Waupaca River VI
Buchholz Road to County Highway Q
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A long section with a generous mix of good and bad – the pluses being swift current, clear water, giant boulder gardens, attractive tall banks and great accesses; the minuses being notoriously shallow conditions and numerous obstructions (submerged rocks, strung wires and a whole lot of downed trees) – this stretch of the Waupaca River should neither be underestimated nor taken for granted… nor ignored, as it can be a truly rewarding time for an experienced paddler.
October 10, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈10′ per mile
Waupaca: ht/ft: 2.15 | cfs: 370
This strongly recommendable this level.
County Highway Q, Waupaca, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:20p. Out at 7:25p.
Total Time: 5h 5m (An hour of which was spent rescuing a boat and gear and changing into dry clothes after dumping, not to mention paddling the last 45 minutes in the pitch dark).
Miles Paddled: 12.75
A great blue heron (cameo appearance a la Central Waters Brewing just down the road), a ton of wood ducks and deer.
5.1 miles for cars along Highway 10. 6 miles for bicycles along county roads, with only half a mile along Highway 10.
I’d like to think that I (Timothy) learn from past mistakes, but that may well be wishful thinking. Instead, I’d like to think that others learn from my mistakes, via our blog, since I seem incapable of self-correction.
Case in point: Here I was back on the Waupaca River, where almost to the day two years before, I had a terrible time on the water, culminating in my kayak actually being stolen at the take-out bridge. (Mercifully, the Portage County Sheriff’s Department found my boat the following day, after I’d reported it missing.) Back then, it was a miserably chilly autumn day with a high of 50 degrees, cloudy, drizzly and windy as hell. Wet while paddling, shivering into dry clothes at the take-out, bike-shuttling in the dark.
And so it was again, now in 2017, pretty much the same conditions – a cloudy, drizzly, windy day no warmer than 50 degrees, shivering like a fool, biking back to the car in the dark. (Indeed, when we got back to the car at the put-in, the temperature was a balmy 47 degrees.) And while I did select better spots at which to put-in and take-out, uncannily (and unintentionally, I swear!) this trip ended up being about thirteen miles long, exactly as long as October 2015 trip took, which is way too long a trip to begin in mid-October in the mid-afternoon. Who needs Halloween when you can spook the hell out of yourself by paddling a meandering river with good current and a ton of downed trees in the pitch dark? Especially after you’ve already had an accident on the river only an hour or so earlier?
Fool me once, Waupaca. But twice?!? Damn!
There’s a back-story to the back-story of this trip I won’t bore you with (and indeed, if the following is found to be too boring, feel free to skip to the Overview). Suffice it to say my girlfriend and I were up in Amherst this weekend regardless of the crappy weather and far-from-perfect conditions. While breaking fast at the Crystal Café in nearby Iola – which I highly recommend, their pies especially (it’s not for naught that their motto is “Pies 2 Die 4”) – we weighed the pros and cons of paddling four different rivers: the Eau Claire, Plover, Waupaca or Crystal – four of Central Wisconsin’s finest streams. Having to drive back down to Madison that same day, it didn’t make much sense to drive further north, so we took the Eau Claire and Plover Rivers off the table. As for the Waupaca and Crystal, it came down to a coin toss. (It dawned on me only after the best two out of three went to the Waupaca that we were deciding this in the Crystal Café. In retrospect, we probably should’ve gone with our pie-lined bellies and done the Crystal River.)
Ever since Barry intrepidly paddled the lakes chain of the Crystal back in April 2015, I’ve really wanted to experience that section. Plus, I personally have paddled the Crystal only once, loved it, and have longed for rekindling it. Furthermore, I thought my girlfriend would find it endearingly charming. The problem we presently faced was 20-mph winds from the north, which really didn’t seem like much fun when paddling two miles of lakes on a day that was never going to be warm in the first place. That’s why I deferred to the coin. That and I knew that the Waupaca was at a higher level than when I’d paddled it two years earlier.
I’m mentioning all of this to illustrate the “best laid plans” nature of what was to come later on…
So, since we were going to tackle the Waupaca, I recalled the do’s and don’ts of my debacle two years ago. Then, I’d begun the trip below the dam in Amherst and finished at Durrant Road bridge. I sure as hell wasn’t doing that again, so we put-in and took-out further downstream. While paddling the Waupaca two years ago, I recalled seeing an auspicious place to access the river via Buchholz Road. We checked it out this time, and indeed it’s excellent. The road is quiet and has virtually no traffic, there’s easy roadside parking, and the bank at the water is low, flat and dry, making it really convenient to launch a boat. Cool. What I recalled then also was that by beginning a trip here, as opposed to downtown Amherst, one wouldn’t be harassed by the constant white-noise whir of traffic along Highway 10. This, I’m happy to say, was spot-on accurate.
For the take-out, we opted for what’s commonly referred to as County Road Q near Cobbtown Road (County Q used to end here at Cobbtown Road, but the highway was diverted and the Cobbtown Road bridge was removed, however, the street sign and maps continue to say “County Road Q” before it turns into Cobbtown). The landing is along the river, not at the bridge. Like most paddlers, I began my first-ever trip down the Waupaca here at Cobbtown/County Road Q, so I knew it would be a convenient way to begin the trip. What I didn’t know – and seriously miscalculated – was the distance between Durrant Road and County Road Q. I figured it would be about 2.5-ish miles (which for the record was an estimate based out of thin air). In reality, it’s 5 miles.
Compounding that error, I misremembered my trip from two years ago as having been 10 miles, when in reality it was 13 miles. So, in my head at the time of the coin toss, possibly under the influence of pie, I thought the following: “OK, so last time it was 10 miles, but this time we’ll be shaving off a good 3.5 miles by starting at Buchholz. So, that’s 6.5 miles, plus another 2.5ish by paddling past Durrant Road and taking out at County Road Q, this should be about 9 miles, 10 tops.” Except that it was actually closer to 13 miles. Whoops.
Had I known this beforehand, I most definitely would not have suggested this trip A) at all or B) at 2:20 pm on a Sunday when still having to get back home to Madison later that day. Mea culpa extremis.
Finally, and admittedly unrelated to paddling the Waupaca River in general but still one more thing to add to this disappointing day since we listened to it on my weather radio during our paddle, this was the Sunday when the Packers were playing the Vikings, away in Minneapolis, aka the game when Aaron Rodgers was sucker-tackled and consequently broke his collarbone again. Again!?! That loss was far more devastating than losing the dumb game to the damn Vikings. It may also have underscored or foreshadowed the end of our trip on the river this day…
Riffles begin right off the bat at Buchholz Road, leading you to the huge twin bridges at Highway 10 – the only super-structure in sight during this particular stretch of the Waupaca. Immediately below Highway 10 is one of a half-dozen farm bridges. This is quickly followed by the first of a few boulder gardens – this one arguably the most scenic in that the erratic rocks here are the biggest we know about anywhere on the Waupaca River. As you might imagine, the current is brisk here, featuring frisky riffles. Once again, I’d like to adapt a former slogan about skiing in the area for paddling:
“The Waupaca River, where the kayak fanatic meets the glacial erratic.”
After the big boulders, a beautiful hillside will rise some 40-50′ on your right. It’s a pretty scene, as there is no shoreline there; the hill simply extends upward directly from the water’s edge. Boulders and riffles continue, the banks lined by pine trees. This is quintessential Waupaca River, especially in peak autumn color. Downed trees are found everywhere, the riverbed looking like some awful battleground, but good boat control should ensure getting around these without issue. (Note the key word here – should.)
You’ll pass through one of the two riffly culverts comprising the Otto Road bridge, the first of a few such culvert bridges during this trip. Another aesthetic section follows Otto Road, where both banks are undeveloped and the feeling is that of paddling through the heart of a forest. That sense of abandon will be tempered by a quick succession of A) powerlines, B) a horse pasture at a hill on the left, and C) two sets of wires spanning both banks (each marked with very visible pink surveyor tape). At the relatively high water level we paddled the Waupaca on this trip, the first wire was low enough to just paddle over without ado. The wires are not barbed, and my girlfriend awkwardly demonstrated that they’re not electric either, after unconsciously grabbing one to lift over her head. (PSA: please don’t try this at home! It’s best never to grab any wire while on the water.) I for one put my own homemade Y’er to its debut test, and of course it worked like a charm! Right after this comes the culvert bridge at County Road T, where on the downstream side, on river-left, there’s excellent access. Indeed, here, as with several other bridges downstream, there’s public easement along the river for fishing, as the Waupaca River is a noted Class I trout stream.
After County Road T both banks lower but you’ll still see hills in the background. The immediate landscape remains pretty; boulders, pine trees and riffles contribute to the Waupaca being an engaging river. The river meanders quite a bit here, past a zip line and then the quaint little bridge at quaintly named “2 Rivers Drive.” Soon after this you’ll come upon a cool footbridge, the walkway of which was built in situ on top of a downed tree. When I paddled this section two years ago at a lower level, I just ducked beneath the tree; but this time around, at a higher level, we had to portage around it on the right, which was easy. Check out the difference a couple inches of water in a river makes, then in 2015 and now in 2017.
Soon the left bank will rise about 30′, and another engaging boulder garden with light rapids follows. This is the beginning of what we believe to be the funnest, most rugged section of the Waupaca River. In October 2015 there was a strand of wire preceding the boulder garden, just after the rise in the left bank. This time around, in higher water, I saw no such strand. It’s probably there still, just submerged. A large island splits the river in two, with the right channel being the better choice. If you can take your eyes off the water for a moment, you’ll see a boulder-studded field on the right. Upstream of the County Road DD bridge is another strand of wire that will always be present unless there’s Biblically-high water levels. The wire is high above the water line and well marked with white ties, so it shouldn’t pose a safety hazard. A solid 50 yards of Class I-II rapids precedes and then follows the County Road DD bridge past some attractive stone abutments, boulders, footbridges and a Bible camp with rustic cabins. This section of the river is especially pretty. Expect to get wet in the rapids, however.
The two miles from County Road DD to Durrant Road are pretty and peaceful, the landscape woodsy and mostly undeveloped (but for one huge log “cabin”). The current slackens, and there are a couple relaxing straightaways. Infamous Durrant Road comes next, another twin-culvert bridge. It was here, two years ago, where my kayak was stolen. Appropriately, I met it this time around with a single-finger salute.
Meister Mike Svob describes the wooly Waupaca River in this neck of the woods as such:
“The following section, from County DD to County Q, is… winding, riffly, and wooded, with many limbs and trees to get around and over.”
Boy oh boy, is that ever true from Durrant Road to County Road Q! Below Durrant you’ll encounter a thoughtfully chainsawed log that, because it is chockablock with another downed tree abutting it, looks notched. As with many tricky, twisty spots in the, ahem, five miles from Durrant Road to County Road Q, be careful threading your way through the obstacle course. You’ll be constantly ducking, dodging, riding over all sorts of deadfall, bending forward, backward – just don’t go sideways…
It’s a little over a mile from Durrant Road to the next bridge, at Cobbtown Road. Below the bridge is a fun little chute followed by a modest little boulder garden – the last rapid on this trip. One could take out here on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-right. It wouldn’t be the best access, but it would be doable and spare the paddler the next segment of river, to County Road Q.
From Cobbtown to County Road Q is about 3.75 miles, most of it unredeeming and tedious, frankly. (With the noted exception of a house/estate with 1) the biggest boulder-studded retaining wall I’ve ever seen, 2) a footbridge of magnanimous proportion that resembles the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland, and 3) an extremely impressive root cellar/hoop house/greenhouse, all on the left). Barry described the Cobbtown Road to County Road Q segment as a “windy and congested paddle” that’s all “trees and limbs and logs,” which is absolutely true. Gone are the boulder gardens and gentle hills. In his write-up, Barry stated “There are a couple must-portages in a kayak, probably a couple more in a canoe.” That was in September 2014. As of October 2017, we didn’t have to portage a single time here, although there were several close scrapes. How much of this had to do with higher water, and how much from volunteers clearing the river, is anyone’s guess.
Allow me to be crystal clear about this, however: even though we didn’t have to portage in this final segment, my girlfriend did get pinned against a log, took in water, and had to sideways-escape. Don’t underestimate the hazards of moving current and snaggly trees.
There are two more bridges before the take-out: the first is a low-clearance concrete slab leading to a house, the second a modest, non-culvert affair at Frost Valley Road. A couple more kinky meanders follow, but then a long straightaway eases the paddler to the landing/take-out on the left before the County Road Q bridge. There are two options here: a wooden pier a foot or so above the water line or a convenient cleft in the bank just past the pier; the first is good for canoes, the latter is better for kayaks.
One last bit of trivia: while we’ve been puzzled and nonplussed by the Tomorrow-Waupaca River name swap for a couple years, I think I can shed a bit of light on the obscurity. Meister Svob states that upstream of the dam in Amherst the river is called “Tomorrow,” whereas downstream it goes by “Waupaca,” even though A) it’s the same stream and B) the word waupaca means “tomorrow.” This never made sense or felt right to us. Seriously? The same river changes names at a dam? That seems suspicious. While driving along Highway 10 for this trip, I noticed that the river is called “Tomorrow” on the highway signs at the bridges, even though this stretch of river is downstream from the Amherst dam. Then it hit me, the name change probably occurs on the county line, such that in Portage County it’s called Tomorrow, while in Waupaca County it’s called, well, Waupaca. That seems more reasonable, even though it still seems a bit silly for the same river to go by two different names.
What we liked:
This stretch of the Waupaca River is classic central Wisconsin that’s arguably the best bang for your buck. The water color is clear, the current frisky and fun. The boulder gardens are gorgeous and engaging, especially the extraordinary first set below Highway 10 and then the run leading to and following County Road DD. The Waupaca is not a whitewater river, but good boat control and river-reading skills will be needed to avoid accidents (or, I should say, to best avoid accidents).
The gentle hills, surrounding landscape, and enveloping woods, especially in crisp, vibrant autumn, gives the whole experience a downright magical feel to it. One could, of course, paddle the Waupaca at any time of the year, but we strongly recommend autumn (even though I personally have been burned twice now in as many years).
I should mention, too, that catching the Waupaca at this water level was excellent and made for a much better paddling experience than in 2015. There was some scraping here and there, but nothing compared to 2015. You really need to check the USGS gauge before heading to the river, to verify that it’s high enough. You’ll want a minimum of 250 cfs, preferably higher.
What we didn’t like:
We could do without the wires, but to be fair, on this particular trip at least, at our water levels, none of the wires posed a hazard. Still though…
The notable hazards on this segment of the Waupaca River are all the “trees and limbs and logs” you’ll have to contend with. There’s a lot of chainsaw evidence from fellow paddlers/volunteers maintaining this section of the river, which is awesome and hugely appreciated, but it’s an endless task.
The debacle of my girlfriend getting dumped was awful, as one could imagine. I wished it had happened to me instead! The cruel irony was I recommended that she use the Perception Expression 11.5 kayak instead of the Pyranha Fusion 10 precisely because I didn’t want her to get wet (concerned as I was about my ever-leaking, always-cracked-somewhere boat dubbed “Uff Da”). Would she still have been pinned and tipped? Who knows. But once again it was a case of “best laid plans.”
Fortunately, the river was shallow enough to stand in (although the water was friggin’ cold!), and it wasn’t too hard to rescue her boat (although it weighed about a thousand pounds with all the water in it). And this, dear reader, is why you pack a spare set of clothes in a dry bag whenever paddling, but especially in cold weather. All in all, we lost about an hour of time, a Miles Paddled beer coozie, and a can of Pringles. We both were a little chilly, however, and shaken up by the ordeal.
And with that lost hour came paddling the last mile or so of this trip in the pitch dark, since night comes early in mid-October. This part of the trip just utterly sucked. As I mentioned, we were shaken up already, and chilly, but paddling a river as congested with deadfall as the Waupaca in the waning light of dusk unto evening, well that’s something else. Mercifully, there are no rapids or riffles here, but the current is still strong enough and not to be taken for granted around strainers with limited visibility. I did eventually break out a flashlight (OK, so I have learned one or two things from past mistakes…), which did help out considerably. But it also gave the whole effect a kind of Blair Witch handheld-camera-shake, spooky effect, which itself did little to calm our nerves. Why do I do the Waupaca in October, so close to Halloween? Good question.
If we did this trip again:
Here’s what I wrote last time for this section of the trip report: “I would try to put-in off Buchholz Road and take out at Cobbtown Road. And only when it’s warmer and less windy. And only in higher water. And only in a boat that isn’t cracked and doesn’t take in water. And only if I lock up my boat at the takeout!” OK, so of those six factors, I failed miserably on paddling when it’s warmer and less windy. But while my boat is still cracked (it’s always cracked, no matter how many times it gets repaired), it didn’t take in water (thanks duct tape and higher river levels). The locking-up at the take-out goes without saying.
Silliness aside, I would do Buchholz Road (or however it’s spelled) to Cobbtown Road again in a heartbeat. It features the best of the good stuff without the worst of the deadfall. To be clear – and God help me if I don’t remember this correctly in the future – that would be about 9.5 miles long, which we consider to be just about perfect for a river like the Waupaca.
Waupaca River Overview: Tomorrow-Waupaca River Paddle Guide
Waupaca River I: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Waupaca River II: County Highway DD to County Highway Q
Waupaca River III: Amherst to Durrant Road
Waupaca River IV: Weyauwega to Decker Memorial County Park
Waupaca River V: Riverview Park to Reek Road
Tomorrow River: Rolling Hills Road to Amherst
Miles Paddled Video: County Highway DD to County Highway Q
Miles Paddled Video: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Miles Paddled Video: Riverview Park to Reek Road
Miles Paddled Video: Weyauwega to Decker Memorial Park
Camp: Hartman Creek State Park
Wikipedia: Waupaca River