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Voyageur Canoe Trips enchant paddlers
Lower Wisconsin River
Voyageur Canoe Trips
GERRY DORSCHEID, recently retired Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board chair, is seen piloting the 'eagle canoe' on a recent Voyageur Canoe Trip from Gotham to Muscoda.

GOTHAM - After a two-year gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board (LWSRB) once again offered their popular ‘Voyageur Canoe Trips’ this year.

The ten trips down the Riverway, along different stretches ranging from Prairie du Sac to Bridgeport took place between June 27 and July 15. The canoes used – the ‘Eagle’ and the ‘Wolf,’ are replica ‘Voyageur Canoes,’ originally built as part of the celebration of the State of Wisconsin’s Sesquicentennial or ‘150 years of statehood.’ The canoes are owned by Wisconsin DNR (WDNR), and kept in Green Bay.

LWSRB executive director Mark Cupp said the annual tradition of the canoe trips had gotten their start in 2002, when he had invited the chairman of the Richland County Board of Supervisors to go out on the river in one of the Voyageur canoes. The chairman was “amazed,” and encouraged Cupp to make the experience available to the public.

“This year marks the 25th anniversary of creation of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, with the canoe trips being one way to showcase the remarkable lower Wisconsin River valley,” Cupp said. “The canoe trips are intended to provide participants with a taste of the scenic beauty and natural character of the Riverway. There is a sandbar stop during each trip to allow for discussion of the Riverway project and the associated archeological, historical and natural resources.”

This reporter participated in a paddle along the Gotham-to-Muscoda stretch. Mark Cupp and recently retired LWSRB chairman Gerry Dorscheid were the trip leaders. Cupp started the experience with a extemporaneous performance of a ‘Voyageur’ extolling his prowess.

The Voyageurs

“Bonjour mes amis (greetings my friends),” Cupp said robustly. “I am Mark Cupp, a Voyageur. I have been in the service my whole life, and in a canoe for 24 years. There was never a portage too long, nor rapids too swift for me, no, no! I have saved the lives of 10 Voyageurs, I can sing 50 Voyageur songs, I have had 12 wives and six running dogs. I have spent all of my life in the pursuit of pleasure, and if I had it to do again, I would do it the same, for there is no life as happy as a Voyageur’s life.”

Cupp explained that the Voyageurs came from large farm families, and not all of the kids could stay on the farm. They sought opportunities in the Voyageur service, working in the fur trade. He said they would go into remote areas via a river with trade goods, and come out with furs. He said they were required to paddle from dawn to dusk, with no time allowed for foraging or fishing, and subsisted on a ration of dried peas and salt pork, with a tot of brandy at night.

“Many of the Voyageurs worked only during the times of the year when the river was open, but others would overwinter,” Cupp explained. “To do so, they would take a wife among the native people and hunt and trap all winter long. These individuals were known as the ‘hivernauts’ (hiver is the French word for winter).”

Gotham to Muscoda

Along the stretch of the river between Gotham and Muscoda, Cupp pointed out several noteworthy features of that stretch of the river.

“Rocky bottoms are rare in the Riverway, and for this reason, a rocky bottomed area, known as the Orion Mussel Bed State Natural Area, is the refuge for rare species of mussels and other wildlife,” Cupp explained. “On the shore, is also a very impressive group of effigy mounds known as the ‘Twin Lizards’ group.”

According to WDNR’s website:

“Orion Mussel Beds features a narrow corridor of Wisconsin River bottom and adjacent shoreline that is critical habitat for numerous rare animals. Fifteen rare animals are known from this site including mussels, mayflies, dragonflies, beetles, and fish. The river bottom contains a rock and gravel substrate with underwater sandstone ledges, which contrasts with the shifting sands that are more typical of the Lower Wisconsin River bottom. The firm substrate that supports these species is restricted to a very narrow zone beginning at the shoreline extending south over the course of 4.2 miles. A diversity of rare mussels, invertebrates and fish are found here. In addition to the mussel beds, the natural area includes 1,500 feet of Wisconsin River frontage that supports one of the best-preserved and least disturbed mound groups in Wisconsin. Built by the Effigy Mound Culture of the Late Woodland period between AD 750 and 1000, the site features the Twin Lizards and Catfish mound group, which consists of 15 mounds including three birds, one bear, two lizards, one conical, and eight lineal mounds. The mounds were carefully sculpted and look much as they did when they were built. Orion Mussel Beds is owned by the DNR and was designated a State Natural Area in 1996.”

2022 trips

Cupp said that there were eight trips this year, with 108 paddlers total, and the canoes were also used in the Wisconsin River Canoe Races.  

“Only one trip, June 30, used a single boat,” Cupp said.  “Otherwise, all were two-boat trips with 12-16 per trip. There were a few last minute cancellations that didn't allow us to contact the waiting list, or we would have had 16 per trip, most likely.”

Cupp said that after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, repeat customers were happy to be paddling the big canoes again.  He said paddlers saw eagles, osprey, sand hill cranes, blue herons, kingfishers, turtles, deer and a variety of songbirds.  Low water conditions, he explained, made navigation a challenge but he said the groups didn't encounter any problems.

This reporter had the time of her life, and highly recommends participating in these trips as a pleasant summer excursion. You will be enchanted, entertained, awed and educated. Give it a try!