Rock River
★ ★ ★

Rock River IV

By on August 22, 2016

Watertown to Johnson Creek
☆ ☆ ☆

A long pleasant daytrip down the tranquil Rock River that starts off in an attractive urban setting, courses through long straightaways past residential backyards, then meanders through a mostly undeveloped wild area that rewards the paddler with solitude – except for the motorboats and jet-skiers.

July 16, 2016

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater (One easy Class I rapid)

1′ per mile

Watertown: ht/ft: 1.43 | cfs: 182

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. Ideally, you’d want another inch or two at least. The riffles are friskier in higher water, particularly below the second dam at Milwaukee Street.

Front Street dam, Jefferson County, Watertown, Wisconsin
County Road B, Johnson Creek, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 5:45p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 16.75

Wildlife: Great blue herons, bald eagles, frisky fish, turtles, sandhill cranes, songbirds.
Time worth driving to: 45 minutes

This trip has been on our radar for years now, not because it’s exotic, not because it’s got whispered rumors of untold glories, but precisely because it’s nearby and has promise. True, it’s wide and slow, the waters are brown, and at least half of this trip is surrounded by development, whether residential or commercial. But sometimes none of that matters. Sometimes you just need to be on the water for the whole day long. Sometimes just being by yourself with a few choice beverages, on the water and in the sun, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do is just what the doctor ordered.

What we liked:
While this section of the Rock River is in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin, we chose to add a few extra miles by putting-in further upstream. Why? Because we thought that paddling through downtown Watertown would be an entertaining novelty, not to mention beginning below the historic powerhouse building at the first dam (there’s a second dam downtown). It’s 2.5 miles between the two dams. Back in the day, the river dropped considerably enough to have taken advantage of the hydropower by building two dams. Today, all of this is a still-water impoundment, by and by.

The first half-mile is rather rocky, and in the low-water conditions we experienced, there was considerable scraping. That said, it made the otherwise flat, slow stream kind of interesting. Speaking of interesting – or its opposite – there’s next to nothing to capture the attention of the paddler traveling through downtown Watertown. Sorry folks! It’s fine, but there’s no reason to go out of your way for it (there are no river-facing patios or grand boulevards or historic bridges the way that some downtown streams feature). There is, however, a button-cute public park aptly named Riverside Park that has a paddleable side channel where there’s an island that makes for a pleasant detour.

Just past Riverside Park, the Rock takes a peculiar horseshoe bend to the west and south, an almost 180-degree turnaround. Some rock formation from long ago had to have caused this, even though today there’s hardly a notable hill (except for by the first dam, but even that is pretty modest). Approaching the next dam, you’ll see a well-marked portage trail and access point for taking-out on the left-hand side. From there it’s a roughly 400′ portage (or 24 rods if you prefer) to wherever your heart desires on the other side of the dam.

The next 3.5 miles are fairly humdrum. There are riffles here and there, and there is one relatively lively Class I rapid at a partially removed stone dam – located behind the Culver’s and Super 8 Motel on Highway 26. Run it to the right. Otherwise, this stretch is a mix of residential, commercial, and agricultural. It’s not ugly per se; it’s just mundane.

This trip starts to pick up in spirit, if not momentum, once you reach the new park/boat launch at the also-new Highway 26 bypass. At the time of Svob’s writing, these bridges and this park did not exist – even in the revised editions of his book. From here to the takeout are 10ish miles that make for a lovely outing on a lackadaisical day. The development diminishes considerably, at times disappearing altogether. The big old broad river even meanders here and there, enhancing the intimacy. From here to the interstate you’ll see houses or hear cars only twice, briefly at that. Otherwise it’s one gentle bend after another around a wild-seeming landscape of floodplain woods and wide-open meadows. Far and away, this is the prettiest stretch of the river on this trip.

You’ll hear the interstate before you see the two bridges. We’ve driven over the river on these bridges at least 500 times going to or coming back from Milwaukee. You too, probably. From here to the take-out is half a mile of easy paddling with a farm field on the right and a thicket of trees lining the left shore. In the distance downstream straight ahead you’ll see a handsome barn and a smooth hill. The bridge at County Road B comes next, and there’s an official boat launch at a designated park on the right (with full facilities, including an artesian well, though truth be told the water tested like rust).

All in all, I passed seven other kayakers and one canoe. It was a beautiful day to be on the water, and it was great to see other folks feeling the Rock River love.

It’s always nice to paddle a place about which you’ve been curious for years. This trip was pretty much what I thought it would be: sluggish water with sections of boring backyards and farm fields offset by the novelty of dams and an attractive undeveloped section with an escapist feel. The water level was crazy low – I mean, this is the Rock River for crying out loud! – but this actually led to a more interesting streambed with countless rocks (duh!) and micro-shelves. It meant scraping a lot, but it was worth the minor inconvenience.

Then there was a moment of serendipity. I realized during the drive that I forgot to make a lunch. Ordinarily I don’t eat while paddling; it just gets in the way of the beer. I’m kidding! I might snack on cashews or a granola bar, but that’s generally the extent of it. But I knew that this trip was going to be long – it was one of those days that I needed to be on the water awhile – not to mention being followed up with a 12-mile bike shuttle. This will sound ridiculously cocky, but I had a feeling that I would find food during the trip. Naturally, I was hoping for a backyard grill out. Someone would see me in my boat, wave me over, hand me a cold beer and a burger or brat (and by someone I mean a hot babe in a bathing suit – what, can’t librarians and optometrists be hot babes?). Well, that didn’t happen. (I’m still waiting for such an occasion, however… And she could totally be a stripper. Or an alderwoman. Or an electrician. I don’t discriminate.)

But what did happen was meeting a canoe with three guys in their early 20s who asked me if I had any sunscreen. (Yes, this vignette would’ve worked much better had they been three women in their early 20s asking for sunscreen, but such is the stuff of fools and hopeful poets!) I did, and we bartered sunscreen for beef jerky. It perfectly hit the spot and was just enough nibble to tide me over a few more hours. Really nice guys, too, even though for the sake of my own private amusement I couldn’t resist referring to them as the Jerky Boys. Each year the trio paddle down this section of the Rock, taking their sweet old time. Just companionship, a boat, a cooler full of cold beer and a relaxing river.

What we didn’t like:
For a 16.75-mile trip, this section of the Rock River does teeter on the monotonous. And it’s slowwwwwwww. Additionally, the first 6ish miles of development are not exactly inspiring. But those are to be expected; it’s the Rock River after all.

No, if there is one thing we didn’t like that we weren’t anticipating, it was the amount of motorboats and Jet-Skiers. There’s something totally incongruous about being on quite possibly the slowest river in all of southern Wisconsin with a bunch of chainsaw-sounding thrill rides zipping past you going upstream and back down. We get it – we get the appeal of these otherwise obnoxious things. But c’mon, go to a lake! Is it really necessary to do so on a river? Moreover, is it really necessary to do so in the otherwise quietest, remotest section of a river? What we don’t get is why people would purposefully select such a landscape to rip through at however many miles per hour at whatever level of decibels. It’s such a spoiler. They’re not there for the serenity and solitude, so why disturb it for those who purposefully are (not to mention the wildlife that, you know, lives there)?

If we did this trip again:
We would put-in at the wayside park off the Highway 26 overpass for a 10-mile trip. Doing so does forfeit what few riffles there are below the second dam as well as the light rapid at the partial rock dam. But let’s be real: you don’t paddle the Rock River for rapids. You just don’t. You paddle it because it makes for an easy lazy float trip with pleasant scenery along the way. The best of that is from putting-in at the wayside park and taking-out at County Road B. If anyone wants to begin further upstream, then by all means have at it. But if you’re looking for something less long and more natural, it’s the wayside park to County Road B segment.

Related Information:
Rock River I: Oregon to Dixon
Rock River II: Janesville to Beloit
Rock River III: Kanow Park to County Road P
General: Glacial Heritage Area Watertrails
Map: Glacial Heritage Area Watertrails
Wikipedia: Rock River


Shuttle Information:
12 miles. Very easy and straightforward – just long.

Photo Gallery:


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