Camping is allowed on state-owned Islands and sandbars along the Wisconsin River except for a two mile stretch from Ferry Bluff downstream to Grape Island.
Escape to the bare essentials of river life.
Casting my line ahead and to the right, I reel slowly. Guiding my kayak with each toss of my lure, I'm able to forsake my oar for a while, basking in the delight of my lazy drift while I direct my vessel with each pull of my cast.
Others in my group are equally as spread out as the pale-ale sandbars that dot this wide river. Knowing when the sun remains about six fingers from the horizon we will regroup and scout our site for the night, I surrender to the current.
Wisconsin travelers are spoiled. The last Wisconsin glaciation altered the terrain into a geographical work of art. Bluffs, riverbeds and gorges, painstakingly carved into ancient granite bones, are priceless examples of millions of years of adaptation. Wisconsin houses well-kept secrets. Meanwhile, vacationers flock to common areas such as the Wisconsin Dells and other concrete fields. Most are unaware that these popular tourist destinations were founded because of the natural wonders surrounding them.
But those who truly seek quiet natural beauty know exactly where to find it.
I bank my kayak and pull it out of the reach of the water’s teasing grasp. The sand is cool where it meets the water. A few steps in, the captured heat from the sun warms the bottom of my feet as I step further inland. The scent is rugged, the smell of a rainy fall day and decomposing leaves.
In the distance, a bald eagle slowly circles above a school of shallow-water fish. A popular spot for eagle watching, this stretch of the Wisconsin River draws eagle watchers from near and far.
The variety that greets you on the sandbars is one even the seasoned traveler cannot predict. The ever-changing terrain, resculpted each year, each month, by the giant river, never tires of a new design. Every meandering curve presents a surprise, a new feast for your eyes. During high rains it is not uncommon for a sandbar to be washed away in a matter of hours, resettling downstream in an entirely new form.
Islands, new and old, are born and die over the years. It is because of these realities that one must develop skill in choosing your camp. Sandbars housing beds of long grasses, trees or shrubs provide stability. Yet, no matter how much vegetation has taken hold, the sand remains, morphing into paradise.
Motor boats are less common on this river. Despite the massive width, the sandy bottom is inconsistent and varies in depth, an unreliable venture for most boaters. Although there are a few canoes in our caravan, none chose to use the extra cargo space for a burdensome tent. With its imposing nylon walls and deliberate separation from nature, a tent does not fit our desires.
Peering into my dry sack, my necessities include a hammock, rope, pocketknife, tarp and mosquito netting. Small, waterproof satchels contain fishing line, a few hooks, flint, biodegradable soap, an aluminum dish, water purifying tablets and the sort. This is not luxury camping. Here, the minimalist is the most comfortable, the most unburdened.
Burning driftwood is not allowed. So we collect fallen branches and sticks and a small fire begins from bark and dried grass. The comforting smell assures us supper is on the way. While larger tinder is slowly added, those who do not have one, construct homemade fishing poles from sturdy sticks and a pinecone or bark bobber.
By the time camp takes form, four fingers of light are left to set our hammock and coverings. When trees are limited, it is not uncommon to see “bunk beds” of hammocks traversing the same set of trees.
We prepare dinner, mostly consisting of what is foraged or caught. Other food is available, but we only turn to our cache for meal compliments, midday lunches and to feed children in the caravan.
Known for its smallmouth bass, northern pike,walleye and panfish, we take to the shores to hunt the great river. Fire roasting a large fish, heavy on a burdened stick, is a primal moment in this hectic world.
Slipping into a nomad frame of mind becomes natural after a few days on the river. I am always amazed at how easy it is to transform after such a short break from society. At times though, I am pulled back when we pass a town or another location with a boat landing where one can, if you choose, bank and meander into town for some supplies.
Despite the tell-tale sands that knowingly accompany sandbar camping, amazement always arises over its ability to infiltrate every crevice, every surface. Tinfoil squares, folded neatly into small packs, become treasure as we diligently cover all the food we cook. Rinsing my tin plate in the river, I quickly place it over the heat of the fire to sanitize and dry it before the sand infests again.
Placing a few chopped potatoes, sliced onions, a drizzle of oil and salt in a foil pack, I carefully seal the edges to ensure no sand will breach its borders. Placing it under the bed of coals to steam, a few aluminum cans of hearty soup are also placed in the coals. Mixed together to create a hearty, dense stew, vegetarians and carnivores are left filled and satisfied with a luau feast of chowder and fire-roasted fish. Cold drinks are never more than a reach away, with small buoyant coolers pulled with ease through the cool waters behind your vessel. Later dug into the wet shoreline beneath some shade, there they remain crisp.
As the night settles thickly around us, translucent red sparks rise from the fire, a small glimmer before surrendering onto the water or sand. Crackling logs talk boisterously to one another before fading into their eternal sleep. Long, whispered hisses come from the drying wood that lays next in turn, pulled close to the fire’s warmth and propped onto a handmade drying stand of branches.
Words often leave us, with the slight chuckle of the water and the rustling branches taking their turn to speak. Tranquility.
Feeling my body grow weary, I know it is time to escape to my bed for the night. Undistracted by television, the sound of traffic or an exhausting to do list, it is unique to seek sleep based solely on my soul’s request. Cradled safely in the midst of the river’s large bosom, the small island we chose and scouted keeps us from harm.
The slightest jump of a frog or fish echoes across the water’s surface, a natural alarm and a deterrent for anything that may hunt. The scent of charred wood, placed smoldering on the water’s edge, also keeps animals at bay.
Rinsed dishes and food supplies are placed in a sack. To prevent disturbances during the night, we burn or bury food scrap on the far side of our island. Finding a tall, distant tree, we run our supplies up and out of reach. If a raccoon wants to investigate the smell, they will not succeed in their attempts to pry. Tucked into my hammock, I feel the slight breeze as it sways my bed. These solitary moments are one of my reasons for this retreat. Swaying. Sleep comes easily as cricket songs gently wash over the quiet night.
In the morning, too quickly, the scent of warming sand revitalizes me.
Grouping together the embers spread from the night before, I prepare my coal bed. Taking a few pieces of dried birch bark, the paper-like flakes start easily with my flint, a priceless tool unaffected by water. Small bark pieces from other nearby trees are added on carefully, not too soon, not to smolder. As my fire grows, my friends also begin to stir.
Tearing down camp is operated in the same spirit as our arrival to these sand islands. We move gradually through the morning, unhurried.
Back on the ancient river we spread out once again to float, paddle or explore. Looking up, I know that when the sun holds an equal distance of sky in each of its hands, we will stop and gather for lunch.
The Department of Natural Resources has protected large stretches of the Wisconsin River from development, preserving nearly 80,000 acres along its borders. Between Prairie du Sac and Prairie du chien, over 90 miles of nature’s promised land await us before spilling into the mighty Mississippi River. These reserved lands require no camping fees, no sticker or permit of any sort for camping. You can boondock from spring on through fall if your situation allows.
Careful planning is the foundation of such an expedition. Deliberate and precise packing is essential, with great consideration for menu planning and water purification. Whether through the use of packed freshwater, a LifeStraw, water boiling or purification tablets, drinkable water needs to be planned with intent. If children are present, reliance on carry in/carry out water should especially be considered if you are not savvy with survival water purification techniques.
Burning restrictions are sometimes in place. To prevent fines and possibly a disaster, check with the Department of Natural Resources about burning permits and restrictions. A life vest also must be onboard your vessel for each individual present. Those age 13 and under must be wearing one at all times while in the water or on a boat.
Launching is one of the easier parts of a Wisconsin River sandbar trip. With an abundance of public boat landings, waterfront access is as available. Returning to your drop off point should be considered part of the adventure, not something that will be handed to you in this isolated terrain. Vehicle coordination should be organized, making use of local public parking at both ends with your group. Ironically, what takes a week to cover by unrushed river travelers is covered in mere hours by vehicle. Privately owned canoe rentals are available, with some even offering pickup and transport.
In this hasty, urgent world, a trip down Wisconsin’s sandbar-laden river will plant a seed in your mind. After your first encounter this seed will flourish, taking root under the fluorescent lights that dominate the everyday world that you return to. This thought, this river, is not one that will leave your mind easily, beckoning you, urging you back, back to nature where you long to be.
Brooke McGee writes from her home in Portage. She is a freelance journalist who loves to spend summers outdoors with her husband and children exploring some of Wisconsin's best kept natural secrets.