Friday, March 9, 2018

Bikepackrafting the Wisconsin River

This past summer Devon had the genius idea of biking to the Wisconsin River, packrafting part of it, and biking home. I thought this sounded like a lot of fun until he made it clear that he wanted to do the whole thing in one big push, mostly at night, without stopping to sleep. This plan sounded more like a slog than fun. Of course, I was in and we started making plans.

I hadn't been cycling much so I went for a few long rides, made sure my commuter bike was in decent shape and bought some cycling food like caffeinated gels. Devon and I also did a test run where we biked to Lake Wingra, disassembled the bikes, strapped them to the packrafts, paddled across the lake, and biked home. Everything went well and I was surprised how easy it was to secure the bikes to the rafts and to paddle with a bike on top of the boat.

The trip is just getting started and things are already looking a little strange.
Since we would be paddling in the dark we decided it would be helpful and more fun if we paddled during a full moon. On Friday, July 9th I put on my cycling clothes, secured all my gear to the bike (including Ana's packraft) and biked over to the pile of footballs next to Camp Randall Stadium to meet up with Devon. The bike was heavy with all the gear but no worse than going bike camping.

We rode out of Madison on the Campus Drive Bike Path, then took the Blackhawk Path to Middleton. From there we went through Middleton on the road (where the traffic was less than friendly, there's always someone) and the crushed gravel path of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. From there we took the Highway 12 and the Highway 12 path the 20 miles to the Wisconsin River in Sauk City. I've never liked the Highway 12 path so if I did this again I might take one of the side roads for less traffic and a better view, though it might add miles and hills.

Devon and the boat on the bike.

It was just before sunset when we crossed the bridge over the Wisconsin River into Sauk City. We bought some food at the gas station (I couldn't find anything I wanted and should have brought some sandwiches instead) and then headed down to the river to make the transition from land to water. We quickly took the boats and bags off the bikes, removed the front wheels, pumped up the rafts, assembled the paddles, and strapped the bikes and wheels to the boats. Then we awkwardly slid down into the boats, and pushed off. I was careful not to step in the water as I got in, not wanting wet feet for the rest of the night. At this point we were 28 miles in.

Devon and the bike on the boat.
Planning to take out at Spring Green, we needed to cover about 23 miles on the river. While the Wisconsin River does have a current, it is too slow to move the boats very quickly, meaning that we would need to paddle continuously to make it to the take out in a reasonable amount of time. We did not want to be on the river in the morning when the wind was expected to pick up since wind can really make paddling a challenge, especially in a packraft since they don't track very well anyway.

Wow, nice life jacket.
As we began paddling, there was a great sunset that quickly became darkness. Thankfully the moon was bright and we didn't need headlamps to see where we were going. For the most part, the river is wide and there is nothing much to worry about. Occasionally we had to navigate around a sandbar. Once in a while shallow water would surprise us, we'd get stuck, and we'd have to jump out of the rafts and drag them across. The Wisconsin River can be dangerous but we wore life jackets and kept the boats tethered to us with a carabiner and a short rope.

Rummage sale foreground, sunset background.
It was surreal to pass by almost silently as campers and partiers did their thing on the sandbars and the shore. As it got later the fires were farther apart and the crowds were quieter if anyone was awake at all. When there weren’t any obvious lights it seemed like it could have been a thousand years ago.

Having paddled this section many times I was vaguely familiar with the occasional landmarks we were passing but it was hard to be sure at night. It seemed like we were making good progress. My arms were tired sometimes but I didn’t have any problems paddling. I had expected to run into trouble staying awake but the cool air and exercise kept us alert. I never opened any of my caffeinated gels or the Starbucks Doubleshot I had bought at the gas station.

We paddled for hours. I worked on efficient movement and I worked on being a better paddler. I worked on taking in the experience and I worked on not working on anything. Bluffs on the side of river came and went. So did thoughts of taking a break and bumming some beers from one of the groups on shore.

Good thing we didn't run into the DNR, there has to be something illegal about this setup.
Soon enough we saw the old railroad bridge with the turntable built in (just how big were the ships on the river when this thing was built?). Then we saw the Highway 14 bridge. There almost no traffic at, say, three in the morning. There wasn’t much more paddling and were at our take out, Peck’s Landing, right across from the Taliesin Visitor Center. It had been a well-paced paddle with no headwind and no flips. We were 51 miles in.

Our situation changed rapidly as the calm air turned from an advantage to a disadvantage. The mosquitoes descended on us in the hundreds. We were mauled as we, like poorly designed Transformers, slowly changed from rafting mode to cycling mode. All I could think of was the bee scene from Tommy Boy: Bees! Bees! Bees in the car! Bees everywhere! God, they're huge and they're stinging like crazy! They're ripping my flesh off! Run away, your firearms are useless against them! I might have been a little loopy from the lack of sleep. We finally got going and escaped the horrible mosquitoes.


The first climb out of the Wisconsin River valley came on suddenly and was like trying to ride up a wall, or at least it felt that way loaded down with a raft, a paddle, a life jacket, food, water, camera, phone, extra clothes, and whatever other gear I’m not remembering right now. There were a few miles of relatively flat terrain, then we gave back almost all of the elevation we had gained and started in on an even bigger, meaner climb just outside Governor Dodge State Park. Somewhere in the dark a farm truck flew past us on a narrow road, probably filled with organic, free-range kale for the Saturday Dane County Farmer’s Market.

Just after the last huge hill we turned east onto the Military Ridge State Trail and the sky started to get light. At this point, I was getting confident that this was going to work out and it was going to be a pleasant trip rather than a slog. The trail is relatively flat because it used to be train tracks and both Devon and I are very familiar with it. Devon had brought a portable speaker and a good playlist and we were rocking out.

Military Ridge State Trail.
We stopped to refill our bottles in Barneveld and I found my Doubleshot had somehow cracked open in the pannier. It was a real mess but there was no reason to worry about it, though the pannier would smell like coffee for weeks. The rest of the ride was uneventful and we made it back to Madison without any trouble. Our timing was perfect as a windy day was just getting started. We were 110 miles, 15 hours, and about 3000 feet of elevation gain in.

The old train depot in Mt. Horeb.


Back at Camp Randall!
Was this a good adventure? I think so. Was it the first time anyone biked to the Wisconsin from Madison, paddled it, and biked home? I suspect it might be, though I wouldn't be surprised if some crusty river rat did this same trip back in the day with a rusty Schwinn single speed and one of those rubber rafts that teams of prospective Navy SEALS carry around during Hell Week.

If you're interested, check out the route at Strava (might need to be logged in to see it).

Can you tell which part of the elevation chart is the river?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How to Add Handles to Your Canoe or Kayak

A canoe is tough to carry no matter what but they are especially bad if there's no good way to hang onto it. I have an old aluminum canoe and after watching some friends try to get it out of the water after the Fools' Flotilla I decided to add some handles at the bow and stern. I also added handles to my sit on top kayak even though that boat was already relatively easy to manage.

A tubular webbing kayak handle.

I made the handles out of some old one inch tubular webbing that I retired from using for rock climbing. If you don't have any of this just laying around you can get it from Amazon for about 30 cents a foot. You'll need a total of about five feet of webbing.

First cut a 26" piece of webbing. That's what I did anyway. You can also cut a longer piece of webbing, put the knot where you want it, and cut off any excess after it is tied on the boat. The handles can be longer or shorter than mine but don't make them too long though or they'll hang in the water and snag on branches.

26 inches of webbing.


Next use a lighter to melt the cut edge of the webbing so that it doesn't fray.

Then feed the webbing through a hole in your boat. Both my canoe and kayak already had holes at both the bow and the stern for this purpose.

Finally, join the two ends of the webbing together with a water knot. The water knot looks like it might be complicated but it really isn't. The water knot is used because it won't come loose (some knots won't stay tied in webbing) and gets tighter when you pull on it. In some applications like rock climbing you should leave long tails on a water knot to add a margin of safety but in this application I felt like it would be OK to leave the tails very short.

Canoe handle.

To tie a water knot you first make a loose overhand knot with one end of the webbing. Then you pass the other end of the webbing through the overhand in reverse and pull it tight. This video explains it:


Add one of these handles at each end of your canoe or kayak and it will be easier to carry from the car to the water or lift out of the lake. The handles also give you a good place to tie a rope (also known as a painter line) to the canoe. You could then use the ropes as part of a method to tie to the canoe or kayak to the car, along with some ratchet straps for the middle.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

It's Always the Bottom Bracket

Is your bike making a noise when you pedal?
  • Even if the bottom bracket is not that old...
  • Even if the bottom bracket is a really nice one with extra bearings and gold anodizing...
  • Even if you just installed a new drivetrain and you don't remember the bottom bracket making noises before you started working on the bike...
  • Even if the noise doesn't sound like a noise that a bottom bracket would make...
  • Even if the bottom bracket feels really smooth when you spin the cranks...
It's the bottom bracket!



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Scary Pacific Bicycle Stem Break

Whoa! It looks like the stem snapped right off on this Pacific. I don't know the story since I saw it parked at the bike rack where I work. There was no other damage so I'm hoping the bike was either not moving or at low speed when the part failed. Be careful out there!

Broken Pacific bicycle stem

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Madison to Barneveld Ultramarathon

I wouldn't call myself much of a runner although I do take the occasional jog along the lake. This summer Ana (la Cabra Blanca) mentioned that she was interested in running another marathon. She proposed running from Barneveld to Madison (31 miles/50 kilometers) so I decided to try to tag along.

We are fairly good at running but not so good at selfies. At the start of the run:
Johnny Cash with fancy shoes.

Ana knows where she's going to end up on the podium! Sorry about the thumb on the lens.

We ran east on the Military Ridge State Trail, starting in Barneveld and running through Mount Horeb, Klevenville, Riley, Verona, and Fitchburg on the way to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
The trail had a little snow in places but was solid. It was about 35 degrees and foggy, with mist hanging in the air. We started out at a 10 minute-per-mile pace and the first 15 miles passed quickly. 

Riley was the half way point. We thought about stopping in for a Riley Cooler but decided against it. It was the right call because the run was about to get tougher.

Ana looking ecstatic. She was thrilled for the whole run.
I've never noticed these signs before. I think the DNR must put them up for snowmobilers.

Happy to have made it half way.

As we passed Riley the trail became squishy and my left knee started to hurt. Not bad enough to stop but bad enough to demand frequent stretching. Ana should have left me behind for the wolves to eat but she's too nice. We made it through the no man's land near Epic and 151 and were happy to see Verona.

I should stop here to say this was not my finest athletic performance. When we first came up with this idea I printed a "how to train for your first ultramarathon" guide and hung it on my fridge. I followed it for about a month (mostly - the volume they were expecting felt like too much to me). Everything was going well and I had a great 18 mile run on the Glacial Drumlin one morning.

Then disaster struck! I had a lot of pain in my right ankle and foot one day though I don't remember twisting it. I ended up taking a whole month off. Luckily la Cabra Blanca was willing to wait for me to get back in shape. The ankle never got back to 100% but it did heal enough that I was able to run again. I ran some short routes, a half marathon, an 18 miler, another 18 miler in an early season snowstorm, and then we decided my training was going to have to be good enough.

I didn't hit the wall on our run but I also didn't feel great. Ana ran gracefully and put up with my stretching breaks while I slogged it out. By the time we got to Madison I was still having a good time but I was also looking forward to being done.

First place, Barneveld to Madison Ultra!


We ended up finishing in about 6 hours. Ana definitely could have gone faster. I was happy just to have muddled through. At the end there was no crowd cheering, no excitement, just get in the car and go home and take a shower and be thankful the type 3 fun is over with success rather than failure. It was a good time though and I'm happy to have done it.

Yay for ultramarathoning! Is that a word?


As usual with this sort of thing it was tough but I'm happy to have experienced a run of this length. I would have liked to have been properly trained since it wasn't much fun to stop to stretch all the time but at least we cranked it out. Would I do it again? Never say never.

At the finish!


Later that day Sarah presented us with Barneveld Ultramarathon shirts that she had screenprinted herself! If I hadn't finished would she have kept the shirt?

Thank you Sarah!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Chundered on the Baraboo River!

Devon and I paddled the Baraboo River, putting in at Giese Park (off Rock Hill Road, not marked on Google Maps as of 12/11/2015) and taking out at Highway 113 using paddles done by MilesPaddled.com as a guide. It was one of the best paddles I've done recently and well worth the one hour drive from Madison even though the day only warmed to 55 degrees.

My paddling partner in his Alpacka packraft.

We ran the class I rapid just before the Highway 12 bridge in Baraboo but I decided I wanted to paddle back into it for another go. I was using a kayak without a skirt since I don't have one (time to go shopping) and after I paddled back into the rapid for another go I got swamped and ended up upside down.

It was my first underwater exit in moving water but the water was deep and everything went about how you'd expect. I exited, grabbed the boat and caught my breath after a sudden submersion in cold water. I'm not sure it was a true chundering (a combination of churned and under) but I think the term is hilarious.


The packraft in the "rapids."
Drying off. We both had more dry clothes and it wasn't that cold for November in Wisconsin. If I kayak more in cold weather I'm going to need a skirt and a wetsuit. If I was desperate I could have bought new clothes at Gander Mountain since we could see the sign for the store from where this picture was taken!
Welcome to the Town of Merrimac sign in the river.


Old school kayak. It's not very forgiving.
Some riffles in town.
If you're looking for some small drops and riffles the Baraboo River is a good choice. The river was at about 340 cfm and 7.85 feet on the gauge. The bike shuttle was an easy one. The parts of the river outside of Baraboo were relatively flat so next time we might drop in at the Highway 12 bridge and take out at the end of town.

Note that similar paddles on the Baraboo are detailed in Mike Svob's excellent Paddling Southern Wisconsin:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Few Climbing Pics From Devil's Lake

I just came back from some spring climbing at the lake. Here are a few pics:

Matthew at the top of Two Pines Buttress.
Standing on the edge near The Rack.
It's the lake - bring lots of webbing.