Fond Du Lac River: West Branch
Highway 23 to Lake Winnebago
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The rarely traveled Fond Du Lac River is an undiscovered gem that can and should be run at higher levels for a wildly frisky and fun paddling trip. It’s best for the intermediate paddler who can handle the pushy current, blind corners and the occasional (but rare) deadfall. Those who love creek-sized rivers will be rewarded with a diverse paddling experience; from the last narrows of a marsh to a wildly riffly and wooded ride around tight corners and channels, to gentle openings over sustained riffle beds, to an wonderfully subdued but interesting stretch as the river gets wider and flatter through downtown Fond Du Lac toward its eventual meeting with Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, Lake Winnebago.
June 25, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈ 9′ per mile to Hickory Street. ≈ 1′ per mile from there to Lake Winnebago.
Waupun (Rock River): ht/ft: 3.02 | cfs: 120
Gauge note: This is a correlative gauge on the Rock River. While it’s not on the river itself, it’s close enough to give a good idea if the water is up. See this visual gauge off Esterbrook Road for a comparison of when we ran it.
We absolutely recommend this level. This could be paddled at a lower level, but these are extremely fun levels to run this at.
Highway 23 bridge.
Lakeside Park, Lake Winnebago, Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:25p. Out at 3:25p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Wildlife: Heron, frog, seagulls, cardinal, geese, crane, fish and turtles.
We scour paddling reports from dozens of guidebooks to get ideas of where to paddle next. But sometimes the real gems are found in the details, seemingly footnotes in a paddle report, rather than the narrative itself. Such is the case with the catalyst to this trip. In Rick Kark’s paddling pdf, he offers up a lot of outrageous ideas for paddlers, but if you dig into the seams of the jive he’s laying down, you’ll find some nuggets worth humming along to.
In this case, it was a mention of a stretch of the Fond Du Lac that Denny Caneff (Miles Paddled contributor) has run; “Denny Caneff has run the stretch several times starting in the Eldorado Marsh, passing under Hwy. 23 and carrying on to a small town park on Townline Road with local river aficionado Laura DeGolier. When the water level is right (which is the case in spring, and after at least a 2-inch rain), paddling this piece of water can be quite exhilarating. It is narrow, has surprisingly steep gradient given the relatively flat terrain, and features some tight turns and deadfalls to sharpen your steering ability.”
Denny’s word is as good as gold when it comes to paddling obscure streams, so this has been a must-explore destination for sometime. Now, the funny thing is, I (Barry) had attempted to paddle it earlier this year after some rain as suggested. On May 28th, I parked my bike at the Rogersville Road bridge on the west side of the airport where I’d planned to take-out, (the road is interrupted by the airport and one cannot drive through the airport) not having found the park Kark suggested Denny took-out at off Townline Road (that’s because his details were off – the park is off Esterbrook Road and the park is fittingly called Riverside Park).
So then I headed toward the marsh as Denny suggested. But the first stop I pulled into – I couldn’t actually see the water. The reason? I was on the wrong road – I was on Coyne Road. Coincidentally, a guy on an ATV (probably a property owner) rambled in with a yippy dog to pretend like he was just cruising, when in fact, he was just a nosy neighbor wondering why this Subaru just came rumbling down his road.
But he was nice and quite helpful. I asked where the put-in was. He pointed out that it’d be quite the walk to the water from there and that paddlers usually put-in up the road. He said it was a hike back to the access point but that’s where people usually put-in (that access point was the dam, it turns out). So, I headed north and sure enough, took Dike Road to the end where there is a parking area. I figured I’d scout it first so I hiked back. But I soon realized that A) I wasn’t going to drag my boat this far, nor B) would I/we ever recommend a paddle that requires dragging your boat this far unless it’s real damn special. It’s about 1800′, or 1/3 of a mile for those curious.
Regardless, I found the dam – there were some people training their hunting dogs just downstream. The dam, by the way, is not runnable but it is easily portaged on marsh-left.
It was there I remembered that the Google map I had drawn up (but of course, had forgotten to bring with me) showed a wider boat launch and was north of the dam. Was there another one? There must be! So I headed back to my car and then drove further up the road. Sure enough! There was a big parking lot and boat launch. So I got geared up and put-in. Looking down-marsh, I didn’t see an opening but figured it was around the bend. There was no bend! So I paddled back towards the landing peering over tall grasses – and yet, nothing. Nothing?
Soon, a guy with a couple dogs in a pickup truck showed up. I asked if he knew whether I could paddle through the marsh towards the dam. He said, yeah, but only with using a skiff to get over the low marsh banks – he said they do it for hunting. Huh? So, yeah, no outlet, meaning no exit! So despite the awesome landing, there’s nowhere to go but paddle around what is essentially a little pond. At this point, I had already blown a bunch of time scouting, then failing and decided to call it a day and head home, planning to return another day (I just didn’t know it’d be so soon).
Mother Nature dropped a lot of water on our area in the following weeks, (and so far, all of the 2017 paddling season) giving us the opportunity to paddle streams we wouldn’t normally count on during the summer months.
And so… if at first you don’t succeed (which happens a lot when paddling) you know we’re going to try, try, again. And when we returned, (and I’m so damn glad we did) the water levels were even more favorable for what would be an excellent day trip.
This time I knew not to even deal with putting-in at the marsh since the marsh is well, a drag. So the next best option is Highway 23. While it may be the next best, it’s not really all that great due to the fast-moving highway traffic and it’s a tight and clumsy access point down the collar of the bridge over tumbled rocks. Below the bridge, there’s just enough room to launch your boat.
From Highway 23, you’ll begin paddling (or fast-floating on this day with such a strong current) down what is essentially the end of the marsh in a straightaway that beholds a pleasant and inviting entrance amongst cattails and tall grasses.
After the first bridge, Forest Avenue, the riffles pick up and the fun begins. The riffles are non-stop – barely letting you catch your breath – it’s a ton of fun! There are a few drops, some created by rocks, some from logs. It’s also curvy as hell as it winds through a narrow corridor of wooded banks. Due to the crazy pushy current and the many blind corners, this is not recommended for the casual or beginner paddler. You have to be able to steer around some tight spaces and be cautious around the many riffly and pushy bends.
This fun continues past Townline Road but there’s a little more development as it makes its way through unseen backyards and eventually the park (Riverside) on river-left that Denny took-out at.
Downstream of Esterbrook road lies an inviting island that splits off into channels. This is where the visual gauge resides and can be spotted on the downstream side of the bridge. From there, you’ll find many channels to choose from, which makes a narrow river narrower and causes a little hesitiation on even more blind corners.
Soon, the Rogersville Road bridge appears which has a great take-out point on the downstream-right side with a mowed path down to the waters edge. This access point is on the west side of the airport and should be your place to exit if you don’t want to deal with any potential portaging since the next bridge, Rogersville Road on the east side of the airport is posted. (The bridge there is off limits and using it as an access point on federal land just seems like a bad idea. Plus, it’s tickville – weedy on both sides, marshy, and not ideal regardless of whether it were legal or not.)
For adventurous souls whose joy of this river hasn’t yet been satiated, we recommend continuing downstream, but do know that you’ll be portaging at some point (if not twice). Past Rogersville west comes a pretty stretch around and through the Fond Du Lac airport. We heard the sound of an engine winding up (crazy loud) and were excitedly anticipating its take-off directly over us but it never happened – it flew north and not over us. At the east end of the airport, is a nice long riffle bed that leads towards the Rogersville Road east bridge.
After that, things flatten just a bit, then some riffles, and then, the first of two non-negotiable portages due to a rather large tree clogging the river. Either side can be portaged, but the easier one is river-left. Up to this point, we were amazed there were no portages. Just due to the wooded surroundings and narrowness of the river, we expected more (Timothy did however clear another potential issue – he’s always leaving these places better than how he finds them). Plus, it’s not often canoed or kayaked, or at least we thought. While we didn’t see a whole lot of new deadfall cuts, we saw plenty of old cut evidence so there are, or have been, some folks taking care of this trail. But seriously, what a pleasant surprise, we really thought there would be a helluva lot more.
The river continues a little flatter, less riffly, but still jagged and rough like the upper sections until Highway 41. Just before paddling below the four giant bridges, we actually encountered a couple putting-in upstream of 41. How and why? No idea, but there they were.
Past the hulking highway bridges, the river flattens out again for a brief spell until a fun little run beneath two unique pedestrian bridges. There’s a ton of riffles until… Bam! The last portage that must be portaged river-left. But from there on, it’s all clear. The riffles and steady current continues, and the river maintains its width up to Seymour Street where it begins to get wider and a bit more slack.
There’s a short leg of backyard paddling leading up to the Grove street bridge, then a couple more choppy riffles and trees to duck, but then the current slows considerably right before Hickory Street. This is where we recommend taking-out if you don’t care to proceed further down on the wider and slower flatwater. But you really should because you’ve made it this far, and the paddle towards Winnebago is interesting for those of us who enjoy a mix of industrial surroundings in deeper waters.
Just after Hickory Street, you’ll see a giant mill on river-right, then paddle under a couple train trestles. From there, you’ll encounter slower-moving straightaways from one bridge to the next as you make your way towards and through downtown Fond Du Lac. There isn’t much “downtown” city life to catch, it’s mostly mills and backsides of the buildings and retaining walls. It’s the random things here and there that I most enjoy.
After Western Avenue, the river becomes ever wider. The only notable structure is a huge retaining wall on river-right with a built-in rebar ladder (for emergency exits or an alternate access point, we joked). Then comes Forest Avenue and Division Street, immediately followed by another train trestle (making a record for bridges on a paddling trip).
Soon, you’ll meet the confluence, where the west fork of the Fond Du Lac meets the east fork. The east doesn’t look all that inviting – it was very stagnant at this meetup but it’s certainly worthy of exploration. Heading left and towards the big lake you’ll see river home, after river home, perched atop a 10′ tall and incredibly long retaining wall which leads all the way to the West Johnson Street/Highway 23 bridge.
Now on the home stretch, the river is nearing its widest point as you pass below West Arndt Street. You’ll paddle below consecutive train trestles and then finally, the last of the bridges, Highway 45. Just past a gentle dog-leg right (that’s a golf term, Timothy) and a boat service center, you’ll see the wide open exit/entrance of Lake Winnebago in the distance.
The meeting with the lake wasn’t quite the same grand experience compared to say, where the Bois Brule meets Lake Superior, but it’s still kind of cool to end in a lake of this magnitude after an already varied and unexpectedly awesome trip. The take-out is located directly at the delta on river-right and it’s a great access point. Take-out amongst the rocks near the flagpoles at Lakeside Park (popular for fishermen) where you’ll find a staircase leading down to the water.
What we liked:
What is there really to say? This was an awesome trip all around and only because we read between the lines of another report. Thank you Denny for giving us another great paddle which we were happy to re-pioneer paddle and shed some light on.
Our post-paddle glow led us to The Green Dragon Brewpub. It’s an awesome joint with a hundred or so beer selections, excellent food (amazing veggie burger) and great service (anytime I see this poster in a bar, I know I’m in the right place and in good company). As an added bonus, it was there we got an explanation as to what this bedazzled revolving deer was all about that sat/spun across the road (it’s art, of course).
What we didn’t like:
Not much. In fact, this was better than expected. But why is this not a 5-star paddle? Well, first and foremost, the put-in kind of sucks. It’s just too busy and awkward. The put-in sucks even more when you get a notice slapped on your windshield. I mean, we scratch our heads at this all the time – a Subaru parked next to a bridge with roof racks and paddling stickers on it? Sure, it must be abandoned, these couldn’t be kayakers! C’mon Johnny Law, let’s use our heads here!
Second, there are numerous things to duck, things to dodge, currents to be wary of and the banks can be difficult to use as an outlet if needed. It’s just not accommodating to all paddlers, so four-star seems pretty accurate. A solid four, however.
If we did this trip again:
Hell yes we’ll do this same exact trip again, especially at these levels. The Fond Du Lac was worth the return trip and it’s worth catching when it’s running. So long as you don’t mind the occasional invonvenience and come what may. These are the kind of paddles we love. The undiscovered ones. The ones that exceed expectations.
If you want to avoid any and all portages, take-out at Rogersville Road on the West side of the airport (indicated on the map). But there plenty of appeal (riffles and fun) around and beyond the airport. If you don’t mind a couple portages, we’d recommend taking-out at the South Hickory Street bridge right before the mill. Though, if you made it that far, taking-out at Lake Winnebago is pretty damn cool too and even more recommendable.
Wikipedia: Fond Du Lac River
5.7 miles for cars, pretty much all along Highway 23. 5.9 miles for bicycling. Half of this bike shuttle is through town, the other half along the Mascoutin Valley State Trail. The trail offers a pleasant alternative to roads, although it can be a little ruddy and muddy after a hard rain. You don’t need a mountain bike, but you wouldn’t want your skinny-tired road bike, either.
(The shuttle is even better when someone else does it for you while you drink their beer. Thanks Timothy!)