Sugar River XII
White Crossing Road to Valley Road
☆ ☆ ☆
A random lark of a trip that was part accidental, part intentional, mostly to scratch a curious itch about the upper Sugar River in conjunction with crazy-high water levels, this jaunt won’t be for most paddlers except those already bitten by the Sugar River love bug; but for those so smitten, especially if already living in the Madison area, then this trip will be pretty sweet.
July 24, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles
3.5′ per mile
Verona: ht/ft: 6.5 | cfs: 400
This level is too high. (Have we ever even said that before…?) A far more likely level scenario would be 100 cfs, which should be fine and probably more fun.
White Crossing Road, Verona, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 4:10p.
Total Time: 1h 40m
Miles Paddled: 4.75
Wildlife: Great blue herons, kingfishers, songbirds, turtles and muskrats.
Originating in soggy wetlands west of Verona (next door to Madison) in Dane County, and finally feeding the Pecatonica River across the border in Illinois (shortly before the Pecatonica feeds the Rock River), the Sugar River is one of the premier streams in south-central Wisconsin. Throughout the years, we’ve paddled every mile of it from Valley Road down to the Pecatonica River. However, we’d never paddled anything upstream of Valley Road (which is a little surprising, frankly, given how ridiculously close that is to where we live). Moreover, we knew that some paddlers have been upstream of Valley Road, thanks to the great folks of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Area. To wit, putting-in at Bobcat Lane, where we’d been told there’s river access and even rapids between there and Valley Road (that, always catches our attention). As it happened, I was on the far west side of Madison on a Monday after a week of rain only a few days before and had to work only half a day anyway. So I simply shuffled 20 minutes south to Verona to see what I could see. (What? Doesn’t everyone take a kayak to work?)
Bobcat Lane is itself hard enough to find, to say nothing of the boat launch/river access on it. It’s a dead-end road less than half a mile long immediately north of and parallel to Highway 18/151 at the County Road G exit (#75). I’m the kind of weirdo who really likes staring at maps, printed or online. So I knew where Bobcat Lane was, but was essentially clueless about the launching spot. You’d think for a small half-mile road it wouldn’t be so hard, and maybe it isn’t, but I couldn’t find it. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough… Or maybe I wasn’t too phased about it because, while driving from the north I passed the river at White Crossing Road and reasoned I could just as soon launch from there, which would be even more upstream and unchartered.
(Incidentally, I did find the launch site on Bobcat during the shuttle after the paddle. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing that I missed it the first time. True, it is a little pipsqueak of a path to the river from a wooded side of the road, but there is a sign denoting it. For future reference, it’s located on the other side of the road from a farmhouse at address 7571. From the river you can see the path on the right bank, which is what tipped me off and inspired me to take a better look from dry land during the shuttle.)
Also, a quick note about White Crossing Road. There are two bridges over water here. Which is the Sugar River? This will be obvious in-person, but the bridge you want is the one south of the one that is south of the Military Ridge State Trail. The water closer to the state trail is a canal/ditch and much harder to access than the bridge over the river proper.
As for taking out, my initial plan was to do so at Riverside Road and make a longer day out of this venture. But two deciding factors put the kibosh on that: 1) The banks were totally flooded over and getting out would’ve been a bedraggled, ugly mess; and 2) as far as we know, there’s still a nasty (and illegal) cattle gate between Valley and Riverside, which at this crazy-high water level could’ve been seriously problematic. Besides, the access at Valley Road is pitch-perfect – a flat/level launch from the bank, a mowed path from the water to the parking area, an actual dedicated parking area. By contrast, Riverside is literally a drag; totally doable in normal conditions, but nowhere near as nice. So rather than chance my luck more than I was doing already, I did something I almost never do: make a sensible (responsible?) decision and keep it simple by taking out at Valley. I’m so glad I did, because this trip was a lot of fun (and probably would’ve been tarnished by continuing downstream to Riverside).
One last note. The only reason this trip is rated 3-stars and not 4 is we simply have no idea how the river behaves in normal conditions. We paddled this at 400 cfs, which is like biblically high. Honestly, average flow for this upper portion of the Sugar is in between 50-100 cfs. So 400 is off the charts, an anomaly really. It was a rare opportunity for us personally, but we’d really need to do this again in normal conditions to have a better baseline to present.
There are pluses and minuses about high-water paddling. On one hand, some obstructions you’d have to contend with at lower levels are now submerged and you’ll just coast over them; on the other hand, low-clearance obstacles like trees and bridges might need to be portaged around since there’s no room to go under them. It’s all relative. On this trip, in the first section – White Crossing to Bobcat – there were two portages: one over a farm bridge, the other around a downed tree. At lower levels these might be more negotiable (although the farm bridge is really low). Then again, there was a cluster of fallen telephone poles in the river that I easily rode over; but at normal/low levels this could require a portage.
It’s a skimpy two miles from White Crossing to Bobcat Lane, and half of the time the river is artificially straightened. So, you’ll have moments of meandering, then long straightaways, and then meandering, etc. If you can look past the near-constant views of the Epic campus and its surreal Dubai-like sprawl (seriously, the stuff of Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz on steroids and an acid trip) and the highway sounds, there’s a lot of pretty scenery in the surrounding landscape: soft moraine hills, scattered oak trees, wavy tallgrass wetlands. There are at least two obstructions that will probably warrant portaging, however. The inconspicuous access at Bobcat Lane is on river-right (there is no bridge) and would make for an excellent and arguably better place to begin a trip on the upper Sugar River (at least in terms of skipping the crap you’d have to portage upstream).
Below the bridge at Highway 18/151 the river is essentially wild. By and large, the whole landscape here is part and parcel of the Sugar River Wetlands State Natural Area, a complex about the same size as the Epic campus itself! Gone are the channelized straightaways, fleeting the sights and sounds of civilization. Here instead are wetlands, pastures, and oak trees.
The take-out at Valley Road is as good as they get. The left bank on the upstream side of the bridge is level and flat, and it connects via a mowed path the water to an actual dedicated parking area. Moreover, there’s helpful signage as well as a brush for your boat and shoes to help prevent the spread of invasive species – especially the persnickety (and insanely small) New Zealand mudsnail – all courtesy of great groups like the River Alliance of Wisconsin, Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, and the awesome citizen volunteers who put in sweat equity on their behalves. Like you would upon entering someone’s abode as a polite guest, kindly wipe your feet!
What we liked:
Probably on account of the high water, launching from White Crossing Road was an easy breeze. (What this would be like ordinarily, at lower/normal levels, is anyone’s guess; but the landscape in general is grassy and flat, so it’s unlikely to be significantly different.) The skimpy two miles or so from here to Bobcat Lane offers a pleasant novelty of bucolic scenery juxtaposed with the epic Epic campus.
If you live in the Madison area, chances are you’ve been on Highway 18/151 a time or two. The highway passes over the upper Sugar River in between exits 76 and 75. I’ve done this at least a couple hundred times. So, being on the water here for the first time and going underneath this familiar bridge was a novelty of its own.
It’s here too that I finally saw the river bottom. It can’t be overstated how astonishing this is, considering how high the water was. To say it differently, the river was still at least 3-4′ deep, and yet the water was clear enough to take in the sand-gravel bottom. In normal conditions and at a lower level, this stretch must be beautiful. Also here is where the current really picked up; but, because the river was so high, the alleged rapids downstream from Bobat were all washed out.
That said, there was a cool novelty to paddling over the banks, when the opportunity presented itself. Don’t want to bother with a kinky meander? Screw it! Just take a shortcut over to the other side. There was one section where the river basically disappeared in one lake-like pond. It took me a minute just to find the current again to know where to go.
As you meander this way and that, the river environs alternate between woodsy, enclosed, and narrow, to wide-open wetlands and savanna. During a couple moments, after the novelty and unique nuances of the river upstream of Highway 18/151, I kept thinking “Ah yes, now this is starting to look and feel like the Sugar River!” Being so close to Madison, the intimate moments found here and there make for great escapes. And if you have only the time or inclination for a ~3-mile trip early in the morning or after work, then Bobcat to Valley makes for a perfect little outing.
What we didn’t like:
I don’t know if it would’ve occurred to me even to try paddling upstream of Bobcat Lane, if I hadn’t already driven over the river via White Crossing Road (not to mention not finding the launch on Bobcat). I’m really glad I did this because it was pretty and interesting. But at lower/normal levels this section could be really frustrating due to obstructions in and off the water. And the long straightaways don’t leave much for imagination.
Below Bobcat and Highway 18/151 there are alleged rapids (probably riffles/Class I). On this occasion, the river was so high that it was above the banks. When this occurs, the effect is rather that of a speed bump or a sponge that soaks up the water and slows the flow. But the current still chugged along, and one could make out discernible angles (vectors?) of where rapids most likely would be.
Upstream of Valley Road is a private, mostly dilapidated footbridge that seems intentionally designed to be sabotaged and dangerous to paddlers. It’s already low-clearance to begin with, and two-thirds of it are barricaded with horizontal 2×4’s, so the only way under/through is a skinny section on the far left where the current is brisk and there’s some stupid tree branches on the downstream side. Why in the world would someone intentionally barricade a bridge? It seems a little sadistic. Seriously, it’s just uncalled for.
Finally, where the river is wooded and narrow, strainers often can be a nuisance. We clipped and sawed off along our way, but new downfall is always an issue. There’s a scrubby cluster immediately upstream of the Valley Road bridge. That said, these were worse in the high water.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, at least the Bobcat-to-Valley segment, either as its own “cocktail hour paddle” or continue downstream to Riverside Road or even Highway 69. If nothing else, we feel both obliged and personally curious to experience this section of the river under normal water levels. Also, I’d take a crowbar with me and remove the stupid 2×4’s at the footbridge in between Highway 18/151 and Valley Road to make this passage safer.
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River II: Paoli to Belleville
Sugar River III: Valley Road to Paoli
Sugar River VII: Riverside Road to Paoli
Sugar River IX: County Road A to Belleville
Sugar River X: Highway 69 to County Road A
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Wikipedia: Sugar River
4.6 miles by car or bike. A pretty little jog along up and down some hills.