Blue River I
Bluff Road to Shemak Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A swift, intimate trout stream meandering through soaring hills and sweeping vistas (not to mention some of the biggest boulders in the Driftless Area, the Blue River is a beguiling gem in southwestern Wisconsin. The only caveat is catching it high enough with adequate water, which is rare.
May 5, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈5′ per mile
Platte River: ht/ft: 4.5 | cfs: 280
Black Earth Creek: ht/ft: 2.5 | cfs: 100
Gauge note: Both of these are correlation gauges and are offered only as approximate metrics, since there is no gauge for the Blue River.
We recommend these levels. That said, it should be noted that these are high levels for both gauges, and yet not much lower than these will be doable except for scraping/walking in the shallows. 5′ on the Platte and 3′ on Black Earth Creek would be ideal correlations.
Bluff Road, north of Monfort, Wisconsin
Shemak Road, north of Snow Bottoms State Natural Area
Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 7:10p.
Total Time: 3h 40m
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Turkey vultures, turkey, geese, deer, wood ducks, beaver, muskrat, a snake, green heron and colorful songbirds.
Ten or so miles with some tough hills for bike-shuttling.
A couple years ago we came across a little guide produced by the Wisconsin DNR about paddling state natural areas (or SNAs, to keep the three-letter abbreviations going). In it we found a recommended trip down the Blue River surrounded by the Snow Bottom SNA. (Indeed, it’s the very first listed trip.) Here’s what it says about the river:
The winding Blue River threads its way through the heart of a wild and spectacular southwestern Wisconsin Driftless Area landscape with soaring, rocky bluffs and relict pine forests. A paddle through Snow Bottom on the Blue is rewarding, but possible only with small kayaks during periods of adequate river flow, usually in spring. The river is fed by many springs and affords wonderful trout fishing.
We don’t disagree with any of that – it’s all spot-on – but we did (and still do) find it curious that this obscure trout stream that’s too shallow for practical paddling 90% of the year made it among the top twelve list of the 400+ SNAs across Wisconsin. (Then again, the same brochure lists the Brule Glacial Spillway as one of the recommended paddling destinations, which we did and/or tried to do and found the entire experience both puzzling and impossible, though not without its own rewarding enjoyment.) Nonetheless, the Blue River on this trip does cut through a wild and spectacular valley that was never glaciated, leaving it unscathed in all its undulating and crenulated glory. Steep bluffs and rolling hills one after the other provide the panoramic backdrop, often punctuated with exposed rock outcrops and swaths of pine trees.
What the brochure strangely omits, however, are the spectacular boulder deposits along this trip. Unlike what you’d see in central and northern Wisconsin, where the glaciers left behind massive rocks and erratics, here the boulders are calved off from the rocky bluffs above, having tumbled down the steep hillsides in calamitous fashion. If this trip on the Blue River were a movie, the boulders would be Emmy-nominated supporting actors.
What the brochure gets cannily accurate is the subtle but telling mention of “possible only with small kayaks during periods of adequate river flow.” Let’s spend a second here on these two disclaimers. What’s a “small kayak”? Who knows? I think what’s being alluded to is you’d have a heck of a time paddling a canoe down the Blue River. But any recreational kayak that’s no longer than, say, 13′ would be fine. It’s just that the narrow river – really, more of a creek – meanders like a ribbon in the wind, and there’s lots of obstacles to dodge, up to and including some wires to duck under and cattle gates to ride over. Keep the canoe at home.
As for the “periods of adequate river flow,” well yeah, no kidding. The Blue River is a trout stream, by and by. It can only be paddled right after a decent shot of rain – or, in theory, snowmelt in spring… that is, if we ever have real snow again down here in southern Wisconsin (it’s been years since we’ve had…). So, what pry tell is adequate flow? Great question. There is no gauge for the Blue, and even correlating it with another river is regrettably imprecise. The two closest gauges are Black Earth Creek in western Dane County and the Platte River in Grant County. Each offers an approximate correlation in terms of geography, topography, and drainage. Sort of. Comparing the two gauges and taking a kind of average between them is better than nothing, but still only something to be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt.
Back in 2014 or so, I (Timothy) came out to the area as part of my paddling recon while working on the guidebook. Being unacquainted with the area, I inadvertently paddled a short exploratory trip on the wrong stream, mistaking the even-more-obscure Fennimore Fork for the elusive Blue River. (For the 1.5% of readers who’d care, Fennimore Fork, aka Castle Rock Creek, is a small tributary of the Blue River located in the same area. Also surrounded by Snow Bottom SNA, also a narrow, shallow trout stream, the two bodies of water are nearly identical. Like the Blue, it too is lovely and blessed with some stunning scenery and offers swift water, but it is way too shallow and unreliable (although in retrospect, it’s hardly more shallow and unreliable than this section of the Blue River). So it got quickly nixed from the book list… and from my memory. I did scout the many other bridges downstream all the way to the town of Blue River on the Wisconsin River (and thereby learned of my error in having paddled Fennimore Fork), but again wrote it all off as unpromising and too compromised to be put in a book. (Bridge accesses are crappy, cow pastures are prominent, and the landscape gets flatter and wider the further downstream you go.)
It’s worth pointing out that these two streams – the Blue River and Fennimore Fork/Castle Rock Creek – are a couple of the rare outliers in southern Wisconsin that flow north. The natural ridge that lies along Highway 18 (think Military Ridge Trail) is a kind of plateau shelf that sheets water either north to the Wisconsin River or south to the Mississippi River (with the exception of the screwball Pecatonica River anomaly, but that’s neither here nor there).
Nonetheless, our interest in El Rio Azul was rekindled after that guide the DNR created. It was just a matter of time to line up the right circumstances. Come May 2018, a couple days before my birthday but just after a good, hard rain, all signs suddenly pointed to a rare window of opportunity to check out the knockout of the beguiling Blue, mistress of mysteries. But the Bowers-to-Shemak segment is only 6.3 miles long, which seems a smidge short for the drive. So we scouted bridges up- and downstream to determine how to make a longer trip. The next bridge downstream from Shemak is Biba, but this adds only a mile-and-change, the river here is dominated by monotonous agriculture, and the bridge access is crap. Below Biba is a longer stretch to County Road G, but it too is distracted by farms, plus it’s densely wooded, which lends itself to deadfall hell.
So, we went upstream instead. We started at County Road I, since anything above that would need a hundred-year flood to have enough water to float a boat. We really liked what we saw at County I, but it too is very rocky and shallow. In addition, immediately downstream from the bridge is a narrow wooded corridor where the likelihood of downfall struck us too much a pain in the tuckus. Who wants to start a trip like that? Nobody. Hence putting in at Bluff Road.
The put-in at Bluff Road is located on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-left. To access it, you’ll first slip your boat under a set of barbed wire fencing while bipedal humans can straddle over a wooden fence. This might sound more confusing than it actually is; there’s a public easement (generally for fishing) located here. It’s all perfectly legal, safe, and easy.
From Bluff Road to the next bridge at Snowbottom Road is a 2.4-mile section that is astonishingly aesthetic. First, there are the bluffs and hills. Immediately to the west of Bluff Road is a gorgeous rock outcrop that stands above the landscape like a gargoyle. Then there’s the swift current, riffly and just fun. Already you’ll be passing too many springs to count. Also already is the first of two wooden cattle gate obstructions. Like a former bodybuilder, gravity has not been kind to this structure; it’s dilapidated and sags in the middle, which is fortuitous for paddlers, as it allows for pretty easy riding over it – after getting a full-steam-ahead charge leading up to it. Think of it as the country equivalent of a tennis court net in an abandoned inner city park. It’s a minor hassle, and experiencing the surrounding landscape and up-close boulders is more than worth the brief nuisance.
It’s honestly challenging to convey the stupendous beauty of this area without resorting to hyperbole. The hills are luscious and undulating. The boulders are big, buxom, and bodacious. And getting to soak all that in while zipping along riffles on an intimate stream that meanders this way and that – good gravy, is it ever lovely! Let the photos below do the talking.
After passing soft-sculpted boulders big as carports you’ll come upon the subsequent wooden cattle gate – as saggy and sad as its predecessor, but even easier to ride over. Downstream are tall hills with attractive mixes of green pines and gray rock outcrops. More riffles, more natural springs entering the mainstream from both banks. Alas, there is a set of two barbed wires also in this section. Thanks to the trusty Y’er, these posed no problems or safety risks.
Here and there – and this is true for this entire trip, not just this particular section – the landscape will open up before your eyes with pastoral valleys, typically in brief straightaways on the river. But then things will “tighten up” again in the most pleasant way as the river bends and sways around steep banks and even steeper hillsides. Either way, you’ll often feel dwarfed by the sheer scale of things out here.
More boulders dot the foreground, big as cars. A cluster of a couple, the tallest of which is easily 15′ high, will be on the left, just upstream of Snowbottom Road. There’s a parking area on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, as part of the Blue River Fishery Area. From here to the next bridge at Bowers Road are 1.7 miles, and while it features much of the same as the previous segment, the notable difference here is a wooded corridor and a fair amount of obstructions to be mindful of. All in all, we found only one logjam that required a simple portage around it via the left bank.
Once the trees recede you’ll be treated to some sweeping vista views of the surrounding bowl-like valley. Swift current will whisk you this way and that. In a word, the world here is lush. At Bowers Road there’s OK but not great access on the downstream side of the bridge, river-right. (There’s an official lot for the SNA about 70 yards to the west.) One really cool notable here on the downstream/right side is a dramatic spring that comes in from a rocky hillside. It’ll be bubbling only right after recent rain. It’s definitely worth checking out, if you hear it percolating from above.
There are no bridges between Bowers and Shemak, which is more or less why the SNA brochure has it as the“official” section of the Blue River. (Both accesses are pretty lousy, for the record, lest you come away thinking “well, the DNR said…”) It is, however, a truly beautiful paddling experience. More rock outcrops, more white-sand, cold-water springs, more sweeping vistas, more boulders, and more swift water. Indeed, the Bowers-to-Shemak section (6.3 miles) features several small ledges – nothing above Class I, but all good, clean fun. This section is one to savor and take your time with, on account of the scenery. It’s less defined by agriculture than many Driftless Area streams area; except for at the put-in and take-out you won’t see any houses, barns, or farms. It’s not like this stretch is a wilderness, but it is awfully wild-feeling. The simple absence of any development is most welcome in and of itself.
(OK, one cool exception to this is an old weathered barn/shack that, so featured, looks like you could be in Kentucky with a couple cord of wood, bourbon still, and bluegrass porch. In the middle of this beautiful nowhere.)
For the record, unless you’ve really boned up and know what you’re looking for, you’ll have no idea what is or isn’t part of Snow Bottom SNA. It couldn’t matter less (unless you’re actually hiking). The whole area is gorgeous. Similarly, on account of the lack of landmarks in this section, it seems silly to mention this bluff or that outcrop, or boulder, or ledge, or natural spring – all of these are all over the place. It doesn’t mean that such-and-such segment with the huge boulders strewn in moss tucked into a hillside by a riffly bend isn’t mentionable – it sure as hell is! It’s that there are too many of these to mention. But one unmistakable reference point is a simply incredible boulder garden with monoliths the size of VW bugs. It’s really fun sidling up to these massive mothers and letting your imagine run wild with how these had to have calved off from the bluffs above and what in good lord that sound must have been.
Less fun is the electric wire that comes right after the big boulders – way less fun if you find out the hard way that indeed it’s electric (use the Y’er and you’ll have no problems). Grassy pastures follow, framed by wooded bluffs. You might see some cattle. You will for sure see (and ideally not at the last minute) another strand of wire, this one barbed and pretty slack, so getting under it is easy.
More undercut banks scoured by swift riffles follow, together with a more modest (i.e., normal sized) boulder garden. Right after this comes a fairly unusual but altogether pretty scene: a steep-angled hillside (like 60 degrees) that is defined more by open grass and shrubs than trees. It’s like a moor, and the simplicity of it is quite striking.
After a couple meandering bends, you’ll see a few farm buildings on the right. These are followed by a series of straightaways, some still with intermittent riffles. Another, larger farm operation comes after a long straightaway, this one with a silo. A few more zigs and zags precede the bridge at Shemak Road. As mentioned above, the access here leaves little to be desired, but there is a public easement on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-right.
What we liked:
Because of the personal back story, we felt a little predestined for a unique experience on the Blue River; but by any objective measure, this section is pretty magnificent. As some followers of our humble blog may have picked up by now, we tend to find it easier to point out the things we found objectionable than the awesome things that had us swept off our feet and swooned. We never want to sound like we’re bragging by exhaustively listing all the good stuff. Moreover, in the case of this trip on the Blue River, we don’t want to sound redundant by pointing out the same details we’ve mentioned already.
But it’s hard to avoid that trap with this trip. The surrounding scenery is breathtaking from Bluff to Snowbottom to Bowers to Shemak; hills, cliffs, springs, woods, pastures, boulders, rock outcrops, over and over, nonstop. Add to that a constantly moving current ranging from frisky riffles to little 2′ ledges. And for good measure, great wildlife (although the big-ass snake coiled on a half-submerged log in the water just brushed against the comfort level of up close and personal). So, rather than rehash the superlatives, we’d like to offer instead this one unexpected but very welcome serendipity: timing.
Even though this has been on our radar for a couple years now, meaning we’d have gone any time we had reason to believe the water was up, we happened to go the first weekend in May. The good fortune of this luck-stroke was twofold: like a flick of a switch, the world had just burst into verdant green overnight, sweeping the brown, beige, and gray of winter dullness into a dustpan; and yet the trees themselves were only budding, with the effect of still seeing the rock outcrops and embedded boulders dotting the hills and bluffs as though we had X-ray vision. Early spring, especially in Wisconsin, is nothing short of a wild riot of sound and color, of sheer sensation, of vibrating, scintillating, rambunctious unction. In its simplest distillation, it is bliss. At its core, it’s a newborn pagan rebellion kicking and howling and tearing at the seams. It’s one of the few times I honestly feel grateful to be alive.
So much for avoiding hyperbole or bragging.
What I’m trying to capture is this: the unspoiled landscape here through which the Blue River cuts and meanders lends itself to the raucous cry of spring. Next time it’s on tap, pour yourself a round.
Also but unrelated, we’d be remiss not to mention Big Spring. Come again? Big Spring. Lackluster name for a spectacular place. It’s the biggest natural spring I’ve seen in Wisconsin at least, rivaling those in the Decorah, Iowa, area. Mysteriously coming from underneath rocks midway up a wooded bluff in the middle of nowhere, torrents of springwater tumble down a cascade of rockspill at least 40′. The water then feeds Big Spring Creek, a noted trout stream, that eventually feeds the Blue River (downstream from Shemak Road, for the record). To get to the trail that leads to the cataract natural spring, turn on aptly named Big Spring Road via County Road Q. There’s a dedicated parking area, big sign, and well-marked trail that leads to the spring only 1200′ away. From Shemak Road, it’s only 3.5 miles east as the turkey vulture flies.
Also, we’d like to have our paddling passport color-stamped for this trip – that is, in line with the Black, Red, White, and Yellow (not sure if the Crystal counts as a color). And for those few who like to keep score at home, there is at least a Big Green River in Wisconsin – coincidentally quite close to this trip and is neither big nor green) – but even more obscure, shallow, and impractical than the Blue.
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, all we can offer here are the artificial obstructions – the cattle gates and barbed/electric wires – and the fickle conditions of catching the river with enough water to comfortably float a boat. The hairy section between Snowbottom and Bowers might discourage some paddlers, but we never felt it to be unsafe; rather, just a distraction from the other segments of this trip. The accesses at the bridges are neither good nor poor; they are what they are – totally doable, not terribly difficult, but hardly ideal.
Please just keep in mind that the Blue River really is a trout fishing destination first, a paddling option second. While these two pastimes (philosophies?) are by no means mutually exclusive, I’ve never felt that the guy in the waders and Cabela’s clothing was ever happy to see dopey old me in my kayak coming through. It’s a public place, no more his than mine, but it always does feel a little begrudged, especially on streams where paddling is seldom seen. On the plus side, the only times when one can reasonably paddle a river like the Blue is when the water is too high and stirred up from recent rain for any good fishing, so circumstances lend themselves to not being in each other’s way.
If we did this trip again:
We’d do this trip again in a heartbeat – whenever the water’s up. It truly is a stunning experience. Ideally, hitting it right after a couple inches of rain would ensure a rocking paddle with springs just pouring out of the hills. We’re very grateful for having paddled this so early in spring, before the leafy camouflage of trees hid some of the boulder-laden bluffs. This trip truly lends itself to paddling either in early spring or late fall, to better take in the little details hidden in the hills.
Certainly, this trip can be broken in two: Bluff to Bowers and Bowers to Shemak. If you have the time or inclination for just one, then go with the latter – Bowers to Shemak. You know, in your small kayak, during adequate flow.
Miles Paddled Video:
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:
Friends of Miles Paddled Video: