OCTOBER 9, 2015

I Heart Wisconsin River Trip: NRF director paddles through Dells

Ed Legge, Dells Events

A positive response to a negative development propelled Ruth Oppedahl into Wisconsin Dells on Thursday morning - in a kayak via the Wisconsin River.

Oppedahl, executive director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF), paddled into town accompanied by two other kayakers, one of them Lyndon Station resident and local environmentalist Marina Weinhold.

Oppedahl was in the middle of Day 12 of her 18-day "adventure of a lifetime," a kayaking trip down the Wisconsin River from its source near Lac Vieux Desert Park to its mouth at the Mississippi River near Wyalusing State Park, which she plans to reach by Wednesday.

The trip was planned by Oppedahl and her organization as a response to the state of Wisconsin's "significant and unprecedented funding reductions" earlier this year for its parks, conservation education and endangered natural resources. The budget cuts reduced the NRF's budget by $84,000 a year (approximately 12 percent), and she said she came up with the idea in the wake of her initial, negative reaction to the reductions.

"I was depressed the whole weekend (in early July when the budget went into effect), then I started thinking about what can we do," Oppedahl said Wednesday as she and her small support crew prepared to portage around the Kilbourn Dam while taking a mid-day break from paddling.

The "what" turned into Oppedahl's "I Heart Wisconsin: River Trip," which over the past week and a half has seen the long-time environmentalist dragging her kayak along the shallows of the river as it begins near the Wisconsin-Michigan border, camping on an island for a night and embarking on numerous "field trips" to natural areas near the river as she made her way down the river.

Oppedahl is making this trek without the benefit of an official entourage and support infrastructure (such as a trailing boat with a motor, supplies and support staff) and is using her vacation time.

"She's on her own" said NRF spokesman Lindsay Renick Mayer. "This is really her personal journey and her goal - and she's learning so much about the state and the great conservation going on."

Mayer has kept tabs on Oppedahl from the NRF's office in Madison, where she gets a locational update every 10 minutes, and anyone else who is interested in see what the paddling traveler has been up to along the river can check out her blog, photographs and more at www.wisconservation.org.

Oppedahl has depended upon NRF members, friends, former colleagues and other supportive people along the way, the latter of whom she calls her "river angels" and many of whom have joined her on the river.

Those "angels" on Wednesday consisted of Weinhold and her husband, Frank, who served as a portage boat-carrier as his wife accompanied Oppedahl in their kayaks.

Also joining Oppedahl on Wednesday as they floated through the Dells was Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, an organization that advocates "for the protection, enhancement and restoration of Wisconsin's rivers and watersheds." The Alliance supports such groups as the Dells-based Steward of the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

The Weinholds, themselves well-known local river stewards, played host to Oppedahl Wednesday evening at their home on Louis' Bluff overlooking the river in the Upper Dells. The bluff is a Natural Heritage Land Trust-protected landmark, designated more than eight years ago thanks to the couple's efforts, and all Oppedahl had to do to reach the Weinholds was to ride up to the beach below the bluff.

Oppedahl, Caneff and Marina Weinhold could be seen paddling down the river for more than an hour late Wednesday morning as they approached the bend at River Road and floated toward the railroad trestle, highway bridge and dam.

Oppedahl led the way in her pink visor and "I Heart Wisconsin" flag flying proudly from her kayak, a portable craft that she at times has folded up and put in a car trunk while portaging during the voyage. (She did so earlier this week to get around the Petenwell and Castle Rock spillways north of the Dells).

The three disembarked from the river right before the Kilbourn Dam and began toting their kayaks around the Alliant Energy substation on the way to the next phase of the journey, which would continue through the Lower Dells as it begins making a hard turn westward towards its meeting with the Mississippi at the Iowa border.

When the trip concludes Wednesday, a larger group of supporters is expected to join her on the river for the final few miles.

Sporting a tan from her many days afloat, Oppedahl talked about the challenges environmental organizations face in the wake of budget cuts and tighter pocketbooks.

"We're still here, we'll endure, we're redoubling our efforts, we've made a short-term and long-term plan to fill the gap and grow even beyond that so we continue to work to fund our natural resources," she said.