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Skating at Olbrich

Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Kayaking the rain-swollen Yahara watershed
High water boosts the perspective for paddlers
Dane County public-works offficials have the difficult task of trying to lower Lake Mendota without flooding Lake Monona and the other two lakes downstream.
Credit:David Medaris

I took a kayaking excursion along Lake Monona's north shore from Olbrich Park to Yahara Place last weekend, up the central Yahara River to the Tenney lock and dam, back downstream to Lake Monona and further west along its north shore.

My incentive was to view first-hand the consequences of the record-setting rains of recent weeks, which had raised Lake Monona to two feet above its average level for August, and swollen the Yahara River's current to between three and four times its usual rate of flow for this time of year.

The holiday weekend marks the unofficial end of the peak summer boating season, and the Yahara chain of lakes is often dense with Labor Day boat traffic as boaters converge to squeeze in one final three-day foray before the school year gets underway.

But with a Slow/No Wake rule in effect for the entire Yahara watershed (including lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa) -- and with Dane County Sheriff's boats patrolling the lakes to enforce the law and cite violators -- some boaters may opt for destinations other than the Yahara lakes. If so, kayakers and canoeists may encounter conditions comparable to what I found last Sunday morning, when motorboat traffic was light and speeds were subdued.

Such conditions afford a quieter experience for paddlers, with less exhaust perfuming the air -- and more time to sit and watch something like this spectacular light display created by the early sun reflecting off the water onto the arc under the Rutledge Street bridge over the central Yahara River.

A short distance below the Tenney Lock and Dam, I pull up to a dock on the Yahara River's east bank for a perspective on all the water being released downstream at a rate three to four times the average for this time of year. Dane County public-works offficials have the difficult task of trying to lower Lake Mendota without flooding Lake Monona and the other two lakes downstream

Mendota drains more than 200 square miles of surrounding landscape: At the time I kayaked last weekend, the record rains of recent weeks had pushed Mendota's water level to 20 inches above its August average -- a level sufficient to threaten low-lying shoreline property around the lake. To relieve shoreline property owners, the water is released downstream. But the interests of Lake Mendota shoreline property owners must be considered with those of people downstream, such as residents of low-lying Belle Isle south of Lake Monona, who have been sandbagging their properties against the rising waters.

Kayaking back down the Yahara River, I came to the East Washington Avenue bridge. I had heard that the bridge's pedestrian-bicycle underpass had been flooded and might be navigable. This proved untrue, but not by much. As this final video clip shows, kayaking under the bridge put me at eye level with the underpass.

The accompanying photo gallery includes a series of images showing some of what I saw out on the water. With water levels still high, it may give you some idea of what you can expect to see if you venture out in a kayak or canoe over the long Labor Day weekend.

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