Grand River
★ ★

Grand River

By on June 14, 2015

Manchester to Kingston
☆ ☆

Featuring a river as beautiful and becoming as its surrounding countryside that is undeservedly mugged by a mind-boggling amount of obstructions, this trip is utterly rich in potential but obscenely robbed of its reward.

Date:
May 22, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class I+ (Within First Mile), flatwater thereafter

Gradient:
17′ per mile (Within First Mile), 4′ per mile thereafter

Gauge:
n/a

Recommended Levels:
There is no individual gage, and trying to correlate this stream with another in the area that does have a gage would be pure speculation. That said, I paddled this during a dry spell when we had no rain for 2-3 weeks, and except for some shallow patches in the first mile, there was plenty of water to float a boat.

Put-In:
Highway 73, Manchester, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
County Road H, Kingston, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 11:50a. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 7h 10m
Miles Paddled: 12.00

Wildlife: Great blue herons, geese, kingfishers, wood ducks, more deer than I’d ever seen on a paddling daytrip and my first ever barred owl.
Time worth driving to: Until/unless it’s cleaned up, this isn’t worth even thinking about driving to, much less actually doing so.

Anyone who pioneer paddles – which is to say, the act/art of committing oneself to an unknown segment of a river about which there is essentially no known data or reports and thereby subjecting oneself to come what may, blissful or full of bane – will at some point in time have that trip.

That trip when everything just went to hell, with or without the hand basket. That trip when you wished you could take it all back. That trip when you slap your forehead (or worse) and berate yourself, wondering, “What in the world was I thinking?” That trip when looking at your watch to check the time forces you to simultaneously laugh at the bald-faced absurdity of how long everything is taking and then cry about how little progress you’ve made and how much more there’s left to do. That trip when you have to make a tough choice midway through and decide which is the least worst scenario: bailing on the paddle and walking five miles along the highway past fast traffic and barking dogs back to your own car at the put-in or doubling down on paddling through to the take-out with that combination of steely grit and stubborn gumption.

This was that trip. Not my first, certainly, but the first for this year. Of the poetic trifecta comprising blood, sweat, and tears (and I don’t mean the band), I was one bodily fluid shy of the Triple Crown, but I came as close to crying on account of a paddling trip as I ever have. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Why did I choose this trip? Because I’m a strange amalgam of romantic and dumb and determined. I take as a personal credo something the phenomenal photographer Diane Arbus once said: “I tend to think of the act of photographing… as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” She was speaking metaphorically in terms of the personalities and imposed stereotypes of the persons she photographed, most notably eccentrics and outliers – “freaks” as the conventional wisdom of a judgmental society would call them. I’m more drawn to the literal connotation of adventure. For me too, my favorite thing to do is to go to somewhere new. It’s an irrepressible pulse, though not necessarily impulsive. Nothing so excites my soul as exploring, plain and simple. Lots of these exploratory trips don’t work out or just aren’t worth it, God knows! But I know of nothing more thrilling than when one does.

I should also point out, for the record, that this trip was part of my own personal research. For the past year I have been writing a paddling guidebook on the side. As of this week I finished and submitted the full manuscript. If all goes according to plan (insert laughter here!), the book should be published and available later this year, in December. That’s another story altogether (stay tuned for more info the next few months). But that’s the backdrop to this trip. Also, it’s why our website has been more sluggish than we’d like: half of the trips in the book are new and fresh, not featured here. A man can have two masters, it turns out, but productivity does become compromised. But now that the writing and research period is over, Miles Paddled should back at full throttle, just in time for summer.

What we liked:
The first mile of this trip is an absolute blast! Attractive clear water with a sand-and-gravel bottom, tall banks past Amish farms, a pretty meadowy landscape, and thrilling riffles all the way to the first bridge in “downtown” Manchester where there’s an exciting Class I+ series of small but feisty ledges. What a way to begin! I had never been on any segment of the Grand River and essentially picked the segments of this trip out of thin air.

There were no obstacles and what little development there was in the backdrop simply enhanced the river environment. But then you enter the woods, and four torturous miles begin (more below). After the fifth mile, from Valley Road to the inlet to Grand Lake, the woods recede, and the landscape resumes its cheery, meadowy, wonderfully horizontal self for 2.3 serene miles. But then you enter the lake, which is simply sadistic and despicable (again, see below) for a long, awful slog of one mile. After you portage around the dam there are 3.7 miles of mostly delightful river paddling left before the take-out. There was one necessary portage around a logjam in this final stretch and I did clear out a couple obstructions here and there (what’s another hour when you’ve been on the river for 7?) but otherwise, the stretch from the dam to the official launch at County Road H is great and pretty: clear water, minimal development, gentle hills, outstanding wildlife.

I’d also like to point out that the shuttle for this trip, whether by bike or car, is outstandingly pretty as well. This part of the state had been well glaciated the last Ice Age, but the surrounding landscape is far from flat with a small sea of gentle hills flows in all directions.

Furthermore, there is no shortage of charming Amish farms and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you’ll pass by a horse-and-buggy or two as well. I’m talking horse ploughs here – a man toiling in the fields driving a team of Percherons still better dressed than most of us on Sundays – water drawn from wells, clothes made by hand and hanging on a line dried by the sun. And everyone smiles and waves! Everyone! I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it! What’s there not to like about total strangers seemingly happy to see you and saying hello? Here I am driving my little diesel car with a kayak on its roof, or an aloof fool riding a bicycle back to my car from the takeout to the put-in, not the strangest sight for beholden eyes, no, but probably not an everyday occurrence. For either of us.

I don’t mean to exoticize the Amish here as though a farm, horse-and-buggy, or ploughshare is comparable to seeing a lion or giraffe whilst on safari. And the last thing I want to imply or be complicit in is the insensitive gawking at and depersonalization of an individual, family, or community simply because I’m part of a supposedly normative society that happens to be in the majority. There’s a world of difference between dwelling on details in a condescending manner and having respect for the idiosyncratic characteristics between one culture and another. No one wants to be or should be the boorish oaf in that scene in Witness when Harrison Ford kicks the yokel’s ass.

But the Amish in America is a unique story, and here in Green Lake County is a distinct culture and way of life ensconced within the everyday world of everything else in Wisconsin. That distinction is keener today than ever, what with all our fancy gadgets and electronic technology, our fast pace lives, our hurry-up-rush society, our multitasking fanaticism, etc and etc and etc. There’s something profoundly worth admiring and watching in the lives of the Amish that goes way beyond gawking or patronizing.

OK, enough soap boxing. This is a paddling blog after all. Let’s continue with this long report, shall we?

What we didn’t like:
Let’s cut to the quick and get to the crap. There is no designated put-in at Highway 73. I chose to start the trip there because it’s a state road, meaning the land abutting it is public. And there was incidentally a lightly trod footpath on the downstream side, river-right – I’m guessing for fishing. The bank is steep and muddy though, so I dragged my boat under the bridge and launched from the riprap (though not before pulling off two ticks). But this is small potatoes in light of everything.

Let me pose this question: how many portages are too many? In other words, how many portages around logjams and downed tree obstructions is one willing to put up with before one’s patience is spent? It’s a personal question, of course. For some, one alone is one too many. For others, putting up with a dozen is just par for the course. So how about 27? Is that too many?

27 portages? I think yes.

I think by all standards anywhere in the world no matter how individually relative the question of personal endurance and forbearance is, whether you’re young or old, fit or fat, woman or man, human or cyborg, I think – nay, I am unequivocally certain – that 27 portages are too many for one trip.

Yet, you’ll find 26 of these 27 portages solely located in one 4-mile stretch between Madison Street and Valley Road that can only be described as cursed. I won’t call it “evil” because that implies something inherent. “Cursed” by contrast simply suggests that something is under a temporary spell. But I’ve never encountered a stream so obstructed in my life, which I don’t mind saying is saying something. “So this is where trees go to die,” I mused. And I also wondered, “Am I really the first European to head down this river?” because really I’ve never experienced a body of water less open.

The first few obstacles, sure, no problem. I’d expected to come across downed trees since this was a pioneer paddle. And after the first awesome mile on this trip I was only too eager to bust out my handsaw and loppers and trailblaze wherever I could. But you come to a point when it all becomes too preposterous and unrequited, when the required maintenance is gargantuan and the payoff disproportionate. Unfortunately, so many of the obstructions could not be simply trimmed and tucked with my cute better homes and gardens kit, but rather would require throngs of chainsaws or maybe better yet, dynamite. Or perhaps renting out some of those horse ploughs.

Adding to the heartbreak, this 4-mile segment meanders through gorgeous forested woods with some hills and sandbanks, but no development. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were up in the northwoods. But it’s exceedingly difficult not to lose sight of all that haunting beauty when you’re fed up and frustrated. I simply gave up after a while and walked – it just wasn’t worth sitting in my kayak for 50 feet until having to get out again to portage.

And when I say portage, let me be clear: most of these mandated not leisurely jaunts off to the banks and around some obstruction, but rather climbing into downed trees, precariously balancing on a limb you hope doesn’t snap and send you plunging below like a trapped door, pulling your boat through branches and leaves and spiders (oh, the many spiders!), and getting back in on the other side. There’s a lot of poison ivy and I don’t want to know what else on the banks. And as often is the case in such scenarios, the river is deepest at the foot of a downed tree or logjam, and the current tends to be pretty peppy.

To put this in context, it took me 3.5 hours to go 4 miles! That is just intolerable on any level! I was scratched all over – my shoulders and forearms, my shins, the tops of my feet torn and bloody, my hands gouged, fingers splintered. (At the time of this writing, two weeks later, I still bear the scabs from this trip!) To sum it up, I just felt mugged.

But it does get better by the time you reach Valley Road. That is, until you enter the lake. I don’t know if the dam that created the lake produces hydropower or prevents catastrophic flooding, or if the lake itself somehow offers some of the best fishing an angler can find in central Wisconsin (which I doubt), but I have to believe that at least one of those is the case, because I can’t think of any other reason to justify damming a river. While I usually begrudge lake paddling in general and hunker down to steam through it as quickly as possible, I just can’t stand artificial lakes unnaturally full of silt on account of a dam.

So here’s the thing, you first enter the lake via the inlet and are presented with two problems: you have no idea where to go because you’re surrounded by a walled-in maze of tall cattails, and you have no idea how to go because there’s about three inches of water, it’s that shallow. So between not being able to see and not being able to paddle, I got out of my boat to walk but instead sank into filthy silt up to my knees. And when I tried to dislodge my foot from the quicksand-like muck, the strap on my sandal broke. Of course! (For all those keeping score, it was at this point on the trip that I wanted to cry. Instead, I just cursed. Loudly and repeatedly, and I didn’t give a dam who heard me, no pun intended.)

Leaving my bias against lakes aside, surely I am not in the wrong to find something perverse about entering one that is shallower than the river itself that feeds it. It’s a lake! Shouldn’t it have some depth to it? But it’s all backfilled silt created by the dam(n) impoundment. If you open up the map and zoom in on the lake, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Eventually I found a channel with enough depth that I could actually sit in my boat again and paddle. But then you enter a domain of surface-lying weeds everywhere. Better than silt, sure, but still awfully sluggish. It’s only a mile from the inlet to the dam, but it’s an exhausting slog full of ugly muck. And then you have powerboats to keep clear of. Let me tell you, of all the portages on this trip, I was quite happy to get out here and leave the lake behind me.

If we did this trip again:
I would have to be pathologically masochistic to consider doing this trip again. With one exception: if I’d learned that it was better cleared out and cleaned up, I’d come back and do it again. In a heartbeat. I’d be happy to help out, too, now that I’ve put in a lion’s share of sweat (and blood) equity into it. The potential for this trip is so truly worth the investment. But I can’t do it alone; the Madison Street to Valley Road section is a full-day affair requiring lots of bodies, boats and chainsaws. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to someone who has been through the dam to County Road H segment and cleared out a number of obstructions (for there’s plenty of evidence of this) without whose efforts the portages on this trip would be in the 30s and I still might be still on the river right now!

I didn’t scout alternative put-in options upstream because, yeah, well, it was close to 8pm by the time I reached my car after the bike shuttle and I still had to drive back to the put-in to pick up my kayak and then drive 70 minutes home to Madison. Regardless, I’d be curious to know if County Road I or Highway 44 nearer Markesan would work, thus adding 1 to 3 miles.

Also, I would take-out at Valley Road, because unless that dam in Kingston is removed, there’s no getting around (or through) that lake. The 3.7-mile section from the dam to County Road H is quite pleasant but that can be a separate trip. After County H, the river enters the coveted and quite pretty Grand River Marsh State Wildlife Area about 5 miles downstream. From there it’s another 3 miles across the marsh or 1.5 miles to a canal that circumvents the wide marsh paddle. All tallied, that would be a little more than 10 miles.

Lastly, either this is the most ironically named river ever, or it received its name for the number of downed trees and logjams: 100. Yet for better, worse, or both, this trip did not disabuse me of my exploratory druthers, notwithstanding its spectacular debacle. These things happen and “that trip” happens. As with dating, you don’t get the girl without a lot of rejections first. Is it worth it? You bet!

***************
Related Information:
Wikipedia: Grand River

Map:


Shuttle Information:

8.4 miles. Very pleasant rural landscape with awfully friendly folks waving hello!

Photo Gallery:

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