6/26/2016 0 comments

Eau Claire River (Eau Claire)

Lake Altoona Dam to Hobbs Landing
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A surprisingly scenic stretch with great wildlife and geology surrounded by an urban environment, catch the Eau Claire at a high water level and awesome 2’-tall standing waves form for what may well be the most perfect after-work (or happy hour) paddle of all time.

Much gentler (but still fun) rapids follow downstream from the dam.

May 28, 2016

Class Difficulty:
Class I(II+)

~12' per mile first 1/2 mile. ~3 feet per mile thereafter (steeper in the rapids on the Eau Claire section).

Neilsville (Black River): ht/ft: 5.80 | cfs: 1700
Eau Claire (Chippewa River): ht/ft: 7.40 | cfs: 12,000
Gauge Note: There is no gauge for the Eau Claire River. The best proxy is the Black River in Neillsville. Bear in mind that the Black River is bigger and drains a much larger area. Referring to the gauge will give you a good idea at least of current levels, high or low. You should be able to visually gauge the river from any of the bridges downtown where there are rapids, Dewey Street in particular.

Recommended Levels:
Though we recommend this level, this was unusually high but the river can still be run at lower levels, too (though the rapids won’t be as fun). Do note that the Eau Claire does run quite shallow in summertime.

Lake Altoona Dam, Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Hobbs Landing off Menomonie Street/10th Avenue

Time: Put in at 4:30p. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 1h 30m
Miles Paddled: 5

Wildlife: Great blue herons, bald eagles, carp, muskrats and a snapping turtle.
Time worth driving to: 1 hour

Chalk this trip up to “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Originally, the idea was to have a 4-day holiday weekend up in the Eau Claire area. Fortunately or unfortunately, ongoing rain put the kibosh to that (that rain did however spike up all the water levels, which was awesome timing). My friends and I decided to wait until Saturday to drive up instead. Uncertain whether we’d even get a trip in that first day, we took a wait-and-see approach as for the skies were concerned. Much to our good luck, by mid-afternoon the clouds parted, and the sun was beaming (true, that window would close soon and we would receive a light drizzle by the time we were on the Chippewa, but that was nothing next to thunder, lightning, or a downpour – none of which happened I’m happy to say).

So, to keep the trip simple and neat (like any good cocktail) but still have time on the water, we selected the final clip of the Eau Claire River, since we were so close to it anyway, it’s a short trip, and the conditions for it were fan-freaking-tastic!

What we liked:
This trip rocked! Sure, some of it had to do with the weather working out, being on a new river (for us) in a cool little city, etc. But this really is a fun and beautiful trip, irrespective of our own circumstances. First, the rapids. This trip starts on a bang and never really whimpers (although there are plenty quietwater sections). If you’re a strong, confident paddler with adequate skills, you could plunge right into the frothy maw of the 3-4’ tall standing waves below the dam. Or you can catch the tail end of those rapids that will simply continue for at least 100 yards, a heluva fun way to begin a trip.

While you’ll want to pay attention to the rapids, the surrounding scenery is quite pretty as well. Both sides of the river are lined with modest rock outcrops, predominantly sandstone (the city of Eau Claire sits rather near the edge of the Driftless periphery).

You’ll be able to catch your breath and crack open a beverage by the huge and modern Highway 53 bridge (where also there’s an alternative access). While the swift current will subside – momentarily – the river scenery remains picturesque with tall banks lined with pines and birch, rock outcrops here and there, wildflowers, etc. That you’re surrounded by an urban center is totally counterintuitive.

This will change in another mile or so, as you enter Eau Claire proper. Buildings will replace the tall hills and trees, and you’ll pass under one bridge after another. It has a cool feeling entering the city. That and, watch out, the rapids kick it into high gear again beginning at the railroad bridge. Well, for most folks. The Eau Claire is hardly a whitewater river for true whitewater paddlers. But for light whitewater enthusiasts such as ourselves, the final mile or so of the Eau Claire River is just a jubilant blast, especially when the water is high.

For a couple hundred yards you’ll ride a baby bronco of 2’-tall standing waves one after another, up and down, sometimes splatting the water down with your bow, other times getting slapped by a wave. It’s nothing you’ll pee your pants over, but you'll have several laps of water instead (which is much preferable anyway). This section was just so much fun, and we all had grins and smiles from ear to ear. Not since the Pine River in Lincoln County have I had so much fun on a continuous run of standing wave rapids.

By the time you float down from Cloud 9 you’ll reach the confluence at the Chippewa River (turn left). The Chippewa is humongous by comparison (if you have the time and inclination, you could paddle upstream the big Chip for a mile to engage the rapids coming down from the Dells Pond dam – you can see them from the confluence. We didn’t do this, as our taste for rapids was plenty satiated anyway, it was late in the afternoon and who likes paddling upstream anyway?)

Now you’re truly in the belly of Eau Claire (the city). While the river is quite wide, the surroundings are still attractive and interesting. Rapids will continue, I’m happy to report. Some just piddly riffles, some honest-to-goodness Class I+ standing waves (again, at least in higher water conditions) – all just a couple extra sprinkles and topped cherries on this utterly delightful trip. There’s even a tiny feeder stream called Niagara Creek that comes into the Chippewa on river-left, falling over a small ledge. Together with another prominent sandstone bluff (also on the left), the mix or urban and natural setting is quite striking.

The takeout, unlike the put-in, is easy to find and access. Parking is plentiful and close to the water. It’s upstream of the attractive truss bridge, on the right along a great bike trail. Now that you’re in downtown Eau Claire, go do something fun! We cannot recommend strongly enough Stella Blues for incredible Cajun food and good beer.

Also, it should be pointed out that the Chippewa River Trail runs parallel the river for several miles and connects with a couple other trails. We didn’t avail ourselves of this, since we had two cars, but I’ve pedaled the trail in the past and it’s truly wonderful.

What we didn't like:
I don’t know why, but finding the dam at Lake Altoona was far more complicated than it should have been. Once there, get prepared for some minor inconveniences. First, a 500’-walk to the water with your boat and gear, as the dirt road is locked off (in fact, this was the case with every Eau Claire River trip we did this weekend). As you walk closer to the water, the path becomes pretty steep and stubbly with loose rocks. It’s not really that hard, especially with a companion but it’s something to take into consideration. It’s not for the unsure-footed either but it has a wild-feeling aesthetic to it.

Launching from this spot, below the dam, can be a bit tricky too as the discharge from the dam produces a pretty furious froth of Class II-III rapids, creating constant little waves crashing on the shore. Prepare to be a little wet. Seriously though, you’re probably going to get wet on this trip anyway, eventually. Just be careful that you don’t get bounced into rocks (tragically, the rapids below the dam have taken at least one paddler’s life, so do be careful here).

Alternatively, you could put-in at the Highway 53 bridge, northbound lane, on the upstream side of the bridge on river-left. There’s a brand new launch/recreational area there. However, this means skipping a really fun stretch of immediate rapids as well as some of the pretty rock formations.

If we did this trip again:
We would definitely do this again, in a heartbeat. The only thing we’d do differently perhaps is continue a little longer on the Chippewa by taking out further downstream. And maybe do this in early spring or late fall to better appreciate the hills and rock outcrops with their leafy camouflage. But if all you have is time for a super-fun 5-mile trip, then let it be this!

Related Information
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)


Shuttle Information:
5.5 miles. A fairly long and complicated set of turns for such a short paddle trip, and one not suited for bicyclists due to the absence of shoulders on the roads (it would turn out to be the first of several missed turns and wrong roads of the weekend).

Photo Gallery:

Long, steep trail from the parking area to the put-in below the dam.

Worth the effort of schlepping to this pretty put-in.

3-4' standing waves right below the dam!

Such a fun way to start a trip.


The first set of the Highway 53 bridges.

Psychedelic swirls, man - whoa...

Lots of sandstone rock outcrops on this trip.

It's easy to forget you're surrounded by a city.

We were very grateful for a couple hits of sunshine.

Lots of bridges in this 5-mile trip.

Cool wave formation on eroded banks.

More glorious sandstone secrets in an urban setting.

Highway 53 again.

Getting riffly again upon the approach of a UW-Eau Claire pedestrian bridge.

Said pedestrian bridge.

And the waves return...

So much fun!

The rapids kick it in again by the railroad bridge.

The only way forth is through.

We all got wonderfully wet in this section.

The last segment of rapids on the Eau Claire before things subdue near the confluence.

Cool modern building downtown.

Looking upstream at the confluence - Chippewa on the left, Eau Claire on the right.

Handsome bridge on the Chippewa in downtown Eau Claire.

The littler waterfall ledge of Niagara Creek - again, this is downtown Eau Claire!

Easy (but fun!) rapids on the Chippewa past a gorgeous sandstone rock outcrop.

Choppy water in the rain.

And then there were clouds...

Attractive truss bridge downstream from the takeout.

The easy-peasy takeout at Hobbs Landing.

The Chippewa River Trail runs parallel the river for miles.
6/19/2016 0 comments

Pecatonica River IV

Mifflin to Jones Branch Road
☆ ☆ ☆

A surprisingly swift section of the otherwise sluggish Pecatonica River surrounded by steep hills, modest bluffs, several striking rock outcrops and very little development, this trip suffers from shallow water levels, poor accesses and several obstructions – natural and artificial.

Enormous rock wall also just below the put-in.

May 20, 2016

Class Difficulty:
Riffles + Class I

~7' per mile (Note: there are some very slow sections in between the riffles)

Darlington: ht/ft: 3.40 | cfs: 248

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level, although with the following caveats: the riffles and light rapids would have been more fun with another inch or two of water, yet at this lower level, scooting underneath tree limbs was pretty easy. Thus the paddler’s dilemma: a better run of riffles but more portaging at downed trees, or scraping in the shallows but having more access underneath obstructions.

County Road G, Mifflin, Wisconsin, Iowa County
Jones Branch Road

Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 9.75

Wildlife: Cows, bulls, great blue and green herons, one vibrant pheasant, turtles galore (painted, leatherback, snapping), wood ducks, deer, owls, beaver, turkey vultures and a raccoon.
Time worth driving to: 1 hour

Another in our series of “Explore the Obscure!” The inspiration for this trip was pure serendipity. While driving along County Road A between Highway 151 and Rewey, en route to the Grant River last month, I noticed a small parking area and sign stating the Pecatonica River Woods State Natural Area immediately before crossing over this upstream section of the Pecatonica River. I’ve been curious about the upstream portions of the Pecatonica River for awhile now, so I decided to scout various bridges up- and downstream of County Road A. I selected this section because the river appears too shallow above County Road G in Mifflin and too agriculturally monotonous below the takeout at Jones Branch Road.

The paddling itself would be a gamble, of course, the 10 miles of water between those two points. But our favorite thing to do is go somewhere new, especially if there is a tingling sense that we’re the first people to do it. Naturally, that’s a conceited fiction – we’re not the first to do anything! Maybe the first to share such info, which alone is both a pleasure and a privilege and why we love seeking out such obscurities in the first place.

What we liked:
There’s a few attractive rock outcrops about 20 yards upstream from the put-in. About 200 yards downstream is a truly glorious rock wall that ascends high up a bluff. Comparable to something you’d see on the Grant or Platte Rivers, it is the most dramatic rock formation of the trip, and it happens almost immediately – a heck of a way to begin a trip! There’s even a weeping seep preceding it, also on the left (further downstream you’ll encounter other natural springs too beyond the banks).

The other thing you’ll notice right away is how peppy the current is. Mile after mile for more than the first half of this trip you’re treated to countless riffles and light rapids. Given the location of all these Driftless bluffs the gradient isn’t surprising; but when you’re more accustomed to a certain river being slow, as is generally the case with the Pecatonica, then this catches you off guard (the Baraboo River is like this too, of course: mostly slow except for one dazzling 3-mile stretch of rapids). The river here is studded with boulders and rocks, mostly below the surface. The water itself isn’t as clear as say the Grant or Platte Rivers, but it’s much clearer than the muddied floodwaters for which the Pecatonica is better known downstream.

The first 2/3 of this trip is far and away the prettier, more intimate and outright fun portion. On two occasions the river sweeps past a steep wooded bluff on the left. These are particularly pretty sections, the second one enclosed within the aforementioned State Natural Area. There are a few straightaway segments of the river, too, which are welcome breaks from all the meandering turns and pivots; here you can just stop paddling a spell, relax and simply float downstream.

When not woodsy there are many attractive meadows and hilly pastures – not all of them populated by cows (see below). At the takeout there’s a pleasant little Class I drop, very easy to shoot down. The only trouble is paddling back up it. There’s no real place along the banks to get out, and the power of the water down the gentle ledge is pretty impressive. It took me a good 8 attempts until I marshaled enough muscle, willpower and taurine determination to make my way up it like some dumb spawning salmon.

What we didn't like:
This is not a much-paddled section of the river, so access points are pretty guerilla. They’re all totally doable but arguably impractical for some folks. For instance, at the put-in you’ll have to climb down a 4’-drop and pull your gear down, then launch off angled rocks. The takeout, likewise, is muddy, narrow and steep. There’s a bank-to-bank downed tree right at the put-in bridge, which is never an inspiring sign for beginning a pioneer-paddling trip. That said, this is the worst natural obstruction in the first 5 miles.

There are three unnatural obstructions in the first half-mile: two wires (probably electric) and one metal fence. The two wires can be easily ducked under without concern. I pushed the fence forward and then bent down to pass underneath it. Even in the pushy current I passed beneath this unscathed. Still, it’s a little unsettling. Below the Peniel Road bridge (aka County Road J) lie two barbed wires – one you can duck under, the other I just rode over.

If you haven’t seen cattle by now, you will. In the next mile the river is surrounded by pastureland on both banks. Esthetically, it’s quite pretty – particularly if the cattle are off in the distance, calling to mind some Ansel Adams-like iconic pastoral photo of a lone cow retreating from the heat in the cool shade of an oak tree’s cover high up a hill, surrounded by grass, a boulder here and there, etc. When they’re in the water, literally scared shitless, or threatening to ambush you from high above the banks, then it ain’t all that pretty.

I had a showdown with one particularly brave (or stubborn) cow that began crossing the river but suddenly stopped and then just stayed there standing its ground. After five minutes of my laughable “heyas!”, handclaps and paddle brandishing, I scooted over to a side channel, got out, dragged my boat over a fallen tree, and re-entered downstream of the cow, still in the middle of the river. Fine, you win…this time! Consider it a precursor to the detours of the summertime construction season.

The deadfall and required portages increase downstream from County Road A. The hills, riffles and rock outcrops are far fewer in the second half of this trip, too, particularly after Peniel Road. It’s for this reason that the trip quickly downgraded to a 3-star trip from a former four. None of the portages were outright bad, but after five or six one’s enthusiasm starts to siphon. And because this section has fewer of the fun features found upstream, the portages feel just stupid and pointless.

If we did this trip again:
We’d take out at County Road A, at the trailhead for the Pecatonica River Woods SNA. Below County Road A there’s just too much deadfall and not enough scenery to make it worthwhile – plus the riffles diminish. We’d do it again in late autumn or early spring next time, in order to see better the rock features in the bluffs not camouflaged by leaf canopies.

Related Information
Pecatonica River I: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River II: Darlington to Red Rock
Pecatonica River III: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Blanchardville to Argyle
Pecatonica River East Branch II: Hollandale to Blanchardville
Pecatonica River East Branch III: Highway HK to Hollandale
Pecatonica River East Branch IV: Argyle to Blackhawk Memorial County Park
Pecatonica River East Branch V: Woodford to Highway 11
Camp: Pecatonica River Trails Park
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Pecatonica River
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Video: Canoeing the Pecatonica River in Darlington, Wisconsin
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River


Shuttle Information:
7 miles. A very pleasant route through the country with an equal amount of hills up and down that’s definitely safe for bicyclists.

Photo Gallery:

Guerilla put-in under County Road G bridge in Mifflin.

First set of easy-to-duck-under wires shortly below the put-in.

Metal cattle fence - easy to push forward and paddle through.

Entering cow country.

"I repeat, this is not a drill! Go, go, go!"

Maverick standing its ground.

Such a show-down! In the end, I gave in and portaged around the cow.

Lots of great rock outcrops on this trip.

Who knew the upper Pecatonica was so cool?

Narrow, intimate, and swift current!

Lots of riffles and light rapids.

A fun little ledge.

And this is why we bring a handsaw and clippers!

Riffles + low-clearance obstructions = be careful.

These rock outcrops are a couple hundred million years old.

Hidden cave up the bluff.

A rare straightaway in the Pecatonica River Woods SNA

Another fun ledge.

Just barely squeaked beneath this.

Good-looking wood duck.

County Road A allows for doable access.

This little fella was literally cleaning its paws in the water.

Very pretty stretch with some rare pines.

A good reason to do this trip in early spring or late fall without leaves.

Another touch-and-go moment.

Now this is a logjam!

Another wire to duck under.

So many pretty pastures on this trip.

The make-do takeout at the Jones Branch Road bridge.

Bridge rules.

The feisty ledge below the takeout.

Welsh settlement church established in 1847.