The weekend paddling trip, scheduled for May 16-18, is just one of the nonprofit organization’s six heritage paddles scheduled for this summer. The organization has been hosting the events in partnership with the North East Wisconsin Paddlers since 2010 to further the Heritage Parkway’s overall mission of preserving, promoting and celebrating the legacy of the Fox and Lower Wisconsin rivers.
“This river system is a huge asset to the state of Wisconsin, and so the more focus and attention we can get on it, the better, because i think it’s been somewhat forgotten up to this point,” said Candice Mortara, executive director of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway.
The route is steeped in history. In 1673 Father Jacques Marquette, French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and three French-Indian voyageurs traveled from Lake Michigan along the Fox and Lower Wisconsin and down the Mississippi to within 435 miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
But the rivers were used for transportation long before Marquette explored them.
“It was the first highway through the state, really, so trade and commerce for thousands of years starting with the Native Americans through to the paper mills have been happening on the waterways,” said Mortara, who lives in Appleton.
In addition to promoting and preserving the waterways’ history, one of the organization’s main goals is to create a water trail totally 280 miles along the route from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.
“Our goal is to make it the longest accessible water trail in the United States,” Mortara said, and that includes creating handicap-accessible landings. In 2013, the National Park Service granted the parkway National Recreation Trail status.
But what’s a water trail without people paddling it? The heritage paddles were designed to expose more people to the rivers, and the annual Park to Park heritage paddle in the Fox Cities attracts anywhere from 250 to 350 people, making it the largest recreational paddle in the state, according to Mortara.
This year’s first paddle, the CANOEtananney, is the organization’s first event to include an overnight stay. Paddlers will explore 8 miles of the Lower Wisconsin River from Bridgeport into the Mississippi River on Saturday, camp at Wyalusing State Park — complete with a campfire and live music from Milwaukee folk singer Coventry Jones — then paddle nearly 9 miles on the Kickapoo River from Plum Creek Landing to Wauzeka on Sunday.
Everyone from beginners to expert paddlers are welcome on the trip, for both days or just one.
“We really want this to be something that people feel comfortable coming and trying,” Mortara said, adding that an experienced paddler always brings up the rear of the group to ensure everyone’s safety. “We’re very low key and welcoming, so it's not like you’re joining this hardcore group. It’s fun.”
Plus, since spring rains have left the rivers high and both paddles will follow the current, paddlers should be able to float part of the routes, Mortara said.
The paddles cost $10 per day — which includes camping at Wyalusing — per person; children ages 15 and under are free. Register online or in-person the day of the paddles. If you need to rent a canoe, contact the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway in advance.
The theme of this year’s heritage paddles is A Tribute to the Tributaries. Other paddles in 2014:
May 31: Mecan River from the Germania Dam to the Upper Fox River at Princeton (15.5 miles)
June 21-22: Wisconsin River from Newport Park in Lake Delton to Pine Island (13 miles)
July 19: Fox River Park-to-Park Paddle from Shattuck Park in Neenah to Lutz Park in Appleton (8.5 miles)
August 16: East River from Manderly Lane Landing to Green Bay Metro Marina (7 miles)
Sept. 27: Fox River Appleton Locks Paddle from Lutz Park in Appleton to Sunset Park in Kimberly (6 miles)
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