Wingra Creek Tunnel Trouble- 2023

Our annual Wingra Creek paddle is an example of – no matter the waterway and how often you have been on it, things can still surprise you.

The Put-In

Olin-Park launch just for paddle-craft only. Go left to get into Wingra Creek. Go right to get into Lake Monona.

Water level check before launch:  We checked the stone bridge the day before. We suspected that there could be a problem with swift current in the tunnel and some downed brush. But we hoped for enough improvement by the following day that we could paddle through. Story below – it wasn’t as simple as we had hoped.

Park on W Wingra Drive, Madison, on the south side of the creek and cross the pedestrian bridge, (or park on the road to Schmidt Towing on the north side of the creek) walk east on the bike path to the stone arched bridge to see what there is to see.

The Paddle

The water was unusually clear and was particularly amazing since in June we abandoned our plan to canoe at Wingra Creek– it was low, slow, and too mucky so we went to Starkweather Creek instead.

We were enchanted by green heron which we saw much of the way.

As we approached one of the many bridges, Deb called up to one of the people walking across, “Do I know you?” and, yes, we both did! It was Joanne Kirkland who lives nearby, and she just happened to be on the bridge when we floated under it! Talk about serendipity! She is an amazing ceramicist who creates beautiful pottery .

That was the time that: Mary waded in to pull the canoe through the tunnel.

We were surprised that the water was so swift under the stone bridge that we were too weak to power through it. We tried it a couple of times and got flung back past the mouth of the tunnel. Mary did not want to retreat – she was determined to pull the boat through so we could keep paddling.

Step #1: Get out of the boat without losing it to the current. We were concerned that we might lose the boat in the process, so we pulled over to the bank and Deb held onto branches while Mary stepped out holding onto the nose of the boat.

Step #2: In the tunnel. Unfortunately, Mary forgot to change into her sandals before launching, so she was wearing tennis shoes. As she started walking the boat through, we noticed there was also a rock just under the surface of the water at the south side of the tunnel opposite of the downed tree. The big surprise in the tunnel was a chest deep hole! Luckily it was just a step or two and she climbed back up pretty quickly and got to the other side of the tunnel.

Step #3: Get Mary back into the boat. Once through the tunnel, we parked on the north side of the creek and held onto plant material. The current was minimal so getting back in wasn’t too difficult. Clothes and shoes were soaked, but it was a warm day and no harm done.  whew

On we paddled, but shortly we heard great splashing noises behind us – a young man in a kayak was working very hard to get through that tunnel. He said sometimes he can’t get through, but this time with much effort he was successful.

The paddle was wonderful but as a consequence of this experience, Deb was freaked out the entire ride on how we were going to get safely back through the tunnel on the return trip. There was a possibility of portaging around the stone bridge but the current could also push the boat through when trying to pull over. When we got to the Wingra dam (turn-around point), Deb insisted on talking about “the plan” so we were in sync as to what to expect. One decision we made was to connect a rope to the front of the boat for “whatever happens next.”

We turned around at the dam at the arboretum that marks the edge of Lake Wingra. As we approached our nemesis bridge, we hugged hugged hugged the north bank – we were really in the grasses. We paused to assess the situation and realized that the way we were lined up we could just maybe get through the tunnel without getting into the strainer on the left and without clipping the rock on the right. Resigned to the possibility we might go swimming we aimed the boat into the current, Mary hung onto the rope, and we zipped through – upright and much relieved. We should, one of these days, put our names and phone number on the canoe.

The end of the paddle was a joy. We passed the takeout and floated into Lake Monona a short way to say hello and to enjoy the skyline since the water was quiet and there were scant motorboats around.

Whew! Our ho-hum little local paddle had quite a few surprises – clear water, tunnel challenge, a friend overhead, green heron and even a great blue heron that had its wings spread to air them out (first for us).

Wildlife: ducks, turtles, freshwater clams, great blue heron, green heron (or possibly bittern), fish and other local birds.

See other posts for more info and pictures: Wingra Creek Paddling.


10:30 drive to Olin Park, unpack
11:00 launch
12:00 turn around at dam (included ramble in Monona lake)
01:00 take out, pack up
1:30 home