Eau Claire River
★ ★ ★ ★

Eau Claire River (Douglas)

By on August 9, 2014

Middle Eau Claire Lake to Gordon
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Twenty-plus miles of clear water, easy rapids and tight bends provide ample adventure, solitude and beauty in northern Wisconsin. Healthy and clean, the Eau Claire offers good swimming on hot days and a mile or two of abuse, which highlights how unspoiled most of the river remains.

By Greg Seitz
St. Croix 360 // A Miles Paddled contributor

July, 2014

Class Difficulty:


Recommended Levels:
There is no gauge but it was suggested by a local resident that the Leonards Bridge gauge on the Namekagon River might correlate pretty well. The day we paddled the Eau Claire, there hadn’t been much rain for a couple weeks and that gauge was at about 1.8’ but the river is fed by three spring-fed lakes, which were brimming over from the summer’s earlier monsoon. Our theory is that it remains floatable most of the year, unlike a lot of similar rivers in this part of the country, thanks to those bubbling springs (we have a lot of theories).

Middle Eau Claire Lake, Boat Landing Road
Gordon Ranger Station (St. Croix River) off Spruce Drive, Gordon, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 8:00a. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 10h
Miles Paddled: 22.25

Wildlife: Green heron, fish, a deer and a bald eagle.

What I liked:
This was the smallest river I’ve ever paddled. Not twenty feet across in many places and wadeable nearly its whole length, I liked that it still floated our 18-foot Grumman canoe down its length. We banged a few rocks and hung up in a couple spots but never had to get out and drag and it was all worth it for the closeness of the scenery.

This felt like a truly northern river. The forest was pine and fir and spruce, or beaver-beloved bogs of alders and willows. And the land, sculpted by glaciers. It joins the St. Croix farther north than any other tributary (other rivers extend farther north in Minnesota but join the St. Croix farther south) and cuts through sparsely-populated country near the edge of the St. Croix/Lake Superior watersheds.

Not surprisingly to anyone who knows the French translation, the water is clear as glass. Being able to see the bottom effectively doubles the scenery on a river, adding to the beauty on the banks. There were fish, including big redhorse sucker, a two-foot northern pike, maybe a couple trout and logs and rocks and sand and bright green river plants. I could watch it go by all day everyday and not get bored.

One of our party had binoculars around his neck and the plant guide in his lap all day. We saw the most green herons I’ve ever seen, including three at one time and a bald eagle launched out of the brush on the bank next to us at one point, sounding like a deer crashing until it rose on its massive wings right over our heads.

We saw Lesser purple fringed orchids and Michigan lilies when we watched the banks carefully. Driving shuttle on County Y, we saw Wood lilies and a few massive white pines tower from the banks. Also spotted was fireweed (thanks to Ryan Rodgers for the eyes and the plant identification).

My mom was a high school American history teacher and taught me so I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for history. The Eau Claire is rich in it. The river’s town is Gordon, which got its start as an Ojibwe village called Amik (beaver), located at the confluence of the Eau Claire with the St. Croix, where the historic St. Croix Trail portage crossed, connecting the region to Lake Superior and the big fur trade post at La Pointe on Madeline Island. One local history buff says the trail was more popular than the Brule River route, which didn’t even appear on at least one voyageur’s map, while the St. Croix Trail is prominently featured (thanks to Brian Finstad for sharing all that and much more about Gordon in response to the National Heritage Area proposal for the St. Croix River region).

It was hard to imagine but this shallow, winding, narrow river, once carried lumber. In 1893, one company cut logs east of upper Eau Claire Lake and skidded and floated them 161 miles “from the stump to the mills” in Stillwater, an elevation drop of 725 feet, writes local historian and tour guide Dave Thorson. Thanks to the clear water, I saw many logs on the bottom and theorized many were logging leftovers. At least a couple probably were.

Most of all, I liked the experience of exploration. We had a decades-old map with some notes about distance and hazards and such but it ultimately raised more questions than it answered. I eventually became fond of its consistent inaccuracy. And yet we survived the trip and it was a good reminder that adventure usually means a little leap into the unknown. Hopefully this detailed report will be encouraging while not stripping the fun from the experience.

Afterwards, we had burgers and beers at the Buckhorn in Gordon. You can’t miss it. Gordon MacQuarrie, the writer, conservationist, duck hunter and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel outdoors editor reportedly liked to stop there after the long drive north from the city when he was finally near his cabin on Middle Eau Claire Lake. They had good specials and good beers, a friendly bartender and the descendant of an owner from the Depression era who told us stories of the town and the country but had never heard of MacQuarrie.

There’s also a cool historical museum in Gordon, which is open on the weekends during the summer (which is not when we were there) and probably has some river-related information and artifacts.

County campgrounds are located at Mooney Dam and at the flowage (I’d go with Mooney Dam, unsurprisingly).

What I didn’t like:
The parts humans have done. Paddling the length of this river in one day presents a stark contrast. For miles, it winds through wild woods and meadows. There are cabins at regular intervals, although in the middle was a nice stretch of a few miles without much sign of humans. There are a few pockets of invasive reed canary grass. Almost always it adjoins man-made structures. As we watched dragonflies resting and mating on slender riverside reeds, I wondered if they can get what they need from reed canary grass. And I wondered what mosquitoes think about that. But overall, the upper stretch was unsullied.

Then comes the dam. The flowage actually starts right at a bridge that leads to the Gordon Correctional Center. There is a chute with standing waves under the narrow bridge – Ryan went through it twice in his kayak and had a blast. We, in the canoe, portaged around it (briefly experiencing the exhilaration of trespassing on the prison grounds). Below that, the river is neglected at best, abused at worst.

The flowage was pretty short and narrow and infested with invasive plants. When we got in sight of the dam, we saw steep, weedy banks and a rusty dam. I expected to find duct tape holding it together (but did not).

Our feeble map said to portage left around the dam but of course, that was incorrect. There was nowhere to land, nowhere to climb up the bank and an old fence and piles of detritus on top of the berm on the left side. We checked out the right side and made do with a crummy landing, scrambled up through a thicket and then found no trail but a precipitous, grassy slope down to the river on the other side. I slipped going down with the canoe on my shoulders, suffering no injury and we had to lower the boat down the last 20 sheer feet to the water. One of my companions pointed out it’s all part of the adventure but I thought if people built the dam, people could also maintain a trail around it.

We weren’t sure what would await us the last mile, with the flow disrupted by the dam. We didn’t have to wait long to find out. As soon as we were around the first bend we were met with a dead pine all the way across the channel. There was a little gap under it along the left bank and we smashed through, raked by brittle branches. Then there was another tree we were able to get over, and another, and another, every hundred yards. This was going to be a long mile I thought, as I put one foot on a slippery submerged limb and pushed us over another tree.

Then we saw a house, with a couple kayaks in the yard. People use the river from here down, it seems and they keep it clear. After that first house, we found no more blockages but saw where several strainers had been sawed off. In this way and this way only, people have improved the paddling experience on the Eau Claire.

Though one might want to take out above the dam, it is undeniably fun to slip quietly into the St. Croix, to have paddled the length of a river in one day. The river is grassy here, with cedar waxwings flitting out from bushes and vistas far downstream. There are two railroad trestles and the Highway 53 bridges near each other, so it feels pretty industrial for a few minutes.

If I did this trip again:
I will paddle this river many times, I hope. Next time, I might put in at Mooney Dam, where the river proper starts, skipping the lakes but it’s fun going through the hand-operated lock and dam between Middle and Lower Eau Claire Lakes, the Enchanted Inn at the mouth of the river on the lower lake is a pretty sight and a little lake paddling is a nice warm-up.

To avoid the prison, the flowage, the dam and the snag-filled channel below it, I would probably take out at South Lawler Bridge Road. We didn’t stop and check out that bridge though and I can’t verify there is good parking or access. I’d scout it when you drop off the shuttle car. Doing Mooney Dam to here will give you an easy day trip and you’ll see the most scenic and unspoiled parts of the Eau Claire.

Our big aluminum canoe served us well and I like paddling rivers in a tandem canoe because you get to really work with someone, communicating clearly and acting as one unit (our rambling conversation all day was frequently punctuated by “left” or “right”). That said, I think a kayak is a better fit on the Eau Claire, simply because it’s narrow and twisting and there’s only so tight you can turn a canoe.

Some final thoughts: Pulling the canoe up to the bank and swimming in the cold, sandy-bottomed river on a hot July afternoon is a memory I will hold dear this winter.

This short, intimate stream contains a great deal of interest – it feels like the kind of river a person might eventually hope to understand as a whole, which is what will bring me back again.

The experience of what the river is, what it could be and what people have done to parts of it makes me want to help restore it to its full health and glory.

Thanks to Stephen Wilbers for hosting the trip. One of the best parts was seeing where the water at his cabin on Middle Eau Claire goes, something he had not previously had the chance to investigate in 19 years spent at the lake.

Contributor Bio:
Greg Seitz is the publisher of St. Croix 360, a community news and river stewardship website serving the St. Croix River watershed. He is a writer and river bum, communications consultant, tall bearded person and a husband and father.

Related Information:
Camp: Douglas County, Wisconsin
General: St. Croix 360
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Wisconsin River)



Photo Gallery:


Miles Paddled documents canoe and kayak trips on rivers and creeks throughout Wisconsin.

Say Hello or Contribute

Ahnapee River

Apple River (IL)

    Apple River
    4.20.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    East Canyon Road to South Apple River Road

Ashippun River

    Ashippun River
    9.27.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Ashippun Lake to Ski Slide Road

Badfish Creek

Baraboo River

Bark River

    Bark River III
    4.7.17 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Highway 83 to Delafield Road

    Bark River II
    4.15.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Merton to Highway 83

    Bark River I
    7.15.10 | ☆ ☆
    Burnt Village County Park to Fort Atkinson

Beaver Dam River

Big Bureau Creek (IL)

    Big Bureau Creek
    6.17.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Red Covered Bridge Park to County Road 1150

Big Rib River

    Big Rib River
    5.10.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Goodrich to County Road A

Billings Creek

    Billings Creek
    8.13.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road F to Landing 10

Black Earth Creek

Black River

Black River: East Fork

Bois Brule River

Boundary Waters (MN)

Cannon River (MN)

    Cannon River
    5.31.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Faribault to Dundas

Carroll Creek (IL)

    Carroll Creek II
    6.21.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Point Rock Park to Jacobstown Road

    Carroll Creek I
    4.26.13 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Point Rock Park to Jacobstown Road

Catfish Creek (IA)

    Catfish Creek
    5.7.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Mines of Spain to Massey Marina Park

Cedar Creek

    Cedar Creek
    9.28.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road M to Cedarburg

Coon Fork Creek

Covel Creek (IL)

    Covel Creek
    6.18.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    East 18th Road to Highway 71

Crawfish River

Crawfish River: North Branch

Crystal River

Dell Creek

    Dell Creek
    3.15.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    South Avenue to Dellwood

Door Creek

    Door Creek
    4.1.17 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Femrite Drive to Fish Camp County Park

Duck Creek

    Duck Creek
    3.23.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road G to Duck Creek Road

Eau Claire River

Eau Galle River

Embarrass River

Flambeau River: North Fork

Fox River

    Fox River II
    4.30.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road O to Endeavor

    Fox River I
    5.14.14 | ☆ ☆
    Swan Lake to Portage Canal

Fox River (IL)

Galena/Fever River

Grand River

Grant River

    Grant River IV
    4.24.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road U to Chaffie Hollow Road

    Grant River III
    4.23.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Short Cut Road to County Road U

    Grant River II
    11.21.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road U to Chaffie Hollow Road

    Grant River I
    5.23.09 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Short Cut Road to County Road U

Halls Creek

    Halls Creek III
    5.6.17 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Trow Lake Dam to Halls Creek Landing

    Halls Creek II
    8.9.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Garage Road to Halls Creek Landing

    Halls Creek I
    6.28.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Trow Lake Dam to Halls Creek Landing

Honey Creek

Jump River

    Jump River
    8.30.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Luke’s Heights Lane to Big Falls County Park

Kickapoo River

Kickapoo River: West Fork

Kinnickinnic River

Kishwaukee River (IL)

Koshkonong Creek

La Crosse River

Lake Columbia

Lake Mendota

Lake Michigan

Lake Superior

Lake Waubesa

Lemonweir River

Little Platte River

Little Wolf River

Maunesha River

Mecan River

Mill Creek

Milwaukee River

Milwaukee River: East Branch

Mink River

Mirror Lake

    Mirror Lake II
    10.17.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Mirror Lake State Park to Lake Delton

    Mirror Lake I
    5.24.08 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Mirror Lake State Park to Lake Delton

Montello River

    Montello River
    11.8.16-11.10.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Harrisville to 11th Road

Mormon Creek

    Mormon Creek
    8.3.14 | ☆ ☆
    Mormon Coulee Park to Goose Island County Park

Morrison Creek

Mukwonago River

Mullet River

    Mullet River
    10.20.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Plymouth to County Road M

Namekagon River

    Namekagon River
    7.16-7.19.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road K to Riverside

Neenah Creek

Nippersink Creek (IL)

Oconomowoc River

Old Pearl River (LA)

    Old Pearl River
    4.3.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Crawford Landing Road to Indian Village Road

Onion River

    Onion River II
    10.11.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road A to County Road V

    Onion River I
    9.23.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road V to Sheboygan Falls

Pecatonica River

Pecatonica River: East Branch

Peshekee River (MI)

Peshtigo River

    Peshtigo River
    9.2.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Burnt Bridge to Goodman Park

Pigeon River

    Pigeon River
    12.5.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road J to Lake Michigan

Pine River

Piscasaw Creek (IL)

Platte River

Plover River

    Plover River
    5.19.13 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Jordan Park to Iverson Park

Prairie River

    Prairie River II
    5.27.17 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road C to Stange’s Park

    Prairie River I
    11.17.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Haymeadow Creek to Prairie Road

Puchyan River

    Puchyan River
    04.19.15 | ☆ ☆
    County Road J to Huckleberry Road

Red River

    Red River
    12.9.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Gresham to County Road A

Red Cedar River

Robinson Creek

    Robinson Creek
    7.8.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Old County Road I to Kelly Road

Rock Creek

    Rock Creek
    3.26.16 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Lake Mills to Millford

Rock River

Root River

    Root River
    8.2.13 | ☆ ☆
    5 Mile Road to Horlick Dam

Root River: South Branch (MN)

Rubicon River

Seeley Creek

    Seeley Creek
    5.4.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Seeley Lake to Hatchery Road

Six Mile Creek

    Six Mile Creek
    6.7.14 | ☆
    Waunakee Village Park to South Woodland Drive

Spring Creek

    Spring Creek
    4.20.13 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Fair Street to County Road V

St. Croix River

Starkweather Creek

Sugar Creek

Sugar River

Token Creek

    Token Creek III
    5.22.11 | ☆
    Token Creek County Park to Cherokee Park

    Token Creek II
    8.22.09 | ☆ ☆
    Token Creek County Park to Cherokee Park

    Token Creek I
    5.2.09 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    Token Creek County Park to Cherokee Park

Tomorrow River

    Tomorrow River
    7.4.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Rolling Hills Road to Amherst

Trappe River

    Trappe River
    8.2.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Road WW to Wisconsin River Road

Trempealeau River

Turtle Creek

Upper Iowa River (IA)

    Upper Iowa River
    5.24.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Chimney Rock Road to Bluffton Road

Waupaca River

    Waupaca River V
    10.24.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Amherst to Durrant Road

    Waupaca River IV
    4.12.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park

    Waupaca River III
    9.22.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Highway DD to County Highway Q

    Waupaca River II
    7.7.12 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park

    Waupaca River I
    7.9.11 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park

Wausau Whitewater Park

Wedges Creek

    Wedges Creek
    9.20.11 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Middle Road to Black River Lodge Resort

White River

Wisconsin River

Wolf River

Yahara River

Yellow Creek (IL)

    Yellow Creek
    4.19.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Bolton Road to Krape Park

Yellow River

Yellow River (IA)

    Yellow River II
    5.6.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Old Sixteen Road to Highway 76

    Yellow River I
    5.5.14 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Highway X16 to Old Sixteen Road

Zumbro River (MN)

    Zumbro River
    6.1.15 | ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
    Zumbro Falls to Millville
Support the Cause
Timothy's guidebook is out! Order on Amazon.com.

Support Miles Paddled and visit our Spreadshirt shop!