- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2016

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) - The Eau Claire River is a unique asset to the Wausau metro area.

Just minutes away from the hustle and bustle of busy streets, storefronts and foot traffic is a natural getaway, full of birds, animals and the babbling sounds of the river, the Wausau Daily Herald (http://wdhne.ws/2d9UsDB ) reported.

Jeff Syring, who owns Riverside Canoe Rental and Bait Shop in Schofield with his father, Keith Syring, said that the Eau Claire often provides him with a much-needed escape, close to home.

“Once you do it once, you’re hooked,” Jeff Syring said of kayaking on the Eau Claire River. “It’s a really pretty area. You’re in the middle of nowhere. You’d never guess it was right here.”

Jeff Syring isn’t the only Wausau area resident who has turned to kayaking to get away in recent years. The sport is on an upswing in popularity not only in central Wisconsin, but across the country. According to a report done by Coleman, Sevylor, Stearns and the Outdoor Foundation, kayaking has experienced so much growth that it has become the most popular form of paddling.

A new project proposed by the village of Weston is intended to cash in on the growth in popularity and turn the Wausau area into a paddling destination. The plan would turn a 15-mile stretch of the river into a water trail, perfect for kayaking, canoeing or even floating down when the conditions are right. The trail would span Wausau, Schofield, Weston and end in Ringle.

Keith Syring said the time is right for the trail to come together. When he purchased his shop, he sold just fishing gear. But he’s now started to rent kayaks and canoes to eager adventurers getting into the sport.

“I’m glad to see that (people use the river),” Keith Syring said. “When I bought the property 20 years ago, you’d never see kayakers. It’s taken off. I have people come from not only out of town, but from out of the state.”

The rapid growth in popularity of kayaking has brought about changes in Wausau and surrounding areas, including changes in the way that people use the Eau Claire River. Previously, the river had few access points and those that existed were difficult to use. The river went largely unexplored except by experienced paddlers who knew how to get their boats up and down steep banks and in and out of water without difficulty.

Access to the river is beginning to improve though, Weston has created a comprehensive plan to create a water trail that connects Wausau to the town of Ringle.

“There are trails that we drive on, there are trails that our trains go on, there are trails that we walk on, there are trails that we bike on,” said Weston Administrator Dan Guild. “We wanted to bring it to the community’s attention that the Eau Claire River is a trail that traverses many of our communities here in the metro area.”

The plan calls for kayak and canoe launches at several sites along the river, allowing paddlers easier access to the natural beauty and serenity of the river. Weston kicked off the project by installing a launch at the Ross Avenue bridge.

The Ross Avenue launch site was started last fall and completed early this summer. The project cost almost $170,000 and includes a launch that is resistant to sediment, a bathroom, signs to help paddlers find their way, benches and tables and a water fountain. The launch also has a parking lot big enough for several vehicles, including vehicles with trailers.

Local paddlers believe that the installation of new launch sites along the river will attract people into the Wausau area seeking recreation.

“I think that it will bring more people,” said local paddler Lisa Berry. “Because we have world-class kayaking. It’s where the arts meets the outdoors. Our area is the best to experience the outdoors in Wisconsin.”

Robert Stavran lives directly across from the Ross Avenue launch site and believes that its installation has created a great resource for the community.

“With this being the only spot, it’s gotten locals excited,” Stavran said. “As we get a second and third launch, it could become a destination for this region and for this state.”

The Eau Claire River is an asset for the Wausau area because it allows for paddling from early spring through late fall, and the level of difficulty fluctuates with the seasons.

In the early spring, the river is a test for even the most experienced paddlers as snow runoff raises the water levels and the current quickens, Stavran said. In the summer, the river becomes lazier and slower, save for the days after a heavy rain. Sometimes, the river even slows enough to put out an inner tube and float down the river on hot summer days.

And the fall is the perfect time for new paddlers to get used to their kayaks, as the river level drops and the currents slow even more.

“Right now it a good time for beginners because if you turn over, you can just stand back up,” Stavran said.

Those varying levels of water and opportunities for the river are the reason that Guild believes that the trail project is so important for the communities the river flows through. Adding launches along the 15-mile stretch of river will allow for a much easier and enjoyable experience.

The undertaking won’t be inexpensive, though. Grants and awards will be needed to fund the launch locations, in order to avoid using taxpayer money. The Ross Avenue bridge launch site was funded by the Marathon County environmental impact fund, the Community Foundation of Marathon County, the B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation and Weston hotel-room taxes.

Guild hopes that other communities along the river will apply for grants as well, to move the project along.

“I don’t expect everyone to fund these projects because the resources for local governments, particularly resources for parks and recreation and tourism facilities, are very short,” Guild said. “They’re at a premium; they’re hard to come by. Our neighbors will likely do what we’ve done, and that is grant-write.”

But as the plan is taken to other local governments as a proposal, kayakers from the Wausau area are beginning to get excited at the prospect of the Eau Claire becoming known as a great place for paddling.

Other local kayakers have pointed out that the river trail can even help people get around in the region without a car. Wausau resident and kayaker Renee Feathers said that her husband sometimes uses the river to get to and from work at the D.C. Everest schools.

“He has a paddle cart, and in the morning he’ll walk the Eau Claire trail to work,” she said. “At the end of the day, he’d go to the river, put his kayak in and paddle back home. It’s a wonderful outdoor system for everyone interested in those kinds of activities.”

For now, the water trail plans include placing a launch in Yellow Banks Park in Weston, and taking plans to each municipality that the river passes through. Guild said that if each town, village or city can add the water trail to its plan, there’s more of chance that the trail will come to fruition.

But without collaboration, there won’t be a trail. Guild hopes that other leaders will see the potential for the increase of activity and even tourism.

“Wausau is known for recreation. We’re within the top 10 in the state for tourism dollars being spend,” said Dick Barrett, executive director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau. “So people are aware of us and so it’s a great enhancement to add another feature they can come and do.”

Barrett said that he hopes the river will draw in more visitors, fill more hotel rooms and draw more interest to the region in general.

But in the meantime, locals are glad to sing the praises of the Eau Claire River and the proposed water trail.

“It’s natural wild,” Feathers said. “It’s a beautiful nature getaway, and it’s right in our backyard.”

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Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com

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