Lake Mills to Millford
☆ ☆ ☆
An obscure little stream that you’ve probably passed countless times on I-94 without knowing it, this trip has a couple of genuinely redeeming features, (up to and including the strangest but most thrilling Class II rapids concrete ramp slide at a former dam) though its imperfect accesses, urban environment and strange hazards will disabuse most paddlers of exploring it.
March 26, 2016
3′ per mile
While there is no gauge, this little creek keeps its water surprisingly well, even in summer dry spells (perhaps coming out of Rock Lake).
Water Street (behind the police department), Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin
County Road, Millford, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:05p. Out at 5:35p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Wildlife: Wood ducks, woodchuck, cranes and geese.
Time worth driving to: 45 minutes
So, say you’re driving on I-94 eastbound and you just passed the exit for Lake Mills. Did you ever notice the little creek that you drive over, mainly the alluring rapids underneath the westbound bridge? Well, we certainly have – and have wondered about this creek for years (if you’re heading westbound you won’t see the rapids and even the creek itself is hard to discern due to the angle.)
Rock Creek originates south of Rock Lake, then drains into the lake in downtown Lake Mills in such a fashion as mysterious and shadowy as the putative pyramids said to lie at the bottom of the lakebed. From the dam itself to where I put-in, the creek is buried underground or at least a bunch of buildings for some 400’. (Now that would be an adrenaline ride, paddling rapids through a pitch-dark tunnel with no light on the other side until the very end!) It then snakes through meadows and steep plains before feeding the Crawfish River upstream of the tiny town of Millford.
While this trip is a skimpy 6.5 miles, it can be separated into three sections: town, rural and floodplain. The town section is the second longest clip, where the creek is little more than an artificially straightened canal quietly going through backyards and a light industrial corridor alike. You’ll pass through half a dozen culverts at least in the first 1.5 miles. The water clarity was delightfully clear, typically a sand-gravel bottom. And while it was shallow, there was just enough water to float a kayak without really scraping. One of these culverts is very low-clearance and would have to be portaged in higher water.
The landscape changes after the County Road V bridge (incidentally one block east of Tyranena Brewing Company), where it feels more rural. For the next mile and change the landscape is essentially undisturbed (minus the whole superhighway thing). The creek begins to meander the way it wants to and there’s a brief woodsy section with a gentle hill on the right. The twin interstate bridges come next. It’s a little surreal to be between the two, because on the one hand you feel totally exposed and vulnerable. On the other hand, you’re hidden in plain sight since everything whizzes past you at 70+ mph (and chances are they’re not bothering to look out on a blink-and-it’s-gone creek). So you feel like you can kind of do anything right there in this veritable no man’s land between the two bridges. Anyway, finally you’re at that rapid below the westbound bridge that first tipped you off about this obscure creek in the first place. It’s actually two little drops, both super fun, even livelier than I thought they’d be.
The creek slowly meanders around a meadow that is still recovering from having been underwater where downstream there used to be a dam at a mill (the backwater pond still shows up on Google maps and is even mentioned on the DNR’s website. I believe the dam was removed sometime between 2013-14). The mill is there still, an attractive tall building that comes out of nowhere. When you see it, be aware that some very active water lies ahead. Take-out on the left bank where it’s easy to get out. The current becomes brisk here as it begins to drop beneath the Hoopers Mill Lane bridge, so be careful. Beneath the small bridge lies a solid Class I drop that leads to a concrete spillway of maybe 10’ wide with an intense Class II rapid/backroller at its base. Also interesting, the spillway is composed of an angled slope, a 45-degree 18” ledge and then another slope leading to the splashy finish at the base.
It’s runnable as long as there’s enough water so you don’t get stuck or scrape so badly that it slows you down to the point of not having enough forward momentum to shoot past the backroller at the bottom. It’s probably not the safest thing to do – especially alone. But holy cow is it uniquely cool.
At the bottom of the spillway is a deep wide pool (a popular fishing spot for locals) where the banks surround you like a kind of earthen amphitheater. You’ll see a strewn pile of huge concrete blocks on one side, presumably remnants of the dam. Light rapids continue just below this interesting spot, petering off to riffles through the next culvert bridge at County Road A. This is the last culvert you’ll go through, so claustrophobes rejoice!
The creek passes through an attractive woodsy area for another mile or so. Soak it up, because this will give way to an open marsh/agricultural area, where good lord, the creek meanders like it’s nobody’s business. The area is pretty in its own right and the meandering isn’t necessarily bad, but it does take its time and feels somewhat redundant after the 400th turn. The current will slow to a crawl as you approach the Crawfish River. The good news is this stretch of the Crawfish is attractive, with tall banks lined by pine and oak trees. After another mile or so of slow progress on the ginormously wide Crawfish, you’ll come upon County Road A, where you’ll want to take-out on the upstream side of the bridge on river-left.
Speaking of take-out, (or perhaps you’ll want to dine in) there’s a fabulous restaurant footsteps away from the bridge called Crawfish Junction. The secret about this place has been out for a while now, after it was voted Madison’s best fish fry. And they don’t always have Abita beer on tap like they used to. But the Cajun menu is still intact, with andouille sausage and gator. There’s almost always a packed house on weekends, but it’s worth the wait.
What we liked:
What I found most shocking is how few obstructions there were. Sure, you have to maneuver around some objects, ducking or riding over others, but throughout this entire trip, (which was a total shot-in-the-dark lark) I only had to portage once and that was only toward the end. I was expecting this to be potentially horrendous and it turned out to be anything but. The clarity of the water was outstanding and helped make the channelized canal/residential nature of the first couple miles feel more alluring than had it been murky muck (which would have caused me to wonder “why in the world am I wasting my time here?”). The many riffles and unexpected ledges added a lot of fun and also made the beginning of this trip more engaging than mere placid water.
The inspiration for this trip – the beguiling rapids at the interstate bridge – was more fun and complex than I had imagined, consisting of two drops spaced maybe 8’ apart for a total drop of maybe 2-3’. But this pales in comparison to the double-dog dare at Hoopers Mill. I had known about this unusual spot for a year or so, having scouted it on a whim. I returned there while doing the bike shuttle and ruled out running it. Why? It seemed unsafe. For one, I measured at best 5” of water coming down the spillway, which seemed like a very thin cushion for a 60-pound boat plus a 150-pound body (and let’s be real, it’s not like my broken and leaky boat needs more damage to its underbelly). But I was more concerned about the backroller at the bottom of the drop. What if you didn’t have enough speed to coast into and through it? You’d be stuck – and kind of screwed. Besides, I’d resigned to myself, if I were to run this, I should do so when someone else was there to A) take pictures and B) rescue my stupid ass in case I flipped.
But I decided to run it anyway. Probably a dumb idea, I get that. But here’s why I decided to do it in the end. First, I encountered no real problems up to this point (which really surprised me, as I’d anticipated tons of deadfall and annoying portages) and I had been expecting to be grumpy up to this point, with no interest in adding more drama to the day by running this crazy spillway. Second, it was an opportunity to face a fear and meet something that challenged my comfort level. This is quite possibly why I enjoy rapids so much. It’s not a brody-bro thing or trying to be all “dude man, that was killer sick”. To be sure, there’s an adrenaline rush to it, but I believe the bigger reward is challenging your comfort level. It’s more a mental thing than a physical one and it’s as personal a relationship with one’s own self as it gets. I’m really glad I did it for my own sake and it really doesn’t matter that there was no one there to see it.
That definitely is the highlight of the trip, even though there are pretty segments downstream, which I liked as well. There’s nothing spectacular per se but the landscape is pretty between County Road A and Manske Road.
What we didn’t like:
The section going through town is hardly exotic and I could have done without all the cobweb-filled (re: spider-strewn) culverts. But none of this was a big deal, plus it’s a pretty short section. The only thing I didn’t really like was the constant switchback meandering between County Road A and Manske Road. Again, not really a big deal, but something worth mentioning. And then of course there’s merging onto the Crawfish River. There are some lovely stretches of the Crawfish further upstream, but from Mud Lake and where the Beaver Dam River joins it, this river is just so damn boring. It’s big, wide, flat and slow. I considered taking out at Aztalan State Park, which actually would have made for a shorter bike shuttle, since the Crawfish flows south back to Lake Mills, but that would have added a few more miles on the “crawl fish.” No thanks!
If we did this trip again:
I wouldn’t do the whole thing again but I’d definitely run the Hoopers Mill spillway a second, third or fourth time.