Old County Road I to Kelly Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Nestled in the heart of Black River Falls, Robinson Creek is as beautiful and engaging as they come. It’s an ideal destination for creek fans and is certainly deserving of a return trip or two.
July 8, 2012
Riffles + Class I
Neillsville: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 108
Gauge note: This gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the creek. It does, however, give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Black River Falls area.
Unfortunately, complete correlated gauge levels weren’t recorded at the time. That said, this would’ve been the minimum level to recommend for comfortable paddling.
Old County Road I Bridge, Millston, Wisconsin
Kelly Road Bridge
Time: Put in at 1:45p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Wildlife: A wolf, a couple of deer, squirrels, a blue heron and a snake.
What we liked:
The one waterway I certainly didn’t plan on paddling during this dry spell was Robinson Creek, a tributary of the Black River. With the East Fork being un-runnable during my trip to the area, I drove down to see if this creek was a possibility. And I’m so glad I did. It’s hands-down the best creek I’ve ever paddled.
We first have to thank (and plug) Morrall River Films for clueing us in on the Robinson. We wouldn’t have known about it had they not featured it in there first DVD, River Trails of Southern Wisconsin.
The put-in, as they point out, is quite steep on a rocky path leading down to the water (watch out for parsnip as I spotted some). The creek was the lowest you would ever want to (and could) paddle it. So low in fact, that immediately after putting-in, I wondered if I made a mistake in attempting it. But after a few scrapes and a little more distance behind me, I had very little trouble the rest of the way. The creek was generally about knee-depth, much shallower in some areas but also much deeper in others. I luckily only had to portage over shallows twice. There was always a path, even in the narrowest of sections so long as I read the stream and keep to the outside corners where the water was the deepest. Being in a kayak may have helped. I’m not sure a canoe with 2 people could have made this same trip at it’s current depth since the added weight would probably keep you grounded. Various springs feed the creek which also helped me make my way. For future reference, the guys up at the Hatfield Sports Shop know these waters very well and will help you gauge whether it’s possible to paddle this or any other waters in the area.
The Robinson is unparalleled in beauty. It’s mostly pine-canopied and narrow with a canyon-like feel at times. And you’ll see some amazing rock or sand walls, alternating both sides of your boat as you make your way downstream.
About 2 miles into the trip, you’ll come upon a dam near a Cranberry Marsh. This is private land and should be portaged river-right. Be sure to respect the land owner and the dam. It’s not meant for public use but they graciously allow paddlers to portage around it. After the dam, the water level fell again and this is where I had to portage for only the second time as I was hung up on a sandbar. After only a few feet of walking, I was home-free. The bottom is almost completely sand for the next mile or so. It eventually becomes a mixture of pebbles, rocks and sand again.
The creek is really riffly throughout and it’s one of those creeks where the horizon often appears lower, giving you the sense of paddling downhill, especially in the canyon-like areas where you’ll encounter lots of riffles. There is also a very specific class I (maybe II in higher water?) after a couple of gentle ledges. It’s in the shape of a V and kind of sneaks up on you (or it did, me). Even at this low level, my boat took on a good amount of water. My phone took the brunt of it, fogged and all, as did my map but it was a nice way to cool off. It’s actually the same drop that these canoers tipped over on. It’s really fun as long as you’re expecting it and at a higher level, you’ll have plenty of opportunity for surfing afterwards.
I will say that the last 2 miles can be a bit daunting. The twisting and turning could test a beginner’s patience. But as long as you let the current lead, you should have no trouble making your way around the tight turns and fallen debris.
On the approach to the Kelly Road bridge, I was greeted by fly-fishermen (I hadn’t seen any fish, but these pristine waters are ripe for some trout). The take-out is river-right before the bridge. There is an awesome 2-3 foot ledge just after the bridge that I badly wanted to paddle down but I couldn’t spot an obvious take-out downstream that wasn’t on private property. Either way, it was a pretty end to a beautiful paddle.
This Robinson feels very remote and aside from the cranberry bog dam and some houses near the end, it is. I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter in this environment. I startled a deer and fawn drinking from the creek and a water snake startled me. I also spotted a blue heron and tons of squirrels. But the most unique encounter was at the take-out. When I was heading up the path to my vehicle, I saw a wolf. At first I looked away, assuming it was someone’s german shephard but I looked backed because that didn’t really register as normal considering where I was and the behavior seemed different. It had that “stare-right-through-you” look, then it turned it’s head and trotted north into the forest. My camera was still fogged so I tried to capture it on the GoPro but of course, it was gone.
One of my favorite things about paddling is traveling through all the little towns that are just off the beaten path that I would normally never visit. The same can be said for campgrounds. The first night I stayed at the East Fork Campground in the Black River State Forest (my honest opinion? Site #13 is the best. It’s really large and you can paddle right up to your campsite or fish from your picnic table if you wish). It’s nestled alongside the East Fork of the Black River. I didn’t even consider putting on a rainfly while setting up camp and low and behold… it rained! It was a wonderful and welcome 20-minute downpour which sent me scrambling to save my tent but it was awesome. Just not enough to fill the Black for me to paddle the next day. And the camp attendant was delightful. She shared stories of the bears, wolves, cougars, lynx, bobcats and snakes (something we both share a dislike of) in the area.
Another semi-unrelated point to the Robinson Creek paddle was my travel south, to yet another river I had planned on paddling (and was yet again disappointed to learn it was also too low to paddle). So I spent the night at Buckhorn State Park which is located on a peninsula on the Castle Rock flowage, south of Petenwell. It’s an incredible park, with a system unlike any other I’ve experienced in Wisconsin. While some sites are drive-up, the majority are hike-in (from 40 feet to 2 miles) and at each post, is a cart with the site number that you use to wheel your gear in to your site. I had a very short hike (campsite #26) which was relatively secluded (except for a snake that was sharing my private beach).
And at times like these, when I can’t paddle, I fish. If you happen to stay at that site, I’ll offer up some specific fishing advice for the beginner but it could be used practically anywhere on the flowage (I grew up on the Wisconsin, so how to fish these waters is very familiar to me, even though I’m more of a river guy).
First of all, it’s all about confidence. Fishing isn’t hard. To overly-simplify it: It comes down to what they eat, where they eat and when they eat (If you’re fishing for something specific, that takes a little more knowledge). During the day, you won’t have much luck in this sandy area but evening always levels the playing field when it comes to fishing. Toss your line straight out from the #26 post facing the lake as far as you can. Use a yellow or multi-colored 1/16th or 1/8th-ounce jig (I’ll tell you about purple jigs another time) with a crawler (or preferably a minnow). Reel in your line so it’s taught. Now watch the tip of your rod. The tip is your bobber and it tells you everything you need to know. Once you see it bounce, pick up the rod, reel in any slack and wait until you feel the tug again. As soon as you do, set the hook. As with anything, it’s all about the execution. Starting at dusk and fishing until about 10, I expected to land a carp or a few bullhead or catfish. Instead, I ended with a dozen smallmouth and a couple of fat bluegill. That’s my Babe Winkelman-advice for you.
What we didn’t like:
I can’t think of a single thing, except not being able to paddle the Black River due to low water levels.
If we did this trip again:
We’d be lucky to paddle this once a year due to it’s location but it’s so worth the effort. It’s definitely possible to drive from Madison to Black River Falls, paddle it and head back all in the same day. We’ll definitely have it on our radar if we’re up exploring other waters in the area. There’s just something about the intimacy of a creek or a small river. Robinson Creek has it all; canopy, rock walls, sandbars, wildlife, clean and clear water. The way it alternates from an intimate walled creek to a beautiful canopied forest just makes it such a special place to paddle. Even though the rest of my trips didn’t materialize, I feel lucky to have experienced this creek and would highly recommend it at a higher water level. It surpassed my expectations and is to-date, my favorite creek paddle.
Miles Paddled Video: