Debby Cork and Rita Loper

Debby Cork, left, guides Rita Loper's kayak into the water as a group from Mad City Paddlers heads out on Fish Lake for a recent evening paddle in Lodi.

Sometimes, doing a solitary sport is more fun when you do it with others.

That’s the idea behind Mad City Paddlers, a volunteer-run group devoted to sharing the traditionally quiet sport of canoeing and kayaking. Members share favorite spots, organize trips and most of all make it easier for one another to experience the joys and adventures of regional waters.

“We have trips on rivers throughout the state – the Flambeau and up into Door County. The Crystal River, the Mecan River near Montello, a beautiful river and a pretty popular one,” said Bruce Nelson, Mad City Paddlers’ trip coordinator. “The Kickapoo is popular in the spring and fall. We do a spring and fall colors trip.”

Membership dues are $12 a year, or $17 for a family of up to five. But paddlers have to supply their own kayak, canoe or, in rare instances, paddle board, and safety equipment. The group does not offer instruction, but does give encouragement for those just getting into the sport. There’s plenty of challenge for seasoned paddlers, too.

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Canoes on the water

Mad City Paddlers offers members weeknight outings like this recent one on Fish Lake at Lussier County Park in Lodi. The group also organizes group paddles around Wisconsin nearly every weekend of the spring, summer and fall. 

Once a month MCP gathers for a meeting and potluck. Mad City Paddlers bill themselves as “The Friendliest Paddle Club in Wisconsin,” and for many members “the sociability is a big part of it,” said president Kris Freundlich. “It’s by and large a very close club. People seem to very much enjoy the club.”

Still, the common denominator is a love of being on the water – whether on rivers, lakes or whitewater.

“We have a tremendous number of paddles through the year” for the group’s more than 430 members, Freundlich said.

Along with midweek evening paddles in and around Madison, “We have paddles almost every Saturday and Sunday, sometimes multiple ones across the state, generally through the whole paddle season – early spring through late fall.”

Weeknights and weekends

Nelson and his wife Cheryl had just moved back to Madison in 2004 and were looking for good kayaking spots when they heard about Mad City Paddlers. The couple had kayaked in Hawaii and other places they’d lived while Nelson was in the Air Force, but “we didn’t know many local places to paddle,” he said.

Today, Nelson oversees MCP’s outings, spending much of his free time in December and January building a schedule of trips for the coming year, and recruiting volunteers to run them.

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Tom Connors

Tom Connors, of Madison, heads out with a group from Mad City Paddlers for a mid-summer evening kayak.

From May to September, MCP members can sign up for midweek trips – mostly Madison-area paddles held for about two hours on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening. Recent outings on the list have included Fish Lake near Lodi and Cherokee Marsh on Madison’s North Side.

“Typically we meet at 6 o’clock, and that gives us about an hour and a half, almost two hours of paddling time before it gets dark,” Nelson said.

On weekends, Mad City Paddlers often takes it on the road, with destinations that can range up and down Wisconsin to as far away as Iowa or Illinois. Trips might last one or two days.

“We have several trips that offer camping, (usually) at a state park. They’ll do two days on a river, or two rivers near the park,” he said.

The weekend trips start up in April and tend to wind down in early November with a paddle on the Wisconsin River just north of Wisconsin Dells. There is, however, one exception: The Mad City Paddlers’ annual “Fog Bowl,” held on January 1 on the warm, unfrozen waters of Lake Columbia, which serves as a cooling pond for a nearby power plant.

“It’s for the few diehards who want to get out and do something crazy on New Year’s Day,” Nelson said. The club also holds a group lunch that day at a Portage restaurant, which does tend to draw more members than the Fog Bowl, he said.

The average MCP trip attracts about 12 to 20 paddlers, though some have drawn as many as 30. Members get a regular newsletter and access to a detailed schedule of outings, with contact information for the trip organizer and particulars about the trip’s level of difficulty. A list of planned outings is also posted on the MCP website at www.madcitypaddlers.org.

Along with trip ideas and camaraderie, the group offers another perk: Shuttles. Members coordinate cars so that the paddlers on a river trip have a ride back to their starting point after they’re done with their adventures.

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Mad City Paddlers at tree

A group of kayakers from Mad City Paddlers pauses near a tree on Fish Lake. The volunteer-run MCP organizes dozens of paddling trips on Wisconsin lakes, rivers and whitewater for a range of skill levels each year. 

But even though the paddlers tend to travel in numbers, that doesn’t mean they lose the sense of quiet solitude and one-ness with their surroundings that paddling can offer.

“People who are drawn to this type of sport enjoy that type of (quiet),” Freundlich said. “Of course when the group stops for lunch, maybe on a riverbank, people can socialize. Then they get back on the water.”

Links to outdoor adventures

Mad City Paddlers is among a number of groups that get like-minded people into outdoor adventures. Those include the Hoofer Outing Club based at UW-Madison, the meet-up Madison Area Outdoor Group, or others listed on the “links” page of the MCP website.

Most of the Mad City Paddlers tend to be older adults.

“The average age in the club would be around 50. We have some people in their 30s and 40s, but it seems people have more money and more time for weekend kayaking when they get older,” Nelson said. “When my wife and I took whitewater lessons, the instructor said the average age for whitewater is around 50. The kids are gone and mom and dad want to go out and do some more adventurous things.”

A fifth grade teacher at Abundant Life Christian School, Nelson fills his summer with paddling.

“I enjoy being outdoors and kayaking and being on the water,” he said. “I grew up with my family canoeing, and ran the canoe beach at a Boy Scout camp a couple of summers in high school. I’ve always loved the water and being on it. It’s a lot more fun, I think, to paddle it than to be on a motor boat.”

“For me, just about any day on the water is the best day ever.”

Safety is key

About three dozen skilled club members pitch in to lead trips – some once a year, others eight or 10.

“Generally before I’ll have someone lead a trip, I want to have paddled with them. We try to ensure safety, and that the person knows what they’re doing before we just send them out to lead a trip,” Nelson said. “Safety is key. In many of our trips, we have organizers who’ve led the same trip for several years. That makes my job easier; we adjust the date, and go from there. But we have some new organizers and some new trips every year,” which is also important, he said.

The cold, wet spring with high waters forced the club to cancel a few trips early in the season.

But “we have a group of whitewater paddlers in the club, and they really loved it because all the rivers up north were higher than usual and the whitewater was better,” he said. “That’s the harder-core group of, I’d say, a dozen or so” – which includes Nelson himself.

Along with experiencing the seasons, the physical challenge and the camaraderie, paddling offers another reward: Wildlife.

Birds. Muskrats. Bald eagles. Snapping turtles.

On one trip on to the Yahara River from Token Creek, “There were three river otters in front of me, playing,” Nelson said. “I’d never seen a river otter on the Yahara before. These guys looked at me, ducked underwater, came back up and looked at me. I followed them for almost a mile, then they went away. That was really amazing, seeing those guys.”

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.