Pine River III (Richland)
Rockbridge to County Road AA
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A wonderful stream that slowly meanders around the bluffs of Driftless Richland County, this trip will require the whole day to paddle but you’ll love it. Just don’t bother doing it in a canoe. About 30’ wide, very windy and with lots of obstructions, this is more of a kayak river.
July 26, 2014
1.5′ per mile
Gauge note: There is no gauge on the Pine River but water levels are usually quite adequate. Call the local outfitter to find out for sure.
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Pier County Park, Rockbridge, Wisconsin
County Road AA, Richland Center, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 7:50p.
Total Time: 5h 50m
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Wildlife: Great blue herons, kingfishers, cows, bulls and lots of beautiful butterflies.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours
Earlier in the week friends of mine, avid canoeists, asked me if we all could go paddling on the weekend (quite possibly the silliest and most unnecessary question a friend could ask me, along the lines of a wife asking maybe, pretty please if her husband could watch the game with her). After running through the pros and cons of a couple different stream options, they chose the Pine River in Richland County.
I’ve been scoping out the Pine the last couple years and it has, at its heart, three essential characters: Upstream by Rockbridge it’s narrow, windy and lined around cool rock outcrops. “Midstream” by/in Richland Center it’s more urban but still awfully pretty with a peppy current and even a fun Class I-II drop. And then downstream towards the confluence with the Wisconsin River it widens out, slows down again, gets muddy and the landscape begins to flatten out (while offering occasional views of pretty rolling hills). Miles Paddled is missing a couple links still before we have “completed” the Pine River but for my friends’ sakes I wanted to put the river’s best foot forward, so we went back to Rockbridge.
In the interest of eliminating redundancy, I am simply going to refer to my earlier trip on the Pine River, rather than recap the whole thing here. No, no, I’m not trying to quote myself or take the vain academic route of referring to my previous work in the bibliography (“bi-blog-raphy”?) of an assigned book for class.
What I want to pronounce here though, in as clear and unequivocal a voice as I can muster, is this: the thing I best loved about this trip – the cool rock outcrops – are no less true or sincere a year and a half (and lots of other paddles) later. The thing I most disliked about this trip – the obstructions and frustrating deadfall – also are no less the case, in spite of a new rental/livery company that has cleared out some of the mess I first encountered in the spring of 2013.
What we liked:
If you’re looking for an intimate stream that wends this way and that, is narrow and showcases beautiful bluffs and exposed sandstone rock outcrops, the Pine is all those and then some. There are at least five major sections of cool rock formations, ranging from 20’-50’ high, most located in the first six miles and most lining the water itself. This trip is possibly the most scenic anywhere on the Pine River. The river is narrow and creek-like, winding all the time, always alluring. There are deep pools by the rock walls, so I can imagine the fishing to be pretty good. The water quality isn’t great but it’s clear and shale-gray in some sections, typical of Driftless streams. The only trouble is that between the Highway 80 bridge by County Road SR and the bridge at County Road AA, you’ll find lots of downed trees.
What we didn’t like:
Let me back up some before I delve into this dislikes. Before we even drove to Richland County I had told my friends (had assured them) that a new local outfitter had cleaned up the tangled section from Highway 80 to County Road AA. Pine River Paddle and Tube reached out to us last year, after we reported on the ugly logjam monsters and told us they had cleared it all up. Sweet, let’s go! I thought. When I paddled this last year it took me 3.5 hours to paddle 10.5 miles. This time around, going at a slower pace and two of us in a canoe, I thought it would take 4-5 hours but maybe even less since there should be no obstructions slowing us down.
As we were putting in at the county park in Rockbridge a friendly woman came up to us and started chatting. Turns out, her great grandparents owned the land on which the county park now sits but that’s another story. She asked us how far down we were going and when I told her AA, she seemed to chuckle and then ominously mentioned that when she paddles that same stretch with her girlfriends it takes them about 7 hours. Yeah, yeah, whatever I thought; we were younger and experienced paddlers. I inquired about local efforts cleaning up the deadfall. She allowed that yes, a local outfitter does go through but they leave a lot of it intact in order to preserve the natural setting. OK, we all thought, that’s cool. And so we set off.
Almost immediately, just past the first bridge at Highway 80, about 100 yards from the put-in, there’s a whole lot of crap to dodge, duck, slow down and hope for the best. The two in the canoe gave me that look of what are you getting us into? Six hours later, I wondered the same. Six hours!?! We were only one hour faster than a bunch of grannies!
We encountered a ton of crap in the water, a lot of it totally non-negotiable. Yes, there were indications of sawed off limbs and so forth but the cuts and clearing seemed arbitrary at best. For instance, if you’re going through the trouble of cutting back nasty branches with the potential for even nastier strainers, then why for the love of all things holy not cut it all the way back? Why saw off a limb midway through and not at the base of the trunk? I then started thinking about this allusion (illusion?) of preserving the natural setting by not removing the whole tree. That’s great and all if you’re way away up in northern Wisconsin in a pristine setting or a protected wildlife setting for beavers or bird habitat or whatever. But the Pine River basically runs parallel to Highway 80 during this entire trip, so what does preserving a natural setting have to do with highway traffic never out of earshot?
This trip was pretty awful in a canoe (we all swapped boats midway through the trip). The Pine is just too twisty and there’s just too much damn shit in the already narrow stream to make canoeing fun. You really want to paddle this in a kayak.
The upshot: In the first report on this section I warned about two low-clearance bridges that would be “impossible to pass under in a canoe.” Well, I was wrong about that. Having first run this in April last year, the water must have been much higher. Still though, I strongly discourage paddling this in a canoe. Moreover, I don’t want there to be bad blood or vibes in the paddling community. Before writing up this trip report I checked the Facebook page of Pine River Paddle and Tube, and the most recent message on 8/7/14, stated this:
“Section 3 (Hwy SR/80 Bridge to Hwy AA Bridge) is now in great shape for kayaking and is able to now be used by Canoes as well!! Josh Cunningham and I took a 7 hour pass through the section and removed all of the ducking points. Places that we passed up before due to danger were taken out. This provides you with better options. Starting at Hwy D now gives you a 3-4 hour option with a very nice landing area to finish at!! Thanks for your patience. Check it out this weekend.”
Well, dog my cat. So maybe we missed this by two weeks. Maybe we just happened to catch the Pine during a bad time. I don’t know. Timing is everything when paddling. I offer all of this for the reader to make her own best-informed choice. The Pine is a great river and absolutely worth the drive. Whatever obstructions there are also are worth the effort. But do plan accordingly and give yourself a lot of time before paddling this section and at least mentally prepare for getting dirty and wet, even if you don’t in the end.
One last thing, my friends the avid canoeists, told me the following day that they were going to sell their canoe and buy kayaks instead. My intention was not to evangelize kayaks at the expense of canoes but I took this as a good conclusion to what I worried had been a bad experience. Nope, they loved the paddle and took it all in good stride (even though one, in my 15’ kayak, tipped over after running into a tree and got awfully wet).
If we did this trip again:
I love this stretch of the Pine River, so yes, it will be done again in future. Not in a canoe though. And not starting mid-afternoon! I wouldn’t take newbies on this either. While the current is slack, there are too many tight turns and obstructions, plus it’s a long day of paddling. But otherwise this is a great trip that gets a strong endorsement.
Pine River I (Richland): Rockbridge to County Road AA
Pine River II (Richland): Richland Center to Twin Bluffs Road
Camp: Pier Natural Bridge Park
Outfitter: Pine River Paddle and Tube
Just shy of 6 miles, though all of it on Highway 80. There’s little traffic on the road but vehicles will pass by pretty fast, so if you find this intimidating, you may want to shuttle via car instead of bicycle.