Little Sugar River
Schneeberger Road to Albany
☆ ☆ ☆
A pleasant trip that begins in dense floodplain woods, courses though meadows within a wildlife area, and then skirts some rock outcrops before meeting up with the “big” Sugar River in a braided network of islands and side channels in the shadow of a couple hills. The only downsides are numerous obstacles to dodge and potentially around, and a poor access at the put-in. Oh yeah – and many spiders and mosquitoes in summertime.
August 8, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈1-5′ per mile
There should always be enough water to paddle this stream.
Water Street, Albany, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:45p. Out at 7:10p.
Total Time: 3h 25m
Miles Paddled: 7.75
Wildlife: A bald eagle, deer, muskrat, frogs, songbirds, great blue heron, green heron, sandhill cranes, an owl, turkey, spiders, mosquitoes, more spiders and additional mosquitoes.
I first learned of the Little Sugar River back when I was doing research for the guidebook. I don’t even know now how I stumbled upon the following, but I read about a place called Reuben’s Cave near the confluence of the Little Sugar River and the main Sugar River. Hardly a spelunker, I’m still a sucker for caves. And history. The story goes that the cave once was the dwelling of an eccentric character named Reuben Folsom who hunted wolves (back when there were wolves in Green County – or anywhere in southern Wisconsin). Time itself and intentional dynamiting have closed off the cave past its opening. But back in the day it was a tourist destination (probably after the recluse Reuben died). Rather than try to find this obscure place by paddling upstream via a relatively boring trip on the Sugar River I’ve paddled at least six times throughout the years (i.e., Attica to Albany), I thought I’d do a little exploring of my own on the unknown Little Sugar River.
I did the paddling recon in two trips, starting back in the spring of 2015. The first was exactly like this trip, which was such a success that I returned the following day to begin further upstream, at County Road EE in Monticello, and then take out at Schneeberger Road. That trip was a total dud on account of its general blandness and the amount of downed trees to reckon with.
I hadn’t been back to the Little Sugar River since that time. This return trip was inspired by coinciding it with a lovely bike ride along the Sugar River Trail to downtown Monticello and have breakfast – and more important, pie – at M&M Café. If you take away nothing else from this trip report, let it be this: go to M&M Café in Monticello, Wisconsin, for their incredible pies! You’re welcome.
There’s no official or even great place to put in at Schneeberger Road. There’s a decent enough access on the upstream side of the bridge, river-left, although it will require a short schlep through dense underbrush and spongy grass (watch out for anything poisonous and check for ticks!) On the upstream side of the bridge, also on the left, is a shorter but steeper schlep over some loose rocks and concrete rubble.
From Schneeberger to Tin Can Road is a distance of 4.75 miles – with no bridges or landmarks between. The river lazily meanders this way and that through a rather primitive floodplain forest. Other than a huge yard and shooting gallery on the right within the first half-mile, you’ll see no signs of civilization until Tin Can Road. (About that yard and gallery, it’s pretty random and a little peculiar. Especially since there’s no visible house or shack. It’s the sheer isolated nature of it that makes it stand out so. But definitely the kind of place you hope to God not to hear dueling banjos playing in the background…)
The river is only about 25′ wide at its maximum, often narrower. As such, deadfall does accumulate. Much of the downed trees can be circumvented by paddling around, ducking under, or riding over them. When I paddled this in 2015, there were obstacles aplenty, but I never had to portage. This time around there was one necessary portage, an easy one at that. I cleared out three other nasty spots with my new favorite tool: a battery-operated sawzall. One cool aspect to the deadfall is the effect of tree stumps and limbs beneath the water. The Little Sugar is primarily sand-bottomed, and while not crystal clear, the hue is fairly translucent. As such, you’ll often be passing over tree remnants that you’ll be able to discern. Kinda sorta like shipwrecks.
About 2-3 miles downstream from the put-in you’ll technically be within the Albany Wildlife Area, over 1400 acres large. There’s no sign denoting this, of course, and hardly anything will change on or off the river, relative the paddler’s perspective. But it’s great that it exists! Around this same too you’ll come upon a huge island in a right-hand bend. Take the right channel, as the left one is clogged and blocked. It’s the only sizable island on this trip, so you’ll recognize it.
When not tree-canopied, occasionally you’ll see views of pastures and small hills. One especially pretty segment is a long, wide, open straightaway that heads south with a gentle hill in the foreground. After this, the river flows under the Sugar River Trail bridge and then Tin Can Road shortly after. On this trip, it took us over two hours to reach Tin Can Road. Part of that had to do with cleaning and clearing some deadfall, but a lot of it is a result of all the meandering and obstacle-dodging. From Tin Can Road to the take-out, a distance of three miles, it took us just over an hour. There were no obstacles here and way fewer meanders.
The Little Sugar is arguably its prettiest between Tin Can Road and its confluence with the main Sugar River (unless you really love dense swamps and/or dislike open spaces). Gradually, the right bank will rise, and eventually you’ll see some exposed sandstone. The colors here are exquisite: lime and moss and Kelly greens, rich muddy brown, autumn-burnt orange. Scan the rock wall and you’ll see the opening to Reuben’s Cave – look for a hanging ladder. The cave is closed, so there’s not much to explore. It’s cool to think about, however. Along that same line, it’s cool to think that this area of the Sugar and Little Sugar Rivers used to be regularly frequented by steamer boat trips with vacationers and luxury class gentry. It seems almost inconceivable today, but it used to be quite the thing. A little taste of the Dells here in Green County!
A long, broad straightaway leads to the main Sugar River. At the mouth, the main river appears humongous compared to its diminutive namesake. Part of this has to do with an unusually wide bulge in the Sugar River in a series of braided islands – probably the effect of backed-up water from the dam in Albany. Anyway, turn right to head south, looking for wherever the main channel and least-shallow areas are. From here it’s a mile of mostly flatwater paddling, due to the dam. In spite of the impoundment, the Sugar is still river-like in width and not at all like a lake. Add to this a couple small hills – a rarity on the Sugar River – which makes this final mile entirely pleasant, even if it is developed (since you’re coming into town) and the current has disappeared.
An excellent boat launch on the left, upstream of the dam, of course, marks the take-out. There’s plenty of parking here and facilities, too.
What we liked:
The stretch of river between Schneeberger and Tin Can Roads is kind of like the proverbial “forest primeval.” True, a satellite map will soberly show you that you’re never, in fact, far from farms; but the effect while on the water is of being in a truly removed, isolated place. It feels wild and raw. Only 20 yards from the put-in was a vine dangling from the trees above, at least 30′ long and 4” in diameter – downright jungle-like. Other than the aforementioned shooting gallery, you won’t pass a single house or silo or anything for over four miles. Instead, it’s just a vast, swampy bottomlands complex. There are dozens of side streams, brooks, seeps and backwater sloughs along the way. The whole thing feels like one huge sponge. It’s pretty cool.
Given the wetland features, there should be enough water always to paddle the Little Sugar River, even in periods of drought.
We don’t like portaging per se, but we don’t at all mind dodging around obstacles and finding solutions around, under, or over something that at first appears to pose a problem. There are plenty such occasions along the Little Sugar. But you want an environment like this to look like that. It would be weird and unnatural if it were spruced up and clean. Besides, below Tin Can Road the river will get much wider, the tree canopy sparser, and paddling will be a piece of cake without much maneuvering. But before you make it to Tin Can Road, there are still are plenty of open moments through lovely meadows to break up what might feel monotonous otherwise.
Below Tin Can Road, the rock outcrops on the right and reclusive cave are quite easy on the eye. Admittedly, they’re brief and fairly modest as far as geology goes. But for Green County, they’re rare and much appreciated.
Also, in the brief stretch between Tin Can Road and the Sugar River confluence are hidden action figures, or figurines (they’re tiny and green), hidden in nooks and crannies of deadfall branches. I first saw these in spring of 2015, was much bemused and amused by them, and wondered about them… Who was here? Who put these here? And why? I wondered too if they’d still be there now in summer 2017. Some of them were! This is quite astonishing, if you take a moment to think about it. It had been nearly 2.5 years between these two trips. That’s three seasons of spring and summer, two seasons of autumn and winter. Lots of wind, lots of storms, lots of rain. And yet these figurines were still here. (Unless they’re regularly moved around, but that seems as implausible as their being there in the first place.)
The final mile on the Sugar is just gravy. The landscape is pretty, and the bigger river looks huge by contrast. It’s an easy end to a trip.
What we didn’t like:
I expected there to be deadfall, and there sure was. But all things considered, it wasn’t too bad. And having the trusty sawzall was a godsend! For those who don’t like constantly maneuvering, this trip might be too taxing.
The only things I didn’t much like have to do with summer. I found the landscape prettier in spring, because it was more exposed. That may just be my preference. What’s indisputable, however, are the vast amounts of mosquitoes in summertime. Even when on the water, they were merciless and persistent. Worse than the mosquitoes, however – and again, this may be a personal matter – were the amount of spiders we found in our boats and on our bodies, due to the deadfall we had to work through. Not a big deal, but a little more than a nuisance for those of us not fond of arachnids.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again, but next time in autumn or spring to see the landscape differently.
Wikipedia: Little Sugar River
5.2 miles by car or 5.8 miles by bicycle (almost all of which will be on the delightful Sugar River Trail).