Kickapoo River: West Fork
County Road S to Highway 56
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The West Fork of the Kickapoo is a “river” by name only. This is very much a creek and creekers will love this lively and twisty section which shares distinct similarities to not only another class A trout stream, Black Earth Creek, but also the narrow confines of the Badfish, as well as the sometimes rough and brushy banks of Koshkonong Creek.
This ride, however, is set in the Kickapoo River Valley which gives it a slight edge with its modest rock outcroppings, a dozen or so mini-islands and amazing water clarity. That, and its endless riffles make it an appealing endeavor for those who don’t mind less-than-ideal put-ins and take-outs. Our first-hand advice though, is to catch it at higher water levels than these.
August 26, 2015
Riffles (a lot of them)
These gauges don’t correlate to the stream itself but they give a general idea of water in the area. We definitely recommend higher levels than these. At these levels, you won’t be spending the day walking the creek but you’ll definitely scrap throughout the entire stretch. For reference, I would shoot for at least the following levels when Rick Kark paddled it on June 2, 2015: Ontario read ht/ft: 8.43, cfs: 62 and La Farge: ht/ft: 2.87, cfs: 168.
County Road S
Highway 56, Liberty, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 10:45a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.75
An insane amount of trout, a couple turtles, a couple muskrats, a bald eagle and thousands of grasshoppers.
The shuttle was a surprisingly easy 5 miles (less than 30 minutes) for this area. But then again, this section doesn’t have a steep gradient. Nevertheless it was short and the perfect end-shuttle for a day paddle.
Having recently run across Rick Kark’s Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to 309 Wisconsin Streams, I was inspired to check out his 309th paddle – the curtain-call of his handbook, if you will. His guide and the reports within it span decades which makes for moderate accuracy in predicting paddling conditions but this one, his last one, was paddled in June of this year so I figured the report was pretty accurate and timely.
And it was. The water levels however, were more in his favor than mine.
I had been watching the nearby gauges to see if there was water in the area for awhile now. These levels were near-identical to our trip on the main branch of the Kickapoo a few years ago and we had no trouble then. Of course, this is a different source of water and the levels were lean.
Now, had I known of Timothy’s experience just the week before on the main branch of the Kickapoo and the struggles that came with that low water level, I probably would’ve waited to explore this, but I had the day off and it’s a pretty drive from Madison, so I thought I’d check it out.
It was indeed a scrape-y little ride but with a couple more inches of water, this would be an excellent run. To be honest, for August, (and a dry one at that) I was surprised there was still water in this part at all.
What we liked:
I’ll fight the urge to call this the mini-Kickapoo or the lil’ Kickapoo but it does share a lot of similarities; the crystal-clear water, the floor bottom makeup and the sandstone outcrops. It doesn’t hold a candle to the main stem (otherwise, you would’ve already heard about it and probably paddled it) but creek fans who don’t mind scratchy put-ins and take-outs will love this paddle and all the riffles and jetting-trout shadows that come with it.
There are two put-in options for this section. The first, a dedicated fishing access with parking. I scouted it but the brush was already high this time of year and County S wasn’t too far away – about 1/4 mile (or so) further up the road, so I headed upstream (plus, I’m kind of a bridge guy anyway). In hindsight, County S and the fishing access are essentially the same; weedy, probably tick-laden and both with solid odds that they each contain a fair share of rash-giving plants just waiting for some foolish kayaker to brush up against them.
I chose County S to put-in and I recommend you do the same because that additional 1/4 mile on the water offers some fun and pretty views that you would otherwise miss.
In general, the West fork is a very shallow (even in higher water, I reckon – because of the many, many shallows) and narrow stream. The water is a green-ish/marine blue at times especially in the deeper areas but mostly crystal clear (and who doesn’t like that?). Its depths appeared to run about 4’ at its deepest on this day but there were pockets where I’d lose sight of the bottom.
Despite being sand-bottomed almost the entire way, there are very few sandbars. You’ll encounter stretches of stony and rocky areas comprised of natural rocks, small boulders and the occasional concrete slab (from what, I don’t know).
As Kark notes, the banks are often lined with box elders, willows and basswoods and I agree with him that the corridor was mostly grass and would’ve been somewhat boring if not for the views of the forested hills surrounding.
Indeed, an added element of beauty are the surrounding bluffs and of interest is the fact that you’re actually on the Western side of the bluffs from the more-familiar main branch. They’re kept at a distance, (save for the one that frames the backdrop of the farm across from the put-in) but when the backdrop opens up to grassy banks, you’re reminded of the valley and those glimpses of the rolling hills add to the depth of your surroundings. On a day like this one, I got the added benefit of the clouds casting decipherable shadows on the giant hills beyond.
What struck me most were the countless riffle beds… very rarely did I paddle long (or straight for that matter) without eyeing more beyond the bow. There was one riffly pass after another – bend after bend. It’s fun and you get used to it – almost spoiled by the fact that you know another one will be lurking around the corner. Now, scraping over them was another story, that I got used to right away. I also loved the (what seemed like a) dozen or so mini-islands (I guess you could call them future islands? – totally intentional) that split the river into choose-your-own-adventure channels.
Now, for all the warnings about this being scrapesville, I was never overly-inconvenienced. I portaged twice (not bad for almost 7 miles). Once, at the end of the second wall of sandstone, which in higher water could’ve been paddled over. The second, as mentioned in Kark’s guide, is literally within eyesight of the Highway 56 bridge (and take-out) and it’s non-negotiable. The size of the trunk and the depth of the water surrounding this obstruction requires that you climb over it (circumventing would’ve been a challenge).
But for being so narrow and also not being a popular paddling destination, I was surprised that this river was so free from deadfall. It certainly has all the surroundings that could make for a tough go of it but I had a relatively free and easy paddle.
The West Fork is a trout stream first and foremost and it’s highly regarded as such (current fly-fishing reports here). And trout are everywhere. Darting and big. With each passing stroke, trout would jet upstream and down and were as thick as the grasshoppers at the fishing parking lot (and alternative put-in option mentioned earlier). It was hard to keep your eyes on the road at times.
In fact, I came upon a fly-fishermen and his dog standing midstream while coming around a bend. We chatted briefly and he admitted that he’s never seen a kayaker on this river. He asked if I knew about the main branch? I kind of laughed to myself and said, “yeah, we like to explore streams off the beaten branch.”
There’s just something about trout streams and how excellent trout habitat makes for wonderful paddling too (see also: innumerable rivers of Montana). Aside from the abundance of trout, wildlife was at a minimum except for a couple muskrats and a bald eagle that flew low overhead.
But the highlights of this paddle are what you would (or personally, I had) hope to find with “Kickapoo” in the name – fern and moss covered sandstone bluffs. The shapes felt similar but the magnitude of them are definitely on the miniature side, rising only about 10-12’. But there are five walls that line the paddle and break up the riffles and mini-islands throughout (I say that like it’s a bad thing).
The walls are short-lived (in length) but beautiful and quite photogenic. The first one, you’ll have to search for but the others are more apparent and stand revealed. The third one is the most distinct, located directly after the Highway 82 bridge with a sandstone bluff that endcaps a wall just like you’d see on the main branch.
I should note that there is one drop that might constitute a Class I (but barely, I’ll give it a .5 class – I can do that, right?) but it’s more of a simple ledge at these levels and would probably disappear at higher levels.
The take-out is probably a little tougher for the average easy-maintence paddler. It’s under the highway bridge with an awkward exit up a steep sand and rock incline. From there, is another adventure through plants that’ll have you muttering, “Lord, I hope this isn’t poisonous”, under your breath.
What we didn’t like:
What comes with less-traveled rivers and creeks are usually less-than-ideal accesses and that was certainly the case here. People visit this section to fish, not to lug 10-foot pieces of plastic down the banks, afterall.
We’ve certainly encountered worse but these were not necessarily a physical challenge as much as they were plant-spotting challenges (and those of us who think all leaves appear to come in threes suck at these kind of challenges). So, for those who are bothered by bushes and brambles and all the ticks or whatever else comes with that, this part could be a downer.
If we did this trip again:
The main branch of the Kickapoo River is one of the premier destinations in Wisconsin, if not the Midwest and it was a joy to, along with Rick, shine a light on and explore a lesser-known fork of this river. There’s something wonderful about paddling a rarely-trodden place. The sense of discovery is appealing. The wonderment of what’s around the corner – nothing compares to it.
I can’t wait to get back but in higher water and see what happens to the numerous riffles (might they disappear? Were they so plentiful only due to the low-water level?). I’m willing to bet that it’s much more fun at higher levels (but I’ve never been very good at gambling). In water levels like these, this specific day deserved a 3-star rating but based on the knowledge that Rick Kark had an enjoyable (and sometimes glowing) paddle earlier in the season, I’m giving it a 4-star rating based on his report and what I feel is a lot of potential.
Lastly, let us tip our hat to you Mr. Kark, for sharing your paddling history and inspiring people like us to explore territory that we may not have otherwise thought to venture. Happy 309th!
Miles Paddled Video: