Sugar River VII
Riverside Road to Paoli
☆ ☆ ☆
A charming and short stretch quietly nestled in the soft hills and farms of southwestern Dane County, featuring clear water, riffles, pretty stands of majestic oaks, good wildlife, a fun rapid and the button-cute hamlet of Paoli. This section has been greatly improved upon and receives our paddling endorsement.
September 14, 2014
Flatwater (One 2′ drop)
3.5′ per mile
This is just above the recommended minimum level but we shoot for something higher. In general, anything below 50 cfs will be extremely shallow and frustrating. We recommend a minimum of 60 cfs on the Verona gauge.
Riverside Road, Verona, Wisconsin
County Road PB Bridge, Paoli, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 2:45p.
Total Time: 1h 35m
Miles Paddled: 5
Wildlife: Blue-winged teal, great blue heron, green heron, deer, killdeer, kingfishers and unidentified fish.
If ever there were a stream that embodied the old adage “you never paddle the same river twice,” it’s the Sugar – this section in particular. They say you never paddle the same river twice because each experience is unique and has its own feel and conditions (favorable or fubar) change all the time. This was my third time paddling the Verona-to-Paoli leg of the upper Sugar and it was by far the best occasion. Some of that has to do with my own growing up as a paddler but much of it is thanks to the commendable work of both volunteers cleaning up the Sugar as well as Dane County purchasing tracts of now public land along the river.
Gone are the concrete footbridges midway through this short jaunt as well as the fallen tree against which I was pitifully pinned and rolled under last year (an almost lethal debacle that still spooks me when I replay the incident in my head, one whose eerie association with the term “deadfall” is uncomfortably close to home). Two strands of barbed wire remain but they’re fairly decrepit, easy to discern from afar and duck under. Plus they’re both located shortly after the put-in at Riverside Road, so they shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, there were no obstructions until the very end of the trip.
About midway into this paddle I happened upon two other kayakers lazing about in the sun and they told me that a friend of theirs had paddled this stretch recently and had informed them of a downed tree near the dam (where the 2’ drop is located) and another by the Range Trail bridge. That information was spot-on. Shortly after the 2’ drop is a downed tree but a narrow clearing on the far-left made it passable. Alas, about 25 yards downstream from the Range Trail bridge was a honking-big fallen tree from bank to bank, likely the victim of one of the several thunderstorms we had had back in early September. That one I had to climb over – the only such annoyance on this otherwise spectacularly improved trip. The good news is that the great folks at the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association (USRWA) know about it and plan on clearing it (which, by now, a month later, may well have happened already). So I think it’s entirely reasonable that this stretch should be obstruction-free if you choose to paddle it and it’s definitely worth checking out.
What we liked:
What begins as little more than a drainage ditch near the headquarters of Epic cuts its way through Dane and Green counties and then down into Winnebago County in Illinois, more or less marking the periphery of the Driftless Area. As such, the surrounding landscape is picturesque. Plus there’s something cool in knowing that this little stream that begins just west of Madison flows all the way down to Illinois where it teams up with the Pecatonica before joining the Rock – both of which begin in Wisconsin – on its way to the mighty Mississippi.
One of the nicest parts of this little trip is how much variety there is in only five miles. True, most of the paddling is through pastures but there are a couple steep hillsides, a glimpse here and there of the gently rolling landscape at the fringe of where the last glaciers came and ended and the Driftless begins. Especially nice are the many old oaks, handsomely macabre in their gnarled isolation. The river does meander but it has moments of straightaways too, sometimes tree-canopied, other times in savanna settings of unbroken sunshine. Predominantly rural/agricultural, this trip finishes in the cute-as-a-button tiny town of Paoli, today a hub for road bicycling enthusiasts and also an artist community.
The water is clear, the bottom sandy and the current generally reliable. But for one very wide section about midway, the river is generally 30-40’ wide. There are obstacles to dodge but usually none so formidable as to be dangerous (again, usually). One of the darling highlights near the end is a 2’ drop where there used to be a dam. Predictably, you’ll hear the sound of the rushing water well before you come upon it. Also, there’s a sign that reads “Dam, Swift Water” alerting you beforehand. A well-marked portage trail allows you to circumvent the drop – or allows you to run it, get out and run it again as many times as your heart desires. It’s a sweet little drop that is a perfect combination of not really dangerous but just adrenaline-raising enough. Surfing below the drop is a whole lot of fun, too.
Riffles will take you along 100-200 yards of pretty backdrops of woods and steep banks to the charming take-out behind the beautifully restored old mill building. There’s no designated launch but the lawn is only half a foot higher than the water, so taking out is pretty easy. A short walk across the lawn leads to the gravel parking area on Canal Street.
What we didn’t like:
This is the upper Sugar River, so adequate water levels can be an issue. At 3.27’ and 53 cvs, (the levels at which I paddled this trip on this day) there was just enough water to manage the shallow sections. Still though, I’d recommend paddling this with more volume. Another 2-3” would have been perfect, especially for the fun riffles leading into Paoli.
The barbed wire also is unfortunate, of course. It’s pretty easy to discern and negotiate, as I mentioned above but still, who wouldn’t prefer that it never be strung across public rivers in the first place?
Last, the put-in at Riverside Road is totally fine and adequate but it’s somewhat confusing in that from first appearances it doesn’t look all too inviting or accessible. There is no signage for one and the path leading from the road to the river is more a trampled one made by footsteps, not one that was mowed. The bank is steep and the parking is along the road. You just have to trust me on this: the actual public access is on the upstream side of the bridge on the river-right. What’s strange is on the downstream side, river-right, there is a sign facing the river – meaning that it’s legible only if you’re already on the river – stating that this side is private property and that public access is on the other side of the bridge. Presumably this is for paddlers who have put-in upstream (about which consideration I’ll mention something in a moment) but why not have at least a modest, unadorned sign (hell, a flier) on dry land telling you where you may and may not go?
OK, so why not put-in further upstream? It’s a good question, particularly since there are two acknowledged public-access landings on USRWA’s own map of the upper Sugar. One on Bobcat Lane (north of Highway 18/151) and the other on Valley Road (south of Highway 18/151). I’ve never even scouted Bobcat Lane but it seems safe to speculate that one would need a whole lot of recent rain or snowmelt to put-in there without getting stuck in shallows. The map indicates a “rapids” between Bobcat and Valley roads, which sounds intriguing. As for Valley Road, I do not now recommend it. As of 2013 there still were barbed wires and a questionably legal cattle gate on the segment of the river between Valley and Riverside.
Incidentally, Bobcat to Valley is 2.3 miles and Valley to Riverside is 1.8 miles, so tacking both on would make for a 9.1-mile trip to Paoli. But until we learn that the Valley to Riverside section is relatively clean (at least from the cattle gate, for God’s sake!) then we recommend only the Riverside to Paoli section. Also, there is a very dangerous cattle gate that is indisputably illegal – flagrantly and egregiously illegal – just downstream from Paoli. USRWA and Capitol Water Trails both know about it. Even the DNR knows about it. The property owner has been asked to remove it and by asked I mean offered to have it replaced by something more paddler-friendly by the very groups themselves at no extra cost to the property owner and yet still the monstrosity is in place!?! Until it is dismantled, we strongly discourage the Paoli to Belleville section.
If we did this trip again:
Well, this is my third time paddling this trip. Due to its proximity to Madison and its potential for a short morning or after-work paddle, it’s always fun. Next time I will wait for a little more water on the river to enjoy the riffles better. At some point I will embark on the upstream options, because I’m a stubborn and curious guy.
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River II: Paoli to Belleville
Sugar River III: Valley Road to Paoli
Sugar River IX: County Road A to Belleville
Sugar River X: Highway 69 to County Road A
Sugar River XII: White Crossing Road to Valley Road
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Outfitter: Sugar River Outfitters
Wikipedia: Sugar River
5.5 miles and very pretty whether by car or bicycle.