What: Canoe the Bark River near Fort Atkinson in Jefferson County.
"It feels like we're six hours from Milwaukee, instead of just an hour," my friend said as we slowly paddled our Wenonah canoe through the milky brown water of the Bark River.
We were only about 5 miles southeast of Fort Atkinson, but it really did feel like we are hundreds of miles from civilization.
Originating at Bark Lake in Richfield, the Bark River meanders nearly 70 miles southwest through Washington, Waukesha and Jefferson counties before joining with the Rock River in Fort Atkinson.
"I've discovered that the story of the Bark River is the story of Wisconsin," Milton Bates says to his wife, Puck, in his book "The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed." The book follows Bates' and his wife's journey down the Bark from April to October, a trip that in reality was completed over many years but is compressed into a summer for the book.
A retired Marquette University English professor, Bates' narrative does indeed paint a picture of the state beyond the river's low banks. The book is a worthy read even if you never set foot in the river.
But if you do set foot — or paddle — in the Bark, you'll be rewarded with a quiet voyage on a calm river, a slice of wild not too far from Milwaukee.
Route: One of the most popular stretches to paddle is the river's final 12 miles, from the Prince's Point Wildlife Area to Fort Atkinson. It's possible to paddle the entire stretch in a day, but a two-day trip is more leisurely.
On a hot late-summer Saturday morning I recruited a friend to help me paddle the final 5 miles, from Burnt Village to Fort Atkinson.
We arrived at Fort Atkinson's 2 Rivers Bicycle and Outdoor shop just after 10 a.m. and were shuttled upstream to Burnt Village Park, a small, nondescript park that was the site of a Ho-Chunk village until it was burned during a tribal conflict before the 1832 Black Hawk War.
The U.S. military camped here in July of that year while in pursuit of Black Hawk and named the spot Burnt Village.
Despite a beautiful summer morning, we had the river to ourselves for almost the entire stretch, our only companions the hissing of cicadas, jumping carp and an occasional sandhill crane.
This sense of isolation was fed by a lack of development along the river.
With trees in full leaf, the only building sightings came as we neared Fort Atkinson.
We let the river do most of the work as it turned and twisted through farmland, sloughs and pockets of lowland forest.
Duckweed lazily floated along the surface in spots and overhanging trees provided much-needed shade in others.
Near the end of our trip, we passed a low bridge over a skinny fork of the river to the left — a shortcut to our ending point.
We opted for the longer route and continued to follow the main channel to the right as more houses and a few fishermen came into view.
"Anything biting?" I asked one.
"No, but I'm not a very good fisherman," he responded.
Like us, he seemed to be out more for the scenery than the sport.
Eventually we reached the Rock River, which we followed to the left as our private 45-foot-wide river fed into a much larger 300-foot one.
Buildings and docks lined the banks, and a band filled the clear blue sky with the booming beat of classic rock from an invisible spot on the shore.
We pulled our canoe up to the dock near the 2 Rivers shop, satisfied and a bit sunburned after our three-hour private paddle.
Sunburn aside, I can think of few better ways to spend a Saturday.
Difficulty level: Because the river is not very wide and quite shallow, water levels can vary greatly throughout the summer. This spring, heavy rainfalls flooded large sections of the river, making for more challenging navigation.
A dryer summer brought the river to lower levels in August, when we paddled.
Downed trees forced some careful maneuvering in spots, but the current was slow and portages were unnecessary.
The river occasional forked into dead-end channels, but navigation was easy enough and a smartphone with good service provided extra insurance.
When to go: Whenever river levels permit.
Late summer brings an abundance of wildlife and lower river levels, but the colors of fall provide a majestic backdrop for a paddle.
How much it will set you back: Canoe rentals for the Burnt Village to Fort Atkinson trip are $34.99 and include a Wenonah canoe (with comfortable web seating) and paddles, life vests and shuttle to the launch point.
While you're there: Fort Atkinson is an underrated town with an abundance of charm that is on full display at the weekly Fort Farmers Market.
Pick up organic cheese, grass-fed beef, specialty breads, local produce and more on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. through Oct. 26. 1 Water St. West, fortfarmersmarket.com
Fort Atkinson and surrounding Jefferson County are also a great cycling destination.
When we grabbed our shuttle from 2 Rivers, Wisconsin native Matt Kelly was in the shop; in 1999, Kelly became the first American to win the junior cyclocross world championships.
(He raced on and off until 2006 and now helps with his family's farm and CSA in the area.)
Rent a bike from 2 Rivers or bring your own and take a spin on the 8.6-mile Glacial River Bike Trail, a rails-to-trails route that runs south out of Fort Atkinson.
Catch dinner and a show at The Fireside Dinner Theatre.
This fall, see the classic tale of the princess and the pea with a twist in the Fireside's production of "Once Upon a Mattress," Sept. 5-Oct. 27. 1131 Janesville Ave., (800) 477-9505, firesidetheatre.com
More info: Fort Atkinson is about an hour drive west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 26.
Reservations for canoe rentals from 2 Rivers are recommended but not required. For more information, call (920) 563-2222 or go to 2riversbicycle.com.
For more information about Fort Atkinson, call (920) 563-3210 or visit fortchamber.com.
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