanic bus, a tired-looking blue jalopy parked out front, would be waiting for us at the parking lot near bridge 5 at the appointed time.
It was a muggy Spring afternoon with a veil of haze in the air. On our short stroll to the riverside we could see evidence of the summer mayhem we were avoiding: perhaps a hundred red canoes stacked three high on trailers parked out in a nearby field. Down at the beach there were eight identical keel-less Old Town canoes made of what seemed to be bright red rubber, lying on their sides against one another.
Two young boys were fishing for sunnies on the beach with their mother. They reeled in their lines as we dragged a canoe to the shore and clambered in. We chatted briefly with the woman as we departed.
"This is your first time down the river?"
"We've never been within a hundred miles of this place."
"You're going to love it," she said. And we did.
The most distinctive aspect of the river, at least in this section, is the geology. For much of the distance we traversed, one bank was defined by handsome, often moss-covered cliffs. Sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. I guess these are the sediments on the basis of which the Kickapoo lays claim to its advanced age.
But we were also impressed by the wildlife. In the course of our four-hour descent we came upon two minks at very close range, also two woodchucks and a muskrat. A pair of spotted sandpipers could often be seen a hundred-odd feet ahead, flying on around the next corner as we approached.
This led to the one dispute of the afternoon. Hilary was convinced that the same sandpipers were leading us along throughout the entire seven miles we paddled. It seemed to me that we spooked at least twenty separate pairs along the way.
We arrived at the parking lot a good forty-five minutes early. (Better early than late, I guess.) While we waited, we tracked down a blue-winged warbler that was wheezing away in the aspens nearby. The bus arrived on time, and empty. We were the only canoeists on the return trip. The owner was driving. On the way back to the car we chatted with his wife, a soft-spoken woman who told us all about her immigrant ancestors from Denmark.
If you're planning to do this stretch of the river, it might be a good idea to reserve a campsite at nearby Wildcat Mountain State Park. In the morning you can hike up through the hemlock woods to the top of Mt Pisgah and look out across the countryside you paddled through the day before.