Badfish Creek
★ ★ ★

Badfish Creek X

By on February 1, 2015

County Road B to Sunrise Road
☆ ☆ ☆

As close to the very headwaters of the Badfish as one can reasonably get, this short trip is realistically only interesting for those of us in love with the Badfish, due to the amount of poor access, obstacles, hang-ups and safety concerns.

January 24, 2015

Class Difficulty:

Approximately 7′ per mile.

Cooksville: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: n/a (ice)

Recommended Levels:
There should always be enough water to run this. Just the same, there is a visual gage at Schneider Road on the downstream side river-right. It read “4.50.” What that measurement correlates to, I have no idea – it’s not feet and inches. Regardless, the creek had plenty of water at this level.

County Road B, Dane County, Wisconsin
Sunrise Road

Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 10m
Miles Paddled: 5

Wildlife: Muskrats, ducks, geese, hawks, cardinals, carp, great blue heron and diving mice.
Time worth driving to: 30 minutes

Thing is, if it’s winter and there’s no snow to go skiing, I’m gonna find somewhere to paddle. Trouble is reconciling fickle air temperatures with more durable water temperatures. The air temperature can flip like a switch but thawing ice takes awhile. The impatient paddler itching to make the most of a mild winter day has only a few realistic options for open water. After flirting with an unknown stretch of the Badfish last weekend, I thought I’d check out the very last unknown realm of the Badfish further upstream. Such is my incurable curiosity. There are aspects to like about it, for sure, but really, only if you’re a die-hard romantic. This micro-trip probably is more interesting than last week’s Sunrise-to-Old Stone segment but it’s less safe and far less accessible.

What we liked:
The put-in, while ridiculously impractical, is lined by surprisingly pretty exposed rock outcrops in what might be very liberally called a tiny canyon (OK, fine, it’s not really a canyon but the banks are probably 15’ high and lined with rock outcrops, call it what you will). The color contrasts were quite pretty; red sandstone with mossy green. Lots of the rocks were beautifully fissured or crumbling apart. From the put-in to Schneider Road the creek is only 12-15’ wide and due to the hills flanking each bank, the gradient is quite peppy.

The segment between Schneider Road and Rutland-Dunn Townline Road is quite pleasant. On the right there’s a small hill, while on the left attractive Grass Lake lies just over the bank, with the effect of the left bank looking like a levee or isthmus. The creek widens here, which eliminates any possibility of deadfall obstructions (at least for a while).

Shortly downstream from the Rutland-Dunn Townline Road bridge lies the totally random, bizarrely large low-head dam, as Andy Hoernemann has already explained. What in the world is the purpose of this thing? I have no idea. As usual, you’ll hear the thrashing water before you see the horizon line. You do not want to try running this! There’s a series of at least five cascading backrollers descending from the top to the bottom. It’s pretty cool looking but dangerous. Fortunately, portaging it is simple enough, as the left bank is relatively low and others have placed stones to make exiting as dry as possible. A very short portage takes you down to the bottom of the dam, where there’s a nice gravelbar to re-enter easily. There’s a dirt road running the perimeter of the property, a farm. Whether this constitutes trespassing per se is debatable, as a paddler must be allowed to portage around a dam.

After the dam, the left bank is lined with attractive moss-strewn rock rubble that in turn leads you into the “tunnel effect” of trees on each bank leaning into one another as though you were at a sports pep rally or a wedding (which come to think of it, is the opposite of a sporting event at least in terms of the set-up: you have fans from two “teams” but here they root for the bride and groom, not bride vs. groom – at least outwardly).

There are also a couple humanmade oddities too. One, a strange footbridge spanning the creek and two, an ornate iron-rusted dresser abandoned on the bank. Riffles pick up in this last stretch too, including a fun little drop over a partially submerged log and then another, smaller one where somebody thoughtfully cleared out a blockage. The takeout at Sunrise Road is easy and straightforward – again thanks to folks lining the left bank, upstream side of the bridge, with stones to make exiting and entering simple and clean.

Some additional info… there are two cool public land areas right near the creek: Hook Lake Bog State Natural Area and Grass Lake, of which the State Natural Area is composed. In fact, this whole area is part of the Dane County wetlands, with Mud Lake and Waubesa Wetlands State Natural Area to the north and the Yahara River by Stoughton to the east.

Also of interest, at the intersection of Sand Hill Road and County Road B is an old graveyard with headstones predating the Civil War, today weathered and covered in lichen.

What we didn’t like:
The put-in is miserable and possibly on private land. This was the worst ninja-style put-in I’ve done – and I don’t mind saying that’s saying a lot, as I’ve put up with quite a few. You have to climb down 20’ on a muddy and very steep incline – like a 70-degree angle. If you slip, the odds are good you’re going to tumble into the creek, as there is no real bank or shoreline to speak of. That’s just getting down to the water on your own with your gear, to say nothing of getting your boat down there. Good luck. On top of all that, County Road B is very busy and the speed limit is 50mph, which of course encourages drivers to hit it 15-20 mph faster. Unloading a boat is intimidating. And if this is trespassing, anyone can see you do it.

OK, so you’ve managed to do all that. It looks like this is the very headwaters of the Badfish, since there is no bridge at County Road B. In lieu of a bridge, there is what can only be described as a sewer gutter out of which the creek pours at a reputable current. So it appears that this is the site of the Madison Metro Sewer District’s outflow. I hate to burst the septic bubble but this isn’t the case. The actual outflow is roughly 1200-feet upstream. So why not do that just for the sake of the novelty? Because I hate paddling upstream, especially paddling upstream into downed trees and strainers. And then you’d have to portage around the County Road B “gutter,” which would be seriously quite difficult, since the banks are steep and slick. Perhaps this is akin to skipping the very utter summit of a mountain but whatever. Even I have my limits of impracticality.

There’s a lot of tree debris in the first half-mile from the put-in to Schneider Road. And because the current is strong, you’re in a precarious predicament: swift water takes you headlong into strainers one after another. To avoid capsizing, I purposefully breached into shallow water and where only smaller-sized branches were in my way. I used my trusty loppers and handsaw then to clear out a reasonably safe path through. But it was messy and got old pretty quickly one after another. You can hardly enjoy your beer with all this work!

Then comes what for me was the scariest part of the trip: the extremely low-clearance tunnel bridge at Schneider Road. In retrospect, I should have portaged – although the banks here are just as steep and slick, which would have made portaging quite difficult. But I didn’t portage, instead rationalizing that, low as the clearance was, I could make it through. I did, but just barely.

I bent down, preferring to meet my maker face-to-face if it comes to that, than doing the limbo thing where you can’t see anything and just hope for the best in a kayak-luge way. Bent over, my back scraped against the ceiling the entire time. I had my arms spread out in some demented wingspan and used the back of my hands against the ceiling to keep myself straight. As unnerving as all that was – and I was one step away from panicking and actually praying that the downstream side of the tunnel wasn’t lower than the upstream side, which is sometimes the case with low-clearance tunnel bridges – the current here is pretty strong. So if you do get stuck on the ceiling, the water will continue to propel your boat forward, resulting very likely in your body and boat going separate ways. This is never good, much less when enclosed within a tunnel!

And if all that were not enough, as I’m attempting this and doing the mental math of what to do if I do get stuck, mice or at least something the shape of mice (moles? voles? mini lemmings?) began diving into the water from cracks in the concrete of the tunnel. Are you f-ing kidding me?!? What the hell is going on?!? Like this is what I need right now on top of everything else! God help me if one of those bastards jumps onto my lap!

But thank God I did make it through alright (barely!). There’s some kind of measuring gage on the downstream side on the right. I found an eddy, caught my breath and chugged my beer, wishing I had packed bourbon instead after that experience. That’s when I noticed a makeshift footpath from the road down to the water. So some people put-in here, which if you’re ever considering this trip, is where you should begin, unless calculated risks are your thing.

From Schneider Road to Rutland-Dunn Townline Road there were two totally non-negotiable downed trees to portage. But by portage I don’t mean going around, as there is nowhere to do so on the banks. Instead, one had to go over the trees. Too high to try to ride over, you have to get out on top of the tree and pull your boat over and re-enter. Needless to say, this is tricky on a wet skinny log and supremely unpreferential in wintertime. I managed to do so without getting wet but it was dicey – the second one in particular, where the current is stronger.

After these, the worst is over. You will have to portage the dam but this was a piece of cake compared to everything up to that point! After the dam there are numerous obstacles to dodge but there always was enough clearance to do so, thanks to saws. As evidenced by the footpath at Schneider and the portage at the dam, people have been paddling this stretch for some time. Without their efforts of clearing up and cutting out, the dam to Sunrise Road segment would be far less enjoyable than it is.

If we did this trip again:
I doubt I will, now that I’ve done it and it’s out of my system. If County Road B didn’t have such awful access issues, one could reasonably entertain the idea of investing time and energy in clearing out the strainers in warmer weather. But that would still leave the Schneider Road portage. (I’ll never paddle under that low-clearance bridge again in my life!)

Putting in at Schneider is doable, though still no walk in the park. However, that then leaves the nasty downed trees to go over before the next bridge, a shame because this section is pretty. To clear out those bad boys would take considerable effort, which begs questioning whether it’s worthwhile. The sailing is pretty smooth after those two trees, even taking into account the dam portage.

And the Sunrise Road to Highway 138 segment is really nice, which could be tacked onto this trip but taking out at Highway 138 is logistically difficult as parking on the road is unrealistic and probably dangerous. Again, kind of a shame since this 6-mile trip would be pretty nice, not least because it’s a 20-minute drive from Madison. But, the whole thing is straight and channelized, so it’s not that much of a shame in the long run.

So, unless you too have a case of incurable curiosity, then let us declare for the thousandth time that if you want to paddle Badfish Creek (and trust us, you do!), then just do the Old Stage Road to Casey Road segment, which offers the very best of the Badfish without the detractions.

Related Information:
Badfish Creek Overview: Badfish Creek Paddle Guide
Badfish Creek I: Route 138 to Murwin County Park
Badfish Creek II: Old Stage Road to Highway 59
Badfish Creek III: Old Stage Road to Casey Road
Badfish Creek IV: Old Stone Road to Casey Road
Badfish Creek V: Old Stage Road to Casey Road
Badfish Creek VI: Old Stage Road to County Road H
Badfish Creek VII: Old Stage Road to County Road H
Badfish Creek VIII: Old Stage Road to Casey Road
Badfish Creek IX: Sunrise Road to Old Stone Road
Miles Paddled Video: Badfish Creek II: Old Stage Road to Highway 59
Miles Paddled Video: Badfish Creek V: Old Stage Road to Casey Road
Article: Paddling the Badfish Creek
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of Badfish Creek Watershed
Video: Wisconsin Paddles


Shuttle Information:

A very easy 3.7 miles.

Photo Gallery:

  • The large low-head dam that you mentioned is actually an aeration structure built by MMSD. Recall, you were paddling a man-made effluent ditch. The ditch ends just downstream of the aeration "steps" where the flow of the original Badfish Creek comes in from Oregon to the west. I have pictures of the aeration steps taken during a rare time when the flow to the creek was stopped for a few hours for a maintenance event. Ralph at MMSD

  • Ralph, this is truly fascinating and to be filed under "you learn something new every day" — today, "aeration structure." Thanks for the insight! If you can share any of those pictures, we'd love to take a look and post them with your permission. Thanks again! Timothy


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