Sugar River: West Branch
Fritz Road to County Road PB
☆ ☆ ☆
A beautiful paddle through beautiful countryside, this trip guarantees a few hours of complete alone-time through some above average Southern Wisconsin locales. Be prepared though, because due to its lack of popularity, you’ll earn your way down the West Branch of the Sugar via deadfall, tight corners and some work with your saw.
By Trevor Bellrichard & ‘A’
Miles Paddled contributors
July 27, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈1-2′ per mile
Verona: ht/ft: 4.9 | cfs: 245
Gauge note: This gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the river. It does however give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Sugar River system.
This is a little higher than a recommended level. The river was pushy in tight corners and around challenging deadfall. A ht/ft of 3.0 – 3.5 at Verona would probably be more ideal.
County Road PB, northwest of Belleville, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 4:30p. Out at 7:15p.
Total Time: 2h 40m
Miles Paddled: 5.25
A family of sandhill cranes, one bald eagle and one way-too-large wolf spider.
We had recently paddled this trip (off the record) about a month ago and loved it enough that we wanted to return. However, our memories of that trip on this tributary to the Sugar River are a bit blurred and confused after this most recent trip.
Due to near constant heavy rain, the West Branch was running at least a foot higher than our previous excursion. Combining water levels with more deadfall because of recent storms, this trip was quite a bit more difficult than the first time around. At two points we were forced to exit the boat; once onto the deadfall itself while we pulled the boat over, and another onto shore where we dragged the boat through a messy downed tree. Near the end of the trip we found ourselves wrapped in the not-so-warm embrace of a downed willow. Cutting our way out, the path is clear for the next boat, but who knows what future storms will do.
Some of the deadfall lies immediately after tight blind corners, and combining that with current that’s just on the wrong side of pushy, an inexperienced or day-dreaming paddler may find themselves in a sticky situation (or wet). We are canoeists but a kayak would be more suited to the West Branch.
The put-in access at Fritz Road is good. Because of high water, what was a nice grass landing last month is now two feet of water hidden by tall grass so step cautiously. On the west side of the bridge an irrigation ditch makes putting-in easier. In high water you have two chances at getting under the bridge, slim and none… and slim just left town.
There are many, many tight corners on the West Branch and often times you have no idea what lies “just around the river bend”. This is bittersweet as it makes for an exciting and yet challenging paddle. Sometimes it’s a beautiful view or serene quiet moment, other times it’s a large willow that you’ll be tangling with in 3…2…1… so stay alert.
A few times throughout, you’ll be treated to large horseshoe corners and banks lined with large, old oaks. These were just wonderful. We found ourselves wondering how long those old timers have stood there and how many paddlers they have seen go by. Probably not many and that feels special.
In comparison to its bigger cousin, the West Branch is a treat. This wild stretch is almost completely untouched by man or beast. Gone are the muddy bottoms, slow corners and cattle control devices. The water was starting to clear during our paddle, so we believe a few more days without rain would reveal a very clear water river. We should add that while there are trout in the upper stretches of this tributary, they don’t reside in this stretch.
This part of the Sugar River system really is beautiful. Most of the river winds through meadow and oak parks. You’ll see distant farms and rolling hills as you drift (in high water you almost careen) through this corner of Dane County. As you paddle, it’s easy to forget where you are and a feeling of isolation washes over.
But all good things must come to an end. The river begins to widen and slow as it makes its way to County Road PB. The take-out there is so-so. Once under the bridge, the take-out is obvious to spot on river-left. The bank is steep, the shoulder is steep and highway PB is busy. If that doesn’t sound ideal, (it isn’t) consider adding another 2.5 miles by joining the mighty Sugar River proper and taking-out at the park in Belleville.
What we liked:
We like guerilla paddles, so the deadfall and portages for us, are all part of the fun. We were torn on whether or not this trip should be three or four stars. In lower water and with fewer obstructions, we would shout about this stretch of river from the mountain tops. As it was, we’d caution anyone to attempt this without being prepared for a healthy dose of adversity. This is not a trip for the under-prepared or the over-zealous. Although, that statement should be couched by saying the West Branch is this close to being a hidden gem.
What we didn’t like:
A few paragraphs up we mention the West Branch is almost untouched by man or beast. When the river turns south, it gets a bit more populated. The water quality starts to decrease as it begins draining farmland instead of meadow and woods. Along those lines, it takes a jaunt straight through an active pasture. The upside is that there are no fences or control structures to deal with. The downside is, you know, what cows do in rivers – the sights, sounds and smells are… well, uninspiring.
If we did this trip again:
We would bring a more serious saw, fewer valuables and another beer.
Wikipedia: West Branch of the Sugar River