Waupaca River V
Amherst to Durrant Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A trip from hell (for me personally) but a real treasure for most paddlers featuring sparkling clear water, countless swift riffles, plus a couple of rapids, stupendously big boulder gardens, steep hillside banks and decent access points to tailor your put-in and take-out.
Just take my advice and don’t do any of the following: paddle on a cloudy day after it’s just rained (otherwise clear water will be black); paddle a week or two after the leaves have peaked (otherwise the surroundings are sad and desolate); paddle in a boat with a crack in it that begins seeping in a whole lot of water (because that just sucks); or leave your boat unlocked at the Durrant Road bridge (unless you want someone to steal your boat and all the gear inside).
October 24, 2015
10′ per mile
Waupaca: ht/ft: 1.7 | cfs: 230
This is too low. While still runnable, the scraping was constant in the riffles and I often found myself mired in silt in the flat sections. The recommended minimum level for this segment of the upper Waupaca is 1.9’ and 250 cfs to avoid most of the scraping.
Mill Street below the dam, Amherst, Wisconsin
Durrant Road, Waupaca, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 5:35p.
Total Time: 4h 35m
Miles Paddled: 13
Wildlife: Great blue heron right off the bat (appropriate enough since Amherst is the home of beloved Central Waters Brewing), a mix of ducks and teals, deer, beaver, bald eagles and sandhill cranes.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours
Ever since paddling the Tomorrow River the summer of 2014 and taking-out at the dam in Amherst, I’ve been very curious about continuing anew downstream from the dam. For the uninitiated, the Tomorrow and Waupaca Rivers are one and the same stream. It’s just that upstream from the Amherst dam the river is called Tomorrow, while downstream from the dam it’s called Waupaca. Interestingly, “waupaca” is a Native American word meaning “tomorrow.” Why the same river goes by two names that each mean the same word is anybody’s guess.
After Barry pioneer-paddled the section of Waupaca River not written about by Mike Svob in Paddling Southern Wisconsin, the game was on for trekking yet a different trip by beginning below the dam and taking-out where Barry began his trip last year. We love the Amherst-Waupaca area and are only too happy to find excuses to shoot up to that neck of the woods. This was going to be Day 1 of a three-day weekend getaway for me and I thought I’d continue Barry’s tradition of staying at Hartman Creek State Park in autumn (key words here being “this was going to be” and “thought I’d continue”).
Due to the gorgeous looking Class I rapids below the County Road DD bridge, (Barry’s put-in) I knew I had to run that section but I also knew that taking-out there would’ve been tricky. Even though the right bank is public land, (Stedman County Park) finding a safe, paddler-friendly area to take out after the rapids and then schlep a boat and gear through the woods back to the road looked like a hassle. The next bridge, at Durrant Road, is only another two miles downstream. I scouted it, saw a worn-down footpath leading from the road to the bridge and thought “perfect! I’ll take out here and have the best of both worlds!” (Oh, how wrong I was! But I’ll get to that in a bit.)
What we liked:
To begin, the river access below the dam is very easy off Mill Street in downtown Amherst. On river-right at both the up- and downstream sides of the bridge are stone slab stairs leading to the water, not your garden-variety boulder jumble or riprap. The upstream side is easier, as the downstream side has a sewer outlet at the last stair, but both work.
The river threads through backyards and parks, and big boulders dot the streambed immediately. Boulder gardens are probably the signature feature of the Waupaca River. Also symbolic was seeing a great blue heron right off the bat, within a mile at best of Central Waters (the heron being their logo – and Barry, coincidentally, had a hand in redesigning their logo). A stately century-old railroad bridge precedes an easy but fun set of riffles leading to a light rapid below the County Road KK bridge. It’s an attractive and relatively lively first mile.
Next you’ll pass not one, not two, not even three, but four, count ‘em, four bridges comprising Highway 10. It’s a fairly unique experience passing under these monolithic structures one after another. Woods enclose again and the next highlight is a splashy 2-3’ drop below the Keener Road bridge. This is especially fun (and surprising if you’re not anticipating it!) because the river makes a 90-degree bend to the left and then drops below the bridge. As usual, you’ll hear the rapid before seeing it. You may want to wear a skirt for this, as water will come in from the sides and/or above the bow. It’s a great little drop that also has an outstanding hole at the bottom to surf in.
The river environs begin to feel pretty wild and abandoned after the last of the Highway 10 bridges (you’ll paddle beneath the highway two more times). Spectacular boulder gardens begin – some of the biggest, most beautiful boulders I’ve had the good luck to paddle around. These things were not just wide – they were tall, as though Easter Islanders spent sometime in Portage County honing their chiseling skills before heading down to Chile. I cannot overstate how awesome this section of the river feels. Given how relatively narrow the river itself is, these rocks appear all the more impressive. The current is pretty peppy too, so you’ll be weaving through this labyrinth of gorgeous megaliths, looking up at them as often as in front of you to avoid colliding into them.
(Poindexter moment: the big boulders that dot the river and are embedded in the hillsides are called “glacial erratics.” Basically, they’re random rocks left behind from the receding glaciers some 10-13,000 years ago. Incidentally, there’s a Portage County Park nearby called Standing Rocks. It’s a great place for XC skiing (or hiking the rest of the year), and back in the day the motto at the park was “home of the glacial erratic and the skiing fanatic.” I’d like to appropriate that line for the Waupaca River and us paddlers as “where the kayak fanatic meets the glacial erratic.”)
After the big boulders, a beautiful hillside will rise some 40-50’ on your right. It’s a pretty scene, as there is no shoreline on the right; the hill extends upward directly from the water’s edge. Boulders and riffles continue. This is one of the most scenic sections anywhere on the Waupaca River (which is saying something, as it’s an awfully pretty river). You’ll pass through one of two riffly culverts comprising the Otto Road bridge. After this another strikingly aesthetic section occurs, where both banks are undeveloped and the feeling is that of paddling through the heart of a forest.
After another tall ridge on the right rises and then subsides you’ll a see a smaller mown hill on the left, with a farm. Be on the lookout here for wires crossing the river! I saw them only at the very last second and barely ducked in time. Another culvert bridge comes right after at County Road T. You could take-out here on the downstream-left side, as there is public access (the Tomorrow-Waupaca is a noted trout stream) but some of the best paddling still lies ahead.
After County Road T, both banks lower but you’ll still see hills in the background. The immediate landscape remains pretty; boulders, pine trees and riffles contribute to the Waupaca being an engaging river. Soon the left bank will rise about 30’ and a boulder garden with light rapids follows. Be on the lookout for another set of low-hanging wires after the left bank rises. When you see a boulder-studded field on the right look again for the second set of wires (these were higher and well-marked with white ties). A solid 50 yards of light rapids precedes and then follows the County Road DD bridge past some attractive stone abutments and a Bible camp with rustic cabins on the left. This section of the river is especially pretty. Note: when Barry paddled this last year his only complaint was a strainer tree at the rapids. I myself encountered no such obstacle, so either high water washed this away or kind volunteers sawed it off.
The final two miles from County Road T to Durrant Road are very pretty and peaceful – a perfect way to end a day of paddling some rapids, dodging boulders and ducking under downed trees (and wires). The landscape is wonderfully woodsy and primarily undeveloped. The current slows down, everything feeling serene. Coincidentally, it was in this section that the sun finally began to poke out of the clouds and paint what remaining colors there were on the trees with terrific vibrancy. Also coincidentally, my day was about to get a whole lot worse at this point.
What we didn’t like:
I’ll get to why (for me, personally) this was a trip from hell but I don’t want my subjective experience to overshadow the objective objections of this specific trip.
They say bad things come in pairs of three and this section of the Waupaca River is no exception: low water, loud highways and strung wires. I was surprised and disappointed that the river was as low as it was. It had rained during the night before and then again intermittently throughout the morning but the gauge had barely budged. How does half an inch of rain equate to the river rising only 1/10th of an inch? I scraped like the old joke about voting: early and often. About midway through the trip I had to accept that all the water I kept watching slosh around inside my boat was not due to the couple rapids here and there but rather yet another crack in the bottom of my kayak.
Here’s where you, dear reader, say “But Timothy, didn’t this happen to you recently? I thought you had your kayak fixed.” To which I’d say, “Why yes, yes indeed. I did pay a total of $89, and it suffered a new crack only one inch away from the repaired area on this the second time I used the boat since it was supposedly fixed.” Needless to say I was pretty grumpy. And wet – which was no mere inconvenience when it was beginning to drop below 50 degrees and the wind was gusting at 25mph. This trip is too scenically pretty and the current of the river too fun to paddle below our recommended level.
Next is the loud highway. From the put-in to County Road T is 7.5 miles. For at least 4.5 miles of this section the white noise roar of cars and trucks whirring by at 70+ mph on Highway 10 is inescapable and the effect does compromise the total experience. To be clear, you’ll paddle under Highway 10 a total of three times. It gets a little frustrating, putting up with the distracting din in what is otherwise a very pretty and undeveloped environment. No one wants to drive 2 hours to leave reality for a little by paddling a river only to hear a highway for over an hour in the very beginning.
Last are the strung wires approaching the County Road T and DD bridges. The first nearly decapitated me. I absolutely did not see it until the very last second. I don’t think it was barbed and I wasn’t about to discover whether it was electric – especially not while seated in my puddly boat, thank you very much! Now, I’m not saying that it’s an inconspicuous wire per se – although the first one was not flagged or marked with surveyor tape. I probably had my head in the clouds but note to self: anticipate two sets of wires in between Otto Road and County Road T and again between County Road T and County Road DD.
I should also mention that in the first five miles or so, you’ll need to duck or limbo under a number of low-clearance trees. I was able to do this without incident, but then again the water was low, which allowed for more passage. In higher water, some of this might require portaging. Though, these should not disabuse a cautious paddler from experiencing this trip. And bear in mind too that I saw a lot of chainsaw evidence from fellow paddlers/volunteers maintaining this section of the Waupaca, so it’s certainly possible that some of these obstructions will be cleared next year.
OK, here comes the fun part.
By the time I reached the Durrant Road bridge I was quite ready to be done with this trip, mainly because I was very cold thanks to being totally wet waist-down to my soggy-socked toes. I do dress appropriately for cold weather paddling, but there’s only so much bracing against a goddamn leaking boat taking in a gallon of water every 15 minutes. So by the time I schlepped my boat up the muddy and steep bank at the Durrant Road bridge I began shivering violently, no joke. And mumbling. I was a mess, and worse, I still had a bike shuttle to do on hilly country roads at half past five. All I wanted to do was just get back to my car at the put-in as quickly as possible in order to get out of my wet clothes, into warm dry ones and deal with everything else afterwards. Seriously, the mumbling got me to thinking that I was entering the first stage of hypothermia.
While this was happening I’d noticed a truck parked at the Durrant Road bridge. I didn’t think much of it since it’s not uncommon to see a vehicle at a bridge. I reckoned that no one was foolish enough like me to be paddling on such a miserable day, but I just assumed they were fishing or hunting (again, the Tomorrow-Waupaca River is a noted trout stream and many bridges crossing it have public access for fishing). The only reason the truck even caught my attention was to see if anyone was inside, watching me shiver like a deranged animal foaming at the mouth.
I was pissed that my supposedly fixed boat was broken again. There was still a whole lot of water in it that I had no desire or will to dump and sponge out in my state. Physically and psychologically, I just didn’t want to deal with it then and there. And so for the first time ever in paddling hundreds of these trips with a bike shuttle, I left my boat next to the bridge without bothering to lock it up. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was nearly nighttime and it was just a shitty day in general. So I hopped on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could to warm up.
And as luck would have it, when I returned to the bridge after the shuttle, the boat was gone. Just gone. At first I actually laughed, in disbelief. Who steals a 9’-long boat that between itself and all the gear plus several gallons of water in it weighed at least 100 lbs? And in the dark, in the middle of nowhere? This just doesn’t happen! Except that it did.
Well, at least now I don’t have to worry about a broken boat… I mused. But then I snapped out of it and started to feel angry – really angry. Even though it was pitch black by then and I was in an area I had never been before, I knew I was at the correct bridge where I had taken-out and left the boat. Nonetheless, in denial, I drove to the next bridge downstream, just in case. Hell, maybe the boat slid down the bank, back into the river and had floated downstream… See? Denial. Or maybe someone had played a practical joke on me and moved the boat in the ditches beside the bridge. I donned my headlamp and scoured the fields and weeds. Again, denial.
My boat! Somebody actually stole my kayak. Some mother[bleep]-ing [bleep] [bleep] stole my boat! I was in shock. Who does this? Seriously. What kind of person does such a thing? Or even can do such a thing?!? Stealing a kayak is not like stealing a bicycle or bushel of apples that you can just throw in the back seat or trunk of your car! This is a 9-foot-long boat we’re talking about (not to mention all the gear inside it: paddle, seat cushion, cooler, down ski vest, dry bag with clothing, rubber boots, spray skirt, etc.).
In addition to the boat itself, the value of everything stolen was about $1500 – which I don’t mind telling the world is currently more than I even own in savings. And then it hit me: that truck! That truck that was parked at the bridge when I took out. Who else would/could have done this? Bear in mind that it had taken me less than an hour to ride my bike back to the car, change clothes and then drive to the bridge. And Durrant Road is not what one would even euphemistically call a high-volume traffic country road. It could only have been that truck.
Now here’s where the story really gets interesting. Because I don’t own a smart phone, I called my best friend in Madison to ask her to look up area police department phone numbers so that I could report the theft. As she’s doing so and states that the Village of Amherst contracts with the Portage County Sheriff’s Department, another vehicle comes from the opposite direction, crossing the Durrant Road bridge, where I am. And by “another vehicle” I mean none other than a Portage County Sheriff squad car! No kidding. (Have I conveyed adequately how truly in the middle of nowhere Durrant Road is, and thus totally improbable it is that a county sheriff would be driving down the road?)
I cut off my friend and say, “I gotta call you back!” and hung up. I run out of the car as the sheriff’s car slows down. He rolls down the window and asks “Is everything alright?” To which I reply, “As a matter of fact, no, everything is most definitely not alright. Someone stole my kayak!” To which he responded with a puzzled expression the likes of a double-take say what? I doubt this scenario happens too often in the country of Portage County.
To make a long story short, it turns out that this lieutenant of the sheriff’s department happens to live in the area and happens to have been out looking for a certain truck – yes, that truck, my truck – for something totally unrelated. He took down my statement and information and told me he’d be in touch if anything developed (of which, realistically speaking, we both knew there was about zero likelihood). Coincidentally, when asked if the boat had any signifying marks or characteristics, I mentioned the stickers on it – one of which is a Central Waters Brewing sticker. I mean come on, how much more local can it get?
I drove into town, ate dinner at a bar because I was famished and then drove the two long hours back to Madison. At this point, I didn’t even want to go to Central Waters – which is like the Cookie Monster taking a pass on a tasting tour of the Nabisco factory. Remember how this was supposed to have been Day 1 of a 3-day weekend? Yeah, well, not so much when you don’t have a boat anymore! The only good that came out of this debacle was I hadn’t set up camp at Hartmann Creek State Park prior to paddling, which would have been a very bittersweet consolation.
However, not even 24 hours later, I received a phone call from the same lieutenant telling me that he’d found my boat. I kid you not! Unbelievable though! Turns out that not only was the same truck he was looking for was the same one that I’d seen when I took out and that truck was back at the Durrant Road bridge the next day!
What that conversation was and how it went between the truck owner and the lieutenant I’ll never know, but suffice it to say that the guy who took my boat broke down and fessed up immediately. For my part, all I had to do was drive to Stevens Point to pick up my boat (and all the gear, still there) at the Portage County Sheriff’s Department HQ. This I did on the following day, Day 3 of my 3-day weekend getaway (which involved a whole lot more driving than paddling), its evidence tag still tied to the bow. A huge shout-out to Lieutenant Dan Beaudoin of the Portage County Sheriff’s Department!
So, all’s well that ended well. But, damn, right? If that lieutenant hadn’t happened to drive by when I was parked at Durrant Road, none of this would’ve happened. He just happens to live nearby, happened to be looking for a certain truck anyway, and happened to find that same truck the very next day. Crazy. This was the strangest combination of considerably bad luck followed by incredibly good luck in the span of one skinny day.
If we did this trip again:
Well, for starters, I don’t ever want to see the bridge at Durrant Road ever again in my life. But I don’t recommend taking-out there anyway, even though it’s accessible. The bank is muddy and steep so pulling your boat up is tricky. Instead, I would just deal with whatever minor inconvenience comes with taking-out below the County Road DD rapids at Stedman County Park or try my luck at the Cobbtown Road bridge, the next one down from Durrant, where there is another small rapid to end the day’s paddle with a bang and not a whimper.
As for actually starting the trip, however, you have three basic choices: 1) Mill Street (aka County Road B) below the dam downtown; 2) the bridge at County Road A; or 3) commando-style along Buchholz Road, a spur off Highway 10.
The bridge at County Road A shaves off 1.5 miles and allows for the fun Keener Road drop, but you miss the attractive railroad bridge, some minor rapids and cool boulders. Mike Svob mentions a wayside access between the second and third set of Highway 10 bridges, on river-right. I myself saw no such thing while on the water. Furthermore, on Google maps satellite image, all I see now is a faint remnant where a circular wayside once was, but not the “toilets, picnic tables, and parking” to which Mike alludes. Highway 10 today is a modern thoroughfare redone from the time Mike wrote his seminal book. For instance, when you first paddle under the highway, which is to say four separate bridges, he describes it as such: “Highway 10 crosses the river on a small concrete bridge.” Sounds quaint but there is nothing small or singular about this today. What’s changed since then? The bustling tourism hub of Waupaca’s Chain o’ Lakes vacationland for Chicago and Milwaukee residents come summertime. Regardless, I don’t know if that wayside still exists post-reconstruction. That said, on the opposite side of the river (left bank) is Buchholz Road, where you could do a commando-style but not totally impractical put-in. The advantage here is once you pass the last Highway 10 bridge, all the driving din will be behind you and you’ll enter the very best sections of this trip on the Waupaca River.
So, if I do this trip again (and I would, in a heartbeat) I’d try to put-in off Buchholz Road and take-out at Cobbtown Road. And only when it’s warmer and less windy. And only in higher water. And only in a boat that isn’t cracked and doesn’t take in water. And only if I lock up my boat at the takeout!
Despite this day being a horrendous experience for me personally, I don’t bear any ill will towards the river itself or feel any negative association. I love this part of the state and I find Amherst itself a tiny bit enchanting. To be fair, it’s irrationally sentimental. I went to college in (and then subsequently dropped out from) Amherst, Massachusetts. After school I lived there for three years, before moving to Chicago. Plus Amherst, Wisconsin is home of Central Waters Brewing Company. Great river, great beer, it’s a win-win.
The Tomorrow-Waupaca River is too fun and the surrounding landscape too pretty to let one bad day have the final verdict. Besides, the theft could have happened anywhere – it’s not like Portage County is a seedy hotbed of black market recreational items. The guy who stole my boat was just one guy, some dumb, desperate sonofabitch who did a stupid thing he knew he shouldn’t have done and I was told, felt wretched after he’d done it. (Don’t get me wrong though: driving back to Madison that night I wanted to find the guy and hang him by his testicles from the tallest tree and treat his face like a piñata!)
Whatever, it all worked out in the end, which really is all that matters. Now I gotta go fix that crack in the boat!
Waupaca River I: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Waupaca River II: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Waupaca River III: County Highway DD to County Highway Q
Waupaca River IV: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Waupaca River VI: Weyauwega to Decker Memorial County Park
Tomorrow River: Rolling Hills Road to Amherst
Miles Paddled Video: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Miles Paddled Video: County Highway DD to County Highway Q
Camp: Hartman Creek State Park
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Adventure Outfitters
Outfitter: Ding’s Dock
Wikipedia: Waupaca River
7.4 miles with a few steep hills.