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The East Fork of the Black River is a wide river and pleasant paddle through classic Central Wisconsin Pines with occasional rapids but none too dangerous at these levels.
June 29, 2014
Neillsville: ht/ft: 6.22 | cfs: 1,940
Overguard Road, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
East Fork Black River Campground boat launch, Campground Road
Time: Put in at 12:20a. Out at 1:50p.
Total Time: 1h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4.5
Wildlife: Blue heron, woodpecker, a (possible) muskrat, a snake, fish and turtles.
The East Fork has been high on my list of paddles to kayak after seeing the Morral River Films folks paddle it a few years back (and as featured on their excellent River Trails of Southern Wisconsin video).
Knowing nothing of the area or water levels, I traveled to Black River Falls in 2012 to encounter a dry river. It was disheartening and I nearly (and stubbornly) tried to paddle it since I was there. You want to know if it’s unpaddleable? On the Eastern most part of the East Fork Campground is a trail that leads you to a lookout point to scout Campground Falls, the last rapids on the East Fork. If you see more rocks than water, it’s non-navigable. In hindsight, I’m happy I didn’t attempt it because I ended up scouting Robinson Creek and even more surprisingly, paddling it even though the water was incredibly low (that was a beauty of a paddle).
Our initial plan (as it was in 2012) was to paddle from Pray Road (the put-in is under a bridge, with a slightly steep incline) to the East Fork Campground. However, a day earlier, we met a local at the put-in to (the stunning) Halls Creek and he recommended a put-in further downstream because, in his opinion, the best of the East Fork was between the Overguard Road and Campground section.
So with water levels up early in the middle of summer, we took advantage of the East Fork’s levels and since we had camped the night before on the river (camping at East Fork Campground is one of my favorites, especially river-side. For those of us who like to passively fish, there’s nothing better), it seemed like a good opportunity to keep our footprint small.
So we set off on The East Fork the next morning.
What we liked:
There was nothing particularly spectacular about the East Fork but it sure was pretty. It’s a classic Central Wisconsin river with pines flanking both banks. It’s an easy paddle with easy rapids at these levels. It paled in comparison to the excitement we had just experienced the day before at Halls creek but it was still a very beautiful paddle.
The East Fork is wide and yes, quite black and deep and the current has a way with your boat but it’s also much tamer than I expected.
There are three listed Class IIs which were nothing more than Is if I compared them to the classified Is. They all kind of felt the same. In higher water, I can’t imagine these rapids geting any Class II-ier (is that a word?) and in lower water, you’d be scraping so it’s quite the conundrum as to why they are classified as IIs or when/if you could potentially run them as such.
The best part is the isolation. There is almost no development, just one cabin ideally located on an outcrop overlooking Cabin Falls, which is no doubt, where it gets its name.
The take-out is at the entrance to the East Fork campground so it’s maintained and is of the traditional boat-landing type of exit.
What we didn't like:
The put-in sucked. It’s a hike of a few hundred yards in tick-laden tall grass and while I’ve experienced much more difficult put-ins, it’s just not ideal. The road to the put-in, Overguard Road, is also not clearly marked. It eventually opens to a sandy parking area. It’s here you’ll find trails leading off in two directions at a fork in the road. You’ll want to keep left/straight. To the right, is a longer hike which contrary to my initial thinking, actually opens up to a beautiful little pond/lake that doesn’t actually connect to the river.
With only one cabin the whole stretch, we expected to see more wildlife. Of course, being such a wide river, it made sneaking up on wildlife a bit harder. We didn’t encounter much, just turtles, a heron and a snake.
Lastly, I was expecting a little more excitement on this paddle with three rated Class IIs. They felt pretty tame for my liking but are still fun enough to keep the casual paddler happy. There was also a lot of straightaway paddling, which again, on a wider river with a decent headwind, can be a bit bothersome.
Overall, this trip was part surprise, part disappointment. I was surprised the excitement level wasn’t ratcheted up a bit. Had we paddled this before Halls Creek, I probably would’ve enjoyed it a bit more. But then again, it’s hard to compare the beauty of Halls Creek to the East Fork. They may be connected but they’re quite different.
If we did this trip again:
I’m glad we truncated this trip because if this was the best section, than it would’ve been a whole lot of flatwater paddling until the put-in on Overguard Road. But for those looking for a longer and leisurely paddle with just a splash of excitement, than Pray Road to the East Fork Campground is perfect. If you’re paddling right up to your campsite on the East Fork, it'll make the trip even better.
Black River: Black River Falls to Melrose
Halls Creek: Trow Lake Dam to Halls Creek Landing
Robinson Creek: Old County Road I to Kelly Road
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: East Fork of the Black River State Natural Area
Good People: Friends of the Black River
Map: Friends of the Black River
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Outfitter: Hatfield Sports Shop
Overview: The East Fork of the Black
Video: Morrall River Films
Wikipedia: Black River
View Black River: East Fork in a larger map
At the parking area, you'll come to this fork in the road. Stay left/straight.
Going right will lead you to this idyllic pond/lake but it won't get you to the river.
A muddy trek on your way to the put-in.
A cramped little put-in.
Flatwater paddling for a good mile before any excitement.
This is how you stop in the middle of a river.
East Fork Road bridge.
Visual gauge on the downriver side.
The take-out at East Fork Campground.