Mill Creek (Portage)
Robin Lane to West River Drive
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Mill Creek, a tributary of the Wisconsin River, located in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is a light-whitewater creek that should only be paddled when water levels are up. Surrounded in a classic Central Wisconsin environment, this section has a good mix of flatwater, riffles, a few whitewater drops and boulder gardens, offering quite a variety for a short four mile canoe or kayak trip.
October 16, 2016
Gauge note: The Mill Creek gauge is no longer in operation.
These levels were far below recommended. Unfortunately, the Mill Creek gauge is no longer operational. There is, however, a visual gauge, spray-painted on the upstream-right side of the County Road PP bridge (It wasn’t until I was actually on the water that I noticed it but now we know going forward). It should be at the 2-foot hash mark for comfortable paddling.
This creek is also on American Whitewater’s site but you’ll never see a “runnable” cue, since the gauge is inactive, so you have to go by the visual gauge or make the trip when you know the area has received a lot of rain.
West River Drive Boat Landing, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:20p. Out at 2:10p.
Total Time: 1h 50m
Miles Paddled: 4
Wildlife: 2 Deer, a snake and one decoy duck.
The idea to paddle Mill Creek came from a post I saw in a Facebook group sometime ago. The pictures intrigued and surprised me because this was a paddle that was essentially in my hometown backyard, yet I was completely unaware of it despite it being documented on American Whitewater.
Coincidentally, I’ve traveled over this creek numerous times as I have probably traveled County Highway P more than any other road in my lifetime, as it’s the main road between Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, where all my relatives lived. We’ve traveled it on countless occasions to visit family, or on our way to CERA Park, (a private park for papermill employees and their families) and even spent many winters in the ditch after our station wagon slid off the road on the way home from Christmas Eve gatherings (it happened more often than one would believe). But never did I know I was traveling over this beautiful stream nor did I know I’d be returning decades later to explore it.
According to Brendan on American Whitewater, Mill Creek “consists of primarily three Class II rapids. One is almost a half mile long of fun continuous waves when high. A slightly longer run is possible, putting in at County Highway C, and reportedly picking up one additional rapids.”
My plan was to put-in at County Road C because, as I usually say, a paddle under 5 miles is severely questionable. However, when I arrived, I scouted the four bridge corners – two were posted with “No Trespassing” signs, one was simply a no-go, and while the fourth looked promising with a mowed path down to the water’s edge – upon closer inspection, this too was posted but with a much more weathered sign. So despite Brendan’s suggestion that this could be a put-in, I didn’t want to chance it with a loose dog barking wildly on the property so I headed to the put-in at Robin Lane where the American Whitewater section starts.
Now, let me restate that this is not a recommendable level to paddle Mill Creek. I had totally taken a chance, without a proper baseline for water levels. But having scouted all the Mill Creek bridges I could, it looked doable enough to warrant checking out. If anything it would be a learning experience and give me that baseline going forward (and to recommend to you, dear readers). It was still a fun paddle and incredibly pretty but I was certainly overzealous in my attempt at these levels.
As mentioned, in higher water, this is a Class II whitewater run and that is really when you’d want to run it, although as with all rivers and creeks, there is a “too high” mark. Divepoint Scuba, a local outfitter, does have some notes on that as well: “This route is best traveled during higher water periods although due to the characteristics of the Mill Creek Watershed, high water can create dangerous rapids. There are some rock ledges along the creek and at higher stream flows will the challenge the best paddlers. This trip is suggested only for advanced skilled paddlers who want a challenge.”
What we liked:
I love Central Wisconsin in Fall. There’s absolutely nothing better. The colors make anything ordinary, extraordinary. And the way leaves just lay on top of the water, make everything just pretty.
The put-in at the end of Robin Lane is convenient for parking, as it’s located at a dead-end road roundabout surrounded by tall trees. It was so inviting, in only the way a crisp fall morning in Central Wisconsin is, with the crunch of fallen leaves, big and colorful, always underfoot. The launch itself was a little clumsy with a steep drop-off from the bank, excascerbated by those slippery fallen leaves and pine needles. Luckily, tree roots exposed tight to the bank make a sort of step-ladder down to the water.
There was virtually no noticeable current at the put-in (another sign, I was paddling this at the wrong time) but it does pick up after a bit. Things start flat and slow until about three-quarters of a mile when the first boulders and light rapids begin. (And they’ll continue sporadically throughout, between moments of flatwater.) There are little ledges and rocky expanses across the river as well as some minor islands where you’ll choose a path. There were plenty of fun little drops – which had me salivating at the thought of returning when the levels were right. And it’s just so pretty with boulder gardens and small rock outcrops scattered about.
Finding the current is imperative at levels like this. I bumped and scraped quite a bit but getting hung didn’t detract as it was just so much fun. There were pinball moments that reminded me of Wedges Creek in Black River Falls, when we paddled that at the wrong levels too. But where Wedges was near-constant pinball – this was occasional pinball.
The water was mostly clear and with it being so shallow, it was easy to spot the bottom for most of the paddle, up until reaching the deeper Wisconsin River backwaters. But it’s often sandy-bottomed until it’s interrupted by yards of rocks lying just beneath. Surprisingly, I didn’t spot any fish but along the way, (besides ducks) there were a whole lot of deer scurrying around the banks.
The on-off riffles and boulder gardens continue under and past County Road PP and all the way to County Road P. (By the way, once in high school, we were driving on P and I had to take a leak so bad that I said, turn on the next road and let me out – it happened to be PP – and I’m not even kidding. How fitting?) The excitement ends just beyond County P but not until you’re greeted with one more going away gift – the most impressive rock cut wall on creek-right with a fun little splashy drop. This is the last of the fun.
After that last drop, the environment becomes flatter and wider and now you’re essentially on the backwaters of the Wisconsin. Slow and flat, this continues all the way to the take-out. Normally, it might be a little boring, but again, I got to sit back and enjoy the colors on the banks and the colorful leaves lying lifeless on the water.
Houses line the left bank and soon you’ll reach the busy landing. It’s at a dead-end at the end of West River Drive, where at one time, there was a bridge here that connected the road to the other side but now there are just stubby-ended concrete and rock remnants which, on the upside, makes for a decent place to drop a jig into. The landing was busy with paddlers but mostly fishermen launching boats and pontoons (it was indeed, a beautiful day to be out).
Post-paddle, I visited the often seen but never visited Rusty’s Backwater Saloon where I was talked into some bacon cheese curds (not too shabby) and I was able to catch some of the Packer game (I rarely miss a game but when Mother Nature is kind for paddling, you have to reset your priorities). It was a fine end to a great day.
What we didn’t like:
Well, of course, the water levels but at the same time, it was a worthy paddle in spite of them.
Also, on my shuttle, (on the busy County Highway P) I nearly veered into oncoming traffic when a snake scurried out onto the shoulder (I don’t normally ride against traffic but I was about to turn onto Robin Lane). Lucky for both of us, I didn’t run him over. (It did beg the question though, what would happen if I did and he tangled in my spokes? Creepy thought!)
If we did this trip again:
This is a must-re-paddle. It was absolutely delightful and just so damn pretty, heightened by the allure of the Fall air and color. I truly feel I got the best of the section – just at the wrong time. But I’d also be interested in catching that extra rapid upstream as well as just making this a longer day-paddle in general.
The shuttle is OK but not excellent. Half the time is spent on Highway P/Highway 66 which is a busy one (again, it being a main artery from Rapids to Point). But once on the gravel road that is Robin Lane, it’s a straight shot on a quiet backroad. But of course, watch out for snakes!
Miles Paddled Video: