Use Caution on the Boo!

Use Caution on the Boo!

There was a recent report of a paddler getting trapped by a downed tree across the Baraboo river.  Luckily she made it out O.K., but it brings the condition of the Baraboo river back into focus.  Be safe out there!

When the last dam was finally removed from the Baraboo river in 2002, paddlers across the midwest were overjoyed. With the removal of that dam, the 120 mile Baraboo river became the longest restored free-flowing river in the US! (By comparison, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway from below the dam at Prairie du Sac to the confluence with the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien is about 93 miles.) How awesome is that!?

The Baraboo river begins as a small stream near the village of Elroy, Wisconsin. The river quickly widens and follows the 400 State Bike Trail through Wonewoc, La Valle and Reedsburg before winding its way through the rural communities of North Freedom and Rock Springs. The Baraboo then flows east to the city of Baraboo where you’ll find a series of small (Class I/Class II) riffles and rapids. Then the river continues east through the Baraboo valley and out through the Lower Narrows SNA. Then the Baraboo runs through two wildlife areas before joining the Wisconsin river near Portage. The potential for paddling is well, obvious.

The problem is that we’re not all paddlers. Many folks simply see rivers as a place to fish from a shoreline or an obstacle to automotive travel. People like to build offices and parks, live along the shoreline and “see” the river but the river itself is well, not that important. All over the world rivers by default are often nothing more than large storm drains carrying oil, trash and road salt on a slow journey to the ocean.

Locally, through season after season, storm and flood since 2002 no one has really done much to manage the river with paddlers in mind. Certainly, a few local outfitters & clubs have given it go now and again. Most notably these days are the folks at Beyond Boundaries in Wonewoc who still work to keep a section of the Baraboo river near them clear. Otherwise I think it’s fair to say that since the “Grand Opening of the longest restored free-flowing river in the US”, paddlers rushing to explore this vast new paddling destination haven’t been well served.

For the most part folks who enjoy nature go happily ignored on the outskirts of civilization in parks and on trails hard-fought for and won through years of battles between competing forces.  It’s only been very recently that communities across the country, and those influential within them, have really began to embrace the idea of environmental tourism focused on outdoor recreation. Seeing the profit potential, some communities have begun to market their natural attractions long before they understood or provided the necessary infrastructure or looked at the maintenance and unique precautions involved when offering up “nature” as an attraction.  That brings us back to the mighty Baraboo river.

Since 2002 everyone, everywhere including the Wisconsin Department of Tourism seem to have promoted the Baraboo as a safe, family paddling destination. Yep, even right here at! And for the most part, the Baraboo river is just that, with a few provisos. First is that nature is not a padded room. There are no lifeguards, hand holding or safety belts. Even the most knowledgeable and skilled people can get hurt and even die while out enjoying their particular form of outdoor fun.  Second, a river is ever-changing. Season after season rivers flood and recede. A slow, meandering river one day, is a dangerous rushing torrent the next. Trees fall across the river, debris blocks channels and whatever other dangers appear out of nowhere only to be carried away the next. Folks can become trapped and drown. You have to know the river and what to expect to the best of your ability before you push off the dock.  So how do you do that?

Baraboo River

A wall of debris attests to the dangers of the Baraboo in flood.

Well, this is where we have to work out a deal. For visitors, you have to know the risks out there and not simply think of the Baraboo river as a water park style “lazy river”. It’s not that. “Safe” is a relative term in the natural environment. Second you need learn what you can about the river, know the current conditions and don’t paddle any section you don’t know to be cleared. Scout the river if you can. You also have to be up on basic boating safety and wearing your life jackets properly at all times when on the river (Even if you don’t think they make you look cool.)

For our part, communities on the river need to become responsible for the general care of the river. If we’re going to invite folks to enjoy our beautiful riverside communities, we need to take some reasonable steps to make it safe and enjoyable. First, we need to be sure the rivers are cleared of dangerous “sweepers”; trees and branches that can tip boats and potentially trap paddlers.  We need to coordinate this with city governments, clubs, property owners, businesses and the Department of Natural Resources. However, we need to actually do it and not just talk about it. We need to know which sections are clear, which are not at any give time through a regular inspection schedule. We also need to keep an eye on weather and river conditions. Then this information has to be coordinated, published and provided to anyone to interacts with our guests including chambers of commerce, visitor bureaus, city governments, businesses and anyone else who serves the outdoor community.  Only then can we really begin to brag about our 120 miles of free-flowing Baraboo river.

Until then paddlers just have to be careful out there. Sometimes rivers are surprisingly dangerous and for the moment at least, you’re on your own.


Visit our Baraboo River Page – Scroll down for links to river gauges and interactive google map. Click the blue canoe icons for tips!!



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  1. WilloWood Inn

    Thanks for the reminder. I posted a story of my own on my facebook page, WilloWood Inn. We need to remind folks that quiet rivers can be dangerous. There are risks, but using common sense and approaching river floats with respect will ensure safety and enjoyment.

  2. c.o

    We went on rafts, and swam it.there were some of us on boats. I thought I got my leg caught under a steel beam in shallow but strong curren before island court. We were drinking quite a bit. Ya not for the usual tourist id is pretty muddy also. My shorts I had to scrub the mud out with a scrub brush. And there’s snappers in there folks! Where swim shoes. Started at landing just west of town, gets rough in town

  3. Matt Pelland

    I have taken 5 children ages 6-12 down the Baraboo River 3 times in the last week. We used a 10 foot raft and 3 tubes from Gander Mountain. Its awesome for kids(and adults.) The river is at most 3 feet deep from the Gander Mountain Bridge to the Circus. A bit of rapids, but nothing dangerous. The bottom is rocky and not muddy in most areas.

    Great 2 hour float! This river is a hidden gem. More folks should float.

  4. Rob Traxler

    Derrick has this right! The basics of safety need to be applied. Even then, there will still be some risk. Common sense (inversely proportional to alcohol consumption) will eliminate almost all of the risk that remains!

    I would love to see the potential of this river unlocked, especially in the portion that runs through the City of Baraboo. This year has been an exceptionally good year with plenty of rain; however, typical summer water levels make “floating” conditions in the river less than desirable. During the majority of the warm weather season, when most people would want to tube or float the river, water levels are just too low. Light channelization (a bunch of guys rolling rocks) could make a huge difference to the conditions when water levels are low, but would require support and permission from the DNR. I believe this could be done in just a few days with a volunteer crew and some seasoned veteran guidance from the Baraboo Canoe Club. Someone from the DNR would also need to be on hand to protect the river from a benthic apocalypse.

    The Baraboo River is a gem that has endured great abuse from point and non-point pollution. As it continues to recover, opportunities like Matt Pelland described in an earlier comment will become increasingly desirable. Fishing should continue to improve and I hope to someday watch sturgeon run the river to spawn. Local businesses should note that big dollars could “flow” into the community based on an environmental success story, but as Derrick states, there are some reasonable steps that need to be taken.

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