Root River
★ ★

Root River

By on August 8, 2013

5 Mile Road to Horlick Dam
☆ ☆

This popular section of the Root River flows through Racine (the French word for root) on its way to Lake Michigan. It’s two-halves are distinctly different. The first half is pretty, curvy and riffly. The second is flat with very little to look at. So, I only half-enjoyed it.

August 2, 2013

Class Difficulty:

Franklin: ht/ft: 2.29 | cfs: 14

Recommended Levels:
These levels were too low for comfortable paddling. Shoot for anything higher.

5 Mile Road, Racine, Wisconsin
Horlick Dam, Rapids Court

Time: Put in at 11:15a. Out at 1:20p.
Total Time: 2h 5m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Wildlife: A dozen herons, turtles, fish and a beaver.

On a suggestion from a Miles Paddled follower, I was clued in on the Root River some time ago and it’s been high on my to-paddle list ever since. Unfortunately, this excursion was rife with unexpected circumstances that made for a rough day. It straight up just started bad and I probably should’ve just stayed in bed.

It’s not often I’d drive a great distance for just one paddle (in this case, Racine). Usually, I’ll plan a few paddles for a specific area and make it a two or three day adventure but I’ve been really excited to paddle this based on that recommendation and this fantastic writeup on Trailville which got me intrigued and excited.

But I also needed to keep my eye on the water gauge since this seems to be one of those temperamental little rivers that rises as quickly as it falls. The writeup makes note of this, recommending at least 2′ of water. Based on watching the gauge myself for a period of time (and hoping it would be in my favor for this trip), I can attest to the fact that this is the case, it’s just not very steady.

So the day didn’t start well. I left Madison early and got just past Lake Mills when I realized I forgot my GoPro which normally wouldn’t be a big deal but if I was already investing the time and making the journey, I wanted to film it. So I turned around and started again.

Now an hour behind, (and not in the best of moods because of it) I ran into, of course, Milwaukee rush-hour traffic (which I might have beaten had I not forgotten the camera).

When I got to Racine, I dropped my bike off at the take-out just above Horlick Dam. A very unappealing millpond, ripe with all sorts of algae, greeted me. I knew I’d be paddling through it soon (and you know, flat water… not my favorite) but it was a small (and expected) concession to what should be a great paddle.

On my way to the planned put-in, I scouted the bike shuttle. It made me nervous due to the lack of shoulders and road construction, which meant much more traffic. But I also had an alternate bike shuttle option mapped out which followed a designated bike trail. The only problem was that it was more East of the river which would extend the shuttle by a good 20 minutes (pushing an hour now total for the shuttle) but after driving the route, I figured it’d at least be safer.

I got to the planned put-in at County Line Road and things didn’t much better. I got the Jeep stuck in the steep gravel driveway just Northwest of the bridge. Straight up, stuck in the mud. Even the 4-wheel drive was having trouble. Even though river water levels were down, clearly there had been some heavy rain recently because the gravel drive had suffered from a lot of erosion, creating huge grooves and lots of mud. The 4-wheel drive finally kicked in after a bit of rocking and steering and I was set free.

At this point, I was having a hard time getting excited about this paddle and when I scouted it, the river itself looked less appealing. It was slow-moving and a muddy brown. Of course, I assumed this section was as written in that Trailville write-up (meaning, it got better than what I was seeing) but at this point, taking everything into account (running late, flat water, poor bike shuttle, stuck Jeep and lifeless river), I decided that I should just shave off the County Line Road to 5 Mile Road section and save myself some time and possibly more disgruntlement.

So I headed to the 5 Mile Road put-in. There is little park with lots of parking but for the life of me, I don’t know the name of it. The park is nice but the put-in is a good 75-yard hike from the parking lot but it’s all grass so dragging my kayak was, well, less of a drag.

The river here looked very much like what I saw up at County Line Road but at this point, I figured I needed to give this a run (even though I still actually kind of dreaded doing this paddle.)

So I jumped in my kayak but my mood had already written this off as 1-star paddle (as if this the river needed to prove itself to me but in a way, it kind of did have to prove itself to me).

What we liked:
The river was shallow with light brown water. Not long into the paddle, I was greeted by small boulder gardens, almost reminding me of the Waupaca or Little Wolf Rivers. Riffly and windy, I made my way through some really pretty, almost “hobbit-like” grassy areas. And as I paddled, the star-rating kept rising. This was turning into a good paddle.

Herons were everywhere. Sometime three at a time. It was unreal. I spotted numerous turtles, fish and even had to dodge a beaver who swam right in from of me, a foot in front of the bow, in one of the riffly-est and prettiest turns of the whole trip.

The sound of the city or trains or planes were never too far away but it was a pretty wild environment throughout except for the expected unidentified-random-rusty-junk often encountered when paddling through streams like these, so close to civilization and all.

Never did I paddle very long before being greeted by riffles or areas dotted with small boulders. The section indicated in the Trailville write-up, just past 4 Mile Road, is great. Paddling by a dog park and Johnson Park golf course, it gets surprisingly wilder (aside from some obvious manicured sections of the 16th hole or whatever one it was), a lot curvier and much more riffly and pretty and this continues to Highway 31. There are even a couple nice park bridges and an old abandoned bridge that add some interest.

And then, almost on a dime, it turned into a bad paddle.

What we didn’t like:
Highway 31 is a little over halfway on this specific paddle (4.25 miles to be even more specific) and almost immediately, like an annoying tollbooth stealing your momentum, the river just dies. The current becomes flat and you’re in straightaway-country. You’re also instantly greeted by swampy lake-like weedy growth.

Suffice it to say, the star-rating started reversing course at this point. And it kept dropping.

I just found it boring, like ultra-boring, where I was wishing for anything and everything to make this more interesting, even a dead carcus would’ve been a welcome diversion to open water. I kept praying for something interesting to reveal itself but nothing. Even the multitude of herons couldn’t cheer me up. It was 3.5 miles of boring.

It wasn’t until I was passing by (the private) Armstrong Park where something out of the ordinary happened. A soundcheck. Some band was getting ready to rock the S.C. Johnson contingent based on the blues riffing’ out over the water and carrying all the way to the entrance of the millpond.

The take-out is a traditional boat landing setup with ample parking. It’s off Rapids Court and as mentioned in the write-up, is at a confusing intersection but if you come into Racine from the West, just keep taking lefts after you pass over the Root River bridge and you’ll find it. There is a small shelter with facilities too. Horlick Dam is a thing of beauty if dams are your thing. Or if whitewater is your thing, there is some opportunity to do that too just south of the dam if the water is high enough.

If we did this trip again:
I had every intention of paddling the 11.75 miles from County Line Road to the takeout but in hindsight, I’m not completely sure it was necessary anyway.

If I did this again, I would have to be in the area and I would find every and any possible way to take out at the Highway 31 bridge. It might require repelling and belaying but I’d do it to avoid everything after that bridge (although in all reality, I doubt this is an option on such a busy highway and I didn’t scout it). It may be possible to take-out at River Bend Nature Center which is across from Armstrong Park and before entering the millpond. I’m not sure if they allow people to use it as a put-in or take-out without a fee but it may be worth a call if you’re interested.

I’d also start up on County Line Road and work my way down to Highway 31. Based on that trailville write-up, that upper section seems similar to the 5 Mile Road to the Highway 31 section that I liked (County Line to 5 Mile Road is 4 miles and 5 Mile to Highway 31 is 4.25 Miles for a total of 8.25 miles, perfect for a day trip).

I would also hope to catch this around the 3′ mark versus the 2′-2.5′ mark. While the 2.5′ mark was OK, there was a good amount of scraping and another six inches of water would be ideal while probably still keeping the riffles intact.

All that said, if you’re looking for a beginner river by canoe or kayak, this is an easy section if you don’t mind some flat water. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Related Information:
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Trailville
Wikipedia: Root River


Shuttle Information:

35 minutes with a few hills to contend with. Since I shortened my trip to the 7.5 miles between 5 Mile Road and Horlick Dam, I decided to make the hair-raising journey up North Green Bay Road to Four Mile Road and then up to Five. With the current construction, traffic was much busier than it probably usually is.

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