Pine River I (Richland)
Rockbridge to County Road AA
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Paddle through a huge irregular rock formation, then wind along the rolling hills of Richland County as you round one exposed rock outcropping after another.
April 7, 2013
Gauge note: There is no gauge on the Pine River but water levels are usually quite adequate. Call the local outfitter to find out for sure.
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Pier County Park, Rockbridge, Wisconsin
County Road AA, Richland Center, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Wildlife: Lots of cranes, a blue heron, wood ducks, muskrats, a beaver, a turtle, cardinals, blue jays, geese, some fin-flapping of fish and bulls, sheep and an alpaca if you want to count farm animals.
Years ago I did a segment of the Pine downstream of Richland Center to its confluence with the Wisconsin River which was pleasant but not spectacularly memorable. So I thought checking out a stretch upstream of the small city would be in good order. It was many times better than I had hoped.
There’s very little available information on paddling the Pine River (which often gets mixed up with its better known namesake in Northeastern Wisconsin) so I hope this helps get the word out because it really is a great river to paddle.
What we liked:
Exposed sandstone! There’s so much of it and you pass by so many formations (many of them 50-feet high) that I lost count (there were at least a dozen in this segment alone). The rocks are reminiscent of the Dells on the Wisconsin River but the Pine is much more remote and significantly less-paddled.
The accesses deserve their own mention too, the take-out especially. The County Road AA bridge landing is an inspiring one (it had me rubbing my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming). Not only is it nicely maintained but there’s a floating dock for easy access. Mind you, you’re kind of in the middle-of-nowhere, yet someone thought to put a floating dock by an unadorned bridge a couple miles north of Richland Center. It’s one of many serendipities you will encounter on the delightful Pine. All that said, I don’t recommend taking out there (see below).
The highlight and surprise deserving the most attention may very well be Pier Natural Bridge Park, the put-in for this trip, right off of Highway 80. It’s a 50-foot high, half-mile long Lego block of sandstone rock through which the West Branch of the Pine River flows. There’s a ladder there that gives you access to the top of the rock as well as a tunnel that allows you to walk through it to the other side where there is a mowed area allowing for up to six campsites (for next to nothing). It could not have felt more random. The West Branch itself is hardly paddleable (you can almost jump over it from one bank to the other) but you can and should paddle through the rock because how often do you get to do that?
I don’t know what distinguishes a river from a creek but for all intents and purposes the Pine feels much more “creek-like” than a river. It’s rarely wider than 25-feet (and often much skinnier and tapered than that, especially around bends) and boy does it meander. Bear in mind you’re awfully close to the Kickapoo River whose moniker is “the crookedest river in the world.” The Pine might not earn the same serpentine superlative but it should receive an honorable mention.
Just to give you an impression of its wavering course, consider the following: while the distance from Rockbridge to Richland Center is 9 miles along Highway 80 (which is as direct as flying like a crow can get), the river distance between the two towns is 14 miles! Moreover, the road distance between the County Road D and County Road SR bridges is 0.9 miles. Paddling between the two is 2.5 miles. So if you don’t like zigzagging, this paddle might not be for you.
What we didn’t like:
There was a lot of deadfall. You will tangle and contend with multiple sitings of deadfall, some of which are a little dangerous and definitely so in high water. Only once did I have to get out of my boat and pull it over a downed tree (still skittish after pinning against a tree and then being dragged under on the Sugar River last month). The rest of the time (and there are many such occasions) I was able to thread my way through (or crouch under) to safely pass without portaging.
I did this in my 9-foot crossover kayak so a longer boat would certainly have a more difficult time. Since the Pine is so crooked, I do not recommend paddling this in a canoe (unless you enjoy frustration) or if you are a beginner (unless you have a penchant for challenges). The ideal boat for such a trip would be a smaller kayak in the 10-foot range designed for creeks.
Also, there are two low-clearance bridges you will encounter. They are impossible to pass under in a canoe and even in a kayak, safe passage is a close-call. In high water, they would be impassable. Don’t be dumb about it, portage if you are unsure.
Lastly, I should point out that while there are moments of intimacy and remoteness, you’re never far from Highway 80 or the sound (and occasional sight) of cars.
Upon reflection: The night before this trip I had been reading a lot about the paddling ordinances of Illinois, which are rather onerous. Whereas just about all of the rivers in Wisconsin are open to the public, only a few in Illinois are (most of the time you are inadvertently trespassing). Perhaps with that still in mind, I became a bit apprehensive when scouting the takeout with my little VW Golf (like the silly city car it probably is) out in rural farm country and a big old truck slowed up to me at the bridge, its driver-side window rolling down. Aw, crap! I thought. This guy’s probably gonna give me a hard time about something.
In fact, the opposite happened. The man inside, “Rocky”, (I kid you not) was absolutely affable and friendly, routing me on, asking questions and chitchatting about the Pine River. Thinking that I was just finishing up (I hadn’t even begun!), Rocky even offered me shuttle service. I told him I had my bike and was OK but I was really touched. Kindness of strangers…
If we did this trip again:
I probably will though not until paddling some other segments first. Being early April, the landscape was still pretty barren. I’d recommend doing this later in spring, in summer or during the autumn colors (if the water level allows).
Also, as delightful as the improved take-out is on County Road AA, I would finish the trip at the bridge before it on Highway 80 and County Road SR. Between the two bridges is a lot of deadfall (much of it annoying quite frankly). Plus, after all the deadfall there isn’t anything you haven’t already seen leading up to the AA takeout. So do yourself a favor and leave the deadfall to the beavers who caused it in the first place.
Pine River II (Richland): Richland Center to Twin Bluffs Road
Pine River III (Richland): Rockbridge to County Road AA
Camp: Pier Natural Bridge Park
Outfitter: Pine River Paddle and Tube
The shuttle is just shy of six miles but all of it is on Highway 80. There’s little traffic on the road but vehicles will pass by pretty fast so if this intimidates you, you may want to shuttle via car instead of bicycle.