White River
★ ★ ★

White River II (Walworth)

By on July 13, 2013

Sheridan Springs Road to Wagner Park
☆ ☆ ☆

A tale of two very different experiences on one river. The first beginning with “game-on” maneuvering in fast Class I rapids that ends with a hackles-raised Class II+ drop under a bridge. The second a totally relaxed easy flow through wide open spaces and pretty scenery.

June 30, 2013

Class Difficulty:
Class I(II)

≈ 2′ per mile (10′ per mile in the first 1.5 miles downstream of the Sheridan Springs Road bridge).

Lake Geneva: ht/ft: 9.10 | cfs: 100
Gauge note: We’re not entirely certain about the accuracy or correlative relevance of the Lake Geneva gauge. You may want to reference the gauge for Nippersink Creek, which is a similar stream located just over the border.

Recommended Levels:
This is a very recommendable level.

Sheridan Springs Road, Lyons, Wisconsin
Wagner Park, West Chestnut Street, Burlington, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 6:45p.
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 12.25

Wildlife: Not much to report but for more red-winged blackbirds than I’d ever seen along a river, plus one huge good-looking fish in crystal clear water (just don’t ask me what kind it was).
Time worth driving to: 1.5 hours

I first became aware of the White River last year when I visited Lake Geneva for the first time. True, there is not a whole lot of info out there on it but some of this trip has already been covered on this site. It is a truism that the same river has different “feels” at different times, sometimes changing in so little as a day.

This was my first paddle on the White River so I don’t have any previous occasion to compare it to but I must say that it was a much wilder ride than I had anticipated. Having read that the upstream portion, Lake Geneva to Lyons, is very water-dependent, I thought I would try and make the most of all the rain we’ve had the last week. South central and southwestern Wisconsin is still reeling from high water and floods, so I thought checking out a little-known river (at least to me) in the southeast made perfect sense. And it did. The water level was probably perfect, enough to never scrape but not so much as to be inherently unsafe.

The latter point cannot be understated. Only three days before I did this, fellow paddlers got pinned against a log on the river and had to be rescued by the authorities. Furthermore, on the day of this trip I even helped some paddlers unpin a kayak from some snarly deadfall only a mile or so from the put-in. Two out of three in their group got dumped, the other lost her kayak and paddle downstream (I would later find the paddle, but not the kayak… and I nearly tipped trying to dislodge the paddle from under a log it got pinned beneath).

What we liked:
Let me just say this part quick: the accesses to the river are excellent. While this may not be the most written-about river, it’s definitely paddled quite often. As I was taking my boat off the car and again at the put-in, I came across other paddlers finishing their trip (who of course had begun earlier further upstream). I have marked these spots on the map below.

This beginning segment of the trip has beautifully clear water, while the surroundings are foresty and feel more like the Namekagon in northern Wisconsin.

The first mile and a half was a non-stop adrenaline ride! For hardcore whitewater folks this would probably be standard fair but for average paddlers, this section is no joke, especially in high(er) water. Practice your hip snaps and high braces and get your basic boat control down. In this section there are many obstacles and twists, small drops and strainers, so you need to be quick-thinking and have your best game on. It’s exhilarating for these reasons but it can be tricky.

For instance, there are two drops I’ll mention. One has a potentially nasty rock outcrop at perfect forehead level just after the drop (you need to duck or veer away with perfect precision). The other is cleverly camouflaged by some low-hanging branches and leaves, not enough to snag but enough to make perfectly un-visible what lies below the foot-high drop (nothing it turned out but you don’t know that until it happens and the current was just too swift to backtrack or find slack water eddies). I wore my spray skirt the entire time and was most thankful for it, there are lots of splish-splashy standing waves. For all of these reasons I have no photos of this part of the river, alas, it wasn’t safe for me or my non-waterproof camera.

The whitewater highlight of this segment is the Spring Valley Road bridge. To put things into perspective, compare the photo of it from May of 2010 and then from June 2013, (below) after a week of heavy rain. Furthermore, while scouting the drop, a local (observing the river from the bridge) told me that only days before the river was so high that a) you couldn’t even see the rocks and b) the log debris river-right was not there. That’s some pretty strong water.

I’m not gonna lie about this or sound macho bullshit tough, I had butterflies fluttering about my belly the whole while leading up to this bridge. I knew from scoping it out (even before I reached the put-in and ever got into my kayak) that it was runnable but it was dicey and intimidating. The relatively flat channel to run the rapid (the “tongue” as it is called) was easy to spot but you had to make sure not to get caught into a mess of shallow rocks to the left or the disaster-show of deadfall to the right. There was only the middle but with a big old standing wave like a linebacker you just had to run right through.

All in all, the drop is very gradual (basically the width of the two-lane bridge) and probably only two-and-a-half feet or so in total height. But it was strong and interesting enough for not one but two total strangers to stop their cars and check it out.

“Come to see the rapids, stay to watch the paddling fool try his best.”

Yes, both watched me, which of course just made the whole experience that much more a knotty rot of worry in my gut. But I’m happy to say I ran it right and true and it was wonderful. I turned back around, gave a thumbs-up like a champ and never once let on that I had been scared shitless the whole time.

A quick word about the locals. In all my paddling, I don’t think I have ever encountered so many chatty and outgoing folks, most of them fellow paddlers. I was happily detained twice, each chat lasting a good fifteen minutes (which in part explains why this paddle took four hours). Note to self: check out the Embarrass River out by Pella. it was strongly recommended by one fellow.

What we didn’t like:
Everything after the Mills Street bridge in Lyons is flat and eventually fairly boring (except for the interesting/weird engineering-gone-wild crossover of three highway bridges closer to Burlington). Boring, of course, is a relative concept but for a three-hour roundtrip drive, (and gas money) I’d liked to have seen something more. Low-lying prairies, for me, pretty much reach their peak after a mile.

The water here is deep too, three-feet by and by, so its previous clarity is more clouded. But I was most happy to finally take off my whitewater swag, unclench my white knuckles, snap open a beer (finally!) and just chill out. There is no other takeout until the West Chestnut bridge in Burlington, roughly seven-and-a-half miles after Lyons. That’s a long stretch (an entire day’s paddle in some cases) for lackluster paddling or surroundings.

If we did this trip again:
Yeah, I’d do this again but probably only the three-and-a-half mile stretch from Sheridan Springs Road to the Mills Street bridge in Lyons. If I were to do this entire stretch again I would take out at the West Chestnut bridge. I opted for Wagner Park because a) I’m a sucker for confluences and here you merge into the Illinois Fox River (though it’s mostly lake paddling due to the dam in downtown Burlington) and b) I didn’t spot a good (i.e., not weedy/mucky) place to takeout until I was on the river and paddling through (there’s a mowed path and the access to the river looks great). Besides, right at the bridge is where in the mid-19th Century, a small settlement of Mormons baptized the dead in the White River!

Related Information:
White River I (Walworth): Sheridan Springs Road to Lyons
White River III (Walworth): Sheridan Springs Road to Lyons
General: American Whitewater
General: Riverfacts
Video: Tom Lindblade


Shuttle Information:

7.5 miles and a great bike ride at that. It’s scenic, safe and fascinating, with just enough hills to burn off a few of those beer calories but not so strenuous as to exhaust you. Plus, you bike through the ghosts of a former Mormon settlement.

Photo Gallery:


  • Nice Pictures! Sounds like a mean river for non-whitewater paddlers though. It looked like it was close to flood stage though? Think it would be significantly safer/calmer at lower water levels?

  • Timothy will probably chime in with his take but for the three of us who did it back in 2010 – as far as safer – yes. It was much less hair-raising which was probably a good thing since we were so much greener back then. The only exciting part was that drop under Spring Valley Road at that time. White River I > http://bit.ly/d4kIYV

    I looked at the gauge and just a few days before he did this trip, it was much higher. Not sure what flood stage is there but they got a huge amount of water!

  • Hey Aaron,

    I don't know what flood stage on the White would be — other than catastrophically bad! I paddled it on a Sunday. Only three days before — on that Thursday when some paddlers needed to be rescued — the river was so much higher that all of the rocks underneath the bridge where there is a drop were totally submerged (and thus no drop). That's WAY too high, dangerously high. The challenge about this river, at least the section in between the two Sheridan Springs bridges, is paddling it with enough water so you're not scraping every ten feet but also not too much water that it becomes challenging and/or unsafe. It's all about timing. So yes, definitely safer and calmer at lower levels, but you do run the risk of the water being too low and unenjoyable.

    All of this said, the longer segment downstream should always have enough water; but it's not as scenic or fun, in my opinion. Hope this is helpful!



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