Morrison Creek
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Morrison Creek I

By on November 13, 2015

Cemetery Road to Morrison Landing
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

On clear water in a near-wilderness environment with zero development, an endless array of light rapids as well as one challenging Class II+ pitch, approximately one gazillion boulders, stunning rock walls with weeping seeps and then a 180° turnabout to a bottomlands finish, Morrison Creek is a paddler’s delight.

September 19, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class II

17′ per mile

Neillsville: ht/ft: 3.3 | cfs: 190
East Fork Black River: ht/ft: 892.03 | cfs: 86.10
Gauge note: The Neilsville gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the creek. It does, however, give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Black River Falls area. The East Fork gauge is geographically closer than Neillsville while measuring a more comparable watershed.

Recommended Levels:
This is slightly below the recommended minimum level – anything below this simply won’t be doable, much less fun. The best way to determine whether Morrison Creek is runnable is to check the visual gauge on the water itself at the Cemetery Road bridge. Look for the large rock in the middle of the creek on the downstream side of the bridge. Ideally, you don’t even want to see the rock. If just the tip is exposed, you’ll be in good shape. If it looks like the photo we took during our trip, you’ll scrape quite a bit but it’ll still be doable. Less than the photo, put on your walking shoes.

Cemetery Road, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Unimproved landing off Pettingbone Pass (south of Dickey Creek bridge), sometimes called “Bottom Road”, Black River State Forest

Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 4h (including a 30-minute detention to bail water from a leaky boat)
Miles Paddled: 6.75

Wildlife: A bald eagle, toad and unidentified fish.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours.

Morrison has been on our to-do list for years now and as has been mentioned numerous times on this site, the Black River Falls area is one of our absolute favorites in all of Wisconsin. The paddler’s dilemma is which stream to do, given how many of them there are. Besides the big and burly Black River itself, there is also the East Fork of the Black River, Halls Creek, Morrison Creek, Robinson Creek and Wedges Creek, all spectacular streams offering 30-some miles of whitewater paddling.

At an easy (and pretty) 2-hour drive from Madison, the Black River Falls area feels like the paddling equivalent of going to Disneyworld (the best part is that there’s even more to seek out).

What we liked:
If this trip does not constitute a wilderness experience, I’d really like to know what does – especially in the southern half of the state. Ninety-nine percent of this trip is enclosed within the Black River State Forest. In fact, you’ll not pass a single house or building on the entire trip. The only signs of civilization are A) the County Road K bridge and B) a set of power lines near the take-out.

Cemetery Road to the Black River confluence offers non-stop moving water, ranging from riffles to Class II rapids (in higher water these would likely grow into Class II and III rapids, respectively) in a gorgeous environment that gradually changes from the put-in to the take-out.

The landscape is a rough-and-tumble strew of boulders and gravel-bottom where the rapids are at their best. The color of the water is quite incredible. It has that clear root beer hue that only streams this clean and swift have. The whole landscape is rugged and simply stunning until the last mile or so (which remains pretty and undeveloped in its own right, just gentler).

The rapids in the first few miles are super-fun, the complicated drop especially; it’s an ecstatic adrenaline rush that we don’t mind admitting was a little intimidating. This technical drop consists of two separate ledges that requires confidence and solid boat control to run safely (or it can be easily portaged on river-right; there’s a path). This rapid is a solid Class II, possibly a III in high water.

First there’s a small drop with a clean slot to line up with. Immediately below is a curious curler wave on the left in the middle of a 3’ drop. You don’t want to go left of the wave, as there’s an unforgiving rock wall but right is no good either as it’s too shallow. You want to hit the wave, pivot and then be prepared for a sheer bow-down drop into the pool below. In other words, this is more of a sheer ledge, not a beveled cascade. Follow that with high-fives and attaboy’s all around – and toasting the next can of beer.

The average gradient for Morrison is 20 feet per mile, so there’s always action, even to the very end. About midway into the trip the sandstone show starts and it’s positively gorgeous! The creek flows past one exposed rock outcrop bluff after another surrounded by lush ferns and weeping seep walls with the sound of trickling water. The creek will take on a sandy bottom here, though riffles will continue. It’s hard to imagine anything more desirable than easy rapids surrounded by mini-canyons of sandstone rock outcrops.

The final segment is not as beautiful as the previous two, but in lower water, you’ll find the absence of boulders and gravel bottom – replaced by trees and sand – a welcome change. The creek meanders quite a bit but still has great flow, riffles and a light rapid here and there in a floodplain bottoms area approaching its confluence at the Black River. This is where it differs greatly from Halls – which is continous rubbernecking.

Gone here are the rocks, replaced by lots and lots of trees – several of them in the water (we had to portage only once but there was evidence of recently cleared spots that would have necessitated more portaging otherwise – so thank you fellow paddlers/volunteers!).

What these bottomlands have that the upstream section doesn’t is something that neither of us has ever seen before: an abandoned motorboat being slowly swallowed by sand and water. Sure, we’ve seen canoe-wrecks before, inner tubes and stray paddles, etc. But a motorboat? Never. A motorboat on a creek that could barely float a kayak? Inconceivable. It’s a pretty cool relic, however.

Also, just to clear up a possible ambiguity reported by multiple online sources: Both the put-in, take-out and all the water between the two fall within public property; thus all of this trip is open to paddling. According to DNR staff (we enquired), there are no trespassing issues on Morrison Creek with respect to Ho-Chunk territory.

In many ways Morrison Creek is like the sister stream to Halls. Each has a similar look and feel, width and length, and each empties into the Black River at almost the exact same spot, one from the west (Halls), the other from the east (Morrison), like an inkblot image. After considerable scrutiny and strict circumspection, i.e., a couple of beers and memory, we agreed that Halls is a prettier creek.

But this is like arguing which of Charlie’s Angels is the most beautiful (or as we like to say in Madison really smart and kick-ass talented). Halls offers more miles of paddling and it’s simply spectacular from the very beginning to the very end. That’s a hard number to top. Morrison feels more primitive though, while Halls has a few houses along the way.

If you want to plan a great weekend, here’s our recommendation: Grab a campsite at the East Fork Campground (site 13 is pretty sweet, but so are 11 and 15, which can be reserved). Wake up early Saturday morning and paddle Halls Creek from the dam to the Black River. Come Sunday morning, paddle Morrison Creek.

If you have a whole week to paddle: Then add the Black River first from Neillsville to Lake Arbutus, then below the dam creating Lake Arbutus to Halls Creek. Spend a day on Wedges Creek. Spend a different day on Robinson Creek. Spend another 1-2 days paddling the East Fork of the Black River.

Mind you, these are just the whitewater portions of the Black River Falls area paddling portfolio. The Black River itself is lovely as can be and offers much to admire below Halls Creek and then below the dam in downtown Black River Falls all the way to the Mississippi River. What’s there not to love?

What we didn’t like:
The low water level but that’s not the creek’s fault. We did this when it fit into our schedules, which is admittedly, somewhat stubborn. For streams with any notable gradient, you do it when they’re running, whenever that happens to be, regardless of your own schedule. The few obstructions in the final mile were not a big deal by any means but we’d hardly say we liked them. And the wildlife was weirdly underwhelming for a creek that otherwise courses through what feels like wilderness.

If there’s one genuine dislike it’s the take-out. If you’re unfamiliar with this neck of the woods, (and, really, why wouldn’t you be?) the road is pretty much in the middle of nowhere: half in a huge State Forest, half in a Ho-Chunk Reservation – Pettingbone Pass is the name of the road off of which there are two dirt roads (“paths”?) that lead to the water. If you’re coming from the south, the dirt road you want to take is just before the bridge crossing a small creek, on the left. This is located within the state forest – there’s even a sign saying so. Alternatively, still coming from the south, if you pass over the bridge there’s a second dirt road (also on the left) at a bend where Pettingbone Pass turns right (east).

If this were not ambiguous enough, there’s another dilemma. The second dirt road (north of the creek bridge) is shorter and easier on your vehicle and it cuts off a solid mile of meandering bottomlands. But it’s not part of the State Forest. I saw no signs saying private property or Ho-Chunk residents only but one never knows. The first dirt road is very unforgiving to a low-clearance vehicle and may well be impassable after a good rain (which of course is when you want to paddle the creek) without an AWD or 4WD. It was a tough day of scraping to both my boat and the underbelly of my VW Golf.

If we did this trip again:
We can hardly wait to do this again… but only in higher water. We did a lot of scraping on this trip, with one of us (Timothy) having to sponge out spectacularly absurd amounts of water from an already cracked boat (read: formerly cracked; about midway through this trip there was a solid quarter-sized hole in the hull that needed to be duct taped ASAP). It would be deliriously thrilling to run this clean and true without distracting scrapes and indiscernible boulders just below the surface that you can’t help but smack into.

Related Information:
Morrison Creek II: Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Black River
Map: Friends of the Black River
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Wikipedia: Black River


Shuttle Information:

5.4 miles. Like most of the back roads in Jackson County (i.e., every road that isn’t a county road or state or federal highway), half of this shuttle lies along unpaved gravel roads. Not the best place for bicycles but not the worst either. Leave your road bike with its skinny-ass tires behind though.

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