Black Earth Creek
★ ★ ★

Black Earth Creek IV

By on April 27, 2015

Black Earth to Walking Iron Park
☆ ☆ ☆

A trip that’s two-thirds wonderful and endearing and one-third frustrating. But all along is fun riffly water in a Class I trout stream with gorgeous views of a glaciated valley full of pretty hills, meadows and barns. This trip ends in the vaguely urban environs of Mazomanie but it does so with a bang, not a whimper.

April 11, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class I (One class II below Olson Road)

8′ per mile

Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.40 | cfs: 80

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level (60 cfs is our recommended minimum level for Black Earth Creek).

Black Earth Community Park, Black Earth, Wisconsin
Walking Iron Park, Mazomanie, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 10:15a. Out at 1:30p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 8

Wildlife: Beaver, muskrats, wood ducks, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, blue winged teal, snapping turtle, trout, red tailed hawk and a bat (a first, for me, while paddling).
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours

Black Earth Creek has been on my to-do list for years. I’ve put it off due to my apprehension of shallow water and inference that it would be highly susceptible to fallen trees since it’s so narrow. Compounding these misgivings is its proximity to Highway 14 in conjunction with the several obstructions I’ve seen from the road while driving alongside or over it. But the only true way to discover the character of a stream is to be on it, rather than speculating about it from a road, map, or satellite image. I’m sure glad I did so.

For one, I have a new annual spring paddle to take friends on, starting at Olson Road. For another, I now know there’s no reason to waste my or anyone else’s time frittering with the creek upstream of Olson Road.

What we liked:
The creek is at its absolute best after Olson Road but let me not get ahead of myself. The put-in at the community park in Black Earth is very easy and conspicuously permitted for public access (for fishing, technically but it’s still public) and there’s a fun and easy Class I drop below the bridge. For the first half mile or so it’s crumby with strainers and sweepers and town buildings but after the first Hwy 14 bridge there are beautiful views of bluffs, exposed rock outcrops, valleys, pastoral fields – it’s all quite picturesque.

Before you cross under Highway 14 again you’ll go over a mini-ledge and several swift riffles through a modest boulder garden – probably deposits from the last glacial melt. Additional views of bluffs resume below the second Highway 14 bridge, in turn followed by a fun Class I drop running parallel a red barn on river-right.

Downstream of Olson Road, some of the prettiest vistas of the valley sweep before your eyes. After passing under the railroad bridge (and a greenhouse on the left) you’ll be treated to a warm-up Class I drop shortly followed by an excellent Class II drop succeeded by a smaller Class I drop. The Class II is a great run. Even better, there’s an easy eddy to catch on the left to A) get out and run the rapid again or B) paddle upstream into the rapid to surf. It’s a great spot.

Innumerable mini rapids and delightful riffles continue all the way to (and past) the twin railroad bridges below the last Highway 14 bridge in town. Many of these have been strategically lined with stones to create a ledge – presumably to aerate the water for better trout habitat but it makes for serendipitous paddling!

There’s an endearing public pavilion and pedestrian bridge downstream from the notably tall Highway 14 bridge in Mazo. Then there is a tricky drop below the second railroad bridge. At the time of this writing, there is only one open slot without tree debris to run and there’s an 18” inch drop below it. The open slot is narrow and the current is strong, so boat control is key. However, pylon remnants just barely submerged lie below the drop on the left, which you do not want to hit while dropping downward in fast water! It’s an easy portage on the left to avoid this if you wish.

For the next mile the creek is continually riffly with a few surprising light rapids through essentially high banks flanking backyards in a neighborhood setting. If the water were less interesting, this section would be boring and banal but the current keeps you engaged. There’s another sweet Class I rapid below Bridge Street and finally one last rapid below the pedestrian bridge in Lyons Park, at the takeout. This is why beginning at Olson Road is such a blast!

What we didn’t like:
Immediately downstream from the put-in, you’ll run into an obstacle course of strainers and sweepers, hazards I don’t normally mind but dislike having to deal with right off the bat. Due to the peppy current, these can be dangerous for beginners, distracting for the rest.

There is at least one mandatory portage around an impossibly low-clearance driveway bridge at a private residence about half a mile downstream from the first Highway 14 bridge. As soon as you leave the water you’re essentially on private property and while state law concedes the necessity of portaging around such obstructions, natural or human-made, you never know how the landowner will react. In every sense, this is a drag.

About half a mile downstream from the “Miss U Hicks” railroad bridge you’ll encounter a set of two cattle gates, both dirty and dangerous. Each extends past the water up the banks, so you cannot simply portage around them; you must go through. In theory, they are supposed to swing forward, toward downstream but I found both immovable. The first was already ajar on the far right, so I could slip underneath it unscathed and unsullied. But for the second, I had to get out, stand in the water (thank you rubber boot slip-ons!) and push/pull my kayak through the narrowest sliver.

I don’t mind admitting that I had one of those WWEBD moments – you know, What Would Edward Abbey Do? – a la The Monkey Wrench Gang. Alas, I had no wire cutters in my dry bag of tools. Then I had Bruce Cockburn’s song “If I had a Rocket Launcher” in my head. Now, I know that the farmer is an economist hedging his bets not to lose stray cattle, not a sadist looking to entrap paddlers. Black Earth Creek had been virtually unpaddleable until only recently (the last decade or so) so I know this sort of thing is unintentional, but still…

Lastly, maybe it was the previous 2” of rain only days before, combined with spring but I saw no trout on this creek. The water was turgid from runoff and sediment upheaval but it was disappointing given its usual character.

If we did this trip again:
I would skip the Black Earth section and put in at Olson Road. The Mazo section is definitely the best part of the creek.

Related Information:
Black Earth Creek Overview: Black Earth Creek Paddle Guide
Black Earth Creek I: Walking Iron Park to Blynn Road
Black Earth Creek II: Blynn Road to Arena
Black Earth Creek III: Cross Plains to Black Earth
Black Earth Creek V: Black Earth to Hudson Road
Miles Paddled Video: Black Earth Creek: Walking Iron Park to Blynn Road
Miles Paddled Video: Black Earth Creek: Blynn Road to Arena
Map: Black Hawk Trail


Shuttle Information:

5.5 miles

Photo Gallery:

  • Best run with 3.4 mile bike ride back on back roads is launch at Olson Road at KP and land downstream of Walking Iron Park at bridge on Hudson Road West. Debris at the railroad bridge has been removed but not the stub posts.

  • Hey John, thanks for the note! Do you mind emailing us at Timothy has a followup question. Thanks!

  • Hey John. This is Timothy. I hear you! Random question: were you the guy I talked to on Sunday 4/12/15 at the wooden Wolf Trail bridge? If not, somebody else cleared out the debris at the RR bridge, which will make this drop a lot safer — but still fun. The next step is to clean up the snags and dodgy bits from Walking Iron to Blynn Rd. Totally worth doing. Cheers!

  • Paddled from Olson Rd. to Hudson west on 7/19 at 80 CFS, 2.12 ft. Got slightly hung up on gravel a couple of times, but otherwise sperfect day on this fun little creek.

    Carr Valley cheese store in Mazo has some tasty cheeses.

  • Hey,
    Sorry to hear you got hung up here and there, but I'm not too surprised. Comfortably speaking, I think that 70 cfs on the gauge is as low as one can go; below that you're constantly shifting left and right to avoid grounding out. That said, above 100 cfs the creek loses its clarity, which is so much a part of its appeal. Glad you had a great time otherwise — and heck yeah Carr Valley is the bee's knees for cheese!

  • Nov. 15 – Olson Rd to Walking Iron park at ~40 CFS, 2 ft at USGS Black Earth gauge (but noticed a physical gauge stick that read about 1.5 ft. part way through trip.) Downed tree just past Hwy 14 bridge required climbing out to pull over, but only a couple of other hang ups on gravel if reading the creek carefully.

  • @unknown: Wow, that's a low level! At double that you'd probably have been able to ride over the downed tree. This is great to know that the creek can be paddle at ~40 cfs though. Thanks for dropping us a line, and glad to know folks are still paddling in mid-November!

  • Paddled Olson Rd. to West end of Hudson St. on May 30. 60 CFS at 2.1 ft. on the Black Earth USGS gauge was OK level, not too scrapy. I think gauge height may be more important than CFS? About 5 portages around deadfall, some a little muddy, but not too onerous. Fun stretch if you have some moving water skills. (also posted this on overall guide page on Miles Paddled. Jon

  • Hey Jon,

    Thanks for posting this note. You bring up a good point about gauge reading, re: cfs or height. Sometimes it doesn't matter, sometimes a certain gauge station records only one or the other, etc. There's probably no rhyme or reason why we prefer cfs to height, other than we find a number like 70 or 700 easier to correlate to how high/low/fast a stream will be than the gage height. When levels are mentioned in guidebooks, they're usually in cfs, not height, which is possibly why we've continued in that fashion.

    Anyway, we're surprised to hear about the deadfall in the BEC section you did. We did the same trip on Sunday May 1, and it was entirely clear and good clean fun. Was the deadfall below the Highway 14 bridge in Mazo?

  • Yes, below the Hwy 14 bridge. One giant cottonwood between there and a pedestrian bridge, but an easy carry-around. Looked pretty freshly fallen, maybe from storms earlier in the week. Jon

  • That's good to know – but bad that you experienced it. It must have been in the last 3 weeks, because the whole creek was clear as of May 1, 2016. Thanks for letting us know!

  • The tree blockage still exists. I was able to squeeze thru. Beautiful trip, from Olson Rd to Iron Horse park. Parked the car at the takeout and walked back to the put-in. A nice 2.6 mile walk.

  • Thanks for letting us know. It's great to hear too that you were able to squeeze through it! It really is a beautiful trip. Did you paddle this today (7/24/16)? If so, how was it at the high level? We considered hitting the Mazo section ourselves today, but reasoned that 170 cfs would be too high? Were the rapids washed out? Were they especially frisky? This would be great info to know and share so as to better sense the range of the creek's behavior at different water levels. Thanks so much!

  • Jon

    Paddled Olson Rd. to Walking Iron Sept. 24, 70 CFS at 2.57’. Good water level but a little turbid. No portaging needed. If anything the clearing was a little more aggressive than needed IMHO, but all the Memorial Day deadfall was gone. A couple of brushy spots to push through, though.

    New bridge w/ walking path, more creekside benches and picnic shelters – looks like John Wick & Co. are fixing it up nicely.

    Bridge at Walking Iron (aka Lion’s Park) takeout was cordoned off w/ yellow tape and a sign said the County will be replacing it. Also noticed a New Zealand mud snail warning sign at the bridge, mainly aimed at keeping anglers from spreading these invasives.

    Fun stretch, as always, and bought Carr Valley cheese in Mazo, brats at the Shoe Box and had a picnic lunch with beer. Wisconsin trifecta!


    • Great to hear about the updates and even better to have some updated info. Thanks a lot Jon! So glad you had the perfect Wisconsin trifecta!


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