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Safety on the River

Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

The Wisconsin River is described as the hardest working river in the world. With many dams regulating the flow and providing power for communities along the upper stretches, it may well be. On the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, however, it takes a break from work and flows in a slower lazy manner. Or does it? The river here often only looks lazy and slow, and the many inviting sandbars can be a trap to the visitor who is not aware of the power hidden from view.

Even at its normal flow, the current is strong enough to sweep a grown adult off their feet, and in only a short time the flow can increase to a strength that can overturn a full-sized car. This flow is often not even noticeable to the person standing on the bank or wading in the shallow water at the edge of a sandbar, but is strong enough that even a strong swimmer may not be able to swim against it.

Even more dangerous is the effect this current has on the sandy bottom of the river. Sandbars are constantly moving, and the downstream end is often unstable and will not support a person walking on it. Sometimes, the sand is even undercut and an unsuspecting person can step from a few inches of water into a deep hole.

Many people have tragically drowned in the waters of the Wisconsin River because they did not understand or did not respect its power. A few simple things can keep you and your family and friends safe when using the river.

  • Dropoffs — The water depth on the downstream side of a sandbar can drop from a few inches to many feet with one step. Water erosion can cause the unexpected collapse of sandbars and shorelines. If you wade in the river, wade in pairs and walk on the upstream end of the sandbars.
  • Current — Avoid flow through hazardous such as tree branches overhanging the shoreline. Even in slow water, these can sweep you out of your boat or capsize your craft. Do not swim against the current. Float downstream to an area where you can safely get out of the water.
  • Drownings — Wear a personal flotation device (PFD). Personal flotation devices will keep you on top of the water if you do step into a deep hole. The DNR encourages everyone to always wear a life preserver when in or on the river.
  • If you are not prepared to swim it, do not canoe or wade it!

Signs have been placed at each point of public access along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway warning visitors of the current and the drop-offs. Please heed the warnings and be careful when using the river.

River Flow

Wisconsin River water flow can change day to day. See Lower Wisconsin State Riverway conditions.

The Elements

Keep yourself 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 shoreland areas within the riverway contain poison ivy [PDF]. It grows as a small creeping plant, a climbing vine or a shrub. Avoid contact with its three leaves.
  • Mosquitoes — Mosquitoes are most abundant near vegetation and backwater of the river. Don't forget the insect repellent.

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 for persons traveling and camping on the river.

Many riverway users carry cell phones for emergency use. If you do, there are precautions you can take to ensure that the help you need will be able to find you. The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is 93 miles long and borders six counties, so it may be difficult for emergency services to determine where you are in order to dispatch the nearest agency to assist you. Parts of the riverway have no cell phone service.

Every county along the riverway has 911 capabilities, so a call to 911 will reach an emergency dispatcher. The dispatcher, however, will have no way to know exactly where you are unless you are able to tell them.

At each landing along the river you will see a sign identifying that landing and indicating the distance downstream to the next landing. By noting this information, you will know the name of the landing you passed last and when you passed it. This will enable a dispatcher in any of the counties along the river to dispatch the nearest emergency service agency to your assistance.

Have fun on the river! Be safe!