Corps of Recovery Part 1

A Canoeing Expedition on the Sugar River

Contributor:  Carol Aslesen

Following is a report about leg one of the Corps of Recovery Canoe Expedition which took place in May of 2015.  Leg two is tentatively scheduled to take place in June 2015 as a one day, 15 mile trip from Belleville to Attica. Interested persons are welcome to join any leg of the expedition.  Contact attention Carol Aslesen or Susan Lehnhardt if you would like information on joining us.


Call to Adventure

Link to larger map

A call to adventure was put forth at the March 2015 Annual Meeting of the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association (LSRWA) by member and volunteer Steven Apfelbaum.  Steve shared his long-time interest in canoeing the entire navigable Sugar River from its headwaters west of Madison, WI to its confluence with the Pecatonica River near Shirland, IL.  He invited anyone to join who might be interested in the physical challenge and the opportunity to get to know the changing character of the river as it flows from its origins in the Driftless Area to its destination in broad forested floodplains along the Wisconsin and Illinois border.  And sign-up they did, with seven volunteers forming the final contingent for the first leg of the journey dubbed “The Corps of Recovery” as inspired by adventures in an earlier time.  

As coordination efforts for the “learning journey” began, the group articulated its goal to collect data that would be representative of the conditions and biodiversity of the Sugar River channel and riparian corridor. Ecologists in the group would help the team identify and record birds, plants, and other life forms. Map makers would chart the course and document the destinations and data collection points. Documentarians would capture photos and video. The data would be shared with others on our website.  A launch date for the first leg of the project was set for May 16.


Corps of Recovery Leg One

Leg one entailed canoeing the Sugar River from Bobcat Lane Verona, WI to Bellville, WI on Saturday, May 16,  2015 from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm.

The team on this leg of the journey was comprised of seven volunteers (6 paddlers and 1 ground support person).  Several members of the team have training in ecology, botany or cartography.  Our goal for this trip was to paddle from the point where the Sugar River is first navigable in Verona,WI down to Albany, WI, or 44 river miles.  We planned for an overnight stay at Dayton, but after 11 hours of steady paddling we had only gone 20 miles to the dam at Belleville, all within the Upper Sugar River Watershed.  At that point our weary bodies begged us to quit for the day so we called our support volunteer to pick us up. 

Data Collection

As we paddled, we studied the river and adjacent lands to better understand the changing character and condition of the habitats of the river corridor and to catalog a representative sample of the biological diversity by recording the various plant and animal species—birds, fish, and macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects, clams, crayfish, etc.)—that occupy the stream, forest, and wetland habitats. Two and a half of the 11 hours were spent collecting data at five different locations about 3 miles apart.  Before the season is over, we will complete the journey through the Middle and Lower Watersheds and post our data, photos, video, and other accounts for public viewing on our website’s interactive map.   On a personal note, my professional background is nursing and education, so my role in the data collection was to be the time keeper while Susan did five minute bird counts and five minute species counts.  I appreciated being able to learn from others on the trip, and observe the way the scientists in the group gather and document data.


As with any river trip, we had some adventures: One canoe swamped, tipping its contents and paddlers into the river.  Fortunately, they were seasoned paddlers and had secured all their supplies and equipment, so nothing was lost.  I was paddling in another canoe and knocked a Go-Pro camera off its perch on the bow with my paddle while switching sides.  I quickly placed the paddle into the stream to mark the spot and Dave was (quite remarkably) able to retrieve the camera from the muddy river bed.  The Go-Pro was in a waterproof case, so was none the worse for wear, and it provided some rather uninteresting murky underwater footage.


A highlight of the trip for all of us was pausing briefly at a riverside woodland that the botanists spotted.  Even from our vantage point on the river bank, it was apparent that the woodland was full of spring wildflowers: wild geranium, red trillium, Jack-in-the pulpit, woodland phlox, and so much more.  It was a scene like I have never experienced before—there was a magical, fairy-land quality to it.  We departed inspired by the landowner’s care.

The last half hour of the paddle was an especially beautiful and peaceful time. The dam at Belleville causes the river to broaden and slow considerably at this point.  The evening sunlight gave a soft, golden hue to the trees and river as we paddled on the still water into Belleville.  I could almost forget about muscles tired from a long day of paddling as I enjoyed the peaceful, quiet evening glow.

A Quiet Campsite

We camped on some private land in the town of Dayton. The owners had graciously allowed us to use their grassy campsite, complete with picnic table and fire pit on the bank of the Sugar River.  At the peaceful campsite we had a good meal and enjoyed sitting around the campfire listening to the sound of frogs and toads.  We were pleasantly surprised that there were very few, if any, mosquitoes.  We were all pretty tired and turned in early.  On Sunday, the sky was threatening rain and the forecast was for severe weather, possibly hail and strong winds, so we exercised caution and packed up to go home and sleep!  We all agreed that part of really experiencing a river is to stay through the evening and night and camp on its shore.  It was a wonderful ending to a perfect day.

When the Corps of Recovery canoes the next stretch of river, we will start in Belleville and continue down to Attica.  A recommendation for the next trip is to scale back to 12-15 miles a day.  This will allow more time for stopping and collecting data along the way.


Reflections- Corps of Recovery members share their thoughts:

Susan Lehnhardt: "What struck me on this paddle, through a largely tamed and human-altered landscape with all the associated sights, sounds, and smells, were the occasional reaches where for brief periods of time I felt we’d entered “wilderness”.  These periods were accompanied by a quieting, physical calm.  For me, these were the wooded reaches—at times with eagles or osprey soaring overhead, and the distant call of sandhill cranes."

Steven Apfelbaum: I'd say we should get the next leg of the trip on our schedule ASAP!

David Aslesen:  I’ve never canoed so far on this small and windy of stream before and I haven’t paddled 11 hours in a day for a long, long time.  I think the high sinuosity (amount of curvature) of this stretch added to the time it took because of all the turning, but it really made it interesting.  I would not want to have taken this stretch with the water any lower than it was as it would have meant a lot more hang ups and walking the canoes.  As it was, not being out front was an advantage as the first canoe would often show which path NOT to take.  Overall, a great trip!  Thanks all.

Other participants were Nate Gingerich, Fugui Wang, and Kristin Knoener.

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