Platte River VI
County Road E to County Road A
☆ ☆ ☆
An extremely pretty trip with more bluffs and cliffs than you could shake a stick at – including what may well be the most striking sheer-faced rock wall on the Platte, rivaling its riverine sibling to the west, the Grant River – this far-upstream (and hitherto obscure) section of the Platte has a lot to offer. What it lacks, however, is enough water to float a boat most of the time. Also, the accesses at the beginning and end are pretty lousy, and select strands of barbed wire in between are a bit prohibitive.
February 27, 2018 + May 4, 2018
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈5′ per mile
Rockville: ht/ft: 4.15 | cfs: n/a (on 2.17.18), ht/ft: 5.00 | cfs: 350 (on 5.4.18)
We recommend this level (on 5.4). Anything below 4.5′ is too low to paddle, period, for this section of the Platte.
In the past, for sections of the Platte downstream we’ve recommended levels hovering around 4′. However, this trip is far upstream of those. It’s not that the gradient is much steeper here than downstream (it isn’t, frankly); rather, it’s simply that there are fewer tributaries feeding the Platte in this far-upstream section, meaning less water in general. So, in order to correlate there being enough water up here, the gauge downstream must read generously higher than would be necessary for doing any of the more conventional sections downstream.
County Road E, Annaton, Wisconsin
County Road A
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 3:40p.
Total Time: 3h 40m
Miles Paddled: 9
Cows, mink, several beavers, bald eagles, hawks, kingfishers, wood ducks and songbirds.
9 miles. An equal amount of steep hills up and down, this makes for a workout but rewarding bike shuttle.
Almost exactly two years to the day, in 2016, we pioneer-paddled an unknown gamble segment of the Platte River upstream of the conventional Ellenboro/Airport Road put-in. We’d long wondered why, for a river as pretty and prominent as the Platte, there was simply not even a whisper about its upstream portions. Neither Mike Svob nor the Great White Kark so much as spoke a single word about it, leaving a baffling and unexamined assumption that the river simply begins at Ellenboro. Except that it actually begins 20+ miles upstream of Ellenboro. So, we set off to exploring. That trip ended up being one of the best of the year. As we wrote, it felt like picking up a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk that we cashed in.
Not long after posting that trip, another intrepid paddler wrote in to us saying that he’d put in at Coon Hollow Road – which is 3.7 miles upstream of County Road A, where our 2016 trip began – and absolutely loved this section of the upper Platte. So, with that bellwether in our favor and our preference for accessing streams along county roads, we were inspired to begin yet another new exploratory at County Road E and then take out at A. Why not double down on our initial gambit and blaze a new trail even further upstream and more obscure? E to A, all the way!
In the paddling world, there’s a kind of common sense dictum that advises against doing unknown trips in the cold-weather season, on account of their unpredictable nature and unwelcome surprises one may well encounter along the way, in an unfavorable time of year (i.e., lack of daylight and degrees of Fahrenheit). But it goes without saying that someone whose nickname is “Fanatic” doesn’t often (OK, ever) have common sense ascribed to his paddle-bound adventuring. Leaving aside my individual irrational exuberance, there were three compelling influences for doing this exploratory trip in February:
1. It had rained an inch only two nights before and thus shot water levels off the charts.
2. It was that rare day in February when it was sunny and in the mid-50s.
3. We had been invited by the good folks at Friends of the Platte River to present at their annual meeting, in mid-April, so it made sense to move this trip, already on our radar, from the to-do list to those done.
We use the term “pioneer paddling” fairly often. But the expression “canary in a coal mine“ is more apt sometimes, this trip especially. The difference between the two is when pioneer paddling simply means going somewhere new and unknown, while a canary mining coal (so to speak) implies taking away a lesson or two – the good and the bad, what we’d do differently (if we’d do this trip again) and why, etc.
Indeed, that’s the essential purpose of this paddling website: like canaries, we sometimes fly into the obscure and come out of it like champs. Or trampled. With each trip we learn a thing or two and then share that for a community to expand upon.
This report will be a tale of two experiences – one objective, one personal. For the sake of the former, the good news is this trip is pretty spectacular! Alas, for me personally it was pretty much miserable; but the reasons for that are entirely circumstantial. I’ll mention them in a bit, but I make the disclaimer here and now so as to separate the two from one another in hopes of reassuring you, Dear Reader, that my own dumb crap should have nothing to do with the awesome adventure you’re likely to encounter if-and-when you paddle this portion of the Platte.
The river access at County E offers the paddler a choice between bad and inconvenient, both requiring a guerilla launch. How’s a paddler to choose, then? Well, before we get to that good question, let’s first make sure we’re on the same page here about which bridge on County E you’ve parked at and are launching from. We don’t mean for this to sound redundant or condescending, but things are mighty ambiguous in this neck of the woods. For starters, there are two bridges on County E less than one mile away from one another. The bridge to the east – the one next to a dead-end road called Pine Knob Lane – is over the Platte River. The bridge to the west spans a tributary of the Platte called Leggett Creek. There are no signs, of course, and the two streams look pretty much identical – same width and depth, same color, same pastoral landscape. Not knowing we were starting on the wrong stream, in February we put-in at the Leggett Creek bridge. It wasn’t until after our trip that we realized we’d goofed up. But it took over two months for rain to finally come to raise water levels high enough to come back to the same area and put in on the Platte River before posting this report (hence the delay).
See, like a good public radio station, we at Miles Paddled like to do our due diligence in the fact-checking department and are not ashamed to admit when we got something plain wrong. Chagrin, yes, but not ashamed.
Frankly, whichever bridge you put in from – Leggett Creek or Platte River – offers its unique set of pros and cons (but mostly cons). Both require some schlepping and suspect parking. Both are muddy and can be steep. Both will lead paddlers to nasty obstacles and challenges. And both feature at least one strand of barbed wire in pushy current. For these reasons alone, we strongly discourage using County E as a put-in, whichever bridge. Instead, we recommend putting-in at either of the Sleepy Hollow Road bridges (yes, there are two – one further north, then one south – in case things weren’t confusing or complicated enough already). See “If We Did This Trip Again” below for more on this.
So, for safety’s and simplicity’s sake, let’s just start things at the northern-more Sleepy Hollow Road bridge, shall we?
As the riffles below the bridge peter out, you’ll pass under a set of power lines with a view of bluffs directly before you. The river will bend to the right, past a modest but aesthetic hollow with a couple exposed rock outcrops on the left. More riffles will whisk you past a steeper, showier bluff on the right with even more attractive outcrops, above which (but invisible from the river) is aptly named Scenic Road. This pattern of rock wall on one side with the river bending to the opposite side will reoccur countless times during the trip – without ever getting old.
A straightaway follows, after which the river bends to the right with an impressive display of four twin megaliths – rock outcrop quadruplets – stacked atop each other like colossal building blocks on the, you guessed it, left side. A shallow set of riffly shoals – fun in high water, miserable in low – takes you away from this but leads to more outcrops downstream (on the right) together with some scattered boulders as big as a shed. And then more riffles and little ledges before the next bridge, at Sleepy Hollow Road (south). There’s even better access here than the upstream Sleepy Hollow Road bridge; but putting in here would forfeit some of the fun geology.
It’s 1.7 miles until the next bridge, at Coon Hollow Road. Here, the bluffs and rock formations are more on the modest side – at first. And then the scale starts to flex its muscles in earnest, all on the right. Wholly exposed rock walls like facades to some ancient building line directly into the water in a most dramatic display. Steeper woods also begin to show themselves, leaving the paddler with a sense of intimacy away from the usual agriculture so predominant in southwestern Wisconsin. Speaking of which, a truly iconic weathered red barn will be seen on the left just upstream from the Coon Hollow Road bridge. Incidentally, this bridge also has great accesses, particularly on the downstream side, either left or right.
Below Coon Hollow Road, the entire right side will be pastoral and essentially flat. In one long straightaway you’ll see a kind of iconic scene where the farmed land rises brown and beige off in the way back distance, framed between two steep, rich-soiled banks. Classic southwestern Wisconsin. There are a couple long straightaways here, each of them featuring flatwater. But then the river takes a curious sharp horseshoe-shaped bend to the left, around which is the prettiest site we’ve ever seen on the Platte River. A long, tall rock wall, variegated in color and texture both, lies in a sweeping bend on the right. It’s the kind of showcase geology one finds on the famed Grant River just west of here. It’s simply exceptional, and just one more reason why we love the Platte River. (Back in February, there were still icicles dangling from some of the rocky crevices. Additionally, there were icy plumes stuck on the rock like blown glass, the effect of water percolating through the porous sandstone then freezing once exposed to cold air. Pretty damn neat.
At the base of this gorgeous bend lies a hodgepodge of boulders to dodge in another shallow riffly shoals. And when we say “shallow,” let us mince no words: we’re taking ankle deep, literally (see photos).
A few more slow straightaways follow, past meadows and savanna, gracefully positioned on a slope to the left. Here and there will be a some bashful rock outcrops, but generally speaking this section is quiet and contemplative as the river crawls past farmland and some soft bluffs. There are a several fun riffly spots, but they’re short and immediately followed by flatwater pools. On the right, you’ll come upon a totally random picnic pavilion with a developed fishing pier platform…in the middle of nowhere, connected to no known road. Huh?!? For real. Following this oddity are more farms to be found over the 8′-tall eroded mud banks.
In the last leg of this trip lie a couple more rock outcrops and then some genuinely huge boulders on the left, together with a quaint rusted truss bridge (private) immediately upstream of County Road A. While still on the subject of not mincing words, County Road A just sucks, as far as accesses go. The banks are steep, making it a little tricky for kayakers to just get out and then pull their boats up. Plus it’s muddy, making things further difficult (and messy). Then there’s a strand of questionably legal barbed wires to get through in between the river and the road itself. Once past those wires, there’s still a steep schlep over loose rock rubble to the road and then to the only safe but small place to have parked a car past the narrow bridge and its guardrail. We recognize that most paddlers wouldn’t think one hot minute about the nuisances. Or as one of our friends recently stated in no uncertain terms, “No flippin’ way!” Totally fair. As such, we discourage paddlers from using County Road A as an access.
What we liked:
The reasons why we love the Platte are principally twofold: the geological scenery and swift current. What’s there not to like about riffles and rapids swept around steep bluffs and unabashed rock outcrops? To be sure, different segments of the Platte offer distinctions in both geologic audacity and gradient-created swiftwater. This particular trip has some of the best of both, arguably the single-best. Also, the wildlife has always been rewarding and abundant on our varied trips down the Platte, whatever the time of the year – and this trip was no exception.
It’s just that this trip also offers some considerable caveats…
What we didn’t like:
Even though this section of the Platte River is esthetically astounding and offers one fun riffle after another, my personal trip experience lied on the margin of misery for reasons as follows.
For starters: there’s a first time for everything, of course, up to and including putting in at the wrong bridge on the wrong creek! It’s not only a funny goof-up, but Leggett Creek is crap for a few definite reasons: the road-to-river access is bad (guardrail, no shoulder, traffic, steep banks); the bank to water access also is bad (steep, slippery, muddy); the water is unmercifully shallow; the immediate surroundings are just pulverized cow pasture and eroded mud banks; and there’s a concrete farm bridge you’d have to portage over. (And by funny, we mean now – now it’s funny. But at the time it was more fury than funny.) Similarly, it’s kinda funny when the water is so shallow you have to walk your boat only 5 mins into the trip and/or when you can still see your car parked at the bridge (and begin wondering, is it too late to bail?). Funny unless it’s happening to you at the time. Then it’s not funny.
My poor boat, the much beleaguered Uff Da, ran so foully aground in just that first mile that it at least primed the pump for what was to occur a little later into the trip. Readers of our blog may well know that this boat has sustained countless injuries dating back to one fateful Saturday in August 2015, when somehow – on the mostly muddy Kickapoo River no less – a 3”-long crack occurred on the very bottom of the boat, beneath my butt. Since that time the boat has been officially repaired once by a guy from Rutabaga who actually knows what he’s doing and then four additional times by a DIY dingbat named Tim Bauer who, out of frugality and stubborn grit, backed by YouTube videos and a heat gun on sale at Farm & Fleet for $39.95, took on an unwanted stewardship in plastic welding. I’ve also gone through one full roll of duct tape since that time. Both melted plastic amoeba blobs and duct tape escutcheons – half-assed patch-up jobs however you slice it – last only so long, til the work needs to be done again. And then again. And then again, again. Such are the cyclical seasons of boat repair. It’s a little like gardening in terms of getting the plot ready in spring and then putting the whole thing back to bed in autumn.
For the record, I hate gardening.
Nonetheless, up until this trip, the boat-bottom’s ineluctable leaks have been relatively minor. However, this time around, on this oh-so-shallow segment of the upper Platte, all of last season’s repair work – new plastic seals and duct tape patch – all of it was scraped the hell off like a tornado tearing off a shanty’s roof. But wait, there’s more! In addition to the plastic-and-tape toupee ground down to oblivion, now I had a hole. A hole? Yes, an f-ing hole in the bottom of my boat, an unholy hole that most wholly sucked because it meant taking in a couple inches of water inside the entire cockpit of my kayak within minutes. I am not exaggerating.
It’s estimated that Lake Superior is so deep and big that it could cover the entire land area of North and South America combined under a foot of water, a statistic that is simply incomprehensible. Well, that’s what I kept thinking about as the pencil tip-big hole kept flooding my boat’s interior. Not only were my feet and legs soaking wet, little waves lapped up upon the shoreline of my crotch. I had to get out and dump out however many gallons of river water once every ten minutes, over and over. That’s how quickly the floodwaters rose. And that’s with using a towel – yup, a towel – already inside the cockpit, surrounding the seat like a castle’s moat, just to soak things up the way you do with sandbags after a levee breaks. A towel and a sponge I used also to soak and squeeze, soak and squeeze. But still, every ten minutes or so, I had to get out and turn the boat upside down to drain the bedraggled thing.
In February. In Wisconsin.
So yeah, that all sucked.
The lesson here is finding out the hard way just how shallow this section of the river is – and knowing now that the gauge downstream will need to read a heluvalot higher than it normally would to be able to paddle this trip without incident. In retrospect, this had everything to do with timing. To put this in context, the gauge was at 5′ at midnight. By noon it had dropped to 4.1′. The Platte won’t normally shed its water so quickly. But in wintertime, when the ground is frozen still, any rain runoff has nowhere to be absorbed yet, so it all just sprints downstream. Lesson learned. (Curiously, the river would then actually rise to 4.2′ by 4 pm – after I’d reached the take-out – and then up to 4.6′ by 10 pm. Thanks a lot, Platte!?! It’s like it went out of its way to be intentionally shallow during the daytime when one would actually paddle it.)
My kayak-canary pretty much bit the dust after this trip. Like the story of Marathon in Greek mythology, my boat was the messenger letting the world know the news of the upper Upper Platte River…and then promptly dropped dead after doing so.
Fortunately, the awesome customer service people at Pyranha, the manufacturer of my kayak, took pity on my woebegone trials and gave me a great deal on a replacement boat. I’m kidding. Nobody at Pyranha has responded to any of my multiple messages, not even the lowliest schlub in accounting or pencil-neck dweeb in middle management. I don’t know who you have to sleep with over there to get so much as an official acknowledgment, to say nothing of actual service… I’m usually not this pissy or catty. But I really don’t appreciate being treated like a schmuck. It’s one thing to send me a standard BS message towing a company line or whatever. But to get no response from anyone after three attempts in as many weeks? What am I missing here? As such, my patience with the company has worn as thin as the damn polyethylene of the boat’s hull.
Oh, and the tip of my paddle blade cracked. I mean, Come ON! Fortunately, it was more cosmetic than functional. Even more fortunate is the kick-ass customer service folks at Aqua-Bound – Mark especially – not only fixed the blade for free, but had it back to me within a week. No irony or sarcasm here. Aqua-Bound gets a full-fledged high five and big praise.
The other two reasons this trip was personally frustrating had to do with the weather (and thus may be incidental and irrelevant to your own experience). A significant inspiration behind this trip was the warm weather. Even in the brand new world that is climate change, a day in February when the temps hit the 50s is a wonderful rarity. But a warm front like that doesn’t come without a fee – in this case, headwinds from the south blowing that balmy air (in this case with 20 mph gusts). This particular trip is pretty much all southward, with two notable east and west exceptions near the take-out. Meaning, I was dead against a strong headwind for almost all the time. I am not exaggerating whatsoever when I say that I’d be blown backwards any time I stopped paddling, even for ten or twenty seconds. In other words, it was all work and little play. Either I was constantly scraping, butt-scooting, or just getting out and walking when the river was too shallow, or getting blown backwards and paddling into the wind when the river featured a deep pool section. I couldn’t get a break either way (other than a broken boat).
The other thing about paddling due south on a sunny day? Yeah, the sun. It was blinding, even with a hat and sunglasses. To be sure, in February especially, I was A-to-the-OK about the sun being in my eyes if it meant the sun also basking my skin. But it did make for one more distraction, together with the wind, shallow river, and wet cockpit. It also made for a whole lot of glare on the camera lens trying to photograph this trip.
Finally, there’s the take-out. We’d experienced the less-than-accommodating nature of County A in the past and knew it would be pretty awful. Still is; nothing’s really changed since 2016. The banks are a couple feet above the water-line and just a smear of mud. From the low vantage point of a kayak, it’s a little tricky just getting out, particularly while still holding onto your boat and then pulling it onto land. And then there’s a barbed wire fence. Mercifully, we noticed one open section where the wires either were cut or slack, allowing us to access without having to straddle it or slip through it. This is on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left. (In 2016, we began our trip at County A, but on the downstream-right side of the bridge – which we strongly discourage paddlers from doing.)
Then there’s clambering up the incline from the river to the road, which is steep and strewn with riprap and rock rubble. Once you’re at the top, you still have to schlep about 300′ to the nearly nonexistent shoulder and the all too present guardrail. County A gets a fair amount of passing vehicles for a country road, all driving pretty fast at that – especially, for some less-than-quaint reason, when they see a paddler loading or unloading and belly-up plumes of black diesel smoke with the pedal to the metal. Real cute.
We finally returned to this area in early May, 2018, to put-in at the other bridge at County Road E – the one over the actual Platte River – thinking it would be much better than Leggett Creek. Honestly, it’s not. It’s three times as long as the short leg of Leggett Creek, and while it’s prettier, it’s not pretty enough to countervail the crap that comes with it. It’s cluttered by lots of downfall and nasty strainers and is cursed by a set of barbed wires in very pushy current. There’s another set of wires immediately upstream of the bridge at Sleepy Hollow Road (north). Both sets of wires extend past the banks, making for an exceptionally difficult portage. And even with our ingenious Y-er, it was still a white-knuckled, hold-your-breath-and-hope-for-the-best moment under the evil, medieval bastards just begging for a tetanus shot. Frankly, it made us mad. Mad to the point of contemplating a little Edward Abbey-esque sabotage (or environmental vigilantism if you prefer) a la The Monkey Wrench Gang. But we’re too polite and well-mannered to do that, and we begrudgingly understand why these wires are there in the first place. (That concession said, we sure as hell think that there’s a better, safer way to do this for paddlers and cattlers alike, damn it!)
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, yes, but also no. First off, you won’t catch us anywhere near this upstream portion of the Platte unless it’s at a minimum of 4.5′ on the USGS gauge, which is, admittedly, rare and short-lived. Secondly, we’re done with being fooled by County Roads E and A. The accesses are awful, and the barbed wires are merciless.
So, with that in mind, here’s what we propose for doing instead. Put in at either of the Sleepy Hollow Road bridges or at Coon Hollow Road. Then sail past the stupid bridge at County Road A and paddle on down to Kingsford Road and take out there on the upstream side of the bridge, river-left. That would be a 10-mile trip. From Kingsford to the established access at Airport Road, in Ellenboro, are 3 miles, for what it’s worth. See our map for the various mileage distances between the Sleepy Hollow Road bridges, etc, to tailor this trip to your own preferences. Just avoid County E and County A, wherever you go.
Platte River Overview: Platte River Paddle Guide
Platte River I: Ellenboro to County Road B
Platte River II: Ellenboro to Platte Road
Platte River III: Platte Road to Big Platte Road
Platte River IV: Big Platte Road to Indian Creek Road
Platte River V: County Road A to Platte Road
Platte River VII: Coon Hollow Road to Ellenboro
Platte River VIII: Indian Creek Road to The Mississippi River
Miles Paddled Video: Ellenboro to County Road B
Good People: Friends of the Platte River
Wikipedia: Platte River