Yahara River V
Lake Kegonsa to Stoughton
☆ ☆ ☆
A short stretch of slow, wide water between Lake Kegonsa and downtown Stoughton that is mostly developed but still pleasant. This makes for a great beginner’s river or after-work float.
December 13, 2014
Stoughton: ht/ft: 6.30 | cfs: 336
We recommend this level.
La Follette County Park at Lake Kegonsa dam
Riverside Drive Park, Stoughton dam, Stoughton, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:45p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 1h 45m
Miles Paddled: 5.25
Wildlife: Great blue herons, mergansers, geese, ducks, muskrats and beaver.
Full disclosure: This stretch of the Yahara was where I had my very first trip in a kayak six years ago in late August 2008. As such, it shall always hold a special if sentimental place in my heart.
This section is only five miles long but there are several distinct characteristics about it. The first mile is positively lovely, then there’s a huge lake-like marsh with a developed shoreline, then it tapers again below County Road B, swells into another marsh after Viking County Park and then finally tapers again through downtown Stoughton through a mix of residences and businesses. Except for the very beginning where the lake drains, there is essentially no current on this trip, so the paddling time will have more to do with your own stamina and sauntering.
This isn’t the prettiest section of the Yahara by any means and if you don’t like seeing buildings then it isn’t for you. But it is nonetheless, a pleasant stretch that’s worth checking out sometime at dawn or after work at sunset.
Situated at the base of Lake Kegonsa, here the Yahara River resumes its course after connecting Madison’s chain of lakes like a necklace of pearls. The put-in is fun since just behind you is the lake and in front of you, a river meandering through marsh. You can paddle upstream into the lake, though this is the one part of the trip where there is current (a gentle gradient is found underneath the railroad bridge connecting river and lake). You can skip this upstream scrimmage by putting-in at the boat launch for Lake Kegonsa State Park, just opposite the train tracks but a State Parks pass is required. I mention all this because paddling from lake to river is a unique and captivating transition, much as the confluence of one river into another is.
Wherever you put in, the first mile of this short trip is the most intimate. There is relatively no development and you are surrounded by cattails and sedge. A tall bank on the left shore is lined by very attractive oaks. Slow-going and shallow, the river is generally 80’ wide (expanding and contracting a couple times downstream). Water clarity is crystal clear.
A small island announces the first of two huge swells in this trip. If you keep to the left you will head into the heart of the marsh. Wild and undeveloped, it can be very shallow in spots. Keeping to the right takes you directly into the lake-like sprawl of water where you’ll see a development on the right shore. On a windy day this section can be unforgiving. It’s also a little disorienting – where does the river continue after this huge sprawl? East is the answer, or river-left from the paddler’s point-of-view. There is a pleasant hill on the left that rises above the river but otherwise, it’s best just to do this section quickly and be over with it.
The first bridge is at County Road B, where on the downstream river-left side is an excellent access to shorten this trip or take-out if you wish to skip the more developed downstream section in town. The surroundings here are no longer residential but development persists. A dog park is on the left bank, farmland on the right. When the water is high, a narrow inlet on the left can be paddled in a clockwise direction back into the main stream (watch out for fishing line though!)
One more boring slough of lake-like sprawl lies after Viking County Park. Off in the distance to the right you’ll see the buildings of an industrial park, while on the left upon a hill lies the Stoughton Hospital. As you pass under the power lines, look up, there are two osprey nests.
At long last the river tapers to a normal size as you pass under a pedestrian/bike path bridge immediately followed by a railroad bridge. From here to the takeout residential homes are everywhere. What it may lack in outdoors seclusion it somewhat makes up for in A) backyard novelty and B) the quaintness of a river still coursing through a city’s downtown.
As you approach the Main Street bridge a beautiful mural on a building to the left colorfully displays the history and rich culture of Stoughton. On the downstream side of the bridge (also on the left) is an attractive old brick building, the kind that just looks like it oughta lie along a river. Unfortunately, the river shall begin to widen again as the full effects of the dam create an impoundment. You’ll see a cemetery on a gentle hill on right-right, followed by a walking path along the river. The takeout is to the right of the dam itself. Look for the “Take Out Here” sign. Or you can take-out along the shore itself (though be prepared to sink into some mud).
What we liked:
The lake-to-river transition is fun in and of itself but there is something remarkable about the Yahara River which links the Cherokee Marsh to Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, on its way towards the Rock River by Indianford. On a foggy, soggy day (such as I paddled it last), Lake Kegonsa was beautifully spooky. Below the dam, (which is often open and runnable) the river is lovely. The gnarled oaks are always pleasing to the eye and where not developed, the Yahara here feels wild, if marshy.
I really like the downtown portion, for what it is. On river-right, all the houses sit atop an attractive hill that teases the imagination to wonder what this looked like before Luke Stoughton arrived and settled the town (fun fact: while Stoughton is steeped in Norwegian folklore and festive pride, its founder Luke was a Yankee from Vermont of English background). The mural more or less announcing town is fun, as is the architectural and cultural feel of downtown. Main Street in Stoughton is great too and feels like a small town’s downtown should. There are many good venues for food, beer, (there are two great bars in downtown Stoughton: Wendigo on Main Street – formerly the Pour House – and Viking Brewpub, also on Main) coffee, (Stoughton claims to be the town that gave America the coffee break and per capita no one drinks more coffee than Scandinavians) plus cute shops and galleries and the vaunted Stoughton Opera House.
Lastly, special mention must be made of the dam – specifically the 4th Avenue bridge just below the dam. There are two sets of pilings in the river creating three shoots through which the water flows underneath the bridge. Each shoot provides a rare Class I-II rapid opportunity with formidable standing waves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – there seems to be a drop and maybe a submerged lip or abutment that causes the standing waves. It looks passable (based on my “scientific” experiments of dropping chunks of ice and large branches on the upstream side and “monitoring” the results on the downstream side) but risky. The current is very strong, obstructions would be essentially impossible to see until the last second (if at all) and then you’re enclosed within concrete pilings (not fit for the claustrophobic). All this said, it could be fun – if you’re careful. I, myself, will wait ’til warmer weather to try this. Since the dam is on site, water levels should always be sufficient to run these rapids.
What we didn’t like:
This trip is five miles of river in between two dams with the net effect of zero current. There’s something downright wrong about a river without current; it just ain’t right. The other problem, of course, is the amount of development. But being so close to a small city, this shouldn’t be surprising.
If we did this trip again:
Next time I’d probably paddle more of Lake Kegonsa to mix things up. You can portage around the dam downtown and continue downstream but the next section of river leading to the Dunkirk dam is again flat, still, residential and thus not recommended.
Yahara River Overview: Yahara River Paddle Guide
Yahara River VI: Stoughton to Stebbensville Road
Yahara River VII: Mud Lake to Lake Kegonsa
Good People: Friends of the Yahara River
Guide: Yahara Waterways Trail Guide
Wikipedia: Yahara River
5.8 miles for cars, 4.3 miles for bicycles.