12/11/2014 0 comments

Sugar River VIII

Brodhead to Avon
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A surprisingly interesting and isolated stretch with a lot of sweet scenery and a couple unique features found nowhere else on the Sugar River, this long(isn) trip can be broken in two by using the convenient put-in/take-out at Clarence Bridge Park, where also you may camp for free.

11
Intermittent sandbars and banks in the second half of this trip.

Date:
September 6, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater

Gradient:
2.1' per mile

Gauge:
Brodhead: ht/ft: 3.2 | cfs: 1010
Gauge note: These levels were very high – not dangerous per se, but a little pushy. The following day the river crested just above the banks at flood stage. The gage is located at Ten Eyck Road bridge some 4¼ miles downstream from put-in, so the reading correlates perfectly.

Put-In:
Decatur Park, Park Road, Brodhead, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Avon Bottoms Landing, 17305 W. Beloit-Newark Road, Avon, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 4h 20m
Miles Paddled: 14.5

Wildlife: Great blue herons, kingfishers, muskrats, bald eagles, turkey vultures, hawks, frogs and sandhill cranes.
Time worth driving to: 1 hour

For all the times I’ve maligned the Sugar River as bordering on the dull, this trip challenges those past experiences or associations. In fact, there are moments on this journey that are positively exquisite!

For one, the put-in is uniquely cool. Decatur Park sits atop a tall bluff – yes, a tall bluff on the Sugar River (I know, right?!?) – where there is a pavilion and large lawn overlooking the dam and lake flowage. Secondly, the takeout is that rare but awesome combination of convenient and dedicated, yet situated in the middle of nowhere – “nowhere” being a large swath of public land.

In between these two points lie miles of barely developed shoreline and many photogenic spots along the way. This leg of the trip is not blessed with rock outcroppings or riffles and the river is relatively wide but it’s sweetly intimate and pretty nonetheless. I highly recommend it.

What we liked:
Decatur Park is a relic from a bygone age. There has been a dam at this spot on the river for well over a century and way back when someone had the good sense and vision (no pun intended) to dedicate a public park atop this rare bluff overlooking the river. A makeshift trail leads down to the base of the bluff below the dam to the right of the pavilion (a separate short trail leads upstream of the dam). You do not need to be a sure-footed mountain goat to schlep your gear and boat down to the river but this put-in admittedly is not for the feint of heart – or hoof. I personally enjoyed the “inconvenience” simply because I love sandstone bluffs and I was delightedly shocked to find one here on the Sugar River. Putting-in felt more akin to an adventure.

So too was finding a good place to actually launch. You don’t want to be too close to the dam, of course but after trekking down the steep bluff you want to be done and on the water already. This was my only time being here, so the first impression is all I have to go on. The water was way high at the time – still reeling from the Labor Day weekend deluge – which I’m sure made finding an adequate place to put-in trickier and more elusive than in normal conditions, where and when it would likely be more obvious and less ambiguous. Take a moment to appreciate the unique geology.

For the first three miles and change you'll see nearly no signs of development but for a couple bridges and the peripheries of farms from the banks. What’s novel about this is on the other side of the river (on the opposite shore from the ginormous island) is the button-cute town of Brodhead, yet from the channel of the river you’re on, you’d have no idea that there’s a town on the other side! The sense of isolation feels real and palpable.

A word about this ginormous island... How did nature create a 3.5-mile long island on the essentially skinny Sugar River? It didn’t. A millrace was hand-dug in the early 1860s to operate a gristmill. This is pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it: a 3-mile long canal dug by manpower (and horses, I’m sure) back in the mid-19th Century. The effect was twofold: now there was a de facto island in the river and Brodhead became the second city in all Wisconsin to generate its own electric power. Today, a grant from the DNR has gone to improve the millrace and give it a recreational makeover. You can paddle the millrace itself (for what it’s worth, Mike Svob covers this in his official “Sugar River 2” in Paddling Southern Wisconsin) though it is likely flat, slow and more developed than the wild-feeling side this trip covers.

On a side note, at the time of this trip I truly had no idea Svob’s trip goes all the way down to Avon. It was not until I came home, still riding high on my unknowingly delusional sense of discovery thinking I had done something new, if not unprecedented, that I learned that the takeout for his trip is not at Highway 11, as I had thought for some reason. Just the same, let me point out that his mileage is significantly off. His map mileage is correct from Putnam Park to Avon at 12.3 miles but he lists “Sugar River 2” as 10.3, which it most certainly is not. This probably is an editorial oversight – for which I’m hardly criticizing Meister Svob! It’s just an fyi.

County Road F provides for an excellent alternate put-in, if toeing your way down the bluff at Decatur Park isn’t your cup of tea. A mile of totally unspoiled landscape is found below County Road F until the Crazy Horse Campground appears on the right. Immediately after this a picturesque metal railroad bridge. The cool railroad bridge is quickly countered by the humdrum Ten Eyck Road bridge. There’s nothing interesting about the bridge itself but it does signal the first signs of development, mostly cabins and shacks on river-left (one of which featured a rather impressive wooden sculpture of a life-sized grizzly bear holding an actual keg of bear on its shoulder – outside art, if not “outsider art”). Woods thickly reappear and the cabins seem to recede. Small islands and occasional downfall provide navigation choices to help spice things up.

You’ll begin to see a gentle rise of the right bank and some very modest crumbling rock exposed. Once you see the huge Highway 11 bridge, look to the right and up (and maybe a little bit behind you): a very pretty, very cool, very old rock outcrop slopes down to the river on a sharp angle. The surface is smooth and weathered and probably a couple hundred million years old. I may well be wrong, but to my knowledge, this and the bluff at the put-in are the only two such geological notorieties on the Sugar River (cue the hate mail and Facebook messages schooling me on how wrong I am…).

Just below the Highway 11 bridge on the right is Clarence Bridge Park, which makes for a great put-in/take-out, plus there’s free camping (at least for your 96-hour, or 4-night, maximum stay). There's a port-a-potty, but I saw no potable water. Also, vagrants might live here and have squatting rights. Plus the road is right there, and traffic is fairly steady. Anyway, just after the bridge/campground (and by campground I mean roughly a dozen sites) is the eye- and ear-sore that is Sugar River Raceway, a go-cart circle of hell eloquently written about in Dante’s Inferno. A word to the wise: plan your trip when races are not being held. Don’t worry: you’ll be past all this within minutes, after which there are little to no signs of civilization (the noted exception to this rule are dozens of “No Trespassing” signs. I’m not sure onto what one was prohibited from trespassing, since there is nothing around but the signs in and of themselves, to say nothing of their stupid and stupefying number, were tasteless).

Sandbanks appear, together which attractive deadfall in the water that is easy to maneuver around while enhancing the authenticity of the river’s character. The Sugar meanders a bit here but mostly in broad strokes. There are some wide sections but mostly the width is about 60’. The bottom becomes increasingly sandy and less muddy. There’s a low-clearance (but not dangerous) abandoned railroad bridge you’ll pass under. Otherwise, there’s just beautifully nothing out here except pretty stretches of unspoiled scenery. This is the Sugar River at its best.

Finally, you’ll first pass under the County Road T bridge, where you could take out, but more sensible is paddling two more miles down to the Beloit-Newark Road bridge where the attractive landscape will make it worth it. Swenson Wet Prairie State Natural Area encloses both banks of the river and marks the northern boundary of the vast Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area that extends pretty much all the way down to the Illinois line. Just downstream from the Beloit-Newark Road bridge on the left is a dedicated landing at a parking area for the pretty and protected Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area.

If there’s one thing you take away from this trip report, let it be this: paddle this trip during autumn while the colors are really coming out. The second “half” of this trip (from Highway 11 to Avon) has striking trees and is fairly wild feeling. Some teases of fall foliage began to wink coyly in early September when I paddled this, so I can easily imagine how truly glorious it would be in October.

What we didn't like:
Hardly the river’s fault but there is an airport right in Brodhead and tiny amateur planes zigzagged in the air for hours. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me but the noise was pretty constant. That combined with the raucous din of the go-carts can be distracting.

If we did this trip again:
I would gladly do this trip again. Alternatively, and just to try something different, I’d explore the millrace if only because I’m a sucker for all things historical.

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Related Information
Sugar River I: Belleville to County Road X
Sugar River II: Paoli to Belleville
Sugar River III: Verona to Paoli
Sugar River IV: County Road X to County Road EE
Sugar River V: Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian Road
Sugar River VI: Albany to Brodhead
Sugar River VII: Verona to Paoli
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River I: Belleville to County Road X
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River IV: County Road X to County Road EE
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River VI: Albany to Brodhead
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Sugar River


Map:




Shuttle Information:
10.5 miles.


Photo Gallery:

01
A slightly flooded put-in below dam at Decatur Park.

02
High water + 2 paddlers = calm frog.

03
Fun side channels.

04
Don't be surprised to come upon tubers...

05
Cool railroad bridge below Crazy Horse campground.

06
"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack..."

07
Now this is just impressive on all sorts of levels!

08
Picturesque (and rare) rock formation along the Sugar.

09
Pit stop at Clarence Bridge Park put-in/take-out at Highway 11.

10
Very pretty stretch just downstream from the park.

12
Very little development down here, but lots of these annoying signs.

13
Abandoned old railroad bridge.

14
Looking upstream into Taylor Creek (some of which is paddleable and worth checking out).

15
Autumn colors just beginning to blush.

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And we have liftoff!

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Dedicated landing at Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area.
11/13/2014 0 comments

Save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

A topic familiar to Wisconsinites and relevant to all paddlers, sulfide mining threatens the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Watch this beautiful piece about an inspiring journey meant to shine a light on the area, the issue and the importance of protecting a treasured place like the Boundary Waters. And then, please take a moment to sign the petition here (it doesn’t take long).


Paddle to DC: A Quest for Clean Water
"Recently named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the year, Minnesota wilderness guides Amy and Dave Freeman are canoeing and sailing 2,000 miles from Ely, Minnesota to Washington, D.C. on a quest to save the Boundary Waters from the threat of sulfide-ore mining. If built, these mines would leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals that would flow directly into our nation¹s most cherished and iconic wilderness area for centuries into the future."

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Related Information
Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Paddling to DC to Stop Sulfide Mining in Minnesota
Save the Boundary Waters
11/06/2014 0 comments

Black Earth Creek III

Cross Plains to Black Earth
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A section of Black Earth Creek that's a lot of fun if you like a little adventure and can manage a whole lot of obstacles.

008

By Denny Caneff
A Miles Paddled contributor
(And fellow guerilla paddler whose nom-de-bateau is Marie Francoise)

Date:
October 25, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater

Gauge:
Black Earth: ht/ft: 1.94 | cfs: 40

Put-In:
Zander Park, accessible from East Street, village of Cross Plains, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Kahl Road/Park Street, eastern edge of the village of Black Earth, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:45p. Out at 5:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.25

Wildlife: Trout and cows (if cows, count as wildlife).

What we liked:
We undertook this run as a “guerilla paddle” and it did not disappoint. By that I mean, where’s there’s little to no record of paddlers having traveled a particular stretch of stream, there’s usually a reason for that - like being barely navigable for various reasons. We were ready for the occasional climb-over of deadfalls. We were not ready for the number of cattle crossings and barricades (more about those under “What we didn’t like”). But I sorta like that kind of stream.

What is so delightful about this run is that this is a place that very few people go. Trout anglers have their few entry points and there is little evidence that landowners use the creek, except for the farmers with livestock crossings but even they cannot experience this creek the way a paddler can. There are only two roads that cross the creek, although Highway 14 traffic is audible and the railroad track often visible. Still, it felt very remote.

This stretch alternates between tight turns amid wooded banks and curvy sections in open grassy areas where you can grab full expanses of sky – and wind gusts too. The current is steady but not so fast you that can’t control everything you do, which is especially helpful when negotiating the many deadfalls and snags you will encounter. You’ll also find occasional riffles and rocky bars.

The water level was low the day we went (2.8 feet at the gauge at the Cross Plains sewage treatment plant) but probably average for this groundwater-fed stream. I’m guessing that if the gauge at the sewage treatment plant was over 4 feet, the stream would be quite pushy and difficult to navigate. On this day, we scraped bottom a few times but flow was adequate.

The water was cold and clear, the bottom sandy or gravelly – ideal habitat for the trout that has made this stream famous for that activity. Given that paddling and fly fishing on small streams are not exactly compatible activities, paddlers may have stayed away from this piece of Black Earth Creek out of respect for that use of the stream. I hesitate to widely promote paddling here for that reason but this part of the creek has great appeal and potential for paddling (but I would NOT recommend canoeing this run; kayaks are better suited to the many very tight turns and tight squeezes through the many logjams).

What we didn't like:
We encountered four or five devices that give cattle access to the stream, either to cross it to get to pastures on the opposite side or to get access to the water. Given all the money and effort that has gone into conserving Black Earth Creek for nearly three decades, it’s stunning that there are that many cattle crossings that, to me, are of questionable legality.

Farmers can put barriers over streams to confine their cattle but they are not supposed to block or obstruct public access on the water (this is supposed to prevent stream travelers from having to trespass to get around the barriers).

Two cattle barriers on the creek were of the same design – wooden fences hanging from cables strung across the creek that are supposed to swing up- and downstream to allow debris and boaters, to pass underneath the barriers. In one case, it worked nicely. In another case, the farmer had wired shut the sections of the wooden fencing that is supposed to swing in and out. That forced us to heave our kayaks over the wooden fencing – twice, as there were a pair of these barriers, ostensibly to keep the cows from wandering into the stream. They would not do that, so this defeating the function of these swinging gates almost seems like an act of defiance by the farmer.

The most bizarre cattle encounter was with actual cows. They were standing in the stream (again, a shocking realization to me that cows can still freely shit in this stream). We slowly approached them, made a few gestures with our paddles and they got out of our way. What’s remarkable about this crossing is this particular farmer (it’s the Statz farm and you can see their cattle crossing from South Valley Road) has only cables, marked with white tape, stretched across the stream, thereby making it very easy to get through in a boat.

If we did this trip again:
People on this site seem to fuss about put-ins and take-outs a lot (Editor's note: "Fuss" is kind of a strong word - we report on the quality of the PITO's from the casual paddler's perspective - but we do appreciate all points-of-view - oh, and we've had our fair share of terrible access points). It ain’t guerilla paddling if the accesses are nicely graded and prim and proper. That said, where we put in and took out were easy enough.

I’d be tempted to do this at slightly higher water levels. The faster current would be fun and many of the snags and deadfalls would likely be more passable (we had to portage maybe six times, with at least that many what I call “scooches,” where you scooch your boat over the obstacles).

The die-hard and intrepid among you might make a day of it and continue past Black Earth and on to Mazomanie, where there’s been a commitment to clean out the creek and make it more accessible. I’ll try that section next spring.

Lastly, eating and drinking rewards await you at any number of taverns and inns in the village of Cross Plains after a rewarding day on the water.

***************
Related Information
Black Earth Creek I: Walking Iron Park to Blynn Road
Black Earth Creek II: Blynn Road to Arena
Miles Paddled Video: Black Earth Creek: Walking Iron Park to Blynn Road
Miles Paddled Video: Black Earth Creek: Blynn Road to Arena
Map: Black Hawk Trail


Map:




Photo Gallery:

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001

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10/29/2014 0 comments

La Crosse River II

Highway 108 to Veterans Memorial County Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A perfect little trip if you have only an hour or two to paddle. Whether together with your morning cup of coffee before a long boring day of errands or with a cocktail after a long boring day at work, your spirit will be replenished by the clear water, swift current and pretty environment of this clip of the La Crosse River.

05
There about three sets of riffles/Class I rapids.

Date:
September 28, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class II

Gradient:
5.5' per mile

Gauge:
La Crosse: ht/ft: 3.4 | cfs: 450
Sparta: ht/ft: 3.4 | cfs: 150

Put-In:
Below dam off Highway 108/County Road C, La Crosse County, West Salem, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Veterans Memorial County Park

Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 1h 10m
Miles Paddled: 4.25

Wildlife: One bald eagle, a big red fish and a great blue heron.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours

Why such a short trip? Two reasons: I had to drive back to Madison and after Veterans Memorial Park there are no landings until County Road B, 9.4 miles downstream (thus making for a 13.5-mile paddle basically beginning at 2:00 pm, followed by a 2-hr drive back home, which even by my standards is a bit impractical). But this quick section thrilled me. It’s satisfying in every way while whetting my curiosity to seek it out further.

We had paddled a long upstream section of the La Crosse River earlier this year in August and while we enjoyed it and had a great time, neither of us was all that wowed or wildly impressed. We took out in Bangor, about 4 miles upstream of Neshonoc Lake, in West Salem. Unless you’re into lake paddling, it’s best to continue on the La Crosse below the dam that creates the lake, which is where this trip begins.

I don’t know who or what flipped the switch between Bangor and the dam but the river environs are quite different – decidedly prettier and more intimate below the dam. Since I haven’t yet paddled below West Salem, I can only surmise from consulting maps and reiterate from what I’ve read in guidebooks about the rest of the river onwards to La Crosse and the Mississippi River but the beauty, if not also intimacy, just grows as it goes downstream. To be sure, it’s not uncommon for two sections of one singular river to look and feel distinctly different, however geographically close to one another they are. To wit, the Black River above and below the dam in downtown Black River Falls; one is rocky and lined with rapids, the other sandy and slow as molasses and yet each is separated by 10 miles at best. But I hadn’t anticipated such a distinction here on the La Crosse, a much smaller stream. It was a welcome surprise and an absolute delight.

What we liked:
You know that feeling you get in your gut, maybe a tingle in the back of your brain, when even the put-in looks cool and all you can think or say is “aw, hell yeah!” And so this too begins. What’s great about the put-in? A few things actually. One, it’s a dedicated landing with a ton of room for cars and basic privacy if you need to pee or change clothes, etc. Access to the water is a cakewalk. The put-in is basically below the bridge.

About 35 yards away is the quite attractive and historic-looking powerhouse to the left of the actual dam; cream-colored bricks accentuated by red doors and window sills tucked into a hillside, the building looks like a postcard from a bygone era (well, 1940 to be exact). Cooler still, underneath the powerhouse is a tunnel of sorts from which outflow above the dam is funneled through – I’m talking solid Class II rapids stuff (and reportedly generating 2.3 gigawatt hours annually or enough power for about 200 homes). I am 99% certain there would be no realistic or safe way to run this but it’s a fun thought experiment to consider entering this tunnel and riding the rapids in the pitch dark to the other side in daylight! Nonetheless, the outflow creates enough turbulence that a nice wavetrain and Class I rapid perseveres to the bridge and can be accessed depending on where you put-in and how much you feel like paddling upstream strong current. Whether you do this or just put-in sensibly, the setting is picturesque complete with a rolling hill above the opposite shore and it’s a great beginning.

About 60’ wide for the most part, the river here has a sandy bottom and a swift current (not dangerous swift but nicely moving along). Tall banks flank both sides of the river ranging from 30’ to 70’ high – some crowned with pretty stands of pine – while sandbars dot the streambed itself, adding to the sense of intimacy. A couple modest rock outcrops and later an old metal truss bridge generously lend to the esthetics. All four miles of this trip are enclosed within the town of West Salem, so you will see houses atop the banks from time to time but they’re intermittently spaced and nicely ensconced in the natural environment, nothing obtrusive or obnoxious.

Looking at a satellite map of the urban surroundings of West Salem, you wouldn’t guess that this little trip would be so pretty and private, but it is. One particular stretch reminded me of Mirror Lake State Park with a perfect reflected image on the water of high banks topped with pine and this, it turns out, is practically right behind the godforsaken La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway (where we camped at Veterans Memorial Park back in August, racecars throughout the torturous night revved and ran louder than screeching banshees from hell).

There are three sets of short riffles and light rapids, as well as one Class II ledge where a small dam was removed years ago, roughly 20 yards downstream from the County M bridge (also the halfway point at two miles in). The ledge itself is maybe 2’ high but it’s gradual, not sudden. You’ll hear it before you see it, plus you’ll see a house on the right-hand side with a “No Trespassing” sign lest your druthers to portage or scout were on the river-right. An obvious “tongue” of water like an upside-down ‘V’ shows you where to run the drop (or you can portage around it on the river-left). There’s a fantastic hole with a standing wave below the drop on the left that’s perfect for surfing or some light tricks (squirts and turns) if you’re into that. The portage path on the left provides an opportunity to run the drop as many times as your heart pleases. This drop is a delight!

After you pass the Highway 16 bridge, you’ll see a fence on the left and the first signs of Veterans Memorial Park. Once you see either RVs or tents (likelier the former, unfortunately) the take-out is soon to come. You’ll spot a boulder and stone remnants on the left at a campsite (where we’d camped in August, incidentally) followed immediately by a couple rocks in the river by a very tiny island. The take-out is just after this on the left. Because it’s a nondescript “landing,” it’s easy to miss. You should stake it out first so you know what you’re looking for on the river. There are indoor restrooms, with showers, in a building just down a path from the take-out.

What we didn't like:
Too short and not enough time to do more! OK, that’s on me and not very objective. This is a great little trip – evidenced too by six other kayakers whom I met at the take-out; they too paddled just this 4-mile section.

The only other thing worth mentioning is Veterans Memorial Park. As far as take-outs go, this one is mixed. On one hand, it’s very easy to access and parking is not a problem. On the other hand, it’s not the easiest thing to find! The park is huge and a little bit confusing. You want to first find the campground and from there find the river and start looking for a nondescript spot in between designated sites. Or just ask someone. It’s not a needle in a haystack but it’s not obvious either; the warren of one-way roads adds to the disorientation.

As far as camping goes, we can’t really endorse this place. Sure, it’s better than nowhere… but not by much. The sites are all on top of one another with zero privacy or natural division between them. Our site back in August had been littered with dogshit as though plastic bags had gone out of style the day before. Plus the morally objectionable noise from the infernal Speedway truly was incredible. I’m not talking about how the distant site of a silent plane up in the sky while you’re in the backcountry of Alaska spoils the sense of isolation and wilderness. No, I’m talking dentist drill boring through your eardums combined with a bandsaw ripping through galvanized tin, both on decibel level one billion. That’s how unbearably obnoxious it was. We couldn’t even hear one another talk sitting at a picnic table. Think I’m exaggerating? It’s not for nothing that it bills itself as “Wisconsin’s only NASCAR sanctioned weekly racing asphalt track.” And it’s one mile away from your campsite, wherever you pitch or park. Dogshit, no privacy and deafening noise all for $20 a night. Best to try your luck Sunday-Thursday.

If we did this trip again:
Next time I’ll paddle all the way down to County B for a 13.5-mile trip or, if I’m feeling frisky (and when aren’t I?) keep paddling past B all the way down to the Mississippi River another 4.3 miles for an 18ish-mile journey. Alas, that will have to wait until 2015 probably, as a third trip before first freeze seems unlikely at this point.

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Related Information
La Crosse River I: Sparta to Bangor
Overview: Hunt Fish Camp
Overview: Travel Wisconsin
Overview: WisconsinGuides.net
Wikipedia: La Crosse River


Map:


View La Crosse River II in a larger map


Shuttle Information:
A simple, straight shot on Highway 16.


Photo Gallery:

01
Outstanding put-in at County Road C with Neshonoc Lake dam in background.

02
The handsome old powerhouse with cool outflow tunnels below.

03
About 60' wide, sandy, intimate and with gentle hills.

04
Steepish sandy banks with riffles.

06
There's gotta be a story to this...

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Modest bluff topped with trees and exposed rock outcrops.

08
County Road M bridge, immediately preceding a Class II ledge.

09
Fun to run and easy to read ledge where a dam had been removed.

10
Hard to tell from this pic but this is a decent size standing wave and hole to the left of the bottom of the ledge - fun to play in!

11
Taller hills further downstream crowned with stately pines.

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All of this trip is enclosed within the town of West Salem, yet the feel on the river remains intimate and beautiful.

13
Stand of pine lining the river.

14
The bluffs also are bigger as you travel downstream.

15
Attractive abandoned iron bridge.

16
Veterans Memorial Park campground on left; take-out also on left shortly after these decrepit stones.

17
Boat landing in the park.

18
Same.
10/27/2014 0 comments

Trempealeau River II

Highway 35 to Perrot State Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

An easy trip surrounded by a national wildlife refuge that finishes with one of the absolute prettiest backdrops of Mississippi River bluffs. Set one after the other in such dramatic fashion, it’s easy to forget that this is still the upper Midwest and not New England or the Adirondacks of New York.

09
Brady's Bluff on the left, Trempealeau Mountain on the right.

Date:
September 27, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater bottomlands

Gradient:
1.4' per mile

Gauge:
Dodge: ht/ft: 4.90 | cfs: 440

Put-In:
Highway 35/54 bridge, Nathan Wolfe Memorial Wildlife Area landing, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Canoe Launch in Perrot State Park

Time: Put in at 2:20p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 5.75

Wildlife: A bald eagle, great blue herons, a snowy egret, killdeer, kingfishers, turtles and muskrats.
Time worth driving to: 2 hours

Not counting cars or the intermittent sleeping bag on a beach, Perrot State Park is the place I first camped alone with actual gear and did so intentionally, (not out of a homeless happenstance of desperation) so it remains firmly fond in my heart’s memory (even though on the last night a nasty storm pummeled the area with heavy downpour and 50-mph winds, snapping one of the tent poles like a toothpick with the net result of a restless evening in a half-collapsed tent with a sopping wet tent wall stuck on my face, my feet in a puddle of water, in mid-November no less – good times!). It’s also gorgeous, easily within the state’s top ten parks and is as rich in history as it is in great trails and amazing views of the Mississippi River and the bluffs of Minnesota on the other side. Plus there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Trempealeau (aka “Tremplo”) just three miles east of the park, where if nothing else there are two mentionables: the Mississippi River Lock & Dam and the historic Trempealeau Hotel (more on the hotel and state park below).

Given that my nostalgic campground lies on the fringe of Trempealeau Bay and that the bay is where the Trempealeau River empties into the mighty Mississip, one might think that this river has been itching to be paddled on my to-do list. Actually, not so much. The Trempealeau River is pretty long, its headwaters near Hixton, Wisconsin (better known as the next exit after Black River Falls on I-94) but much of it is too shallow and marshy to bother with. The traditional sections covered in paddling guidebooks are from Whitehall to Dodge – some 30+ miles of easygoing clear water with nothing terribly challenging or dramatic. Barry recently covered the Whitehall to Independence section, which essentially confirmed my prejudice against the Trempealeau River: despite it being a Driftless Area river and located in one of my favorite playground areas in the state, there is little one would describe as spectacular – no riffles, no rapids, no limestone or sandstone rock outcrops, no towering bluffs. Until Perrot State Park, that is.

There, about a mile before the take-out, the previously enclosed tree canopy opens up onto a wide-angle panorama of two bluffs apiece on each side of the river, Brady’s Bluff on the left and Trempealeau Mountain on the right, both equally magnificent. This view only improves the closer you approach the two and the effect is simply stupendous. It was even more than what I had been hoping for when planning this trip and I was positively giddy. There are precious few such views in the Midwest but this one is priceless and can rival any you’d find in the northeast. Why this last section of the Trempealeau River is not better covered and advocated, I have no idea. But I am both humbled and bubbling to share and recommend it now!

What we liked:
Let’s start at the beginning. First, the put-in off Highway 35 is a dedicated boat landing, so the access is easy, safe and excellent. The water was up, so the current was steady and surprisingly swift. “Surprising” in that the Trempealeau is a gentle stream in general and most tributaries of the Mississippi River tend to slow down to a crawl the closer they reach their confluence, so this was unexpected but welcome. The setting is quite pretty too: lush, rolling bluffs in every direction in the backdrop – you’re in the heart of Driftless Country.

In the first couple miles you'll be in a mostly marshy environment with a very pleasant blend of tallgrass, cattails, oak trees and the occasional midriff glimpse of bluffs in the distance. A number of smallish islands provide alternate channels to choose and with them, bragging rights about who chose wisely and who got stuck! Immediately you'll see signs on the right for the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,200-acre wetland and rest stop for the million-winged migration of birds along the Mississippi Flyway from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is maintained by a series of dikes, gates and pumps that mirrors the natural cycle of flooding and drainage in response to the backed up swell of Mississippi River water caused by the locks and dams, providing excellent habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Here’s a fun fact that if you’re a word nerd like me you’ll love: The word “refuge” comes from the Latin re- meaning again and fugere meaning to flee (think fugitive). So in essence “refuge” means to return to the place from which one earlier fled and to be a refugee is less a leaving from one place than an ultimate return to another, to an ancient home. Does that not tingle a certain something in the back of your soul? It does mine.

Also on the right, about a half-mile or so downstream from the put-in you’ll see a raised bank and maybe a bicyclist or two, for that is the Great River State Trail, an exquisite crushed limestone corridor converted from a railway bed that runs parallel to the Mississippi River all the way to downtown La Crosse (from where, incidentally, one then can connect to the La Crosse River State Trail to Sparta, from where one then can further connect to the Elroy-Sparta State Trail to Elroy, from where one then can connect yet again to The 400 State Trail to Reedsburg – that’s a hundred miles of incredible bicycling all on dedicated state trails; see here for the whole nexus of trail systems). Pretty good beginning, no?

The river itself has a sandy bottom but being so close to its confluence with the Mississippi there’s a muddy mixture. About 60’ wide, the Trempealeau is narrow enough to feel intimate but big enough so that downed trees are not a problem. In fact, this last stretch of the Trempealeau is mostly straight, so maneuvering is at a minimum. There are a few downed trees to dodge here, an up-poking log there but it’s all very negotiable and evident. By and by, there’s just enough to demand paying attention but none of it is challenging, thus making it a perfect stream for newbies renting canoes or kayaks from the state park or those paddling their own boats for the first time.

Two miles downstream from the put-in is the next/last access point on the river at the Refuge Road bridge where there’s an excellent landing on the river-left downstream-side of the bridge. From here to Perrot is another 3.5 miles and it's simply spectacular. A mostly tree-canopied section both precedes and succeeds the bridge, providing welcome relief from the sun on a hot day. The scene here is verdant green and lovely, though peeks of autumn color scampishly flourished on saplings and vines. A hundred yards or so downstream from the bridge the river will sway to the south (a gradual right-hand bend). On our trip, we first saw two kayakers coming upstream, then a party of two canoes. As the river bends to the right/south, you’ll see a channel on the far-left around what turns out to be a ginormous island (especially noticeable when canoes come from out of the blue paddling upstream). This is part of the Voyageurs Canoe Trail in Perrot (see map), a 4.5-mile counterclockwise loop around Trempealeau Bay – a quite reputable alternative to river paddling for those without the means of shuttling.

A long straightaway follows with peek-a-boo hints here and there of the huge bluffs ahead. Eventually the tree canopy recedes, the horizon widens and two looming bluffs in the near-distance develop into view: Brady’s Bluff on the left and Trempealeau Mountain on the right. Sure, the wildlife refuge is great and who doesn’t like a bike shuttle option on a dedicated trail? But this, my friends, this is why you want to paddle the final miles of the Trempealeau River.

First comes Trempealeau Mountain. To be fair, it’s only 425’ high – more hill than mountain. Blame the French, for they’re the ones who described this island as la montagne qui trempe a l’eau, or “the mountain that soaks in water.” (Incidentally, did you catch that last part – “trempe a l’eau”? Yup, whence the name “Trempealeau” comes – or as the locals call it “Tremplo,” which is admittedly a whole lot easier to spell!) Keep this in mind too: in all of the Mississippi River, all 2,300+ miles of it, there are only three such rock islands the likes of Trempealeau Mountain and this is the only one in the upper Mississippi. Today, Trempealeau Mountain is a dedicated state natural area (SNA) that is part of Perrot State Park. It is accessible by water only.

Next is Brady’s Bluff, a little bit behind and to the left (east) of Trempealeau Mountain. At 520’ high, Brady’s Bluff is nothing to sneeze at. If you have time only to hike one trail in Perrot, let it be this (though you’re still shorting yourself by not spending a couple hours of serenity amongst the wondrous hiking trails in the park – doubling, by the way, as some of the absolute most fun cross-country skiing anywhere in Wisconsin, seriously). Brady’s Bluff is the leading star in the impressive ensemble of Perrot State Park. Well, maybe it’s Trempealeau Mountain – it’s hard to say. Paddling in Trempealeau Bay is simply gorgeous and totally tame and safe. Entering into this home stretch truly called to mind scenes in New England or upstate New York, my old stomping grounds and childhood haunts. The Mississippi River bluffs can pass for the mountains of western Massachusetts or southern Vermont any day. Together with coquettish winks of autumn color beginning to blush, I really felt like I was back east. That’s probably why the Driftless feels so at home to me… But there ain’t no Mississippi out east, or the Packers!

A quick heads-up here. Don’t be lured towards Trempealeau Mountain thinking there’s a way around it, you'll just end up in a series of muddy dead-ends. Close to the east shore of the “mountain” what remains of the river braids out into a series of semi-navigable channels. Take the one furthest left (east) and/or just follow the helpful blue canoe signs that mark the water trail. As you do you'll paddle up to the base of Brady’s Bluff. Here you have two take-out choices: Chinese or pizza. Just kidding. There’s both an official boat launch for motorboats as well as a kind of makeshift canoe launch. The official boat launch is easier since it skips the upstream paddling of a couple hundred yards required of the canoe launch. Plus the parking lot is much closer for the boat launch. At the canoe launch you have to carry/drag your boat about 100 yards across a grassy area. But there’s generally more traffic at the boat launch, so really it’s up to you. Both are pretty easy and convenient either way.

Last thing to mention here is the bike shuttle. Now, ordinarily I try to be pretty modest about shuttling. I am a bicycle commuter during my Mon-Fri life and bike shuttle 95% of the time for paddling trips, so allow me to lay down my obvious bias here on the table (but I totally recognize for a lot of people this is neither feasible nor practical). However, if there is one time you really should bike shuttle, it’s this trip. From the canoe launch to the put-in is only a 6.2-mile pedal, all but a couple hundred yards of it along the Great River Trail. A spur off of the campground loop road leads to the official trail, so access is supremely easy. I used my regular road bike and its skinny, smooth tires were totally fine on the compact crushed limestone surface of the trail. The section of the trail from Refuge Road to the northern-most trailhead at Highway 35 truly is one of the most beautiful stretches of bike riding I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience. All of it is enclosed within the national refuge, in this section surrounded by an oak savanna with gentle hills, alluring bends and more glimpses of Driftless bluffs in the distance. On a sunny autumn afternoon, the soon to set sun kissing your skin on an Indian Summer weekend, the experience was simply exquisite!

Barry and I had very different experiences both on the Trempealeau River (two distinctly different sections of it) as well as Perrot State Park and the Trempealeau Hotel. Perrot is one of my favorite places in Wisconsin, in part because I myself have a personal relationship with it forged years ago. But the park itself is truly a wonder. The trails are excellent, whether in the valley shade nestled in a nook or atop a rocky bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, alongside one of many effigy burial mounds, spring, summer, autumn, or winter.

There’s a lot of human history here, too – first inhabited by the ancient Hopewellian Indians who left their burial mounds surrounded by mystery and many unanswered questions, then the Oneota and Ioway and eventually the Sioux and Winnebago (Ho-Chunk). The French Voyageur Nicholas Perrot first came to Perrot in 1685; an archeological dig by a local high school unearthed the bones of bear, elk, and buffalo in a spot that is presumed to have been his garbage pit after spending one long winter in the park. He claimed the area for France but it was ceded to the English after the French and Indian War, which territory was then ceded to the Americans after the War for Independence, although not without first having been expropriated from the Dakota Indians. Throughout this it’s worth noting that the tiny rock island named Trempealeau in the middle of the Mississippi River stayed put. The Indians, the Europeans, the Americans; the flight migration of millions of birds; the barge traffic up and down the big river and the long freight trains of the BNSF running parallel on both shores – the one constant in all this state of change is the mountain that soaks in water.

As for the Trempealeau Hotel, I feel a need to defend it without sounding defensive. I’ve been there on half a dozen occasions in the last 10 years and have never had anything but a great time. Dating back to 1871, the hotel, bar and restaurant truly do feel like stepping back in time… in the best way possible. The bar is fun, the food is good and the rooms upstairs are a delight – where else can you stay for $50 a night in a retro-cool furnished room with creaking floorboards and train-rattling windows with a view of the river and bluffs above an old bar and restaurant? It’s a unique experience and one I strongly advocate. Is their walnut burger the best thing since sliced bread? No; I’d recommend ordering the walnut burger balls as an appetizer and saving your entrĂ©e for something else. But it’s a solid menu altogether and I personally have found the staff always down-to-earth, kind, helpful and appreciative of their customers. Barry, I am truly sorry you had a crappy first impression of the place! I assure you it was the exception to the rule and will gladly go back there with you anytime to prove it so.

What we didn't like:
There really isn’t anything to dislike about this trip, but in order that I be objective I will say this: from the put-in to Refuge Road there was an unrelenting staccato of gunshots none too far away along the river-left. It probably was target shooting on someone’s private land but it was a bit of a distraction – and detraction.

Otherwise, the only thing is this trip is too short! A scarcity of accesses is part of the problem. From the satellite view there appears to be an impromptu put-in off County Road P on the right, 1.7 miles north of Highway 35. This would add 2.75 miles of paddling for a total 8.5-mile trip, which would be perfect, but I can’t confirm whether this is an option. Otherwise you have to go up to the town of Dodge for the next access but this would make for a very long day on the water. Or, rather than adding on at the beginning, one could exit Trempealeau Bay and enter the Mississippi River itself just to say you did or around/through a nearby island and quickly back upstream into the bay. I’ve marked this on the map as a possible option, but I myself didn’t do it. It goes without saying that paddling the Mississippi River always requires caution and sound judgment, since the current is strong, headwinds can be challenging and commercial barge traffic can be dangerous.

If we did this trip again:
Next time, and there definitely will be a next time, I'll see about putting-in upstream and maybe going into the Mississippi River as well. Either way, I'll be sure to get out and hike up Trempealeau Mountain, for which fun I had not given myself enough time.

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Related Information
Trempealeau River I: Whitehall to Independence
Camp: Perrot State Park
General: Trempealeau County
Map: Great River Map
Wikipedia: Trempealeau River


Map:


View Trempealeau River II in a larger map


Shuttle Information:
6.2 miles on bike and a magnificent bike ride it is. The car shuttle is 6.4 miles. Take the back entrance/exit of the park, not the main entrance.


Photo Gallery:

01
Put-in at Highway 35 aka "Nathan Wolfe Memorial Wildlife Area".

02
Downstream side of the Highway 35 bridge look upstream.

03
Immediately you are within the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.

04
Marshy area the first two miles with backdrop bluffs.

05
Autumn sleeves.

06
About 60' wide, no serious obstructions.

07
About to enter Perrot State Park.

08
Trempealeau Mountain in all its modest majesty.

10
Brady's Bluff at 500+ feet high.

11
Lots of channels in Trempealeau Bay, not all of them navigable!

12
Looking east/downstream with Brady's Bluff and Minnesota-side Mississippi River bluffs in the distance.

13
Voyageur's Canoe Trail sign in Trempealeau Bay.

14
One of two take-outs in the state park, here the canoe launch.

15
Great River bike trail inside Perrot State Park.

16
Along the trail...

17
Backwater wetlands in the refuge along the trail.

18
Gorgeous oak savanna area along the trail.

19
Ditto, down a fun little hill.

20
At the end of the trail near Highway 35.