Eau Claire River (Marathon)
Bear Lake Road to Dells of the Eau Claire Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A lively section of an intimate river with exciting whitewater ledges, extensive boulder gardens and excellent wildlife all with hardly any development until the end. This short trip can be considered a warm-up or dress rehearsal to the fierce and fabulous whitewater in the Dells just downstream of the dam/take-out.
June 16, 2014
8′ per mile (22’ per mile: ledges section)
Kelly: ht/ft: .82 | cfs: 130
These levels were too low. We recommend a minimum level of 1.2’.
Bear Lake Road
Park Road, Dam at Dells of the Eau Claire County Park
Time: Put in at 12:20p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 2h 40m
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Wildlife: Four great blue herons, one green heron, a goat, a muskrat, hawks (heard, unseen), 8 deer (all in the water, jumping out of it or leaping across it), several common mergansers with lots and lots of adorable merganserling chicks, a snapping turtle, little turtles, crawfish and several bald eagles (one of the bald eagles actually dove towards one of the mother mergansers and her ducklings twice. The eagle didn’t grab any but there was one hell of a raucous. I’d never seen an eagle go for a duck before…).
Before I begin, I should note that there are at least three rivers in Wisconsin named “Eau Claire” and specify which this trip was on. The most notable perhaps is the one by the namesake city that feeds the mighty and mythic Chippewa River. The other, more obscure one, is way up in the northwestern Wisconsin, in Douglas County, that feeds the St. Croix River. The Eau Claire River covered here is the tributary of the Wisconsin River up in Langlade and Marathon counties.
This trip was both random and serendipitous. To make a boring story short, I was up in the Wausau area for father’s day in the town of Ringle to be precise, (don’t worry, I too, had never heard of it) on a little bit of a last minute whim. As always, I strapped on one of my kayaks before heading out of town, just in case. One of the thrills when up north(ish) is how many rivers there are a) in the first place, b) of an exotic nature relative southern Wisconsin and c) typically featuring whitewater. I always feel like a kid who just found five bucks in quarters and walked into a brand new arcade. When I had a chance to get away and make some “Tim time” I saw on my trusty gazetteer how wonderfully close I was to the Dells of the Eau Claire County Park, a spectacular place I had been to once only almost ten years ago. It was time to return.
Disclaimer: This trip does not encompass the Dells. Instead, it covers the seven-or-so miles upstream of and leading to the Dells. The Dells comprises Class III-IV whitewater, which is definitely pushing my limits to a degree of asking for trouble, especially while paddling alone, without rescue support in the very likely scenario that something went awry.
I knew from Mike Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin that there’s a less white-knuckled but still fun section of the Eau Claire River upstream of the Dells, which suited me just fine. That said, you must at least stop by for a quick hike to the Dells because the setting truly is just spectacular, with absolutely massive slabs of black igneous rock smooth as a baby’s bum, diverting the thrashing river into a maze of channels, waterfalls, drops and deep pools. This is an utter gem hiding in central Wisconsin woods, in the heart of the Ice Age Trail. It’s as if the gods had concocted the best of the Black River Class III rapids with the geologic grandeur of the St. Croix River up at Interstate State Park. Even if you don’t paddle it (and only skilled whitewater folks should even entertain the idea) you should definitely check it out.
OK, enough about the Dells, which I didn’t even paddle in the first place! Upstream from the dam in the county park are eighteen or so miles of mostly gentle, pleasant paddling, beginning where the east and west branches converge right by Highway 64 a few miles west of Antigo. Most of this section is slow-going and totally suitable for beginners and open canoes. The latter section, where I paddled, is more challenging and lively due to a 1.5-mile section of four total ledges and roughly one billion boulders strewn about everywhere. All of the ledges can be portaged and with the exception of more random boulder gardens here and there, the water is pretty flat and calm after the final ledge all the way to the dam.
What we liked:
First off, I never tire of that root beer hue of the water in this part of the state! The surrounding landscape just after putting in was thoroughly lush and almost an electric technicolor blaze of green fern in the brilliant sun. Yet, there were solid sections of overblown foliage from trees above offering splendid shade on a hot day.
The first ledge doesn’t appear until 1.5 miles or so from the Bear Lake put-in. A few boulders here and there in clusters will foreshadow the seemingly endless gardens downstream. For now, just soak it all up. That first ledge makes itself announced with plenty warning, just listen for the sound of falling water (also, about a ¼ mile upstream you’ll see a random huge slab of rock on the river-right as a helpful heads-up). Since the water was so low I ran this ledge on the right, as it was the least rocky and the best bet to avoid scraping. For a 2’ drop it was a thrill! (Scout or portage on the left if not thrill-seeking)
The second ledge comes shortly after and is easier. The third ledge was the most fun. A massive rock wall slab on the right provides an excellent spot to take out and scout or portage. The river here has an “S” shape where the ledge itself is at the top edge of the “S” after it’s rounded the rock wall slab. Two prominent holes provide surfing and play opportunities here. The drop itself is 3’-4’ high. This was so much fun I got out and did it three times!
The fourth and final ledge comes very quickly after this last one. Here you have two options: far left or right of middle. Far left is a solid Class II rapid with some boulders to dodge. I myself didn’t even see it as an option until afterward. Right-of-middle is called “Three Rows Falls” by locals. It’s a slot with a clearly defined “tongue” of water with a 4’ drop. Before running this, you’ll see the prominent horizon line, trust me. I ran the slot and it was fine (really fun actually) but there’s a rather large boulder at the bottom of the drop that is invisible (and probably wouldn’t even be an issue in higher water) but it definitely caught my attention! (Fortunately, it only caused a loud and sudden thud without puncturing my boat.) After this final ledge the river slows down, at times to a crawl.
There are still boulder gardens here and there between Highway 52 and the take-out, some of which might provide Class I fun in higher water. But you’ve had the best that the river offers at this point (for this trip at least). Still though, as you paddle downstream and closer to the county park, the banks get higher, rockier and more dramatic. And everywhere on this river, ledge or not, the wildlife was wonderful.
What we didn’t like:
Low water! Not the river’s fault of course but I was not expecting an under-eight-mile trip to take almost three hours. For sure, some of that had to do with the time it took to scout the rapids and re-run some of them. But I also had to butt-scoot a bit in the extremely shallow sections and the current in general was pretty slow and nonexistent at the end leading up to the dam. Add to that, the time to zigzag and thread one’s way through boulder gardens. I’d really hoped to tack on an addendum section just downstream of the Dells and paddle to Badger Road or County Road N for another handful of Class I-II whitewater miles and stunning geology but there just wasn’t enough time for this.
Also, it’s worth noting that the put-in at Bear Lake Road leaves nothing to be desired. There was a hint of stamped down grass and the vestige of a path leading to the water, so I knew others had done this before. But it was wildly weedy and overgrown with tick habitats and poisonous plants. Another opportunity for my machete!
If we did this trip again:
I would definitely do this again exactly as I did it this time but in higher water. And someday I’ll try my luck, with assistance, running the Dells. But if nothing else, I’d love to combine this trip with another five or so miles below the Dells for a truly thrilling daytrip.
Camp: Dells of the Eau Claire Park
General: American Whitewater
General: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Video: Kamal Al-Shahethi
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Wisconsin River)
It’s 6.5 miles and very easy and suitable for bicycles or cars. Note: Eau Claire River Road is a shortcut in between County Road Y and Highway 52 but it’s unpaved. Also, at the intersection of Highway 52 and County Road Y right by the river, take a moment to admire the magnificent and hilariously surreal sculpture garden outside a house on the north-side of Highway 52.