YOU KNOW ITS TIME TO FIRE IT UP ~ DIRTBAGGIN’ CANOECOPIA IN MADISON WIby “Chicago” Toughill

Midwestern paddlers have a well defined off season. Unlike most other regions of Murica, where the temps drop and the pogies go on, but the rivers are still paddled, here the calm water sections turn to blocks of ice, and the ledges in any rapids still running are feet thick and overhang the run in all of the perfect places to kill a boater. So come December something we put up our boats, pull out our skis, and call it till March… and Canoecopia. 

Canoecopia is a massive multi-day event held in Madison, WI every year. Hosted by Rutabaga in the Capitol city of the Badger State, which feels quite unlike any other city in the Midwest with it’s outdoorsy hippy-like liberal population starkly clashing with the rest of the region’s Scott Walker gun toting right wingers (every other car seems to have a boat, bike, or ski rack on it), Canoecopia features gear from most of the major players not only in the flatwater but also the whitewater industry. There are also booths with paddling outfitters (mostly calm water) and various other enterprises like Magazines (Rapid Magazine, Canoe & Kayak, and the local outdoor rag Silent Sports), food, and old historical canoes. Rutabaga also brings in guest speakers who cover all sorts of topics interesting to the dirtbag; this year over 90 paddlers presented, including Gillian Gibree’s review of a SUP Salmon River mission, Anna Levesque’s kayaking tips for women, Amy Lukas and Mary Catterlin’s “Lake Michigan in a Dugout” adventure, Bear Paulsen’s soloing in the wilderness discussion, Ryan Rushton’s tales from 11 years of Cumberland Island trips, and Neill Sachs’ memories of paddling the heritage waters of the Great Lakes region from Minnesota to Maine, Quebec to New York. It’s a great place to see the new gear, buy or swap boats, identify a new trip, or see old friends and make new ones. 

I’ve been going to Canoecopia for years with my wife and her friends who work at a local Forest Preserve who come to attend the informative talks. I also made plans to hook up with some of the Midwest Admins of Dirt Bag Paddlers (Dan Bowers and Willy Heindel, and good friend Jeremiah Euclide) who have also been there before, and I invited my co-workers and good friends, Admins Dale Guarniere and Mackenzie Bryant of Kosir’s Rapid Rafts,
 to come as well for their first time. We were not disappointed. 
We did it up in dirtbag fashion, sampling the local New Glarus beer on tap, sometimes hanging out together, but often times running solo. We looked at helmets, PFDs, gloves and shoes; tried on boats; talked to friends at other outfitters; and generally got fired up for the season. I moved a couple hats, a hoody, and some Dirtbag swag out of the back of the DBMobile, and gave out a fat stack of stickers, and got a bunch in return for upcoming contests. We spread the word about Dirt Bag Paddlers, the Magazine, and the Wallace. Dale and Kenz even managed quite by accident to get in free through the back door; they didn’t even realize till we were leaving! WALLACE. 
I spoke with Tony from Wausau Whitewater, a non profit organization which operates the most famous whitewater park in the Midwest. The park is on the east channel of the Wisconsin River, and for 40 years it has hosted first slalom, and now more recently freestyle, kayak events. Tony has been involved since the early 70s and has witnessed much change in the sport. I said the dirtbags would be descending on Wausau this summer for the Midwest Freestyle Championships, and he told me all about this great event. Willy and Dan both have paddled there many times, and Willy took photos at last year’s event. The rest of us have never made it over because we had heard the regulations were strict on IKs. I asked if inflatable boats were ok on the course, and he informed me that all boats were allowed, but non-whitewater craft were highly discouraged, and SUP was prohibited – which frankly surprised me. However, the Midwest hasn’t seen much whitewater SUP – yet. I predicted to him that like the old days when snowboarders weren’t allowed on his local ski hill at Granite Peak, one day we’d all look back and laugh at the ban. He looked skeptical, but welcomed us heartily to come out and paddle. 
Wausau Whitewater Park

Willy shooting at last year’s Midwest Freestyle Championships

Willy paddling at Wausau Whitewater Park

Next I spoke with Cheryl at the Mad City Paddlers booth, a Midwest kayaking club based in Madison that’s been organizing outings for all types of boats and all skill levels for many years. Cheryl has been boating with the club for over ten years, and they’ve been in existence for over twenty five. They had a kiosk with the trips planned for the upcoming season, marked with pins on a map of Wisconsin, and I recognized many familiar stretches there and in the photos they had snapped over the years. All the classic Midwestern runs were represented: Wolf, Pike, Red, Vermilion, Wisconsin, Black, Oconto, Nippersink, Fox, and I was delighted to see a photo of First Drop on the Peshtigo, my home stretch. I told Cheryl I’d seen them come through a few years back, but didn’t mention that on that Spring run the club had Wallaced their way down the river and us Kosir guides had helped pick up numerous pieces along the way. Nevertheless, Mad City is still giving folks a safe and friendly introduction to our sport in a time when we desperately need to attract new faces. I couldn’t help but notice that the age of the membership was rising, related directly to the time when they had joined in the heyday of club boating and kayaking in general. Like the chat rooms and message boards that were their lifeblood, the club scene is in danger of becoming nostalgic and out of fashion, which saddens me. I’d highly recommend these folks if you are in need of a shuttle with good food and friendly boaters. 

I was drawn to a booth with beautiful handmade wood paddles, being immersed at the time in writing an article about Keith Backlund. Mike at Badger Paddles was very kind and it was a pleasure to discuss his operation. Based in Ontario, Canada, Mike handcrafts 1000-1500 paddles a year, in many styles, mostly shaped for use in canoes. His favorite wood is the native cherry in his area, which produce a strong yet flexible paddle. I was particularly drawn to the voyageur style blades hanging from the wall. These very thin long blades were constructed specifically for the rocky runs of the fur trade routes, and the style fell out of favor as broader faced lake paddles came into vogue over the last century, but I’ve always liked their feel in my hands. Mike also discussed at length choosing the proper paddle length with a customer who approached us while we talked. He explained that different paddling styles called for a different length, and that he had retired from regular whitewater paddling due to bad shoulders, and had thus learned to paddle a shorter handle with a longer blade. Badger definitely makes a great paddle, beautiful to behold but by no means made to hang on the wall! 
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pKV3mlNoLyw

We talked with Craig Esposito at the Team River Runner Milwaukee booth. Craig, co-founder of the chapter, is a devout boater and a friendly guy who has been working with TRR for a number of years, helping to get military veterans out on paddling trips. He explained the various challenges of organizing and providing a healthy atmosphere to us, setting up trips not only for physically disabled vets but also working with emotionally scarred soldiers, and Dale offered up Kosir’s as a destination for a rafting trip, something TRR has done often in the other chapters around the country but never here in Wisconsin. We explained to Craig that DBP is all about the mission of TRR, and we are committed to getting the word out about this important program, and he told us that a new chapter would be opening hopefully soon in Green Bay. Team River Runner deserves a hearty cheer for their work, and our veterans deserve a huge thanks from our community for the sacrifices they have made for our country. 

I spent some time at the Tarka’s Whitewater Journey booth with my old friend Tarka Kemal. Originally from Nepal, he is a former world class kayaker who has lived and worked in Wisconsin as a raft guide for many years, residing in Milwaukee with his large family and branching off to form his own outfitter a few years ago. I met him guiding the Menominee River on Piers Gorge, the only commercially run Class IV whitewater in Wisconsin, and this is the main location of his outfit, although he occasionally runs highwater Spring Peshtigo trips as well as providing kayak instruction on the Milwaukee River, and full paddling, rock climbing, and trekking excursions to his homeland. Tarka is a very friendly fellow, and his face is formed into a permanent wide grin with smiling eyes that twinkle with joy. We share the same philosophy of camaraderie and working together, the idea that we rubber pushers all share the river together and should help each other, that no person in need should ever be overlooked no matter who their outfitter is, and the ideal of One Love. We discussed the downward trend in customer numbers, the new fees imposed by the State of Michigan at the Piers Gorge takeout, and the real threat of a low water year and what that may mean to our struggling industry. I always love to kick back with a can of beer and talk shop with Tarka at Canoecopia, and ask him about the old days of kayak competition in Nepal as well as the current state of affairs in our business. The big draw at Tarka’s booth wasn’t the trip info, but the handmade kid sized playboat he had made for his children. 

Just around the corner I stumbled across my favorite infkatable kayak, the Funyak, and a Mini Max Neo stood on end behind a booth’s table. I was surprised and delighted to see that Hyside Whitewater Inflatables had made the journey from California to attend their first Canoecopia. These guys make the boats that Kosir’s run, and consequently my favorite rafts and IKs. What was even better, legendary owner Richard DeChant was on hand! I had heard many good things about him from the owner of Kosir’s, Tony Guarniere, about the old days of rafting and the formative days when outfitters switched from bucket boats to self bailing rafts. Now I got the chance to speak with Mr. DeChant one on one, and he was very friendly and engaging. We talked about the old days, and he recalled his first trip down the Salt River many years ago, and how within three years of going rafting for the first time he was owner of a small outfitter and glueing up his own boats. He is now collecting some of the old boats to form a museum of sorts. We talked about the new materials in use, the latest designs coming out (the Mini Max and the Paddlecat, which the DBP Admins, in particular Aaron Erdrich, are sending Class V in all over the country), and the easy process of customization in ordering boats. Tarka came over at this point, and it was interesting to watch these two discuss the pros and cons of boat design and talk about some of the old styles and what works best on a rugged multi-day Nepal trip, location of handles and valves, and more. We also talked once more about the decline in whitewater popularity and strategies to reach new audiences and reinvigorate our sport and community (a popular theme throughout the weekend). It was clear that Dick wasn’t just an owner of a raft company, but that deep down he too is a paddler with a dirtbag’s passion for our way of life. I look forward to doing an interview with him about the past and the future in an upcoming article for DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE. 

I also spent some time with DBP Admin Brian Kretschmer and the gang at Kayak Chicago, who were just arriving after spending the morning on the Chicago River, kayaking the green dyed waters celebrating St Patrick’s Day. We have been friends for many years, first becoming friendly with them when our former River Manager Chad Martin moved south to work for them. Since then Brian, Brian Westrick, and all the good folks at Kayak Chicago have made the journey north to Kosir’s for free camping and boating. They’ve also extended free boating to our staff, and my wife and I have kayaked the Chicago River and SUPped on Lake Michigan with them. They are awesome, friendly boaters who run a safe and efficient organization, and they’re most definite dirtbags! It’s always a highlight of my Canoecopia visits to catch up with them and talk shop, as they get so stoked for whitewater! We’ve made plans yet again for some April fun this year! 

Dale, Kenz and I checked out our favorite paddle company, Werner, and the new DEMSHITZ signature paddle. Built on a Powerhouse blade, it’s a mammoth war stick, ready for battle and mighty impressive. The good folks there kindly gave us some DS and Werner stickers to kick out in contests. It’s our dream to get a Dirtbag guide stick made one day… But that’s a long way off. Our friends in Demshitz worked long and hard to earn this honor. In the meanwhile us Kosir raft guides will keep using our current Werner paddles (I’ve been using mine since 2007). 

On the way out the door, I stopped over by the Dagger display, and met Steven from Confluence Outdoors. A longtime SE boater, he was attending his first Canoecopia, and had nothing but kind words for the open, friendly Midwest paddling community. It was cool to meet a new face in a room full of old friends, and invite him out to the Peshtigo and Menominee if he should ever be in the area, as well as offer up some of the lesser known treats of the UP and eastern Wisconsin. He expressed a bit of sadness, leaving his old friends and family behind in the Carolinas, but a new stoke in meeting new people and getting to paddle new rivers as well as work for a great American company like Confluence was certainly making up for the loss. 

I chatted up the Level 6, NRS, Jackson, MTI, and Astral booths too. All of these brands are top notch and come highly recommended, and the folks manning the booths were friendly and informative and obviously paddlers. Some knew of DBP, some didn’t, but we spread the WALLACE and made friends with all. I was disappointed to not see my favorite whitewater canoe folks in attendance, the Canadian company L’esquif, only to learn that they had closed shop. Just another sign of the times that our way of life is drying up like a river in the late summer sun. Our high water days appear to be in the rear view mirror, but hopefully we soon hear the thunder and a storm blows in to raise our collective river levels and float our communal boats once again. 

This all happened on Saturday. We had originally planned on attending Canoecopia on Sunday as well, and maybe scoop up a few end of show deals. But all of this talk about boating had Dale, Kenz, and I itching to hit the water. So on Sunday morning we hit up the American Whitewater Wisconsin river gauges to see what was running, and we quickly settled on the nearby Root River. 

The Root River is a short play spot nestled in Racine, Wisconsin, which runs from the Horlick Dam half a mile through a miniature rocky gorge in Quarry Park. It’s a Class II stretch with one nice surf hole, Greater Evil, at the very end. This day it was running roughly a healthy 900 cfs (the gauge was iced out) of runoff water, and the woods were still slick with melting snow. We opted out of running the dam (I wish I had run it though) in our IKs but played some in Greater Evil, running nice and meaty today, which Wallaced me good after a nice surf. After a couple nice runs we called it a day. 

There were a few other cars in the parking lot of the park, and as we deflated and changed some of the kayakers came up from their run. We got to talk with “Root River Rob”, local paddling legend Rob Smage, who was holding court as he often does on a good water day here. Rob, who has been paddling whitewater  locally for 25 years, has assembled much of the information about many of the Midwestern runs for AW, and he swears by the Root. “I live 5 minutes away. When this is running,” he asks, looking around him, “why would I go anywhere else?” We talk for awhile about the death of the chat rooms and message boards of old, where the boaters of the previous generation once posted on levels and built up trip plans. His blue eyes twinkling with passion under grey animated eyebrows, Rob lamented the passing of an era. Once again this weekend I found myself in the company of a club boater from the longboat days waxing on the decline of our sport. Rob can pack volumes of info into a few minutes of time, and it was a fitting ending to a weekend of Wisconsin boat talk to hear him ask, “Why would I go to Canoecopia when I could be HERE, paddling?” Although
I love going to Madison to see the latest industry goodies, hear experts speak, and see old friends from all over, I couldn’t agree more about standing wet and stoked in a parking lot beside a roaring whitewater river. 

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