One of my earliest encounters with solo canoeing was in the Rock River at Horicon, Wisconsin about 35 years ago. Actually, I was in a 14-foot flat bottom skiff, commonly used for duck hunting. I was out negotiating small ice flows on the Rock on a bright spring day, just above the Horicon Dam. My meandering, and lack of attention, brought me too close to a partially raised tainter gate. Swift, ice-cold river currents quickly forced me into the gate and sucked the skiff underwater. Fortunately, I was able to grab onto the gate's superstructure and I crawled out on the downstream side. This also happened to be one of my most embarrassing moments as well, since this incident was witnessed by a few dozen northern fishermen who lined the banks in the tailwater area. The second most embarrassing moment happened about 10 years later, also soloing, while standing on the stern deck of a round-bottom duck hunting skiff in full view of my girlfriend. My showmanship was quickly overwhelmed by a loss of balance, and I found myself waste deep in Horicon Marsh muck. Fortunately, my lack of coordination did not drive away my girlfriend since she married me a few years later.
My first thoughts of canoeing the Wisconsin-Fox waterway probably entered my head shortly after learning about Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet and other French fur traders in grade school. Since then, I have spent the better part of my life, some 25 years, sampling, studying and reporting on water quality problems in the Rock, Big Eau Pleine, Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers in graduate school or as a Department of Natural Resources' employee. In the fall of 1997, I came across a book in the La Crosse Library's archive section by Ruben Gold Thwaites, an early Wisconsin historian, that described an excellent account of canoeing Wisconsin's southern rivers about 100 years ago. I had just finished reading Stephen Ambrose's book, Undaunted Courage, which describes the breathtaking expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, some 195 years ago. The combination of these books and a renewed interest to explore the Fox was overwhelming. Plans were made to canoe the historic waterway from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien the following summer.
Initially, I had not planned a solo trip. I thought one of my two teen-aged boys, John or Tim, might join me. Unfortunately they had other commitments and interests. My daughter Colleen was going to summer school and working in Iowa. Lastly, I asked my wife Beth. When she asked if she "had to do any paddling" my thoughts of a tandem trip vanished and I then focused on a solo trip.
What follows are my experiences and observations during my two-week trip. I have incorporated quotations from Father Marquette, Thwaites, and the writings of Robert Guard, a prominent Wisconsin historian. Causal readers may wish to skip my journal and read the quotations and view the photographs instead. The Wisconsin-Fox Waterway is rich in history. Remember this the next time you watch the Green Bay Packers, drive along Winnebago's shoreline, pass over Lake Butte des Morts, cross over the Portage Canal on Highway 33, traverse the Wisconsin on I-90/94, take the ferry at Merrimac or gaze over the Wisconsin confluence with the Mississippi at Wyalusing State Park.