Bark River VI
Sugar Island Road to Atkins-Olson Memorial Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Quite possibly the prettiest part of the Bark River, with crystal clear water, lush sand and/or gravel bottoms, a mix of marsh and woods with pines, tamaracks, oaks, this scenic trip packs a lot of diversified portfolio for its punch, as it begins on a lake then ends in a floodplain. Water levels are usually reliable, but no fewer than six low-clearance bridges might require portaging.
May 12, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Quietwater
~2′ per mile
We recommend these levels, but both gauges are affected by lakes and dams. There is usually enough water to do this trip, but if the river is low, then you’ll scrape in some of the shallows between Genesee Lake Road and Highway 67. Conversely, if it’s high, then the many low-clearance bridges between County Road P and Highway 67 will need to be portaged. Neither is a big deal.
The only thing we’d strongly advise not doing is paddling the 3.7-mile segment between Highway 67 and Atkins-Olson Park when the river is high and the current pushy, after a lot of rain. It’s one meander after another with lots of tight twists, and there’s deadfall to maneuver around, under, and over. Even the paddler with the best boat control skills would find her patience taxed in this part of the river under those conditions.
Sugar Island Road boat landing, Lower Nemahbin Lake, Delafield, Wisconsin
Atkins-Olson Memorial Park, Highway 18, Dousman, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:10p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 3h 20m
Miles Paddled: 9.25
Wildlife: Painted turtles, muskrats, a gazillion songbirds, turkey vultures, great blue herons, green heron, hawks, sandhill cranes, snapping turtle, deer and an elusive owl.
Back in 2014 I bit off as many segments of the Bark River as I could to determine which were its best trips that I then would include in the guidebook I was compiling. During one of those junkets, a local and fellow paddler raved about the area below the Nemahbin Lakes* as “so beautiful.” Well, she had my interest. Later, I looked up what I could online and found a handful of leads and testimonies about this part of the Bark, all glowing adulations, and all starting at a public access boat launch – for free (a rarity in Waukesha County) – maintained by the DNR, located at the end of evocatively named Sugar Island Road. The hook was set.
*For point of reference, Upper and Lower Nemahbin “lakes” are really just one intact lake, dubbed as such on account of I-94 that straddles its skinny waist, kind of like how Great Lakes Michigan and Huron are an intact body of water with the Mackinac Bridge bisecting each at their tapered tips – just on a much, much smaller degree.
But then the question was where to end the trip. At the time, I was reading a delightful book called The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed by historian and paddler, Milton J. Bates, who wrote about his own experience paddling this section of the Bark (along with all the river’s segments from source to confluence). In it he alludes to taking out somewhere in Dousman downtown, but it sounded a little sketchy. Furthermore, when I first drove out from Madison to explore this section of the Bark to take a look-see for myself, before I even reached downtown Dousman I happened upon Atkins-Olson Park along the banks of the river. Hello, serendipity! What could be more preferable than taking-out at a public park, where the access is good and parking plentiful? I had little idea of what to expect from Lower Nemahbin Lake to downtown Dousman and even less from there to Atkins-Olson Park, but such are how day trips finding adventures in our backyards are made.
Well, it turns out that they’re entirely different. From Lower Nemahbin to Highway 67 the river environs are primarily marsh with a couple agricultural fields and some tamaracks and oaks for the sake of pop. The current, however, is regularly steady – not usually the case in marshes – and the water is gorgeously clear, thanks to the sandy/gravel bottom. Shortly after Highway 67 the river goes into a meandering frenzy through a floodplain, where the landscape is a thick density of trees – many of them dead. The current is still peppy, but the clear water is all behind you. It’s still an attractive setting – the wildlife here is quite astounding – but its look and feel couldn’t be more different from the first “half” of this trip.
Back in 2014 I spent a few hours cleaning up and clearing out the hell of deadfall in between Highway 67 and Atkins-Olson Park. The trip up to that point had been so delightful as to lend itself to tacking on a few more miles by concluding at the park. But to do so meant “civilizing” the wild barbarian within. It was sweat equity, plain and simple. But would it be a lost cause? Would all the work have been for nothing if A) nobody else paddled down to Atkins-Olson, or B) future storms created new tangles? Maybe – one never knows. Sometimes these things are just articles of faith, with no “if you clear it, they will come” whispers of assurance from the heavens. Time would tell.
On a busy sunny weekend it might be tricky to find parking at Sugar Island Road. There are two access points at the end of the dead-end road: one public and one for the gentry. The public one is via a small lot that accommodates ten vehicles, followed by a short trail that leads to a pier. If there’s nowhere to park there, you’ll have to leave a vehicle along the side of the road – but out of the way for others (especially those pulling motor boats).
On the water, directly in front of you is Sugar Island, a large blub of land dotted with several houses. Interestingly, there’s no way to get to the island other than boat (or swimming, I suppose). The name allegedly refers to the maple trees that in an earlier time were more prominent than they are today, tapped in spring. Ever since folks began building “cottages” on the island there’s been an urge for a bridge to connect it to the mainland. Fortunately, common sense has thus far prevailed. I’m not entirely sure why one would stake out the family cabin that’s accessible only by boat in the first place within a thousand feet of a busy interstate highway – and I’m from New Jersey – but there’s a lot that I don’t know. Anyway, the island can be easily circumnavigated, if you’re feeling curious, but it is entirely developed.
Regardless, the lake water is crystal clear and gorgeous, the cream-colored sand below equally so. Locating the outlet of the river is not all that difficult, but you do have to keep your eyes open for it. Approximately 800′ north from the pier, it’s where the 10 would be on a clock (if you saw the lake as a clock face). If in doubt, just stay close to the wall of cattails on the left (west shore) and then turn left into the outlet where there’s an obvious break from said cattail wall. Once in the outlet channel the water will be shallower, of course, meaning the clarity will be more eye-catching. After about a thousand feet the river will make an abrupt right-hand turn at a shore with actual (i.e., not euphemistic) cottages that are as quaint as can be. A straightaway then leads to a sharp left-hand turn at County Road P/Sawyer Road, where there’s a low-head dam. Generally speaking, you should portage around low-head dams. Depending on the water level, the one here can be safely paddled over as long as there’s no notable ledge. The first time I saw this, in 2014, there was a 1′ drop and I was in a 15′ kayak, so I portaged around it. This time around, with the river much higher, there was no drop to speak of, just a little rifle.
In the next mile the river will gently meander through a kingdom of cattails. The first of the half-dozen low-clearance farm bridges will come. Then you’ll come upon a fork in the “rowed” (sorry). Determining which way to go is a little deceptive since the current flows in both directions. The right channel is wider, but I believe the main channel is left. Either way, both are inlets to the next lake, called Crooked Lake. Essentially, the right channel gets to the lake first, but then you’d have more lake paddling across it to find the river’s outlet. I’ve always taken the left channel, which takes you to the lake after a couple straightaways. Once on the lake, turn left and there outlet will be found also on the left only a skimpy 150′ away. By all means, spend a moment on the lake before leaving it; but there is no public access, and it’s surrounded almost entirely by McMansions.
Leaving the lake, the river will meander back and forth a time or two before coming upon the next low-clearance farm bridge, this one particularly precarious for canoes or less-than-limber paddlers in kayaks. When it doubt, just portage around these. A taller bridge comes next at Genesee Lake Road, where there’s a convenient access point on the upstream side on river-right. It’s a brief, but a really pretty stretch comes follows the bridge, where there’s a stand of tall pines/tamaracks on the left bank and the river shimmers with crystalline clarity and gravely shoals. What with the cattail/marsh surroundings, sprinkled with a little alder and dogwood, the imaginative paddler could mistake this for a boreal bog up in the northwoods. Another bridge comes next, this one thoughtfully arched and elegantly complementing the landscape. Immediately downstream you’ll see a side channel on the right where there’s a beaver dam, but the main channel loops around a lovely little island to yet another farm bridge. This one is both fun and funny; on the upstream side there’s a garbage can in case you need to lighten your cargo, while on the downstream side there’s a basketball hoop (with backboard), should you wish to practice your free throws.
A huge and truly gnarly oak tree looms after this from the right bank, its tarantular limbs spread in all directions. Here, as elsewhere, you’ll see attractive boulders below you in the water. Another straightaway leads to another low-clearance bridge, which leads to a scribble of meandering, which leads to yet another low-clearance bridge. Twice. To be sure, you’re surrounded by civilization, but this stretch has a wild feeling to it and is the least developed on this trip. But you will see a large gray house, and then a farm, and then the lowest but last low-clearance bridge. We portaged around this one, on the right, on account of its, well, lowness and the riffly current preceding it. From here it’s a short zig and zag to the bridge at Highway 67, where there’s access on the upstream side, river-left. It’s been 5.5 miles at this point. Paddlers who wish to continue will have a little shy of four more miles to Atkins-Olson Park.
As mentioned, the surroundings and paddling experience change quite a bit below Highway 67. Well, hang on – there’s yet another low-clearance bridge at Highway 18/Sunset Drive. After that you’ll pass a former Masonic compound and former resort for elder Masons back in the day, on the right. Thankfully, these buildings were not razed, as I’d first been told and foreboded a few years ago. A gorgeous cedar-arched footbridge spans both banks, part of the whole complex shebang. What with the surrounding scenery, one could mistake this for a Monet painting. A fun set of riffles lies here, too, in case the visual weren’t enough. The river then meanders through bog and tamarack before reaching the Main Street bridge. Incidentally, this is where author Milton J. Bates took out on river-left, but A) I just didn’t see an obvious, intentional spot to do so from the river and B) I don’t know where today you’d leave a vehicle.
Nonetheless, the river is still really fun below Main Street. It feels more and more like a spooky bog/bottomlands, yet the current remains lively. There’s a mess of deadfall to paddle around, under, or over, so good boat control is prudent. Here, there are a couple straightaways in between the meandering, plus a house or two (including – wait for it – another footbridge, but this one arched and posing no problem). The next bridge aka the second bridge at Highway 18/Sunset Drive comes next, still low-clearance but better than before. Downstream from here is a mile and a half of pure kinky meandering as the river zigzags north- and westward before dipping underneath the third bridge at Highway 18/Sunset Drive. In between the two bridges there’s deadfall aplenty, but always a way to get past it all without portaging. There’s a real wild feeling in this last stretch, despite being hemmed in between state highway bridges.
There also are some signs in the river reading “SCOUR CRITICAL BRIDGE.” Seeing the world from a paddler’s perspective, I first read these as “scout critical bridge” and thought, “well sure, thanks for the tip!” But then I checked myself (scour, Bauer!). Still stumped, I had to Google that upon coming home. Here’s what it means: bridge scouring is the removal of streambed material caused by swiftly moving water from around bridge abutments or piers. Scour can become so deep that streambed material is removed from beneath the abutment or pier footings (known as undermining), compromising the integrity and stability of a bridge structure. Bridge scour is the most common causes of bridge failure(courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation).
The take-out is at a disabilities-accessible floating dock, on river-right, immediately downstream from the third Highway 18/Sunset Drive bridge. There’s plenty of parking and picnic tables at this Atkins-Olson Park, but no bathrooms.
What we liked:
One of my favorite lines is “every river tells a story.” You begin here, encounter this, that, and other things along the way, and then finally end there. Every river has a narrative – the best ones have meandering plot twists, surprises, adrenaline moments, climaxes, some conflicts, and tension-relieving denouements. Because the river here begins at a lake, then exits stage left, enters another lake for a brief cameo, then exits again, this trip feels like a sojourn. You actually have to navigate and choose your own adventure to find the lake outlets and, in the case of Crooked Lake, whether you wish to take the direct inlet or the indirect one. Wending your way southward through the cattails and ducking beneath all the low-clearance bridges lends itself to the sense of a journey. Getting to Highway 67 is a landmark unto itself, signaling a very different kind of “kingdom” past this point, and then chartering through the dense floodplain section to the take-out/destination is part of the whole cumulative experience.
The sheer clarity of the water and the luscious sands below probably are the salient features of this section of the Bark River. Even on a cloudy day the visibility is breathtaking. In some spots the river is several feet deep, yet you can see the bottom as though it were a skimpy few inches deep. (Don’t worry, where it’s riffly in the shallow gravely shoals, it isonly a skimpy few inches deep!)
On a personal note, I was so delighted – and not a little surprised, I’m not gonna lie – to find the floodplain section leading to Atkins-Olson Park as neat and tidy as it was. To be sure, there are lots of obstructions to avoid; but we didn’t have to portage at all. This was a jungle in 2014! I couldn’t go more than 50-100 yards before getting out of my boat to snip, saw, yank, and toss, over and over. There’s no way that it’s open today merely on account of my handsaw and loppers five years ago. What’s far more credible is that others have contributed and maintained this section throughout the years, which couldn’t make me happier. It takes a village…
Also, just to be on the same page, let’s be clear about “neat and tidy.” When on the water and willed to clear out a dangerous or frustrating obstruction, we are always mindful of minimal impact. We want the river environs to be wild and wooly, to be natural. Nature abhors a manicured golf course. As long as there is a way through, we leave everything as-is. If there is an obstruction, we simply clear out a modest passage with the gentlest “footprint.” Rivers aren’t just for paddlers – we totally get that. But if and when paddlers are going to be on rivers, then it’s in everyone’s best interest that we share the space safely and ethically with all the critters.
This concludes the Miles Paddled PSA.
Lastly, one fun novelty about this trip is doing a bike shuttle along the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, accessible half a mile south from Atkins-Olson Park. You can’t take the trail all the way back to your car at the put-in – you do still have to take a couple main roads – but it’s a welcome, safe diversion, nonetheless.
What we didn’t like:
This trip is not without a couple imperfections. For starters, while it should ordinarily have reliable water levels, as with any river there is a matter of it being too high or too low, but ascertaining that status ahead of time is awfully difficult, since the gauge is upstream of not one but two lakes that are kept at desirable levels for property owners and motor boats. What this means for paddlers is the water levels for the river itself on this trip will be right on the verge of either a little high making the many low-clearance foot bridges a bit dicey to get under or a little low and scraping in the gravely shallows. Most of the bridges aren’t too bad to duck under, but 2-3 of them will be very, well, touch-and-go. The last of them – just upstream from Highway 67 – is the lowest of them all, inspiring us to portage around it like sensible (and not stubborn) paddlers.
From the paddler’s perspective, these bridges are annoying and appear all but intentionally sinister. But from a landowner’s vested interest, we get why they’re there and why they were designed as such. (Although, come on – would it have killed somebody to have put in just a little bit of an arch? After all, independent of recreational paddling, it’s very easy to see how an average sized tree could get pinned against any one of these low-clearance bridges and then create a natural dam that would flood the surrounding fields/lawns/etc., which would be in nobody’s best interest. But nobody asked my opinion on this matter, especially the landowners of Waukesha County.) Fortunately, all of these low-clearance bridges are easy to portage around, with feint but discernible “paths” trod by past paddlers who’ve done so many times.
Similarly, the low-head dam at County Road P (aka Sawyer Road) could/should be portaged on river-right. Don’t tell anyone, but we just paddled over it, because the river was high enough for it to be a little blip, not a ledge as we saw it back in 2014. But if it is more of a drop, as in normal conditions, it would be prudent to portage around it.
If we did this trip again:
For the sake of novelty and doing something a little different, the next time we’d do this trip we’d change the put-in and take-out, by starting at St. John’s Park, below the dam in downtown Delafield, and then taking out at Highway 67, for a 7.5-mile trip. The rationale for this would be twofold: the lively river is gorgeous and engaging through downtown Delafield (some of which highlights we captured in a trip back in 2017), plus it would be fun to do a trip that begins on a river, enters a lake, resumes being a river, goes into another lake, and then resumes being a river again.
Otherwise, this trip is a delightful gem in and of itself without need of enhancement. I just like doing things differently anytime I can – like take a different way back home than the roads I took driving to a place.
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
Bark River V: County Road E to Hagedorn Road
Guide: Glacial Heritage Area Water Trails
Map: Glacial Heritage Area Water Trails
Wikipedia: Bark River
7.3 miles, suitable for bicycles.
Mea culpa: The images below are taken from two separate trips – one in September 2014, the other May 2019. My camera went dysfunctional a month before our May trip. It supposedly was repaired by the manufacturer (or their assigned lackeys), but clearly that was not the case. We apologize that some of these images are blurry and a touch out of focus. The camera went back a second time.