Morrison Creek II
Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Clear to root beer-hued water in a near-wilderness state forest with no development whatsoever, a non-stop parade of rapids up to and including one challenging Class II-III ledge, and an astonishing mix of granite boulders followed by stunning sandstone rock walls with weeping seeps – Morrison Creek is bawdy and blissful.
May 5, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty:Class II (with one II-III ledge that can be easily portaged)
17′ per mile
Neillsville: ht/ft: 5.5 | cfs: 1050
East Fork Black River: ht/ft: 892.03 | cfs: 86.10
Gauge note: The Neilsville gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the creek. It does, however, give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Black River Falls area. The East Fork gauge is geographically closer than Neillsville while measuring a more comparable watershed.
We absolutely recommend this level but solid boat control will be required, as the current can be pushy. The best way to determine whether Morrison Creek is runnable is to check the visual gauge on the water itself at the Cemetery Road bridge. Look for the large rock in the middle-right of the creek on the downstream side of the bridge. Ideally, you don’t even want to see the rock. If just the tip is exposed, you’ll be in good shape. If a few inches show, you’ll scrape. For this trip, unlike our first trip, the rock was submerged; there was only a little riffle on the surface above the rock. We were giddy as kids!
Cemetery Road, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Trail off Pettibone Pass (just north of Dickey Creek bridge). Note: There are two rough dirt “roads” off Pettibone Pass. The one heading west on the downstream side of the bridge at Dickey Creek is longer and unforgiving (but doable) and leads to the Black River immediately downstream from the mouth of Morrison Creek. This is what we did in September 2015. For this trip we took the other option, which is about 700’ north of the bridge. Where Pettibone Pass bends east, stay straight and take the dirt “road” into the woods. There is a postal address sign marking the spot. Sometime in the past there must have been a couple properties back here, but today it’s all open and abandoned. Old paddling maps state that this is private property, and maybe it still is, but there are no “No Trespassing” signs, so we opted it for it to shave off a mile of meandering bottomlands and to save the underside of our cars.
Time: Put in at 4:00p. Out at 6:15p.
Total Time: 2h 15m (including bailing out after an accident, sawing down the cause of said accident, and much contemplation/discussion about running the intimidating Class III ledge before we finally did it)
Miles Paddled: 5.75
Wildlife: Bald eagle, deer, frogs, turkey vultures and one great blue heron.
We love Morrison Creek. In fact, we’ve gone back and forth about whether it’s prettier than Halls Creek. Or maybe Robinson Creek is the fairest of them all. Or… And such was the inspiration behind a 3-day weekend of paddling all three creeks in celebration of Timothy’s 40th birthday.
The only two things we didn’t like about our first trip down Morrison a couple years ago were the low levels at which we paddled it and the dirt road leading to the take-out (well, Timothy’s low-rider VW Golf didn’t like it). Upon crossing the Cemetery Road bridge to get to the East Fork Campground in the Black River State Forest, we stopped to see the visual gauge rock mentioned above. It was underwater, and we were super-psyched. But we dawdled a bit at the campsite before we hit the road for our paddle trip, which is why we opted for a different take-out this time around.
There’s no real purpose in regurgitating what we like about Morrison Creek in general; that can be read in our first account. But as the saying goes, “you never paddle the same river twice.” That’s especially true when the river has rapids and you catch it at a higher stage than during your first time-round. A few extra inches made a huge difference. We often joke that such-and-such a trip would’ve been better if the stream had only had 1-2 inches more water. But it really is true. Morrison absolutely rocked at this level, whereas last time we scraped all the time. Both times we just adulated over how unfreakingbelievably pretty it is.
Cemetery Road is the official put-in for paddling Morrison Creek (upstream, river-right). The reason for this – and why Morrison is such a short trip – is there are no bridges or even nearby roads upstream of Cemetery Road for 10 miles, at Highway 54. (Upstream of Cemetery Road is nothing but ATV trails through the State Forest.) What little info there is out there on Morrison is strictly in reference to Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass.
As short as this trip is, it combines some of the best “lightwater” paddling with jaw-dropping scenery. What do we mean by “lightwater”? That’s our playful neologism for mild whitewater: the kind of whitewater paddling that hovers around Class I-II rapids; the kind of whitewater paddling that allows you to drink beer and still be silly; the kind of whitewater paddling that allows you to take photos; the kind of whitewater paddling that doesn’t require a spray skirt. Other than the Class II-III ledge that appears in the first mile, there’s nothing intrinsically technical or difficult about Morrison Creek – it’s just good clean fun in a spectacularly pretty environment. That said, it’s not a stream for beginners. And prudence dictates to keep off the creek when it’s surging high.
Of the three primary creeks in the Black River Falls/Jackson County area (Halls and Robinson being the other two), Morrison appears to be the only one affected by glaciation. This does not mean it’s flat, however. Far from it. Like the East Fork of the Black River and portions of the Black River itself upstream of the interstate, giant boulder deposits abound, and they’re nothing to be taken for granite. (Sorry.) But roughly midway through this short 6-mile trip the boulders and gravel bottom yield to sandstone rock outcrops, canyon walls, super-tall sand banks surrounded by lush ferns and weeping seeps and a sandy bottom. The Black River Falls area pretty much lies on the boundary between Driftless Area and glaciated, and nowhere is this contrast better demonstrated than on Morrison Creek. In just six brief miles you paddle through what is palpably where the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded. To put it differently, the second half of this trip, where the landscape is ruggedly intact and still dominated by sandstone, is very, very old.
And it bears reiterating: there is no development whatsoever along this trip. Not a single house, farm, building, cabin, deer stand or anything. It’s just gorgeous flora and geology.
About a mile downstream from the put-in is the only notable whitewater hazard on this trip, a Class II-III ledge/chute. You’ll want to scout this on the right-hand side before running it, to see where it’s safest to do so. Or you can portage it easily enough.
More thrilling Class I rapids whisk you down to the County Road K bridge, the only bridge on this trip. Below it, rapids will continue until about half a mile or so upstream of the confluence at the Black River, where Morrison slows down in a floodplain forest. Before those bottomlands, however, magnificent cliffs and giant boulders line the landscape. As the landscape starts to level out, you’ll have two choices of where to end your trip: still on Morrison Creek, via a dirt road that leads to a dead-end open field parallel the creek, or at the Black River, immediately downstream of the confluence (also via a dirt road that leads to a dead-end open field). Both are on river-left. Both are rugged, haggard dirt roads. The only notable tree debris/obstacles are in the bottomlands upstream of the Black River.
What we liked:
The first time we paddled Morrison Creek, it was way too low. While still fun, and breathtakingly beautiful, scraping all the time got frustrating (and unforgivingly punishing to my boat). This time around, the water level was several inches higher, and the difference was outstanding!
Also during that first time, we ran the Class II-III ledge in the first mile on the right. At that water level there was a curious curler wave in the center of the drop, while the left was to be avoided as it looked like you’d run against a rock wall. Well, this time around things were much different. With greater volume a nasty hole appears at the base of the drop on the right, which we very much wanted to avoid. So we ran it towards the left, while still steering clear of the rock wall. It wasn’t difficult to read the correct line, but it was a little intimidating, to be honest. It took a good 10 mins or so of psyching ourselves up to do it. And once we did, and didn’t screw up, it felt glorious. Especially for our pal, Mitch, who’d never run a ledge like this before. He ran it like a champ, and then needed about 10 more mins to calm his nerves afterward. Attaboy Mitch!
But again, this ledge can be portaged around on the right, where there is a rock formation. Either way, you’ll want to scout the ledge, whether you run it or portage it.
Lastly, we found the alternative take-out much easier and more forgiving than the “main” one we did the first time around. While the dirt road leading to the creek is rutty and pocked by crater-like potholes, it’s not as bad as the other, and it’s much shorter. As far as the creek itself goes, you’re forfeiting less than a mile, all of which is meandering flat bottomlands, where tree debris tends to pile up.
What we didn’t like:
As noted when we did this the first time around, the wildlife again was weirdly underwhelming for a creek that otherwise courses through what feels like wilderness. But this could’ve been because we were a party of four paddlers, often exclaiming loudly “This is so [expletive deleted] pretty!”
The only notable thing we didn’t like was capsizing within the first five minutes… We were approaching a run of rapids where the creek took a sharp bend to the right. The far right was a no-go due to a downed tree. The middle looked undesirable due to a shallow boulder garden. The only problem with going left was a fallen tree on the left bank that extended some 15′, hovering above the water by about 18”.
Timothy was first and miscalculated the line and/or force of the current and headed straight for the tree. While never desirable, this isn’t always a foregone conclusion of disaster; sometimes you can still quickly duck under the tree before getting a gazillion gallons of water in it. But when the next paddler does almost the exact same thing as the first, and crashes into the first who’s holding onto a tree, well… It was a sticky situation for a couple minutes. Remarkably, the camera never got wet, even though Timothy did (up to his neck – while wearing the camera), having no other choice but going under the jutting tree limb.
Fortunately, one person took a hold of my paddle, then my boat, while I lowered myself under the jutting tree limb, while passing from one hand to the other the above-water camera. It was rather gracefully coordinated, if I do say so.
And then I dumped out a whole lotta water from my boat.
We can’t remember if this obstruction was there when we first paddled Morrison. We remedied things by sawing off as much of the tree as we practically could so that future paddlers won’t get clothes-lined. That said, the other two paddlers in our party had no problem avoiding the tree while not scraping in the boulder garden in the first place. Point is, don’t underestimate the magnificent power of swift current!
If we did this trip again:
This is our second time running Morrison, and despite the mishap just after starting, it was even more fun than our first time. We’d do this trip again and again. Which take-out we choose will depend on the vehicles we have. The final mile of Morrison is mostly bottomlands, but confluences are always fun, too.
At some point, we’ll have to try our luck on the upper stretch of Morrison Creek (about which there is zero info out there anywhere). There are no bridges upstream of Cemetery Road until Highway 54, which would make for a 10.5-mile trip of who knows what. One must assume there’s a reason why this section is shrouded in mystery. Maybe it’s littered with down trees? Or maybe it’s just much calmer than downstream. Or maybe the parallel ATV trails through the state forest detract from the experience. The topo map doesn’t look as promising (it’s flatter), but the satellite map looks wild and undeveloped. Another day…
Morrison Creek I: Cemetary Road to Morrison Landing
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Black River
Map: Friends of the Black River
Map: Wisconsin DNR
5 miles. Like most of the back roads in Jackson County (i.e., every road that isn’t a county road or state or federal highway), half of this shuttle lies along unpaved gravel roads. Not the best place for bicycles, but not the worst either. Leave your road bike with its skinny-ass tires behind though.
Miles Paddled Video: