Baraboo River
★ ★ ★

Baraboo River V

By on July 7, 2014

Haskins Park to Highway 33
☆ ☆ ☆

A trip of contrasts that begins in an urban setting and ends in the country, first surrounded by downtown buildings and a circus museum, then ancient rock formations, with a bang of Class I rapids for the first two miles and a whimper of slow current at the end. The river here is like a travelogue of history, human and geologic.

June 26, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Riffles + Class I

Baraboo: ht/ft: 9.5 | cfs: 600

Recommended Levels:
We definitely recommend this level but for an ideal run, we recommend a minimum of 350 cfs for this section of the Baraboo (more riffles, waves and fun).

Haskins Park, Baraboo, Wisconsin
Highway 33 Bridge

Time: Put in at 12:20p. Out at 3:35p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 12.5

Wildlife: Several great blue herons, many ducks and geese, lots of little turtles, a muskrat, a deer, two bald eagles and a raccoon climbing a tree.
Time worth driving to: 1 hour

This segment of the Baraboo nips at the lower river on the way towards its confluence with the Wisconsin River. I actually did this same trip about four years ago but hadn’t remembered much of it and wanted to give it another shot. After redoing it, there’s a reason why it’s not terribly memorable (at least the Hwy 113 to Highway 33 section) but more on that below. This trip links what can be otherwise seen as two separate segments and there are good and bad things about doing so.

What we liked:
The moving water downtown is irresistibly good fun, always. The rapids, such as they are, don’t amount to more than Class I in normal water conditions but they’re delightfully sprite and set in a pleasant setting with interesting backdrops of downtown Baraboo.

The best rapids are beneath the pedestrian bridge, on the right, at Ochsner Park (the second bridge you paddle under) and then just downstream from the Highway 123/South Boulevard bridge, in the left channel of an island (the fourth bridge). The rapids at that left channel (where you’ll see a brick building on the river-left bank) are the best the Baraboo offers (the right channel usually has strainers and debris).

By the time you approach Circus World Museum, the rapids have dissipated to occasional riffles but the ambiance of the environs is more than enough to keep you entertained. Elephants, calliope music, whirligigs – it’s all just shy of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my). The Haskins Park to Highway 113 landing is definitely the funnest part of this trip and one of the top highlights anywhere on all of the Baraboo River.

Just a note about the gauge. It’s located on this very trip so the reading will be quite accurate. At 600 cfs the rapids downtown were actually quite lively and demanded attention. For serious whitewater paddlers this will still be tame. A minimum of 800 cfs is recommended with a range going as high as 1300 cfs for those solely pursuing big waves and play spots. But for recreational paddlers 600 cfs is a great level to splash it up and raise a hackle or two without a serious risk of danger or injury.

Also, here’s how fast the Baraboo drains. On Sunday June 22nd, the river was running at 15’ and 2,000 cfs (which is crazy!). It dropped to 13’ and 1500 cfs two days later, to 11’ and 1,000 a day after that and then 9.5’ and 600 cfs the next day (when I ran it). That’s a difference of 5.5’ and 1400 cfs in four days! The Baraboo is not a whitewater river by any stretch but catching those Class I rapids downtown at their peak is pretty tricky. Most of the time they will be just fun, solid riffles.

Bear in mind, however, that paddling through downtown when the river is low can be quite frustrating. Small boulders are strewn about everywhere and you’ll be scraping the bottom and/or bouncing your boat off the rocks quite a bit.

After Highway 113 the river makes a long, slow turn in direction to the northeast, towards Portage. What makes this section notable is the ancient geology of the Baraboo Range itself. Just before the take-out for this trip the river lies within the “Lower Narrows” of the Baraboo Range – one of three such gorges in the 50-mile circumference of the Baraboo Range (the other two being the “Upper Narrows” in Rock Springs and Devil’s Lake in Baraboo). The Baraboo Range is estimated to be 1.5 billion years old. What we see today, lovely in its own right, is like the tip of an iceberg in that all those hundreds of millions of years of erosion have weathered the once giant mountains down to hills (think of that once proud and beautiful snowman left after a couple weeks in the first thaw in March).

Ever wonder why the Wisconsin River flows mostly north-south except for a weird kink to the east below the Dells, followed then by an oddball turn to the west below Portage only 20 or so miles later? The ancient mountain range running east-west diverted the north-south river eastward and the glacial lobe of the last Ice Age, coming from what is now Lake Michigan, shoved the river to the west. Thus, the western terminus of the Baraboo Range (the “Upper Narrows”) is in the Driftless Area while the eastern terminus (the “Lower Narrows” – where this trip ends) is glaciated (and thus marks the demarcation of the Driftless Area by the Sauk-Columbia county line).

Mind you, I’m not a geologist, I just like to play one on the internet.

What we didn’t like:
All this said, you can hardly appreciate any of the “outside classroom” while on the river itself. The gorge of the Lower Narrows is wide and the rock walls, alas, do not flank the river directly. They’re close but they’re still a bit off in the distance. You know they’re there in your head but the direct visual effect is quite muted. To be fair, I have paddled through here twice now in summer, with full foliage. The views of the rocky hills above from the river below would probably be better in early spring or late autumn. There’s something wickedly and inherently wrong about the shuttle trip being prettier than the river trip itself. The views of the Narrows from Highway 33 are quite stunning.

The other thing not to like about this trip is the slow torpor of the river once you leave downtown. The first few miles of this trip flow with an 11’-per-mile gradient but after Highway 113, it’s two feet per mile! The water’s still muddy brown, the landscape is mostly flat (minus the occasional cleavage tease of the Baraboo hills in the way back) and occasional logjams become an issue.

There were two on this trip (one I actually remembered from the last time, which was four years ago, so this one is residential and probably has a postal address and should have a name all its own). I was able to negotiate my way through, under, and over both, but it wasn’t easy. A canoe would have a hell of a hard time doing this. As seems to be the case always when it comes to logjams, the river is crazy deep, so getting out and standing on the bottom of the river is not an option. Unless the views of the Narrows are awesome when the trees are leafless, there’s really no good reason to paddle this segment.

If we did this trip again:
Thanks to a small but official landing off County Road W, I’ll check out the Lower Narrows later this year, in November, to see what can be seen. This would make for a 3.4-mile trip. Otherwise, it’s best just to paddle the fun stuff downtown and let the sleeping dog of the lower Baraboo River lie.

Related Information:
Baraboo River Overview: Baraboo River Paddle Guide
Baraboo River I: Village Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River II: Haskins Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River III: Union Center to Wonewoc
Baraboo River IV: Haskins Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River VI: La Valle to Reedsburg
General: American Whitewater
General: Riverfacts
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Overview: Hunt Fish Camp
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Video: Wisconsin Paddles: The Baraboo
Wikipedia: Baraboo River


Shuttle Information:

8 miles by car or 10.5 by bicycle. Both start on Highway 33 and take you past/through the Lower Narrows, which is very pretty. The bike shuttle eventually meets up with the downtown segment of the Ice Age Trail that runs parallel with the river and makes for an awesome trip.

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