Nestled in the the splendid Driftless Area of Wisconsin, the Kickapoo River meanders its way from its headwaters near Ontario, WI, to the Wisconsin River, over 120 river-miles away.
During its journey south, it runs through some of the most beautiful country in Wisconsin, including Wildcat Mountain State Park, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and small river towns like Gays Mills and La Farge.
As you paddle the Kickapoo River, it is hard not to wonder why the surrounding country and the river itself is so beautiful.
The attitude of a river begins with the land it runs through, and southwestern Wisconsin had attitude in spades. The Driftless Area covers portions of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and northeastern Iowa. It is called as such due to its distinct lack of drift, or glacial deposits. The Driftless Area has no geologic record of glaciation, unlike the land surrounding it in every direction. This makes for a sharp contrast between it and the flatter land that the glaciers ground down in the last few glaciations between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Looking at a map of the the Driftless Area, it is easy to see the effect the lack a glaciation had on the formation of the current topography. Almost everywhere you look, you will find steep-banked rivers and streams forming vast swathes of ridges and valleys. Compare this to the surrounding areas, where glacial erosion and deposition smoothed the land’s surface.
The Kickapoo’s story, however, starts much earlier than the recent glaciations that covered much of the northern US and Canada.
The Kickapoo Valley is one of the oldest river systems in the world. As you paddle the Kickapoo, you can see the vast amount of sandstone that makes up the sharp bluffs and banks along the river. This sandstone started as near-shore deposits in an inland sea that covered a huge portion of the central US from 700 to 250 million years ago. The sand originated as weathered material eroded from a large mountain range that existed in northern Wisconsin. Ancient rivers carried material down to the inland sea little by little until there was not much remaining of an Everest-sized mountain range. As the sediment hit the inland sea, it was dispersed, sorted, and deposited as alternating layers of sand, silt, and clay.
Over the hundreds of millions of years that passed after the sandstone was deposited, erosion worked the land, incising the deep river valleys typical of the Driftless Area.
As the ancient stream worked its way down the Kickapoo Valley, it carried sediment down to the Wisconsin River little by little, leaving behind the beautiful stream valley we see today. When paddling the Kickapoo River, imagine yourself as a sand grain eroded from the banks of the stream. You will travel the same path that sediment has travelled for hundreds of millions of years. You are truly paddling ancient history on the Kickapoo River.