Mill Creek (Richland County)
Crossover Road to Highway 60
☆ ☆ ☆
A run-of-the-mill name for a stream that you’ve likely never heard about – this obscure curiosity offers two distinctly different paddling environments and conditions in only six miles: the first half open and pastoral, with swift flow leading to a surprising run of Class I-II rapids, the latter half much slower and woodsier and prone to deadfall. Both halves provide peaks into lovely Driftless hills and some cool rock outcrops, too. For an almost anonymous body of water, accesses are pretty decent. Not exactly a beginners’ stream due to the deadfall and tricky portaging, this trip nonetheless offers a lot of fun and novelty for more experienced paddlers.
October 29, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
≈5′ per mile
Gauge note: There’s no dedicated or correlative gauge for Mill Creek, however, there was abundant water during our trip after a couple weeks with no measurable rain. We believe it’s a spring-fed stream that’s additionally augmented by various branches and feeder creeks, all of which are well upstream of this trip. If the level looks good at Crossover Road, there’ll be plenty of water to paddle. That said, in high water this trip would be rowdy in the brief but reputable rapids section, not to mention additional and likely difficult portaging at low-clearance obstructions in pushy current. So, what would be considered a too high level? If you can’t see any rocks or boulders at Crossover Road and/or if the drainage cuts in the banks are back-filled, it’s probably best to stay off the creek.
Crossover Road, Eagle, Wisconsin
Highway 60 at the Wisconsin River, North of Muscoda, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:50p. Out at 3:50p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 6
Wildlife: Deer, wood ducks, doves, lots of frogs, a hawk, a great blue heron, and evidence but not sighting of raccoons, beaver and muskrats.
First off, let’s get something out of the way right away: this Mill Creek is not the same stream as the nearby one in Iowa County we paddled back in 2014 that we disliked. Nor is it the really fun one we loved up in Portage County in 2016. Given the generic name, there must be a good dozen or more other Mill Creeks throughout Wisconsin. This Mill Creek is in Richland County, due north of Muscoda.
I’ve scratched the mental files of my memory to remember how, when, or even why I first heard of and got interested in this Mill Creek, but to no avail. It’s been on the to-do list for years, all the same. Maybe it’s because I’d heard of the burial mounds nearby. Called the Shadewald Mounds as well as Frank’s Hill, they’re an intact collection of extremely impressive burial mounds atop a prominent bluff on the opposite side of the Wisconsin River from Muscoda. Accessible to the public, it’s a short walk up the hill and around the mounds. Like all burial mounds, a bird’s eye view provides the best perspective of the shape outlines; but, alas, without wings (or jetpacks) that’s hard to pull off. Still though, the mounds are plenty discernible from the ground. If nothing else, the view of the surrounding landscape from the hill is itself quite lovely.
Mill Creek is a 30-mile-long stream that begins quietly in the Driftless hills east of Readstown, between the Kickapoo and Pine Rivers. Fishing-wise, it’s a Class II trout stream for its upper half, the lower half – which this trip corresponds with – is generally too warm for browns and rainbows. Since 1898 at least, and likely even earlier, there had been a dam on the creek in the township of Balmoral that powered a feed mill and produced hydroelectricity for the community of Muscoda. In 1922 a newer, more modern dam was constructed, a concrete wall that was 20′ tall. That dam stopped producing hydro-juice 70 years later, in 1992, yet it would still take another 15 years to remove the dysfunctional, decrepit structure.
Following the insane rain and subsequent flooding in 2008, the 40-some acre pond was drawn down and the dam removed at last in the autumn of 2009. (And by “insane” we mean the new normal. Unless we’re going by dog years, we gotta come up with new terms for hundred-year and 500-year floods when they’re becoming biannual events.) Some maps still show a “Balmoral Pond,” but Mill Creek has been a free-flowing stream for the last nine years now. See here for a quaint sepia-toned photo and article about the dam from yesteryear.
When I first looked at the satellite imagery of the lower creek, a white line of water caught my attention and demanded a zoom in. Clearly a ledge of some sort. And then I noticed an interrupted road named “Dam Lane.” So I had a hunch and slapped on the old Google cap to learn of the former dam at this location. Then I got to thinking, where there’s a dam, there’s current to have inspired someone way back when to have built a dam in the first place. In other words, catnip for the curious paddler.
There’s a dedicated public access at the Highway 60 bridge some 600′ upstream of the mouth of Mill Creek at the Wisconsin River. So, I knew that would be the take-out. The access is OK at Crossover Road, but it’s a quiet, traffic-free road at least. The banks at Basswood Road, the next bridge upstream, are steep and slippery. The next bridge up from there is County Road E, which is busy and fast, making it an unsafe access. Upstream of those two bridges makes for too long a day of totally unknown, dice-rolling paddling. So, Crossover to Highway 60 it was, a neat and tidy trip of six miles and change, a prudent distance for exploring the obscure.
The put-in at Crossover Road is so-so. We launched from the upstream side of the bridge on river-left, via a drainage ditch. It’s pretty muddy, so don’t wear your best shoes. While we’ve paddled Mill Creek only this one time, we did so in what we’d consider ordinary conditions – neither shortly after a lot of rain nor during a prolonged dry spell. We mention this because the creek had plenty of water and reputable flow. Not pushy per se, but still with a skip in its step. The width of the creek here is comparable to everything on this trip: about 35′ wide. It will meander here and there in the first three miles of this trip, but there are more straightaways here than downstream.
You’ll paddle parallel to a modest ridge on the left for the first hundred feet, off behind Town Hall Drive. We encountered a couple obstructions right off the bat, but at first they were all negotiable. The landscape soon becomes essentially flat in the foreground with a couple peekaboo glimpses of Driftless hills in the backdrop. It seems like it would be pastureland here, but we saw no cattle or evidence of bovine goings-on. Instead, the banks are about 4-5′ high with lots of scrubby trees everywhere. So, maybe more bottomlands than pastures (but in truth it’s not really either). Or maybe the landscape is still catching its breath after being underwater for over a hundred years, due to the fake lake impoundment created by the former Balmoral dam…
Your wonderment will be momentarily distracted first by a big honker of a tree that you should be able to carefully duck underneath. Then, shortly afterward is a classic cluster that, in theory, you could try to ram into/ride over at full speed, but it would be difficult – and probably not worth what damage could occur to your boat. The portage around this, via left bank, was simple and offered an easy re-entry. The second of two small farm bridges comes into view next, followed by a modest ridge on river-right and a lovely stand of pines. The creek will swerve away from this ridge, meander less, but pick up some speed in more prominent straightaways. The fun part’s about to start!
It begins with riffles after a couple drainage canals on the left bank. And you think, “oh look, that’s nice!” in a pat-you-on-the-head kind of way. And then the riffles get friskier with a lovely view of more pines in the backdrop. Suddenly and subtly the banks are a little taller, the creek width narrower, and the stream flow a little more funneled and faster. A few big meandering bends also helps slosh that stream flow. And there you are, advancing upon one splashy pocket of Class I rapids after another. The most notable of these, but not the last splash for this trip, is a Class II ledge – we got an alarm clock-full of cold water on the lap plunging that one. There’s a quasi pool of quietwater below it and a low embankment to get out and drain your boat. We felt like a couple schoolyard boys playing hooky after that run. It’s not technically challenging, but it sure was fun, especially since it was totally unexpected.
The current then catches its breath in a long graceful arc toward the southeast. Here, the banks are totally composed of lush, soft sand. With the hardwood trees and green grass glimpses juxtaposed, the compositional landscape here is really quite pretty. But it gets even prettier. First, a tall cliff comes into sharper focus. Taken from the same playbook as other southwestern Wisconsin streams, this cliff dazzles with classic sandstone outcrops. But before you take it all in, there’s one final ledge to slide down. It doesn’t get much better than this: a gorgeous geology show preceded by a fun and totally safe splash of light whitewater. Below the ledge the creek takes a hard turn to the left, the cliff essentially diverting the flow. This is the former site of the Balmoral dam. Above both the left and right banks you’ll see guardrail where once there was a road (or something) that bridged the gap. Today, both are dead-end roads.
The tall bridge at Highway 193 comes next. The banks are steep here, and there’s no roadside parking, precluding this as put-in/take-out option. It does, however, evenly split up this trip in two three-mile halves. On the downstream side of the bridge you’ll notice a prominent bluff off to the right. That’s Frank’s Hill, where the cool effigy mounds are located. You might even notice someone walking around up there. The creek takes an indirect meandering trek north of and then eventually around this bluff, so you’ll see views of it over and over not unlike Clark Griswold a la Big Ben. The landscape and paddle-feel in this second half is distinctly different than the first half. For one, the current pretty much disappears. And the landscape is much more boxed in and less open than before. Unfortunately, both of these attributes lend themselves to tree debris and blockages. But before you run into that you’ll still be treated to some tall sandy banks crowned with pine trees and an attractive hillside on the right with a handful of modest rock outcrops.
But then things get a little ugly. Because we’re stubborn, and the banks here are both steepish and muddy – making for difficult portaging – we plodded our way through, under, over, and past the 4-5 obstructions in a one-mile stretch in between the hillside and take-out bridge. For beginner paddlers or simply experienced ones who don’t want to suffer such foolishness, this short stretch could be a deal-breaker.
(That said, it would be a fairly simple affair to clean up some of this crap to allow for paddling access – calling all canoes and jon boats with willing chainsaws…)
The end of this trip does not do justice to its beginning. The environment feels more like a floodplain, with mud and downed trees leaving an impression in every sense. Relief comes with a tall bank on the right with a stand of pines and private residence behind. By this point, you’ll have heard the tell-tale sounds of vehicles driving on Highway 60, signaling the take-out bridge. There’s an actual designated parking area, off of the road, on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left. It’s not the worst access, especially in light of the convenient and safe parking, but the banks are just steep and muddy enough to make it a little tricky. We found it easiest to pull out under the bridge itself, where there are some rocks at least that provide for better anchoring and relative dryness.
(Incidentally, the mouth of Mill Creek is only 600′ downstream, at the Wisconsin River. On the opposite bank, aka Muscoda, there’s a designated DNR boat launch. But the big river here is 0.3-mile wide, making for a relatively strenuous ferrying across, especially in the shorter style of kayak one is likelier to use for paddling Mill Creek.)
What we liked:
The unexpected rapids… what a welcome surprise! You’ll always hear the sound of moving water before you actually see any splashes or horizon lines (it’s like lightning and thunder in reverse). But sometimes what sounds like rapids is only the current moving through fallen tree strainers. When we first heard that susurration of moving water we assumed it was simply that – deadfall. After all, we knew that we weren’t at the halfway point, where the dam had been just upstream of the tall bridge at Highway 193. And it just seemed improbable that there would be rapids before we reached that spot. But sure enough, rapids there were – and several of them at that, in a giddy, splendid succession of wet laps and wide smiles.
What also was really cool about this – besides just the sheer bliss of fun, safe rapids – is the curious cause of them. Rapids don’t simply happen on their own. They’re usually generated by rocks or drops. But there’s no such thing in this stretch of Mill Creek. So what’s causing the current to be suddenly volatile and foamy? Deposits of clay in a section where the gradient was notably steeper than elsewhere on our trip. Is there such a thing as calcified clay? Petrified clay? Beats us, but what looked like rocky shelves or boulders were actually big deposits of clay, sometimes in clusters like boulders or shelves. But still clay. Very cool, very peculiar. Very fun!
Despite being smack dab in the Driftless hills, the actual views of the rolling, rugged landscape are fairly modest. Still though, they’re here and there, and always appealing. We enjoyed the subtle changes in the banks themselves – from soil to clay to sand to mud. The clay and sand banks, however, were our favorites, as they were taller and made us feel smaller (in a good way!), and also had the effect of funneling the current with swifter flow, which in part led to the sudden rapids.
After the final ledge, where the dam had been, that 70′-tall cliff whose sandstone outcropping is strikingly aesthetic. At first, we thought it simply was a concrete wall, a human-made vestige from the dam itself. But sure enough, it’s a natural rock outcrop. (Is “outcrop” even the right word? The whole cliff is exposed sandstone, like a hidden skin out in full view.) It comes out of nowhere, and you head right for it (although the stream will swerve to the left, diverted from the bluff). It dwarfs the surroundings from its sheer scale and is truly stunning.
The forested ridge downstream from Highway 193 also is quite pretty, though nowhere as dramatic. It features a few modest rock outcrops more reminiscent of the Pecatonica River system. And while you won’t be able to see any of the individual mounds at the top of Frank’s Hill from the creek, it’s still pretty cool to see that hill and know they’re up there!
What we didn’t like:
The accesses at both the put-in and take-out are OK, but not great. Both are muddy and a little steep, but they’re plenty doable.
Otherwise, the only notable complaint about the trip is the deadfall. It is by no means anywhere close to the 1- and 2-star trip paddles we’ve been on where it’s just a shit-show every hundred feet or so. But there is a cluster of downed trees ad pileups in between the Highway 193 and Highway 60 bridges, none of them terribly easy, each of them requiring some clever maneuvering, sawing, shoving, snapping, thrusting, ducking, and brute stubbornness to not be stymied. Not to mention a willingness to get dirty. It’s totally on account of these impediments that this trip was scaled back from 4 stars to 3.
If we did this trip again:
We’d pretty much do everything as before again. That said, we’d spend more time clearing out and cleaning up the creek for safer, easier access, especially for more beginner paddlers. In theory at least, one could take out where Dam Lane used to be, since it’s a dead-end road, if one only wanted to paddle the rapids. But the right bank is pretty steep, not making for the most accessible take-out.
Alternatively, the next time we found ourselves up in this area we’d want to explore the next few segments upstream of Crossover to put those on the map as well. There’s a beguiling 7-mile trip waiting to be had in between County Road Q and Crossover. Any takers?
Camp: Victora Campground
4.5 miles. Very scenic and pretty. Be sure to check out some of the effigy mounds along the way. There’s one off of Highway 60 itself 1000′ due west of the take-out bridge, and then several atop a bluff off of Highway 193. Park along the east side of the road, where’s a discernible trail on the right up the hill.