River Safety

The Basics

Swimming in the Wisconsin RiverThe following formation is just about everything you’ll want to be aware of when it comes to staying safe on the river.  For those of you that sometimes get nervous about this kind of stuff, just keep in mind that for each serious mishap that occurs, tens of thousands of people camp out on this section of river without any problems.  And if it’s any consolation, no one has ever died out here while wearing a life jacket.

Even at normal flow rates, the current is strong enough to push an adult off their feet when wading in water more than waist deep. This flow is often not even noticeable to a person standing on the bank or wading in the shallow water at the edge of a sandbar, but it is strong enough that even a solid swimmer may not be able to swim against it.

Sandbars are constantly moving, and the downstream end is often unstable and will sometimes not support a person walking on it (think quicksand). This is particularly true when the sandbar is covered by a few inches of water. However, if sand looks dry, it’s almost certainly solid ground (as far as piles of sand are concerned).

Though alcohol is usually a contributing factor, people have tragically drowned in the waters of the Wisconsin River because they did not understand or did not respect the power of moving water. Keeping the following points in mind will substantially lessen the risk of death or serious injury.

  • Dropoffs — The water depth on the downstream side of a sandbar can drop from a few inches to as much as 12 feet in the course of a couple steps.  Typically this drop is only a few feet, but the downstream side should be avoided anyway.  Instead, wading into the river to the sides or upstream of the sandbar will allow you to get back to the same sandbar if there are any problems.
  • Current — Avoid swimming or paddling near trees that have fallen into the river. Even in slow water, these ‘sweepers’ and ‘strainers’ can capsize your boat and pin you underwater.  If you’re wading and lose your footing, do not swim against the current. Float downstream until you bump into another sandbar where you can safely get out of the water.
  • Drownings — Wear a life jacket. Life jackets will keep you on top of the water if you walk off an unexpected drop off.  Wearing a life jacket is especially recommended if alcohol is being consumed.

River Flow

River flow can change overnight with excessive rain or through water level management of Lake Wisconsin via water release at the Prairie Du Sac dam. Learning what the water levels are doing can help you determine if your campsite is high enough and if you need to be prepared for a quick exit.  Checking our current conditions page before your trip is recommended.  When you’re out on the water, putting a stick in the ground at the water’s edge will allow you to see if the river is rising or falling.  Feel free to ask any Wisconsin Canoe staff about what the water levels might be during the course of your trip.  You can also call 1-800-242-1077 to get an automated recording of river levels at the dam.

Shallow sandbars on the Wisconsin River

Environment

Keep youself and your family and friends safe with protection from the elements.

  • Sun — The sun can be devastating to your skin when you’re on the river for any length of time. Use sunscreen, bring a hat and always have extra clothing to extend your stay.
  • Poison ivy — Virtually every island with vegetation and most shoreline areas within the State Riverway contain poison ivy. It grows as a small creeping plant, a climbing vine or as a shrub. Avoid contact!
  • Mosquitoes — Mosquitoes are most abundant near vegetation and river backwaters. Don’t forget the insect repellent! Camping in the middle of the river away from vegetation will keep the annoyance to a minimum.

Thunder & Lightning

In case of lightning or thunderstorms while on the river, you should take the following steps:

  1. Get off the water – A boat is the tallest object on the water making lightning strikes more likely. This is partially mitigated by the nearby bluffs but safety dictates getting off.
    • If you are fishing or swimming, get out of the water and move away from the edge.
  2. Seek shelter – If possible, get in a vehicle and avoid touching metal parts. Otherwise, take shelter near a dense group of trees or shrubs. Don’t stay near tall isolated objects like a single tree or in the open area of a sandbar. Tents do not provide physical protection from lightning though being in a tent certainly helps mentally.
  3. If no shelter is available, crouch down, feet close together with your head tucked down and your hands over your ears. Spread out, keeping people several yards apart (if a strike occurs, you want as few victims as possible). Minimize your contact with the ground.
    • Don’t lie down. Lightning causes electric currents along the top of the ground that can be deadly over 100 feet away. Crouching down is the best combination of being low while touching the ground as little as possible.
  4. Avoid objects that conduct electricity such as graphite and metal, (paddles, tent poles, camp stoves, power lines, umbrellas, etc).
  5. Monitor the storm – Lightning has been known to strike 10 miles away, although 3 – 5 miles is more common. Thunderstorms move swiftly. After you see lightning, count the seconds until you hear thunder. Every five seconds equals a mile in distance. If the time increases, the storm may be moving away.

    • If you see lightning but don’t hear thunder, the storm is probably 15 miles away.
    • If you hear thunder, the storm is within 10 miles – lightning strike distance.
    • If you see a blue glow around metal objects, smell ozone, hear buzzing, feel your scalp tingle or your hair stands on end – get to cover or crouch down. The movement of electricity just before lightning strikes creates these sensations.
  6. If a strike occurs, apply first aid to victims – Call 911 immediately. Don’t cause another casualty by exposing yourself to lightning. Wait until danger is past before helping victims. Remember: people don’t hold a charge, so touching them can’t hurt you; victims without a pulse can be revived with CPR; and 80% of those struck by lightning survive.

Emergency Services — Dial 911

The Wisconsin River is normally a calm river, but rapidly changing weather conditions and the sometimes rapidly rising water levels can lead to dangerous situations on the river.

Bringing a cell phone for emergency use is highly recommended. If you do bring a phone, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure help will be able to find you. Parts of the Riverway have no cell phone service depending on your provider (US Cellular and Verizon are best, AT&T and Sprint less so).

The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is 93 miles long and borders 6 counties, so it may be difficult for emergency services to determine exactly where you are without your help.  Make sure to always have a good idea of where you are by following along on a map or using GPS.  Each landing along the river has a sign identifying that landing, and telling you the distance downstream to the next landing. This can help reaffirm your position on a map.

Most importantly, in case of a real emergency, Prairie Du Sac, Arena, and Spring Green (the start, middle, and end point to most trips) have search and rescue teams specifically trained and equipped for river rescue (this includes hovercraft).  There is no charge for these services in an emergency, simply dial 911.