Bark River V
County Road E to Hagedorn Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A two-for-one trip that demonstrates the admirable diversity of the understated Bark River, featuring a classic river-lake-river pattern through a mostly undeveloped landscape, the paddler can do these segments as two separate trips or a novelty combo. Except in the Rome Pond lake section, the Bark River here is composed of a clear-water sand-gravel bottom with intermittent riffles, while surrounded by gentle hills in a mix of woodlands and wetlands left in the wake of retreating glaciers in the last Ice Age.
March 31, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: (Minor) Class I
2′ per mile in the beginning. > Nothing in the pond > 4′ per mile below the dam.
Rome: ht/ft: 2.9 | cfs: 260
We recommend this level. Below 200 cfs, the river will be shallow. Significantly above 300 cfs, the river will get pushy, the water clarity turbid and compromised.
County Road E, Heath Mills, Wisconsin
Hagedorn Road, West of Slabtown, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 10
Wildlife: Frogs, carp, deer, turkey vultures, hawks, bald eagles, wood ducks, various marsh birds, great blue herons, muskrats and soft-shelled turtles.
Where to begin with the beloved Bark? Well, for starters allow me to reiterate my previous ovation to the Bark River when we documented our last trip on it, back in 2017. Then, I alluded to how it’s one of my favorite streams in southern Wisconsin. At first glance this might come off as surprising to the reader since we don’t have too many segments of the Bark River on our site… and those that we do didn’t get the most favorable ratings. That said, I did mention that the Rome to Hebron segment is a real gem, and so it’s fitting to start the official 2019 season with that in mind (albeit with a Miles Paddled twist).
The first time I ever visited the Bark was back in the summer of 2014, while compiling the “B-sides” of rivers, creeks, and lakes in southern Wisconsin not already covered in other paddling guidebooks in order to publish my own. Meister Mike Svob featured two trips on the Bark River in his epic Paddling Southern Wisconsin (now back in print after a short hiatus). I personally find his two chosen trips to be counterintuitive in that each is only 6-7 miles long and the two individual sections are nearly identical in feel and flow. Furthermore, considering that the Bark River itself is 60+ miles long, it confuses me that Svob’s chosen section of the river is its last 13 miles, a segment that is slow, wide, and muddy, surrounded by floodplain bottomlands, in contrast to the vastly more attractive and diverse segments upstream. But we all have different criteria about what constitutes desirability and taste.
On a personal note, back in January of 2014 I worked at the USPS for a brief stint, here in Madison (shout out to the Hilldale Station post office!). Brief because I was a letter carrier working outside, and like Karl Malone I was delivering the mail. Remember January 2014? AKA the first time anyone who didn’t study meteorology in the 1960s heard of something called a “polar vortex”? Yeah, that. Twice in the span of four weeks. Forty degrees below zero in the wind. The Soviets sent dissidents to Siberia for less. Enough said. But the woman who trained me, Joanne, bless her heart, mentioned that she and her husband owned and operated a small campground along the banks of the Bark River in a town called Hebron. Fast-forward half a year or so – long after I hung up my postman blues. I plotted out a daytrip on the river where I would take out at the campground, whereupon I reunited with Joanne again, and a good laugh was had by all. I chose a frankly obscure place to begin that trip, at a road called Hagedorn* where a small tributary called Duck Creek flows into the Bark River. I had no idea what I’d encounter along the way, but it ended up being a fabulous individual trip that I knew right away would make it in my book.
* Little could I have known at the time a man by that name (Hagedorn) would eek out a win in a contentious state Supreme Court race only five years later. Of the many things one might say about this – none of which have a thing to do with paddling, admittedly – we’ll simply say “boo.”
In the following months and years I returned to the Bark several times, sometimes to re-paddle sections, sometimes to take a crack at somewhere wholly new and unknown. Sure, we’re self-confessed “completists” with a tendency to be a bit OCD about exploring the obscure. But there was some other allure to the Bark River that kept me on-leash, something I’m not sure I can put my paw finger on. I’m not alone though. During this time I read Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed by Milton J. Bates, a truly delightful book that is not a true guidebook but rather a means by which to tell the history of this charming little river from source to confluence. In it, the author and his wife intrepidly paddle the river from Bark Lake all the way down to the Rock River, each chapter essentially an individual section of the river that Bates chronicles from the dual perspectives of presently paddling along and the hidden history of the area. You won’t find specifics like where to put in and take out, mile lengths, water levels, etc; it’s not that kind of book and doesn’t try to be. Instead, you’ll be regaled by a historian weaving past and present as he and his wife float along the timeless flow of a river.
Those passages whetted my interest to paddle as much of the Bark as I had any reasonable ability to (and sometimes questionable ability). I still haven’t made it up to Bark Lake yet, and I’m not sure I will. For one, there’s actually something enjoyable about not completing something. I don’t mean leaving a job undone per se, but rather letting something continue to loom in one’s imagination rather than officiously dot every i and cross each t. Plus I have every reason to think that the 6-8 miles from the lake to where I picked up the slack back in 2017 might very well suck – “a hell of impenetrable alders” one person put it. Even for this old dog, that’s more trick than treat; and do I really want to drive two hours each way to Waukesha County to paddle a hell of impenetrable alders? Yeah, no.
Anyway, that’s more than enough back story. Let’s take this Bark out for a walk.
We began this trip at the County Road E bridge due south of Sullivan. There’s an unusually large parking area/pull-off down to the water. There’s also a prominent sign that reads “No Boat Landing” but we chose to ignore that. (We weren’t “landing” there; we were launching. Plus we interpreted the prohibition as applying to motor boats, not canoes or kayaks. Besides, County E is listed as an access site on the Glacial Heritage Area water trails map and guide. Surely a cheery pamphlet created by do-good volunteers advocating silent sports recreation trumps municipal road bylaws, right?) See below for more on this.
For just a brief moment you’ll paddle past a row of houses on the left as the river bends towards the right into a mix of woods, meadows, and marsh. The overall feel is a bit primeval since there is no development anywhere, and even the nearest roads are still a way’s away. You will see lots of great wildlife, however, and no shortage of wood duck boxes. One eye-catching anomaly is an isolated hill deep in the backdrop, river-right, a bald-faced terrace that faces west and stands out in contrast to the relative flatlands of the surrounding area. It might be hard to see once the leaves come out. Ditto an otherwise impressive bald eagle’s nest that we first discerned through the leafless trees well before we finally meandered closer and essentially below it. At least mom or dad was home with the kids.
After a mile you’ll see a huge swath of trees on a slight rise of land on the left. Dubbed Texas Island Woods State Natural Area, it’s a subtle upland forest located within a “sea” of marsh, meadow, and swamp. Why it’s called Texas, who knows? And while it’s by no means an island in the conventional sense, seen from a satellite it is a metaphorical island intact and distinct from its surroundings. We didn’t see how one could access it via boat, given the impenetrable barrier of cattails, but one can get there via boot.
Past the isle of Texan woods the river will meander more angularly for another mile and a half before the whole scene explodes with vast openness to the inlet of the Rome Pond. And by “pond” let’s be precise: it’s a big lake – half a square mile, the shoreline itself some eight miles around. And from the inlet to the dam that maintains the pond levels are 1.8 miles (as the crow flies) of flatwater paddling. One advantage we had paddling across the “pond” this early in the year was solitude. Or maybe the motorboaters were smarter by staying off the water when it was so windy. You’d have to try to get lost to feel lost, but the vastness of the pond can feel a little disorienting. The natural course goes northwest. If in doubt, just hug the right shoreline to the outlet/dam. Or make a beeline across the broad pond to the opposite shore and then hug it on your left. Or, hell, spend as much time whiling around the pond as you please. Ultimately, one could paddle back to County E as a there-and-back trip without shuttling.
The big water is not without its charms. There are more subtle hills here and there, an eye-pleasing sprinkle of evergreen conifers to all the beige sedge of the marsh and leafless oaks – lots of bark along the Bark. We passed several nest clumps (that’s probably not a scientific term) for unidentifiable birds (something like a cross between mergansers and terns – “terganser”?), and scores upon scores of lily pad roots that – I kid you not – look like spinal columns with suction cups just bobbing along. They’re long, thick tubes that with a little imagination invoke a little Jules Verne and sinister squid. Anyway, eventually the shoreline will taper and soon you’ll see two notable landmarks: a waterside bar called “Dig-N-Kats” on the right and the bridge at County Road F. On the upstream side of the bridge, on the right, is a boat landing also designated by the Glacial Heritage Area. One could call it quits here and stop off at Dig-n-Kats for a cold one – and maybe ask them why the feline name on a river called Bark.
Anyway, past the bridge hook a left to streamline it to the dam portage. Or, if you’d prefer to keep afloat on the pond, hug the right shoreline (which will remain undeveloped for the most part, until you get closer to the dam, where there are some houses). Portaging around the dam is an essentially simple affair. There’s a big ‘ole rectangular sign that reads DAM together with a smaller one advising TAKE OUT with an arrow pointing left. It’s a short schlep over the grassy berm to the downstream side of the dam. There’s no official re-entry location, so just choose a spot that’s safest (i.e., away from the turbulent current from the dam) and driest and least muddy (e.g., rocks).
Immediately below the dam, where the river bends to the right, be mindful of some strainer branches, as this spot tends to get a little clustered. The river then will bend to the left and gain speed to a fun little riffly drop preceding the bridge at Main Street/County Road F. You’ll see the contents of the mill race spew out from a pipe and the old mill building itself on the left. The current will slacken after the bridge. Following a left-hand bend and a more gradual one to the right, look behind your left shoulder to see a ditch-like slip of water that we presume also was part of the millrace at one point; you can paddle up it, if you like. Next you’ll see the first of two private campgrounds (on this trip) on your right, here with three little canals. After the campground you’ll disappear from development for many pleasant miles. Here, the landscape is wooded and wild-feeling. The river will make an elongated horseshoe-shaped loop to the south and back north, passing a makeshift pier on the left that frankly we don’t know if it’s public or private. (Even from the road (Bente Road), it’s ambiguous whether one is welcome or verboten.) Riffles will announce the next bridge, at Palmyra Road.
It’s half a mile to the bridge after that, at Turner Road, where again riffles precede it and make for a whiz-bang of fun. There’s good put-in/take-out access point on the downstream side of the bridge here, river-left, for the record. It’s three miles to the next bridge, and this is one of the loveliest swaths anywhere along the Bark River. In the first stretch, a longish straightaway provides one of the most iconic backdrops you’ll see in this part of the state: an old brick farmhouse framed by a hilly drumlin behind it. The river wends to the right, then left, then left again around the hill. A few more straightaways then lead to fun meandering squiggles and some obstacle-dodging in a marshy woodlands environment that feels stunningly isolated. The second private campground comes into view next, this one much larger than the first. Still though, it’s fairly charming, and it takes only a minute or so to paddle past before it feels like you’re away from it all again.
After another long straightaway the river will bend to the right and then split into all sorts of optionable side channels. It’s rather unique, what happens here. Imagine a huge and kind of ghoulish-looking figure 8. That’s basically how the mainstream appears from a bird’s eye view, braided into this channel and that. They all converge downstream, so which path you take is really up to you (and water levels – some channels are shallower than others). But it is a gorgeous area that feels quite wild and is admirably wooded. Back in the mainstream, the river will meander here and there before dropping into the fun pitch of riffles and Class I rapids to the next bridge, at Cushman Road, in the longest stretch of fast water on this trip. There used to be a dam here a whole long time ago. Some maps still show a “Cushman Pond” at this location. There also used to be a huge dancehall along the property, operated by the same family – you guessed it, The Cushmans. But both the dam and dancehall were too costly to upkeep, plus times changed. (Millennialls don’t care much for dams.) It’s easy to miss or just take for granted, but there’s a lot of interesting history at this location.
From here it’s another skimpy half-mile to the take-out. The river meanders this way and that through woods and a couple steep banks. Look for the confluence of Duck Creek on your right, as that marks the take-out location. Where precisely you choose to get out is up to you, as there is no official spot. But we’ve always found it most convenient to get out on the right-hand side of Duck Creek. Either way, it’s then a short schlep up to the road.
What we liked:
While I’ve paddled some portion of segments below the Rome dam more times than I’ve got fingers to count, this was the first trip where I got to see the river/pond upstream of the dam. It’ll take only a couple minutes after launching at County Road E to slip away from the world and be enveloped in a kingdom of marsh and woods for a few miles. The water here is deep and dark – totally the opposite of what you’ll encounter on the other side of the dam, where it’s clear and shallow. The pond environment is enjoyable, even for a flatwater escapade. We might have felt less endeared to it, had we had to share it with motorboaters; but all to ourselves on a sunny, early-spring day, it was lovely (minus the wind).
But the best part of the Bark, to be sure, comes below the Rome dam. The current is always chugging along, and in some places has quite the skip in its step. Together with the Rock and Oconomowoc Rivers, the Bark is a quintessential glacial stream in southeastern Wisconsin; hilly drumlins, wetlands, woods, gravel-bottoms, erratics (aka small boulders), mark its characteristics and charm. If all you’ve ever experienced of the Bark River is its last miles near Fort Atkinson, then you this upstream segment will feel like an entirely different river.
There are three sections on this trip I always look forward to. The first is that classic/iconic shot of the old brick farmhouse with the small hill behind it. Call it Wisconsin Gothic. The second is the alluring figure-8 braided side channel skein. No matter which path you choose, you can’t get lost or go wrongly. Third is the closest thing to a run of rapids at the Cushman Road bridge. But there’s no shortage of undeveloped beauty and landscape diversity, or plentiful wildlife, in between these singular moments. This part of the Bark is just a gem.
What we didn’t like:
It’s best to keep off the so-called pond if you’d be paddling against the wind. I personally found it pretty grueling in a canoe, as if paddling in a dream wherein no matter how hard (or smartly) I paddled to maintain a path in one direction, I’d still end up elsewhere. It was fine, but hardly fun.
Things have changed in the last few years at Hagedorn Road. When I first went there in 2014, you could just park a vehicle right at the bridge over Duck Creek. But I noticed a year or two ago that there’s signage on the west and east sides of the bridge admonishing that one cannot park in between said signs. It’s not really a big deal, but it’s A) a bit annoying and B) inexplicable why one has to park 300-400’ away from a puny bridge in the middle of podunk. But on a road named Hagedorn…
A side note too about the access ambiguity at the County Road E put-in. When we pulled down into the parking area I saw a county sheriff’s car and a tow truck. Then I noticed a rather huge swath of guardrail peeled off its wooden pylons on the ground, twisted and bent like some kind of malleable aluminum foil. The more I looked, the more I noticed glass and smashed bits scattered all over. Now that’s a menacing way to begin a paddling trip… And along comes dumb old me, a dude with a canoe, carefree recreation juxtaposed with a violent accident. Turns out a driver lost control of his car in the bend and dip in the road where the bridge is at County Road E only about an hour earlier and took out a whole lot of guardrail. No serious injuries though (well, tell that to the guardrail).
Anyway, my point is we did ask the sheriff if it was ok to launch a boat at this site and leave a car here – you know, in spite of the conspicuous sign suggesting otherwise. She looked at me the way one does when someone asks you such a piddly question as to strain credulity. “Sir, are you shitting me?” is what I wished she’d said. In a more rural, more northern county I can imagine this – Iron County, say. But down here it was way lamer. She said something along the lines of You’d have to ask the town of Sullivan blah blah blah andyadda yadda yadda…until she added, “but I don’t have a problem with it.”
Ch-ching! That’s all we needed to hear.
If we did this trip again:
While there is nothing wrong or even disappointing about the Rome Pond portion of this trip, for me it was a once-and-done sort of thing that we’d likely skip next time. Being “completists” who strive to leave no erratic unturned, this was more of a personal quest. As such, it was only natural to check off the County Road E to the Rome dam segment of the Bark River. It’s pleasant, but by no means compelling. But the river below the dam – now that’s where you should put your money! And it just depends on how far you want to go and/or time you have to be on the water, whether that’s a 6-mile segment to Duck Creek/Hagedorn Road, 9 miles to Highway 106, or 11 miles to Koch Road (hell, or ever 14 miles to Prince’s Point at County Road D). All of these segments are just delightful and offer some of the very best paddling the river has to offer – all Bark and no bite!
Bark River I: Burnt Village Park to Downtown Fort Atkinson
Bark River II: Merton to Highway 83
Bark River III: Highway 83 to Delafield Road
Bark River IV: Highway 164 to Merton
Guide: Glacial Heritage Area Water Trails
Map: Glacial Heritage Area Water Trails
Wikipedia: Bark River
7.3 miles, suitable for bicycles.