Old County Road I to Kelly Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Quite possibly the prettiest, most intimate stream we’ve been lucky enough to paddle, Robinson Creek is a dazzling palette of colors – copper, cream, and green – hidden in the hollows and lush pine trees near the Black River State Forest. Defined by sandstone rock outcrops and lined by a sandy bottom, Robinson is filled to the beguiling brim with frisky riffles and continuous runs of cushy rapids. Gorgeous and engaging, Robinson Creek is simply one of the best paddling adventures in Wisconsin.
May 7, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II ledge (at the very end that can be avoided by taking out upstream of it).
≈ 10′ per mile
Neillsville: ht/ft: 4.7 | cfs: 720
Gauge note: This 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.
East Fork of the Black River: ht/ft: 894.2 | cfs: 154
Gauge note: This gauge is geographically closer than Neillsville while measuring a more comparable watershed.
We recommend this level. It was a smidge low, but totally runnable. The best way to determine whether Robinson Creek is runnable is to check the rocky drop on the downstream side of the Kelly Road bridge (the take-out for this trip). If it looks runnable without scraping or getting stuck on it – even if you don’t run it – then the rest of the creek upstream should be fine.
Old County Road I Bridge, Millston, Wisconsin
Kelly Road Bridge
Time: Put in at 12:50p. Out at 3:40p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Wildlife: Bald eagle, deer, turkey vultures, grouse and trout.
Let me just say this casually so as to best avoid any ceremonial attachments: we paddled Robinson on my (Timothy’s) 40th birthday. In fact, the whole weekend was a veritable “best of” creek paddling in the Black River Falls area, starting first with Morrison, then Halls, and finally Robinson. Kind of a Triple Crown of creek paddling. (To be fair, the day of this paddle also coincided with the Kentucky Derby. Alas, we forgot the fixings for mint juleps, but the seersucker suits were resplendent, and the barbershop quartet singing me “Happy Birthday” was unforgettable!) Having never paddled Robinson, but practically dying to for years, it was only fitting to do it on my actual birthday. Huzzah! And now that I’m officially old and soon to be retired to rocking chairs and arthritis, a weekend of “creeking” struck me as quite apropos!
Barry first paddled Robinson back in 2012. He described it then as unparalleled in beauty and his favorite creek paddle to date. Separately and together, Barry and I have paddled a lot of other streams in the last five years. And while it’s always a fool’s errand to compare one incredibly beautiful river to another, there’s still a ringing truth to Barry’s initial observations. Robinson Creek really is one of the most beautiful streams we’ve ever paddled. As similar as it essentially is to Halls or Morrison, there truly is something distinct and special about Robinson. It’s narrower than the other two, and more colorful. The hue of the water here is like lava, as opposed to the also-awesome root beer tincture of Halls and Morrison. And whereas the latter two creeks can make your mind go a little numb with their august landscapes and stunning scenery, Robinson is a little bit more modest – but no less picturesque or spectacular.
Like the other two, Robinson is plenty rugged (especially after the take-out for this trip). If anything, Robinson just has a quieter feel to it, a more intimate engagement. But that in no way should imply it’s less exciting or exquisite. All three creeks are incredible, and they all have their own distinct character. There’s just something special about Robinson that’s hard to put into words.
The put-in at Old County Road I (upstream, river-right) is quite good. It isn’t that steep, and there’s a well-trod path from the road to the water. There’s plenty of roadside parking. The banks here are low, so launching is simple and easy. Plus there’s a riffly little rapid immediately below the bridge, so the trip is a hit right off the bat. And good lord is it pretty right away as well! Immediately, the banks rise on both sides, enclosing the creek itself in a very intimate mini-canyon feel. Some of the banks will be undercut, exposing sandstone in variegated tones of white, cream, and beige. Add to this a swift current with lots of riffles, green punctuations of lush ferns, a canopy of pine trees, and sprouts of skunk cabbage, and weeping seeps or natural springs. Seriously, it’s ridiculous! You feel like you’re in a hidden kingdom. And this is just the first mile.
The current will slow down and then stop altogether as you approach a dam, which is very easy to portage around on the right. If you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted by an adorable dog who lives there. Below the dam Robinson starts to flex a little muscle but also shows a bare shoulder blade: there’s a really sweet continuous run of Class I rapids for a couple hundred yards along an exposed rock wall on the left, not to mention a very tall sand bank on the right that’s a good 50’ high. In between will be plenty of sandbars to picnic on or just soak up the scenery.
There are other continuous runs of light rapids as well, later flanked by rock walls on the right. The action is only briefly interrupted by quieter stretches of sandy loveliness with some minor deadfall to navigate. Even when there aren’t exposed rock outcrops, the steep banks retain that mini-canyon feel, and the light rapids are just so much fun! Towering pine trees and sand bars prevail, and there are more springs and seeps than you can shake a stick at (if stick-shaking is your thing). That’s the rhythm all the way to the take-out bridge. Always lovely, never dangerous or difficult. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, let the photos below do the talking.
And then there’s the take-out at Kelly Road. Here you have two options, both on river-right: you can take out on the upstream side of the bridge in order to avoid the Class II ledge just below the bridge, or you can run the drop and dart over to the right, catch an eddy that leads to a sandy beach area, and take out there. Both are great accesses; it just depends on whether you want to run the ledge. In low water, you’d scrape and possibly even get stuck. In high water, you’d want to scout this first to make sure there was no re-circulating current at the bottom of the ledge. But at our water level, the drop was easy, fun, and an awesome way to conclude what was just an absolutely wonderful trip. Happy birthday indeed!
What we liked:
Where to begin? The outrageously cool lava-like hue of the water? The riffles, the rapids? The boulders, the sandstone rock outcrop walls? The lush ferns and pine tree canopy? The sheer intimacy of this narrow stream? The curious alteration between fast and rugged and slow and serene? What we “Liked”? It’s what we Loved! We love Robinson. Love it! It truly is a remarkable stream, totally worth the drive, totally worth waiting to catch at the right level. I can go on all day and night about it – it’s just that good.
What we didn’t like:
Some say the dirtiest four-letter word begins with an ‘f’, then a ‘u’… I beg to differ; although I do agree that the word ends in “-ck.” No, the foulest, ugliest, most awful, disgusting, sinister, contemptible four-letter word is: T-I-C-K. I hate ticks. I mean really hate ticks. I hate ticks more than I hate spiders, which is saying a lot. I hate ticks more than mosquitoes, more than black flies, horse flies, deer flies. (I may hate certain politicians, both here in the state as well as the federal level, more than I hate ticks, but for the sake of keeping things pro-paddling and non-partisan, we’ll keep this to non-human hate.)
I think I have more respect for STDs than I do the pernicious and pointless tick. I’m all for ecology and land ethic, the interwoven biome of critters both microscopic, macrobiotic, and massive. But I would be the first to obliterate ticks from the face of the earth. In a heartbeat. Without a second thought. Possibly even torturing them on their hapless path towards extinction. I mean, who does the bidding of a parasite? It’s one thing to be a parasite; you’re just doing what creation endowed you with. But something that acts as a handmaiden to a parasite. That’s where I draw the line.
Anyway, as you might gather, the Black River Falls area, for all our adulation and love for the place, is mercilessly home to ticks galore. And I, alas, I am a tick magnet. Tick you, Mother Nature!
We would be remiss not to mention the number of downed tree obstacles there are on Robinson that the paddler must maneuver around. That said, we did not have to portage around any of them. But you will be ducking under, dodging around and riding over dozens upon dozens of downed trees. Indeed, for such a relatively small and narrow stream, the amount of deadfall is both surprising and impressive. CONSIDERABLE thanks goes to the great work volunteers do to keep the creek open for paddling and trout fishing. Chainsaw maintenance is necessary and vigilant, and none of this would be possible – or passable – without the work that volunteers do. Please do consider making a financial contribution at whatever fits your budget to the Robinson Creek Preservation Association.
Otherwise, the only thing that stands out is the flatwater impoundment and dam-portage interruption. This really isn’t a big deal though. The flatwater portion is brief, the portage is short and easy, and it’s a good place to stretch your legs out anyway. Would Robinson Creek be better without the dam? Of course. But as far as dams go, this one is a minor nuisance. (At least with respect to paddling. How this dam impacts the natural landscape, not to mention what purpose it purports to serve, remains an unknown to us.)
If we did this trip again:
As noted, this was our second time doing this trip (well, Barry’s; it was the first time for Timothy and everyone else in the group). Next time – and there will be a next time, and another time after that, many other times in fact – we’d be curious to see what upstream options there are. It looks like one could add five more miles or make a separate short trip of its own right by putting in at Highway 12 in Millston, parallel a railroad bridge and the interstate. Deadfall could be problematic here, not to mention low water levels. Consider first reaching out to the great folks at Friends of the Black River or the Robinson Creek Preservation Association about the conditions here. One advantage to this is paddling through the Robinson Creek Pines SNA. Upstream of Highway 12 the creek probably is too siphoned off (or “dewatered,” as hydrologists like to say) by the bogs of Big Boss Cranberry.
Regardless, we’re definitely destined to explore the downstream segments, too. Notorious “Polly Falls” – a 6′ ledge – lies only a mile downstream from Kelly Road. Indeed, most of Robinson Creek’s actual whitewater sections are below Kelly Road. As long as we’ll be properly outfitted and mentally prepared, that almost-mythic section of Robinson has been in our bucket list for years now, beguiling all the while!
Article: Paddling Robinson Creek
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: Paddling the Black River Brochure
General: Robinson Creek Pines
Good People: Friends of the Black River
5.3 miles. Pretty scenic and countryside, but the roads are a bit rough. Not great for bicycles, but still doable.
Miles Paddled Video:
Previous Trip Report:
July 8, 2012
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Nestled in the heart of Black River Falls, Robinson Creek is as beautiful and engaging as they come. It’s an ideal destination for creek fans and is certainly deserving of a return trip or two.
Gauge: Neillsville: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 108
Time: Put in at 1:45p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Wildlife: A wolf, a couple of deer, squirrels, a blue heron and a snake.
What we liked:
The one waterway I certainly didn’t plan on paddling during this dry spell was Robinson Creek, a tributary of the Black River. With the East Fork being un-runnable during my trip to the area, I drove down to see if this creek was a possibility. And I’m so glad I did. It’s hands-down the best creek I’ve ever paddled.
We first have to thank (and plug) Morrall River Films for clueing us in on the Robinson. We wouldn’t have known about it had they not featured it in there first DVD, River Trails of Southern Wisconsin.
The put-in, as they point out, is quite steep on a rocky path leading down to the water (watch out for parsnip as I spotted some). The creek was the lowest you would ever want to (and could) paddle it. So low in fact, that immediately after putting-in, I wondered if I made a mistake in attempting it. But after a few scrapes and a little more distance behind me, I had very little trouble the rest of the way. The creek was generally about knee-depth, much shallower in some areas but also much deeper in others. I luckily only had to portage over shallows twice. There was always a path, even in the narrowest of sections so long as I read the stream and keep to the outside corners where the water was the deepest. Being in a kayak may have helped. I’m not sure a canoe with 2 people could have made this same trip at it’s current depth since the added weight would probably keep you grounded. Various springs feed the creek which also helped me make my way. For future reference, the guys up at the Hatfield Sports Shop know these waters very well and will help you gauge whether it’s possible to paddle this or any other waters in the area.
The Robinson is unparalleled in beauty. It’s mostly pine-canopied and narrow with a canyon-like feel at times. And you’ll see some amazing rock or sand walls, alternating both sides of your boat as you make your way downstream.
About 2 miles into the trip, you’ll come upon a dam near a Cranberry Marsh. This is private land and should be portaged river-right. Be sure to respect the land owner and the dam. It’s not meant for public use but they graciously allow paddlers to portage around it. After the dam, the water level fell again and this is where I had to portage for only the second time as I was hung up on a sandbar. After only a few feet of walking, I was home-free. The bottom is almost completely sand for the next mile or so. It eventually becomes a mixture of pebbles, rocks and sand again.
The creek is really riffly throughout and it’s one of those creeks where the horizon often appears lower, giving you the sense of paddling downhill, especially in the canyon-like areas where you’ll encounter lots of riffles. There is also a very specific class I (maybe II in higher water?) after a couple of gentle ledges. It’s in the shape of a V and kind of sneaks up on you (or it did, me). Even at this low level, my boat took on a good amount of water. My phone took the brunt of it, fogged and all, as did my map but it was a nice way to cool off. It’s actually the same drop that these canoers tipped over on. It’s really fun as long as you’re expecting it and at a higher level, you’ll have plenty of opportunity for surfing afterwards.
I will say that the last 2 miles can be a bit daunting. The twisting and turning could test a beginner’s patience. But as long as you let the current lead, you should have no trouble making your way around the tight turns and fallen debris.
On the approach to the Kelly Road bridge, I was greeted by fly-fishermen (I hadn’t seen any fish, but these pristine waters are ripe for some trout). The take-out is river-right before the bridge. There is an awesome 2-3 foot ledge just after the bridge that I badly wanted to paddle down but I couldn’t spot an obvious take-out downstream that wasn’t on private property. Either way, it was a pretty end to a beautiful paddle.
This Robinson feels very remote and aside from the cranberry bog dam and some houses near the end, it is. I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter in this environment. I startled a deer and fawn drinking from the creek and a water snake startled me. I also spotted a blue heron and tons of squirrels. But the most unique encounter was at the take-out. When I was heading up the path to my vehicle, I saw a wolf. At first I looked away, assuming it was someone’s german shephard but I looked backed because that didn’t really register as normal considering where I was and the behavior seemed different. It had that “stare-right-through-you” look, then it turned it’s head and trotted north into the forest. My camera was still fogged so I tried to capture it on the GoPro but of course, it was gone.
One of my favorite things about paddling is traveling through all the little towns that are just off the beaten path that I would normally never visit. The same can be said for campgrounds. The first night I stayed at the East Fork Campground in the Black River State Forest (my honest opinion? Site #13 is the best. It’s really large and you can paddle right up to your campsite or fish from your picnic table if you wish). It’s nestled alongside the East Fork of the Black River. I didn’t even consider putting on a rainfly while setting up camp and low and behold… it rained! It was a wonderful and welcome 20-minute downpour which sent me scrambling to save my tent but it was awesome. Just not enough to fill the Black for me to paddle the next day. And the camp attendant was delightful. She shared stories of the bears, wolves, cougars, lynx, bobcats and snakes (something we both share a dislike of) in the area.
Another semi-unrelated point to the Robinson Creek paddle was my travel south, to yet another river I had planned on paddling (and was yet again disappointed to learn it was also too low to paddle). So I spent the night at Buckhorn State Park which is located on a peninsula on the Castle Rock flowage, south of Petenwell. It’s an incredible park, with a system unlike any other I’ve experienced in Wisconsin. While some sites are drive-up, the majority are hike-in (from 40 feet to 2 miles) and at each post, is a cart with the site number that you use to wheel your gear in to your site. I had a very short hike (campsite #26) which was relatively secluded (except for a snake that was sharing my private beach).
And at times like these, when I can’t paddle, I fish. If you happen to stay at that site, I’ll offer up some specific fishing advice for the beginner but it could be used practically anywhere on the flowage (I grew up on the Wisconsin, so how to fish these waters is very familiar to me, even though I’m more of a river guy).
First of all, it’s all about confidence. Fishing isn’t hard. To overly-simplify it: It comes down to what they eat, where they eat and when they eat (If you’re fishing for something specific, that takes a little more knowledge). During the day, you won’t have much luck in this sandy area but evening always levels the playing field when it comes to fishing. Toss your line straight out from the #26 post facing the lake as far as you can. Use a yellow or multi-colored 1/16th or 1/8th-ounce jig (I’ll tell you about purple jigs another time) with a crawler (or preferably a minnow). Reel in your line so it’s taught. Now watch the tip of your rod. The tip is your bobber and it tells you everything you need to know. Once you see it bounce, pick up the rod, reel in any slack and wait until you feel the tug again. As soon as you do, set the hook. As with anything, it’s all about the execution. Starting at dusk and fishing until about 10, I expected to land a carp or a few bullhead or catfish. Instead, I ended with a dozen smallmouth and a couple of fat bluegill. That’s my Babe Winkelman-advice for you.
What we didn’t like:
I can’t think of a single thing, except not being able to paddle the Black River due to low water levels.
If we did this trip again:
We’d be lucky to paddle this once a year due to it’s location but it’s so worth the effort. It’s definitely possible to drive from Madison to Black River Falls, paddle it and head back all in the same day. We’ll definitely have it on our radar if we’re up exploring other waters in the area. There’s just something about the intimacy of a creek or a small river. Robinson Creek has it all; canopy, rock walls, sandbars, wildlife, clean and clear water. The way it alternates from an intimate walled creek to a beautiful canopied forest just makes it such a special place to paddle. Even though the rest of my trips didn’t materialize, I feel lucky to have experienced this creek and would highly recommend it at a higher water level. It surpassed my expectations and is to-date, my favorite creek paddle.
Miles Paddled Video: