David Michael Miller
Best Paddling with Waterfowl and Restaurant
You can - with persistence and some planning, the right skills and gear, enough time and the occasional portage - launch a canoe or kayak anywhere on the Yahara chain of lakes, paddle down the Yahara River to the Rock to the Mississippi, and proceed all the way downstream to New Orleans. At least a handful of people are known to have done this over the years.
Alas, most of us lack one or more of the prerequisites for such an undertaking. That's no excuse for not launching a canoe or kayak on Madison's lakes at all. With about 13,000 acres of surface area between them, and about 40 miles of combined shoreline to circumnavigate, lakes Mendota, Monona and Wingra present an abundance of opportunities to experience and explore the city from the waters that define it, in a canoe or kayak, a few hours and miles at a time.
Where to start? What's in store? A half-dozen options follow, all close to shore yet each promising a distinct experience. Depending on your skill level, the efficiency of your canoe or kayak, wind and weather conditions, the volume of boat traffic and other factors, figure on anywhere from one to four miles an hour. You may be able to go faster if you want to, but why hurry?
Best Paddling with Waterfowl and Restaurant
Cherokee Marsh and Cherokee Lake, with a lunch break at the Nau-Ti-Gal. Put-in options here include Yahara Heights County Park and Cherokee Park, at opposite ends of this elongated body of water. Both are portals to a wonderland of wetlands fauna and flora, including the occasional floating bog. Canoes and kayaks allow you to explore places that might not otherwise be accessible, but this privilege comes with the responsibility to avoid disturbing shoreline stabilization efforts (marked by signs, stakes and fencing). Though Cherokee Lake is only about 10 feet at its deepest, its 57 acres are bigger and broader than they appear on the map next to Lake Mendota's 9,842 acres.
When the wind kicks up, it can get choppy, so check the forecast before you go. Once you factor in the sedative effects of bird-watching on one's paddling speed, patrolling Cherokee Lake's perimeter can take the better part of a day. To refuel, point your boat under the Highway 113/Northport Drive bridge and adjacent railroad span to the Nau-Ti-Gal, pull your boat up on the restaurant's back lawn, ask for a table outdoors and navigate the menu.
Lake Wingra. Expert kayakers can circle this spring-fed lake - about 3.5 miles around - in as little as 30 minutes. But who's racing? Give it a couple hours, and you'll enjoy a perspective on the Arboretum that provides context for both the UW's research preserve and the lake that flanks it. Wingra's small size, shallow depths (averaging less than 10 feet) and all but undeveloped shoreline make this an ideal lake for families. Put in at Wingra Park, at the end of Knickerbocker Street, where Wingra Boats (608-233-5332) rents canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboats and sailboats from May through September.
If circumnavigating Lake Wingra isn't ambitious enough for you, portage around the dam at its east end and meander about two miles down Wingra Creek (a.k.a. Murphy's Creek) - under Fish Hatchery Road, Park Street, Olin Avenue, a set of railroad tracks and John Nolen Drive - to Lake Monona. There's not much current on Wingra Creek, so figure about an hour of paddling at a relaxed pace. You'll arrive at Lake Monona with Olin-Turville Park to your right and the downtown Madison skyline to your left.
On the way back upstream, after you pass under Fish Hatchery Road and Wingra Creek turns north, keep an eye out for a narrow channel on the left that sometimes (depending on water level) affords tight access to the UW Arboretum Pond. It's a small body of water, but you can sometimes spy a heron or egret back in this sanctuary. If you do, stow your paddle, be still, watch and admire. Don't encroach or disturb.
Best Skyline Paddling with Sunday Brunch
Lake Monona's northwest shoreline. Depending on how ambitious you are, you can launch this voyage at Morrison Park, Yahara Place Park or Olbrich Park on Madison's near east side. From there, head southwest past lakefront residences on Morrison, Rutledge and Spaight streets, past B.B. Clarke Beach and the Fauerbach condos to Machinery Row, where Sardine serves quite a splendid Sunday brunch. If there's a significant wait for one of the outdoor tables on the back deck, make a reservation for an hour later. That's about how long it will take you to get back in your boat and proceed to Monona Terrace, savor its Capitol backdrop, continue on to Monona Bay, and double back to Sardine.
After brunch return to your put-in for the take-out. Round-trip from Olbrich Park to Monona Bay is about seven miles. On a calm day or light breeze, figure a pedestrian pace of two or three miles per hour - two or three hours, not counting brunch time. Moving your launch and take-out to Yahara Place or Morrison parks will shave about two miles off the round-trip distance and cut 30 or 40 minutes off your paddling time.
Note that this shallow northwest edge of Lake Monona can be prone to weeds and the occasional algae bloom, but that both tend to be less of a problem once you move a little further off shore into deeper water.
Best Place to Scout for Trolls Under Bridges
The Yahara River between lakes Mendota and Monona. There are 11 bridges in this one-mile stretch of the Yahara. Starting from Yahara Place Park, where the river enters Lake Monona, paddle upstream against the current. Depending on such factors as the volume of water being released out of Lake Mendota by the Tenney Lock and Dam (which in the last year has varied from more than 600 cubic feet per second to as little as 80), your haste, the volume of boat traffic on the river (highest on hot, sunny summer weekends) and how often you pause to converse with people onshore, this can take anywhere from 10 or 15 minutes up to an hour or more.
Along the way, you'll paddle first under the Rutledge Street bridge, then the pedestrian-bicycle bridge at Jenifer Street, the Williamson/Winnebago Street span, two old railroad bridges (one of them converted to a bike-ped path), the East Main and East Washington bridges, two more rail bridges (one a bike-ped conversion) and the East Johnson and Sherman Avenue bridges. You can, if you choose, portage around the Tenney Lock and Dam and venture out onto Lake Mendota. Or you could lug your boat about 100 feet over to the Tenney Park lagoon and do a lap around the island before returning to the Yahara for the lazy float back down the river.
Along the way, note how each span frames the succeeding bridge. And keep your ears pricked up for the sound of approaching trains: You haven't lived until you've experienced the power of a train crossing a bridge from the perspective of a canoe or kayak on the river below.
Pointiest Paddling Route
Along the UW-Madison's Lakeshore Nature Preserve, including Picnic, Second and Frautschi points. Put in at the wee boat launch off University Bay Drive, between Triangle Marsh and University Bay Marsh. (Adjacent parking in Lot 60, with meters enforced 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays; parking here is free after hours and on Saturdays and Sundays, except as posted.) Paddle north past University Bay Marsh, then northwest along Picnic Point. Rounding the point, you'll find yourself in a shallow bay, paddling past the Caretaker's Woods and Second Point Woods - a stretch of dense woodlands that is good for bird-watching and fringed with coarse woody habitat.
Rounding Frautschi Point, you can continue to the site of the old tent colony that was the summer home for hundreds of graduate students and their families throughout the first half of the 20th century. The panorama to the north encompasses Mendota County Park, Governor Nelson State Park and Governor's Island. On the return trip, you can save time by paddling a direct line between Frautschi and Picnic points.
Most Spectacular Bay Loop
Lake Mendota's northeast lobe off Warner Park, defined by Governor's Island to the west and Maple Bluff to the south. Put in at Warner Park's boat launch and point your bow toward the right. You can paddle west past all the lakefront homes along Woodward Drive to Governor's Island for some leisurely bird-watching and poking around.
When you're done, head for Maple Bluff. This involves crossing about a mile of open water. (This is best done on a calm day, with winds less than five miles per hour: If winds and waves kick up, the crossing can leave you feeling a little exposed to the elements.) When you arrive at Maple Bluff, turn left and proceed alongshore back to the put-in for the take-out. Depending on how straight your boat tracks and how close you stick to shore, this loop will cover three or four miles.
What you don't know can kill you!
Venturing out onto the Yahara chain of lakes is not a lark. It's an assumption of risk. It's also rewarding, sometimes even thrilling. Some things to know before you go:
- Know how to swim, and how to get back into your boat (or get your boat back to land) in the event of a wet exit. If you don't, take lessons.
- Always wear a personal flotation device. That's an order. Recent advances in PFD design have improved both their function and comfort. Wearing one doesn't guarantee you won't drown, but does cut your odds of becoming a statistic.
- Canoeing or kayaking with at least one other person is safer than going solo.
- Check the weather forecast before you launch, and dress for conditions. Winds over 10 miles per hour can rile up the water and slow your pace, but note their direction: If they're out of the south or west, for example, you'll find some shelter along a lake's southwest shore. Also, ignoring a forecast that calls for thunderstorms is stupid, according to the voice of experience, who lives in the mirror.
- Dress for conditions, in layers that provide insulation when wet (not cotton), and stash a change of clothes in your drybag. Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30: Water reflects sunlight, magnifying your exposure to solar radiation.
- Take the right gear, including a whistle to signal emergencies, and a spare paddle.
- Know where you're going and what you're doing. Tell a friend or neighbor when to expect you back.
- Bring a large bottle of water or sports drink, and nutritious food, such as a few pieces of fruit (apples, oranges, pears) for energy. Two or three hours on the water can take a lot out of you.
- Be able to identify and avoid toxic blue-green algae. It may not kill you, but it might, and even an inadvertent sip or snort up your sinuses can make you so sick you'll wish you were dead.
- Staying closer to shore separates you from most motorboats and affords a more intimate experience with scenery, but be attentive to people who may be fishing from shore or bridges, and stay well clear of their lines. Getting tangled is aggravating. Getting hooked sucks. Instead, ask any anglers you encounter what's for dinner.
Row your own boat
You can make up any number of your own canoe and kayak routes to add to these suggestions. For guidance, consult the Yahara Waterways Water Trail Guide, available for $5 from Dane County's Office of Lakes & Watersheds (224-3730) or free download at http://www.danewaters.com/articles/guideDownload.aspx. The nonprofit Capitol Water Trails also has keyed maps available for a number of local lakes and rivers at http://www.capitolwatertrails.org/maps.php.
But be careful. Once you launch your canoe or kayak on one of Madison's lakes or rivers, you may be entranced and seduced. Next thing you know, you may find yourself on your way to New Orleans.