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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association improves this nearby paddling destination
Sweet wilderness
The river straddles urban and rural, driftless and glaciated.
Credit:Megan Phillips

At Canoecopia last weekend, thousands of paddlers dreamed of the expeditions they'll take when the ice finally thaws on area rivers and lakes. One lesser-known but nearby option is the Upper Sugar River, just west and southwest of Madison.

"It's a thin, picturesque, all-around beautiful river to paddle," says Wade Moder, executive director of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association. Moder describes the slow-moving waterway as a family-friendly option for beginning canoeists or kayakers, yet still worthwhile for more advanced paddlers due to its natural beauty. Bald eagles, herons and osprey have all been spotted along the waterway.

And thanks to a recent Dane County land purchase, the Upper Sugar River Watershed will soon be even more accessible for public recreation. Last year the county bought two large parcels along the river from the Bruce Company, says Sara Kwitek, Dane County acquisition and planning specialist. The county will add a new parking lot at Hwy. 69 with a canoe put-in/take-out and eventually a walking trail, says Kwitek. The canoeing segment begins off Bobcat Lane (just north of 18/151 and west of Verona) and extends south to Paoli.

The association hopes to add informational signs, complete with QR codes, at Bobcat Lane and two other access points (Valley Road and River Road), as well as at spots of interests along the riverway. This should enrich the experience of paddlers making their way downstream.

Moder calls the land purchase a "game changer," protecting two and a half miles along the river.

As the landscaping company gradually removes its tree stock, the county plans to improve habitat by clearing invasive species, such as honeysuckle. Restoring the stream banks to native prairie grasses will help hold the soil better than the trees and shrubs currently do, addressing one of the watershed's major challenges: stream bank erosion.

The watershed association is active in surveying invasive species, organizing cleanup days, providing educational opportunities for schools, and coordinating with other nonprofits and government agencies to protect and promote the watershed.

"We're the jack-of-all-trades type of nonprofit," Moder says.

The association helped start a sister association last year to protect the Lower Sugar River. (There's also a middle portion still in need of its own group).

The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association partners with Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District to monitor the effects of discharging treated wastewater into Badger Mill Creek, which flows into the Upper Sugar River. The discharge raises the water temperature, making it unsuitable for some cold-water species, such as trout, explains Moder. Elsewhere in the watershed, though, there is still excellent trout fishing, including in the West Branch, where the group's water-quality efforts helped turn the stream around from impaired status to a class two trout stream.

Moder attributes such successes to the association's dedicated group of volunteers. Throughout the summer they collect data from 25 sites along the river for water clarity, temperature and pH. They hope to soon be able to measure conductivity as well, which would allow them to monitor the amount of chloride coming in from road salt. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources uses the data the group collects, Moder says.

The organization is just completing a five-year strategic plan. Since a large majority of the watershed is privately owned, Moder says, "working with landowners is priority one." This includes working with farmers to prevent manure runoff and obtaining access to the river for work on stabilizing stream banks.

In addition to the effects of agriculture, "We have a big city right next door that's pumping down a lot of water to us," Moder explains. The river's location on the boundary of the Driftless Area also lends it unique characteristics.

The association's annual meeting and open house will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 16, in Epic's Andromeda Building. There will be a screening of the short film "Mysteries of the Driftless: A Documentary to Help Protect the Area" at 2 p.m. and a Q&A session with the producer afterward. The film explores geological features, Native American remnants and the micro-habitats unique to the region.

Can't make it to the open house? Every year the organization provides an easy (and free) option for those interested in checking out the river at its "Paddle and Pig Out" event. It sets people up with a canoe for a short paddle down the river, followed by lunch in Paoli.

Paddle and Pig Out doesn't take place until August, though. The good news is that by then, the river is sure to be ice-free.

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