Mormon Coulee Park to Goose Island County Park
A quintessential Driftless stream in the heart of the unglaciated hills near the Mississippi River, this creek is strong in potential but weak in payoff. That said, it does have one outstanding feature, probably the most spectacular cave we’ve ever paddled up to.
It’s been a cave we couldn’t stop thinking about from the moment we laid eyes on it. It’s uncertain location and lack of information about it immediately consumed us, feeding our curiosity and it became a quest that damn near haunted us. After a less than ideal paddle, we finally uncovered the (seemingly) mysterious whereabouts of Oehler Cave, located on Mormon Creek, while learning about its interesting backstory along the way.
August 3, 2014
Riffles (and a few Class I ledges)
5′ per mile
There is no gauge on this stream and we’re not confident that we would recommend it if there were. The cave is cool but this stream was like our own Moby Dick. For sane paddlers, access issues, low water, and oh so many down trees will reasonably disabuse you of kayaking this stream.
Mormon Coulee Park, Shelby, Wisconsin
Goose Island County Park boat launch, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:10a. Out at 4:10p.
Total Time: 3h 35m
Miles Paddled: 7.25
Wildlife: Eight deer (including a buck and a fawn), turtles, trout, kingfishers and a woodpecker.
Time worth driving to: It probably isn’t unless you live in or happen to be visiting the La Crosse area.
OK, a little back-story to explain how and why we came to paddle this obscure creek. Last year I saw a documentary about the Driftless Area appropriately enough at the Driftless Film Fest. In it, you see a couple kayakers paddling up to this hauntingly beguiling cave (as seen in the trailer at: :59, 1:09 and 1:41).
“I gotta find out where that is,” I thought. I asked the filmmaker during the Q&A if he remembered where it was. He graciously answered “Mormon Creek south of La Crosse.” I wrote it down, looked it up on the Atlas and found it. But where on this rather long creek might that cave be? It could be anywhere. A couple shot-in-the-dark Google searches later I found this and determined that it had to be it. Knowing and finding nothing else, that was enough for us.
Unfortunately, Mormon Creek should be relegated to that sad, cold category of paddle-unfriendly streams. Can it be paddled? Sure… more or less. It’s very narrow (you can literally play jump the brook) and often painfully shallow, clogged by deadfall requiring strenuous portages and the accesses are terrible. So…? Well, the cave is pretty remarkable. Is it worth doing? Not what we did. The short segment from Justin Road to County Road MM is nice but also very short. Is putting up with a lot of crap for a 0.7-mile paddle just because it has a gorgeous cave worth it? That’s up to you.
Here’s the layout, broken up in segments between bridges:
Mormon Coulee Park to Justin Road
Very narrow, very shallow, riffly with some ledges but lots of awful obstructions requiring strenuous portages and no cave. Verdict: Not worth doing.
Justin Road to County Road MM
A short .7 mile paddle, actually nice, a little more open with no serious obstructions and this is where the cave is located (more on that below). Verdict: If you really want to see the cave, maybe it’s worth doing?
County Road MM to Highway 35
Pleasant, riffly, nice views but terrible access. Verdict: Questionably worth doing but the take-out is essentially a no-go.
Highway 35 to Goose Island
Despicably worthless to the point of heartbreaking! Verdict: Definitely not worth doing.
What we liked:
The cave baby, the cave! (officially, the name of the cave is “Oehler Cave,” after German immigrant brothers who built a mill there in the mid 19th Century). But before you get to the cave you’ll first encounter an equally (if not more) impressive hand-carved tunnel through a sandstone rock outcrop on creek-right through which you can paddle (and actually have to paddle because it’s really the only way to continue downstream without portaging. This also made a cameo in the “Mysteries of the Driftless” Trailer at: 1:35). There’s a very small ledge inside of it so the current is peppy but oh so fun and unique.
After the tunnel is a pool before the looming (and quite handsome) Oehler cave. There is just something about its perfect shape rising above the creek. It’s unique flat lip is instantly recognizable. The cave is huge but not deep. The overhang is probably 50’ wide and a good 25’ high. It’s sandy inside but there’s little depth. Also, this may technically be private property, (more on that later) we’re not sure. After the cave, a sandstone rock bluff lines the left. This is unquestionably the most picturesque stretch on Mormon Creek.
Otherwise, the water is clear or chalky and flows at a good clip. It’s probably often too low to paddle comfortably but when there’s enough (and when there isn’t a downed tree to contend with) it’s very pleasant. The Class I ledges were fun, especially at Justin Road; there are two immediately upstream and downstream of the bridge, separated by 15’ or so. Occasionally there are great views of the Driftless hills, particularly between County Road MM and Highway 35.
When you aren’t running into shallows and deadfall, sometimes you’ll paddle through farmland in the most intimate and slightly surreal way because the creek is a narrow 12’-15’ and it feels like you’re paddling on the farm itself, not a creek that just runs past or through it. It felt like we were trespassing. It felt like we were paddling in Illinois! But it was very pretty (so probably not Illinois!) and kind of a hoot. Also, once you paddle into the backwaters of the Mississippi River at Goose Island, the views of the bluffs are magnificent (one of which calls to mind a Midwest kind of Yosemite’s Half Dome).
The other thing I personally liked is the history of this area and the creek itself. Cue the boring history lesson music…
It’s called Mormon Creek for a reason. After Joseph Smith was killed and Brigham Young said “let’s go west,” some Mormons instead went back to Ohio, where there had always been a conclave, some east to Pennsylvania, while others decided to go north. They first went to what is now Burlington, Wisconsin, near the White and Fox rivers. Some settled there, while others still scattered (there’s a fascinating story about the guy who led all of the Wisconsin Mormons, named Joseph Strang, who would go on to crown himself the King of Beaver Island on Lake Michigan but we’ll save that for another time).
To this day, a very small but still extant strand of the original Mormons following Strang, called Stangites, are found in the Burlington area (there’s a bit of a schism between the official LDS Mormons in Utah and them but that too is another story). A different sect went up the Mississippi River from Illinois, where Smith was killed, to what is now La Crosse. They settled there only a short time before heading down to Texas (less than a year, it seems) but stayed long enough to name a creek and some surrounding hills (called coulees) after themselves (or have them named after them).
They also built a mill on the creek, the remains of which were purchased and seized upon by two enterprising brothers emigrated from Germany named Oehler only a decade and change after the Mormons left (or were driven out of) town. They rebuilt the mill and hand-carved a tunnel out of the rock to release the flow of the dam (there is a rusty handrail which can still be seen above the tunnel and which is also spotted in an old postcard and black and white photo of the dam. It also appears to have been an access point to the top of the dam). Farmers would come to the mill, taking their wheat to be ground into flour and enjoyed the cave and adjoining land, a kind of park, while they waited. This lasted for decades. In addition to the cave and park, there was a root cellar, a couple very handsome homes and a family cemetery.
Fast-forward a century later of floods and fires, banker shysters, stubbornness and multiple property sales, the then owner of the property, after failing to have the cave and mill recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, decides to give the whole property to none other than that scrappy, cash-strapped underdog called the Catholic Church in 1999. A few years later the Church builds the $25 million shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located just up the road on County Road MM, a hundred yards or so past the bridge over the creek – itself just downstream from the cave.
The shrine was originally inspired by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, whom you might remember as being the guy from La Crosse who in 2004 said (for no apparent reason) that since no one asked him, he would refuse to serve communion to then presidential candidate John Kerry or any pro-choice Catholic politician and that furthermore all Catholics should not vote for pro-choice politicians in general (incidentally, just last year Pope Francis removed Cardinal Burke from the Congregation of Bishops, a powerful committee at the Vatican). To be sure, the shrine is brilliantly gorgeous, all the more randomly enhanced by its setting nestled in the pretty hills of the Driftless in La Crosse. One simply wonders how the Milwaukee Diocese claims that it’s bankrupt and cannot pay its sex abuse victims while on the other side of the state the Church drops $25 million bucks on a pretty building…
Strange history though, from Mormons to German immigrants to a conservative Cardinal and this is but a fraction of a fraction in the length of geologic time that makes the area around the creek so interesting. That it’s all 20 minutes south of downtown La Crosse is pretty amusing and surreal too.
What we didn’t like:
Where to begin? Within the first quarter-mile you’re already butt-scooting in shallow, rocky water in tight twists in a very narrow stream and also entangled in portage-required deadfalls. Never a good omen.
The ugliest, nastiest, and most difficult of all these deadfalls is only half-mile from the put-in, where we saw at least two mostly intact skeletons (and a very bloated corpse) of what, we don’t want to know. It was one of those climb out of your boat and into a tree, try not to fall, pull your boat over the tree, try not to lose anything and get back into your boat kind of portages… (it was also here that Timothy, who, in more of a creek boat channeled his inner MacGyver/Indiana Jones to create a rope-like pulling device to help Barry, who was stranded by boat footage, get close enough to get on the log – the dudes a miracle worker – God bless him). Unfortunately, there was sometimes only another 20’ before the next downed tree necessitated another portage (but not like that beast) and there are at least 12 from the park to Justin Road bridge.
It’s as bad, if not worse, during the last segment of this trip, from Highway 35 to Goose Island. There I counted some 15 portages. What made these worse were A) I expected this section to be better and wider due to its confluence with the Mississippi River (technically lake-like backwaters, not the true river itself) and B) the water was muddy, foul and very deep (i.e., dangerous for portaging). It’s more over-the-tree portaging because when you try to stand in the water itself, either you can’t because it’s too deep or you sink knee-deep in disgusting muck. This section just flat out sucks.
Oh, and then finally at the take-out at Goose Island, there were stools of dog shit strewn all over the place, real cute.
If we did this trip again:
I will never do this trip as we did it again! But I would definitely consider just paddling to the cave and rock tunnel. The access at Justin Road is doable but not great. Plus you’re essentially putting in at two Class I ledges. Alternatively, you can put in at County Road MM and paddle upstream 75 yards or so to the cave and tunnel but the bridge at MM is steep and tricky and also, there are “no trespassing” signs at nearly every corner.
For purely personal reasons I’m glad I did this trip. Oehler Cave has been haunting us for nearly a year now, ever since I first saw it on that film. We began our paddle with some reasonable misgivings. To make a long story short, Barry had to bail about midway due to a schedule conflict and the fact that this trip was taking us a very long time to go a very short distance, due to the low water, narrowness and obstructions. I very seriously contemplated giving up, too. It seemed a little crazy to forge ahead another 4+ miles when the first three were pitilessly terrible. It took two hours just to paddle 3.5 miles! Plus I still had no certainty about the actual reality of the cave. Locals had all shrugged their shoulders and told us they’d never heard of it when we asked.
But I pressed on, because I’m stubborn (some might charitably say “romantic”). Sure enough, not even half a mile after Barry had left – only another 15-20 minutes of paddling after two hours of trial and tribulation – I came upon the cave. I was relieved to find it, though felt guilty as hell to be doing so without my paddling partner. I felt a little bit vindicated, a little bit victorious, a little bit mission accomplished.
Two weeks later, Barry returned to resolve this unfinished business. Having paddled it from Justin Road to County MM, he confirmed that it is indeed a 20-minute paddle. In fact, he spent more time putting-in, taking-out and shuttling, than actually paddling it. “With first-hand knowledge of what lies upstream and (Timothy paddling) downstream, the only reason to paddle this short section is to see the magnificent beast of a cave and quite possibly, the even more stunning hand-dug tunnel that preceedes it. The size of the cave, can only really be appreciate in person or with some perspective (I swear you could fit about 5 SUVs stacked high if you wanted to and just as many wide). It’s hard to recommend this short trip though. The put-in is manageable but not ideal below Justin Road bridge and the take-out is questionable as far as tresspassing. Three points surrounding the bridge are gated off and the only accessible path has a No Tresspassing sign but it’s off the road and more directed at a fence set back from the bridge. And that access is steep.”
Semi-ironic to the whole private/tresspassing issue is that, as it turns out, at one time the area was an actual welcoming tourist destination according to (that same) Wisconsin, A Guide to the Badger State, published in 1941 (mentioned earlier):
“Left on County MM to Oehler’s Cave (fee 25¢), 0.5 m., a great opening in the sheer rock of a towering pine-grown hill beside a bend of MORMON CREEK. Here are picnic grounds (10¢ per person) and the remains of an aged sone dam and grinding mill, built by the Oehler Brothers in 1854.”
But now it’s (probably properly) private property. Getting to it the legal and long way is frustrating for a paddle. Going about it the short-hand paddle borders trespassing at the take-out and also presses the limits of a legimate paddle because you’ll spend more time putting-in, taking-out and shuttling than actually paddling it. We’re happy to finally put a name and destination to the face of that cave. If it was once a destination, it’s a shame it isn’t anymore. We would’ve paid 25¢, nay 50¢, nay $20.50(?) to see the cave without the horror of countless portages (especially that one with the skeletal remains to our left and a bloated carcass our right, it hasn’t left a pleasant lasting image).
For better and maybe worse, we really can’t recommend this paddle because it has too many problems with it (shallow, obstructed, bad access). There’s something comforting to know that this cave, with its colorful history, requires a labor of love (and a love of labor) to find it. Whether that’s worthwhile in the end is up to you.
Article: La Crosse Tribune: Ask the Trib: Readers Crave Answers on Caves
Camp: Goose Island County Park
General: Oehler Mill
General: Oehler Mill: Facebook
General: Oehler Mill Complex: National Register of Historic Places Application
Photo: La Crosse Tribune: Hometown History: Choir Picnic Outing at Oehler’s Cave, 1929
Video: Mysteries of the Driftless
Only 5.8 miles and truly beautiful but the shuttle lies mostly on state highways, so it’s better for cars than bicycles (but still doable by bike).
Miles Paddled Video: