Bark River II
Merton to Highway 83
☆ ☆ ☆
A strange smorgasbord of paddling environments and a trip of contrasts which include public land, subdivisions, the Ice Age Trail, downtown Hartland, rocky rapids and cottonwood marsh. There’s much to admire about this section of the Bark River, alas, there’s much to dislike too, as it’s pocked with a lot of downfall, logjams, access issues and regularly shallow water levels.
April 15, 2015
6.8′ per mile
Delafield: ht/ft: 12.90 | cfs: 50
This is the recommended minimum level.
Merton Millpond dam
Highway 83, Hartland, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 5:05p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 7.25
Wildlife: Woodchuck, wood ducks, hooded merganser, deer, soft shell and snapping turtles, great blue herons and trout.
Time worth driving to: 1.5 hours
It seemed only fitting to paddle in Waukesha County on tax day! Actually, a friend of mine was working nearby and I met up with him for an afternoon trip on a section of the Bark River which I became intrigued and curious about after reading The Bark River Chronicles by Milton Bates, a delightful and fascinating book admirably researched.
I wanted to take out at the next bridge after Highway 83, the last before mighty Nagawicka Lake, but the bridge at Nagawicka Road (where incidentally the USGS gage is located) did not look terribly inviting. Just about everywhere in this part of Waukesha County Lake Country is cursed with “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signage. And I have an unshakeable hunch that a bearded liberal from Madison might not receive a whole lot of sympathy if daring to walk out of a river or leave a car near a bridge in the middle of a gilded if not actually gated community. I’d like to think I’m wrong and paranoid about that, but I’d also like not to find out the hard way!
What we liked:
Below the dam, the river is as clear and the bottom as rocky and gravelly as a paddler could hope for. I saw at least a dozen 18” trout maybe looking to spawn upstream of the dam. Even the put-in itself is exciting, consisting of a ladder leading to the river lined by tall walls just below the dam, where the current is rather lively. I’d never seen anything of the sort.
There are fun riffles beneath and below the bridge at County Road VV (and I unintentionally hit fish with my paddle blades). An old red mill on the left lends itself to the picturesque (there’s also a large and tricky-to-portage beaver dam/logjam just below that). Tall pines line both banks of the river just after that in a public land area. If you didn’t know any better, you’d mistake it for somewhere up north, the scenery is so rugged and pretty. Marshy cattails follow with some small boulders to dodge in the streambed. Then comes the next portage around a shockingly shallow bend to the right studded with gravel and rocks and downed trees.
There’s a light but fun rapid beneath the attractive stonework bridge at Dorn Street. Below Dorn, one of the prettiest sections anywhere on the Bark River is found, where a tall ridge on the right coincides with a segment of the Ice Age Trail. Why not take a moment to hike up the hill? You have to get out to portage around more deadfall anyway! This stretch really is pretty though, with an iconic barn and silo nestled in the hillside of the woods.
More deadfall continues to slow your progress – not all of which necessitates portaging but be careful of those strainers. Just the same, the landscape here remains quite pretty. Until the houses begin, more on that below. A couple more boulder gardens make for fun paddling in swift but shallow current.
Probably the funnest stretch on this trip is below Bark River Park through downtown Hartland, where it’s just rapid-after-rapid for a good mile. The most challenging is the first, below Capitol Drive, a Class I+ at best, maybe a II in higher water. There is a charming canal-like setting of tall walls and outdoor patios facing the river and overlooking the bubbly rapids. I loved this section! The rapids don’t stop until Cardinal Lane, where the river becomes marshy once again. From here to the takeout, the river slowly meanders through a pretty cottonwoods marsh with an occasional hill to balance the monotony.
What we didn’t like:
Portaging 10 times in 7 miles! I mean, come on! Really? It’s not like the Bark is such an obscure stream. I don’t know how often-paddled these upstream sections are, much less maintained, but it was slow going and quickly irritating.
About midway through the trip you’ll pass a few huge McMansions, compounds of God knows how many unnecessary square feet (unless a family of sixteen reside inside). Then come the cul-de-sacs and subdivisions, clustered suburbia with euphemistic names (try your own here) like Fox Run Glen and Mountain Shadow Pass, places where foxes ran away long ago when the glen was razed for a golf course and while there may be shadows, there sure ain’t mountains to pass (all of which reminds me of the hysterically clever poem “The Golden Years” by Billy Collins).
As you approach Hartland proper, things become very town-oriented. There’s a pleasant pedestrian/bike path on river-left that runs parallel to the river a short way. I mention this because it cramps on the former solitude upstream. That and now there may be an audience of nannies toting pig-tailed kids that will watch you portage around more dead trees in the river but you won’t be able to curse because, of course, there are children present.
The last complaint is the pointlessly low-clearance bridge at Cottonwood Avenue, requiring yet another portage. Unless the engineer or bridge builder were paid by cubic yard of cement used, there seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason for the low-lying structure of this modest bridge. I don’t think even geese could squeeze underneath it. Oh, and there’s another portage or two around deadfall before the takeout.
I should also mention that not everyone would feel comfortable using Highway 83 as a takeout due to the volume of traffic and the speed at which it passes by. It’s a public road, as is the land surrounding it, so there are no trespassing concerns. But it’s hardly a tranquil way to end your trip. Yet, as mentioned above, the next legitimate access is at Nagawicka Lake, which A) adds about four more miles to this trip, 75 percent of which will be lake paddling, and B) there’s a Waukesha County Parks Department fee to use the boat launch. This seems to be the case in every Waukesha County park abutting a river or lake I’ve been to. Turns out paying taxes actually go to services we all depend on and benefit from… but I won’t go there.
Also, most of the roads out here, even the designated county roads, have no shoulder. So doing a bicycle shuttle is a little nerve-racking. As such, I don’t recommend it.
Oh, and watch out for creepy big spiders when going through the tunnel underneath Highway 16 and the culverts at Lawn Street, yikes!
If we did this trip again:
I would, when the water is higher, I had more time and I’d drag another friend or two along to dedicate the day to cleaning up and clearing out as many of the obstructions as possible. It’s too pretty a stream to leave neglected in its current state.
There’s a scenic 9.5-mile option at 55mph that circumvents town or a more direct 6.8-mile option at 25mph and lots of traffic and stop lights. Both take the same amount of time to get from point to point.