Montello River
★ ★ ★ ★

Montello River

By on November 11, 2016

Harrisville to 11th Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Montello River near Harrisville, is a paddle suited for those who enjoy classic Central Wisconsin streams, come what may, (including a healthy amount of deadfall) and where part of the challenge is part of the reward.

By Denny Caneff
A Miles Paddled contributor
(And fellow guerilla paddler whose nom-de-bateau is Marie Francoise)

November 8 + 10, 2016

Class Difficulty:
Class I

Nelsonville: ht/ft: 8.62-8.64 | cfs: 24-25
Gauge note: There is no gauge for the Montello River. One could use the Tomorrow River gauge at Nelsonville as a correlative gauge.

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level.

County Road J bridge, Harrisville, Wisconsin
11th Road

Time: Put in at n/a. Out at n/a.
Total Time Day 1: 3h 30m – 4h 30m
Total Time Day 2: 2h 30m – 3h
Miles Paddled: 8.25

Wildlife: Wood ducks, one owl, several great blue herons, deer, unidentified fish and sandhill cranes.
Time worth driving to: 30 minutes.

I have an affinity for rivers that are off the beaten path. That is, there are no descriptions or write-ups by Mike Svob or here on These are rivers not even ventured on by the intrepid canoeing documentarians Frank Piraino and Rick Kark. (Piraino’s journals are very hard to find; Kark’s guides to 309 Wisconsin streams can be found here.)

(Editor’s note: This and a lengthier section of the Montello River is also covered in Timothy Bauer’s, “Canoeing and Kayaking South Central Wisconsin: 60 Paddling Adventures Within 60 Miles of Madison”. He is also co-author of

I call this guerrilla paddling – you never know what you’re going to find and it just might be a slog that you’ll regret. My luck has run about 50-50 on guerrilla paddles and my Montello River run was on the side of the good 50 – fun, adventurous and worth repeating.

But a warning to those who don’t like dealing with trees in a river: the Montello has not just a few, it has a lot. I happen to like paddling through and around downed trees in a river. It is its own unique paddling skill and getting through a jumble of logs and limbs without taking skin off your back, or having to portage around the mess, is as satisfying, if not as thrilling, to me as running a Class 3.

I did the Montello in two sections on two separate days: The first section was from Harrisville to Ember Lane and then from Ember Lane to 11th Road. These two sections could be done in a day but it might be a long day, depending on your luck with the log jams. While the huge majority of them were passable, I had to leave my boat to either pull it over a log, or to portage around a total of six times in the two sections. Some paddlers might find that intolerable. I didn’t think it was too bad, because I got through the other 90% with the satisfaction and joy one gets (I get, anyway) of maneuvering those piles.

If you share my appetite for arboreal paddling and enjoy what a classic central Wisconsin stream has to offer, read on.

What we liked:
You will neither jostle with other paddlers nor encounter much of any other human activity or intrusion on the Montello. You will likely have this river to yourself, because of the lack of descriptions about it, its inaccessibility for bigger boats, and the fact it presents paddling challenges due to downed trees. Who knows? Maybe this blurb will cause a rush to experience it and you’ll be a part of a parade of paddlers wending your way through these silver maple bottomlands, riding the slow but steady tide of clean, clear water.

The Montello flows into and out of an artificial water body called Harris Pond, created by a dam at the south end of it, in the unincorporated, run-down settlement of Harrisville. It’s not clear what purpose this dam serves; sometimes these ponds were created for wildlife habitat, but this one appears to have been built to create lakeshore lots.

I did the Montello in two sections on two separate and unseasonably warm early November days. Your options are to put-in at Harrisville or the alternative described below and paddling to Ember Lane, or starting at Ember Lane and continuing to 11th Road. The first section takes longer and probably has a bit more deadfall to deal with.

For the first section, I put-in where County Road J crosses over the river right after it exits Harris Pond. You might be tempted to put-in to the river at its outfall from Harris Pond, but messy riprap and ominous No Trespassing signs will talk you out of that.

The put-in, such as it is, is classic guerrilla paddling: you have to sidle along a cornfield for 25 yards, then rumble down a steep bank. Then before your paddle is hardly wet, you’ll encounter two logjams that are passable but a bit messy getting through. At this point you are in a section of the river that is totally straight, almost like a ditch. I didn’t see a lot of evidence the river was channelized but given its meandery nature the rest of the way, it had to have been straightened – for who knows what purpose, other than that’s what people once did to hundreds of streams in this state.

You might ask, why fight with trees on the Montello when you could paddle the nearby Mecan or the Tomorrow, rivers that feature the same clear, cool water but are actively cleared of deadfall by river angels? As stated earlier, I enjoy the challenge of making my way around and through those messy collections of limbs and logs and trunks. On this river, I would approach what seemed to be an impassable mess and 90% of the time, the way made itself known. It is its own paddling skill to pick the right path, get through and avoid any number of calamities that could befall you in deadfall.

A quick primer for “arboreal paddling”: approach slowly and nose your way in and around the log pile. Sometimes the path isn’t obvious until you’re right there in it. If you have to squeeze under a big tree trunk, get under it face down because if you don’t quite fit, better to scrape your back than your face (I will go under a trunk face-up only if I’m totally flat on my back in my kayak, to get under a particularly tight spot). That face-down squeeze will go better if your PFD is off; they tend to make you thicker by 2-3 inches and its straps can snag on branches.

If you need to plow your way through some branches, put your paddle parallel to your boat and use your hands to pull yourself through, or slow you down). Gotta scoot yourself over a submerged log? Get your speed up with a few quick strokes and your momentum will get you well on your way over the log. And it’s best not to get your boat parallel and right up next to the log pile or trunk – the moving current can easily roll you. On the days I traveled the Montello, the water level looked average (it clearly gets higher) and was therefore unthreatening as I negotiated the jams.

Take-outs at both Ember Lane and 11th Road were just okay. Remember, this is not a well-traveled river so there’s nothing like maintained accesses. At Ember Lane, you’ll find a decent put-in/take-out on the right bank of the river, upstream from the bridge. It’s steep but fairly well-worn by anglers. At 11th Road, the take-out is just past the bridge on the right bank.

There is evidence chainsaw-toting river angels have been on the Montello, but not consistently to keep it 100% passable. Still, the remoteness of this river, the clarity of the water and its sandy bottom, its proximity to our big cities, and the challenges those logjams pose for the intrepid paddler willing to negotiate them, makes the Montello definitely worth a try.

What we didn’t like:
Given I did this trip in two sections on two different days, I never felt beaten down by the abundance of deadfall. But doing the full 8-plus-mile run, from Harrisville to 11th Road, may test one’s stamina and patience. Two of the three portages I encountered from County J to Ember Lane were made messier by the presence of what I think is prickly ash. That stuff is no fun to plow through.

Many paddlers may keep their gardening and their paddling totally separate, and find the idea of bringing along a handsaw on their paddling excursions absurd. I have done that for other rivers, but not for the Montello. I’d recommend it. A few quick cuts on the saw would have made passage much easier on a number of jams.

If we did this trip again:
Upon further scouting, I would recommend a different starting point for the upper section (County J to Ember Lane), for three reasons: the access is easier, you skip four difficult logjams and you avoid that arrow-straight (and sorta boring) section. That put-in is off County B, about 2 miles south of Harrisville, where Klawitter Creek passes under the road. On the east side of the road there is an old concrete bridge down whose embankment you slither to get to this lovely little trout stream, which has adequate flows to get you to the Montello, about 200 or so paddling yards away.

(Another put-in possibility is to simply ask the residents of a house close to the Montello River near where Elk Avenue meets County J. I didn’t ask this particular party, but I have done that on occasion all around the state and have never been turned down.)

I made this trip at what seems to me is an ideal time – the fall. Spring would be fine too but summer might pose some challenges you wouldn’t deal with in spring or fall. I imagine the mosquitoes would be prolific in these bottomlands. As for the logjams, silver maples (by far the predominant tree species here) have an amazing capacity for survival even if they’re horizontal. You’d have to deal with foliage in the logjams, which make it harder to see the way through, and harder to get through.

Related Information:
Camp: Crooked River Campground


Shuttle Information:
Shuttling is easy. Two roads run parallel to the river, and biking the shuttle (if you are paddling solo) is easy to do. In fact, I walked the shuttle on the two sections I paddled.

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