Black River III
Melrose to North Bend
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
One of the best sections anywhere on the lower Black River, this trip features miles of lush sandy beaches (perfect for picnics or overnight campouts), a sense of sheer wilderness and being away from it all, stunningly tall sand bluffs, three exposed rock outcrop walls, one side canyon, and one waterfall for the intrepid paddler to explore.
November 4, 2016
≈2.5′ per mile
Galesville: ht/ft: 5.16 | cfs: 1900
We recommend this level. But this section of the river should always have enough water to paddle.
Public boat launch off Highway 71, Melrose, Wisconsin
North Bend Drive Landing, North Bend, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 10:15a. Out at 1:00p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 9.75
Wildlife: Great blue herons, deer, crows, bald eagles, turtles, hawks and a blue-winged teal.
This trip was a revisit from a longer one I did on the beloved Black River about six years ago, in a dimly lit, pre-dawn time before I had even heard of Miles Paddled or brought a camera with me while paddling. As a friend of mine likes to joke (and cue the deep baritone movie trailer voice here), “In a time before space and time…”
Anyway, the last time we were out this way was about three years ago for what was an overnight expedition beginning in Black River Falls. Our intention was to go all the way down to North Bend, but the current was slow and so was our pace. In the end, rather than push it – especially with two twelve-year-olds at the time – we settled on taking out at Melrose, the next take-out option before North Bend. As a result, coming back to “complete” things, by putting-in at Melrose and taking-out at North Bend, has been on my bucket list since 2013. It’s less an OCD thing than wanting to compare such a trip now with my initial experience in 2010.
This go-around did not disappoint. In fact, it really was exactly as I had remembered it – but with two surprises in finding waterfalls. It’s not often that memory is so reliable, especially on a segment of a big river first paddled six years ago, after paddling a couple thousand miles of various rivers in between, etc. (And on that 2010 trip I was a bit ambitious. I’d put in at Irving and took out in North Bend, for what would be a 21-mile day trip – not to mention a bike shuttle nearly as far. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I did not have time to stop and smell the roses along the way.)
In retrospect, paddling it this time around so late in the season was less than ideal, since the trees were leafless and the environment a little more austere in that late-autumn, unadorned way. Moreover, like the lower Wisconsin River, the lower Black River is at its best, at its essential-most zenith, in summer. It’s a quintessential summertime river environment – hot days, cold beers, sunscreen, shorts and flip flops, swimsuits and quick dips to cool off, picnicking or camping on sandbars, the whole nine yards. Even in unseasonably warm November, this was not the right time to paddle. But it was still a fun trip. It’s as scenic as it is tranquil, with great accesses and no concerns about obstacles or obstructions. (Well, unless you take the “gamble channel” to the County Road VV take-out instead of the North Bend take-out, but more on that below.)
What we liked:
First off, it’s always fun to begin a trip where one ended an earlier one (in this case, from three years ago). There’s a sense of continuity, of connecting past and present. Rivers themselves are like that, always flowing, never the same, constantly at their sources and destinations simultaneously…
Right off the bat you’ll paddle past a large sandbar island. I took the right channel, as it seemed more practical, and I’m sure glad I did. One section of it was about 10’ tall (which is pretty tall for an island) and was entirely scalloped by wave-line formations that had to have been caused by the flood-stage water levels from the rains of late September. The serendipitous patterns imprinted on the sand – even embossed looking – were quite stunning. (Elsewhere on the trip I’d also see giant pile-ups of trees presumably swept away during those same high waters. Both spooky and surreal, the height of the river and the sheer force of its current.)
On the downstream side of the sandbar island I was privy to something I’ve never been so lucky to witness before: two deer that swam from the island to the opposite bank directly before me, no more than 35 yards away. It truly was breathtaking. At first, I assumed they were taking a drink; but then they kept walking into the water until fully submerged, only their heads above the water line, as they bobbed forward slowly but surely to the other side. It really was an incredible experience to behold.
Then, just after that, you’ll come upon a long graceful sweep of a stunningly tall sand cliff on the right, at least 60 feet high. Such cliffs are frequent along the lower Black River – particularly in the sections downstream from this trip, i.e., from North Bend to Highway 53 and also from Highway 53 to Highway 35. Such sandy cliffs are common too on the Eau Claire, Chippewa, and Red Cedar Rivers, and they’re always a real delight. The sheer size of them positively dwarfs the puny paddler.
Shortly after the sand cliff, after a couple football field-sized sandbars, you’ll see the first of three total rock outcrop sections on this trip, all of them on river-right. They’re more rock walls than cliffs or bluffs, somehwat modest, but still quite attractive and a fun novelty to sidle up to. If you look for it, you’ll see a small recess in the rock wall and a tiny trickle of a stream that leads into a small side canyon. Paddling up this stream is not easy because there’s an incredible cluster of downed trees – so many in such a concentration that it appears to be intentional, not coincidental; that someone constructed such barriers to prevent paddlers from exploring the mini canyon. (At the top of the bank on the left side is a cabin that overlooks the mini canyon. And this section of the lower Black River is very popular. Just saying…) Anyway, it’s worth the inconvenience because at the end of the stream is an oval-shaped sandstone gorge at the top of which is a lip where the stream pours over and falls into a pool below. The fall was little more than a drippy trickle on this day, since it hadn’t rained in weeks. But one can imagine a much more magical effect after a recent rain!
Bear in mind that the above-mentioned – the wave-lined sandbar island, the sandy cliff, the exposed rock outcrops, and the side canyon, all of these are in the first 1-2 miles. It’s a heckuva beginning to a trip.
After the side canyon the landscape relaxes a little and feels pretty modest for a few miles. It’s a little monotonous, but it’s never ugly or truly boring. Either way, the sense of isolation is palpable, as there’s hardly any sight or sound of development anywhere. Virtually this entire trip lies along public land on the river-left, contiguous parcels of state natural areas that feature floodplains and bottomlands. The first of these is called the Black River Savanna SNA, the other the North Bend Bottoms Wildlife Area (which in turn encloses the North Bend Wet Prairie SNA). In theory, an intrepid paddler could explore these backwaters, any number of which have tributary streams, sloughs, and side channels. Whether you wish to do so, or can (in terms of down trees), is up to your druthers and how much time you have to be on the water.
The river will gently bend here and there in long, easy arcs, and you’ll come upon the second and eventually third rock outcrop sections. At the second, you’ll also see a shimmering vista of tall hills in the background. Like in many places in Jackson County, from far away these hills look like mini mountains. It’s one of many reasons that we so love this part of the state, where there’s an undeniable northcountry feel to it, even though it’s west-central Wisconsin and only two hours away from Madison.
After the third section of rock outcrops you’ll see a large island towards the left bank. On the upstream side of the island is a sign that tells paddlers to take the right channel, which is the main channel and leads directly to the presumed take-out in North Bend at the bar. That said, the adventuresome paddler could go left. In his write-up for this trip, esteemed author Mike Svob warns that the left channel is too choked with deadfall. But is that really so? I mean, it might have been at the time of his writing, but that was over 15 years ago. If you do take the left channel, then you’ll want to take out at the official boat launch of County Road VV. Otherwise, you’d have to turn right at the end of the large island and then paddle upstream to North Bend for a good half-mile past nothing more than a line of houses. I scouted the County Road VV take-out, and the channel there is very wide, the current strong. I saw no signs of deadfall or reasons to portage. If such obstructions do exist, it’s doubtful that there are many. Besides, taking the left channel adds only half a mile to this trip, and the access at County Road VV is excellent – better in terms of being less busy than North Bend. (You could still take the right/main channel and take out at County Road VV without much hassle, but all you’ll pass along the way is a row of houses facing the river in North Bend.)
But wait, there’s one last huzzah! At the take-out in North Bend (which is behind a bar with a river-facing patio – a great place for a post-paddle beer and bite to eat, by the way) you’ll see yet another skimpy, shallow side stream on the right called Mill Creek. Turn into it and you’ll encounter a couple down trees and low-hanging branches to negotiate, but these are miniscule nuisances and well-worth the slight inconvenience. For only 25 yards later you’ll be at the bottom of a beautiful and totally random waterfall. It’s more of a ledge, about 8’ tall, but it’s surrounded by a mini-gorge of gloriously colored sandstone, the wettest of which feature ochre and green mineral streaks down the rock faces. This waterfall itself is below yet another waterfall just upstream of it, the latter created by a dam (but still quite striking). I mean, how often does one see a double waterfall? The views are a heckuva good way to wrap up what was already a very pretty trip!
What we didn’t like:
We here at Miles Paddled try to be as objective and equanimous as possible in order to provide the most impartial information to you, dear reader. Naturally, there will always be a bias since we’re just two guys, just two human beings. That disclaimer should be a given. But we do try to put our personal cravings or aversions aside, since those are relative. We know that something we uniquely love might be lost on another paddler, just as something (usually minor) we’d just as soon skip might be the bee’s knees for someone else. Again, this should be a given.
So, when it comes to offering something we didn’t like on a specific trip, we strive to be as level-minded as possible. Indeed, sometimes there is that rare trip we are so fortunate to experience that is flawless and unblemished by any quibble or preference. But those are the five-star trips that are hard to come by. Not that we look to find faults or paddle with half-empty expectations; but by the same token we don’t want to come off as moon-eyed romantics who fall and fawn for every such river whim. Very few sections of very few rivers can be truly considered perfect, no matter how critical one is.
With that in mind, the only matter to mention for this trip is what we’ve said before about the Black River: some segments of it can be a little monotonous and dull, notwithstanding the stunning punctuations along the way, be they side canyons, cliffs, tall sandbanks, waterfalls, rapids, rock outcrops, etc. It’s not like the Kickapoo River from Ontario to La Farge or the Bois Brule River, where the paddling experience is like going to the geological equivalent of Disney World and mile after mile shines with wonder after wonder. But such rivers or sections of rivers are exceedingly rare. If the lower Black River could be “edited” in such a way as to feature 40 miles of nonstop knee-knocking splendor, then it too would be a flawless, five-star trip – a true, must-do sojourn anywhere in the Upper Midwest.
But the relatively monotonous moments are very minor quibbles. They’re just something we feel obliged to mention in order to come off as down-to-earth and real insofar as what can be expected. We love this day trip and totally recommend it. In fact, just about any trip on the Black River is worth doing, the lower or upper sections (downstream from Black River Falls or upstream, respectively). It and its many incredible tributaries are why this part of Wisconsin is probably our favorite place to go paddling.
Well, OK, the fact that entrance to the first mini-gorge waterfall was so blocked off with trees was a little annoying, especially since it had the appearance of being deliberately created to prevent paddlers from exploring this unique gem. We can only hope that we’re wrong about this and that the clusters of tree debris were created naturally. But…
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, but in summertime next time. Ideally, if we could time it after a recent rain to see the full effect of the waterfall side canyon near the Melrose boat launch, even better. (And you best believe that we’ll be there armed to the teeth with saws and clippers to allow for passage into the gorge!)
Also, while any of the trips down the lower Black River are fully adaptable for kayaks, we feel that it’s more of a canoeing river, especially if doing an overnight expedition. Like the lower Wisconsin, the lower Black is broad and wide, resplendent in lush sandbars, with pretty much no obstacles or tight, twisty meanders. As such, it’s perfect for canoes. Some day (now cue the corny Sousa march music) we’d like to do the whole lower Black River from Black River Falls down to Trempealeau/Onalaska. Til then, any combination of sections will be sure to reward a paddler.
Black River I: Black River Falls to Melrose
Black River II: Hatfield to Black River Falls
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Black River Country
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Outfitter: North Bend Canoe Rental
Wikipedia: Black River
8.5 miles, almost all of which is along Highway 54. Totally adequate for bicycling, but not ideal. Several hills will humble even the best cyclist.