Wisconsin River XVI
Lake DuBay Dam to County Road HH
☆ ☆ ☆
An often overlooked section of the mighty Wisconsin River, this trip doesn’t offer the rapids further north or the rock outcrops and wooded bluffs down south, but it does reward the paddler with a plethora of islands and side channels to explore – most of them home to and opportunity for seeing much wildlife. In addition, a multitude of very convenient accesses make for individually tailored trips from 6, 8, 10, or 12 miles long.
July 23, 2019
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
2′ per mile
Consolidated Water Power Company: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 8,798
Water levels are always reliable.
Lake DuBay dam, Dam Road, Junction City, Wisconsin
Mickey T’s Club 10 off County Road HH, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 9.75
Wildlife: Bald eagles, great blue herons, dragonflies, plover, seagulls, turtles, turkey vultures, splashy fish and deer.
Beginning below the churning froth discharged from one dam and then ending in the slow flowage of yet another, this trip lies plumb within the central waters section of the Wisconsin River, aka the hardest working part of “the hardest working river in America.” What makes this area so industrious? Well, from Wausau to Nekoosa, a distance of 70 river miles, there are no fewer than twelve dams. Moreover, from Stevens Point to Nekoosa alone there are seven total dams in only 27 miles of river. That’s more than one dam for every damn four miles! Another dam take-out. Another dam portage. Another… you get the point (still though, there are three dams within three miles of one another in Point, and again three dams within four miles from Rapids to Port Edwards).
The whole Wisconsin River is approximately 430 miles long and comprises 26 total dams. For the record, that’s quite a lot. Consider this: the Mississippi River itself has only three more locks and dams – at 29 – and yet the Big Muddy is more than 2,300 miles long – or 5.5 times the length of the Wisconsin River. If all things were proportional, that would be the equivalent of 160 locks and dams on the Mississippi River, not 29.
Twenty-two of the Wisconsin River’s dams lie in its first 230 miles,* leaving only four in its final 200 miles. While the northern half of the state might be more dammed than the southern half, it is not on account of being cursed, but rather thanks to its blessed bedrock and steeper gradient. These two factors created the rough and tumble rapids that inspired great awe and reverence for Native Americans, and, later, opportunity to harness that hydropower to operate sawmills for White settlers and develop communities along the banks. It’s not for nothing that Barry’s hometown is called Wisconsin Rapids (originally named “Grand Rapids”). Fun fact: the steepest gradient anywhere on the river is at Grandfather Falls, just northwest of Merrill. Here, the river drops an impressive 90′ in half a mile. Unlike most of the rapids on the Wisconsin River that have been drowned out by all of these dams,** there’s still a channel to paddle/marvel at this righteous, riotous whitewater at Grandfather Falls, via the Ice Age Trail. For more on that, and a really cool hiking blog, see here.
* Not counting the little dam at Lac Vieux Desert, the source of the river itself, it isn’t until 41 miles downstream that the Wisconsin River is slowed down for the first time, at Otter Rapids dam in Vilas County just west of Eagle River. So, it’s more accurate to say that the river is dammed 22 times in 190 miles – or an average of one dam for every 8.6 miles.
** Guidebook author and all-around paddling guru, Mike Svob, states in his commendable Paddling Northern Wisconsin that from its headwaters to its confluence at the Mississippi River, the Wisconsin drops 1,050′, and that 62 percent of this drop – or 650′ – lie buried below all these dams. Full fathom five… that is indeed a dam shame.
Enough with the dam facts, you say? Fair enough. We’ll get on with it. Our point simply is that the central Wisconsin section of the Wisconsin River is not as sought after for paddlers on account of all these stoppages, but there’s still plenty to admire.
Finally, what did the fish say when it hit its head on a wall? Dam(n)!
Our trip begins on the downstream side of the Lake DuBay dam, where there is a spacious parking lot with facilities and a convenient boat launch. Better still, there’s no associated fee here (which is not always the case when paddling the Wisconsin River – we’re looking at you, Castle Rock dam). (Unfortunately, at the time of this trip, the lot suffered tremendous damage from the violent straight-line winds that had raked through the area only three days before. Evidence of the storm was present along the banks and shuttle as well). To the left will be the dam, stretching across the river at an astonishing width of 550 feet. On the opposite bank of the river is an attractive sandbank about 30′ tall, the only such one on this trip. A little more than half a mile downstream, on the right, is a long island that creates a fun side channel to explore full of lush grasslands and vibrant wildflowers in the summertime.
Back on the mainstream, there’s no mistaking the loud din of the nearby interstate. At its nearest point, I-39 is only 300′ away, which is a considerably narrower distance than the river width itself, at about 500 feet. Fortunately, the distracting noise shall begin fading away after a mile. By the time you pass the sandy beach and boat launch at Bullheads Bar & Grill, on the left about 1.5 miles downstream, the highway will soften to a hum and then disappear altogether. Just past that is a long row of docked boats, also on the left.
Long, broad straightaways take you to the twin bridges at Highway 10 about three miles downstream spanning the river at over 600 feet. Half a mile downstream from the bridges, on the right, you’ll see what at first glance appears to be a feeder stream coming in. It’s actually a back slough of the river, and if you paddle upstream it you’ll come upon a designated DNR boat launch off River Road. If you were to take out here, the trip would be 5.5 miles long. We don’t recommend it, however, as there are more engaging, more beguiling segments further ahead.
After another mile-and-a-half the main channel will begin braiding off into half a dozen directions, past a backwater called “Second Lake” and then just beyond that “First Lake.” Both of these backwaters are on river-right and lined with houses along the shore, so there’s not too much to explore. That said, we found one intimate slip that felt like a narrow creek and provided welcome relief from the summer sun through a shaded tunnel of trees leaning towards one another.
But if you keep abreast of the right shore you’ll soon come upon another designated DNR boat launch, off of County Highway E, about two miles downstream from the previous one, making for a 7.5-mile trip. But if you know in your heart that you’re out for the full experience, then take your time and follow your whim around any of the islands that create the aforementioned braiding. It is said of the Mississippi River that its soul lies in its backwaters (whereas the main channel is largely taken by the umpteen barges going up- and downriver each and every day, morning and night). One could apply the same logic here in what is essentially the beginning of the Stevens Point Flowage section of the Wisconsin River.
Easily, there’s a 1.5 square-mile area of islands to explore and root about. There is no wrong way or route around which side channel(s) you take. And you really can’t get lost per se, even if the effect is initially disorienting. Just be mindful of fast motorboats zipping this way and that, and the wake created – especially if you’re canoeing. The rule of thumb is to turn your boat into the wake, perpendicular to it, so that the waves don’t broadside your boat (unless you want a sudden lap full of water). However you proceed, once the islands recede and the river resembles a ginormous lake, it’s best to make a beeline to the right shore (west bank) so as not to miss the take-out (that is, unless you’ve decided to proceed another couple miles further downstream, where there are multiple alternative take-out options – see below). The shoreline here is dotted with development, mainly houses.
The take-out is behind Mickey T’s/ Club 10 restaurant and bar, where there is a slip, kayak rental, pier and concrete launch. It’s a good idea to ask permission to take out here before just doing so. It’s an even better idea to get a drink and/or dinner here – the pizza in particular is pretty killer – and the bar atmosphere/ambiance has all the look and feel of a Wisconsin tavern. There are two other alternative take-out options at city parks along the river: at the docks of beautiful Bukolt Park on river-left or at the sandy beach at quaint Mead Park on river-right, both about two miles downstream.
What we liked:
Like a good friend or sibling, you may not love every part about them, but you love them totally and accept even the things that are less than ideal. We love the Wisconsin River, period. Not just because it’s the state river or the longest river in the state. But like Wisconsin itself, we love the dualities of the eponymous river – its marshes and wetlands through boreal forests “up north,” its historic rapids, its granite-defined nature in its central waters, the dazzling and downright hypnotic Dells, and finally its big bend to the southwest where it flows freely for 92 blissful miles through the heart of the unglaciated Driftless Area to its quiet elopement with the Mississippi River. How can you not love such a narrative? So, even if this particular trip is not the showiest section of the river, it’s no less an indispensable facet of its overall character, no less true or real than the rugged granite or blushing sandstone elsewhere.
The flowage section was definitely our favorite part of the trip. While we’re not fans of dams by any means, it’s fascinating to try to imagine what a given environment would look like – or once looked like – without a dam backing up so much water. At its widest area in the flowage, it’s a good two miles between one side of land and the other. That’s a lot of impounded water for a river that’s otherwise 500′ wide! But to turn a frown upside down, the effect of the dam here is the labyrinth of islands created from the backwards flood.
The other aspect we really appreciated on this trip was the diversity of wildlife. The amount of bald eagles alone, to say nothing of the great blue herons and turtles too, was spectacular. Whether it was hearing their mellifluous cries to one another and then training our eyes to find their huge nests in the trees, or simply watching them soar through the sky – the feeling was genuinely majestic. And then there were the acrobatic antics of the myriad dragonflies and damselflies. On too many occasions to count they’d flit around us and then find temporary port on our boat’s bow. At times unabashedly mating (or what looked like mating; I won’t go into the details, being a family-friendly website and all…) or humbly resting they’re ethereal wings for awhile, we’d never had so many close encounters with these vestiges from a bygone era. It was a mix of magic and mere whimsy.
What we didn’t like:
To be fair, the first half-and-some of this trip is a bit monotonous, as it’s one long corridor after another. Between the absence of meandering and the presence of development, the wind effect and the slow current, this trip feels more like paddling a long lake than a natural river. Also, the first few miles coincide with the proximity of the loud highway, which is an unwelcome reminder of civilization when one is trying to escape from said trappings by being on the water away from all of that.
If we did this trip again:
Next time, we’d probably begin this trip at the DNR boat landing on County Highway E and then while away an afternoon through the archipelago of islands in the flowage, to get more of a sense of wilderness, getting a little lost on purpose, and simply “messing about in boats.” In our opinion, the flowage is the most salient feature in this segment of the Wisconsin River.
But we would begin and end this trip exactly as we did, which is by eating breakfast at the delightful Wooden Chair restaurant and then dinner at Guu’s On Main tavern and grill. If there’s an Eggs Benedict dish on a menu, I’ll probably order it because I find it hard to resist a good hollandaise sauce. Similarly, I’m always interested in a place’s take on a veggie burger patty. Sometimes it’s boring and ordinary (“bordinary”?), and then other times it’s unique and out of this world. Guu’s does a great job with theirs. Plus their interior is eclectic and captivating, and their tap list is outstanding.
Wisconsin River XVII: Blue Heron Island
Wisconsin River XVIII: Al Tech Park to West River Drive
Camp: DuBay County Park
General: Stevens Point Convention & Visitors Bureau
Map: Stevens Point Flowage
Outfitter: Divepoint Scuba Paddle & Adventure Center
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River
Ten miles, totally suitable for bicycles or motor vehicles.