Wisconsin River XVII
Touring the Blue Heron Island Loop in Portage County
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A circumnavigatory exploration of the backwaters and archipelagic cluster of wild islands surrounded by civilization, this trip is a perfect example of finding adventure (and solitude) in your own backyard, with extraordinary wildlife, beautiful scenery and an unexpected thrill of Class I rapids through an equally unexpected boulder garden.
July 24, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
2′ per mile
Consolidated Water Power Company: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 5,650
Water levels are always reliable.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Blue Heron Lane boat launch, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 2:45p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Mileage note: To make a fuller experience of this trip (and to be a little OCD/completist about it), we paddled up and down every navigable channel of water divvied up by all the islands in this cluster below the dams at Al Tech County Park and Neenah Paper. For paddlers interested only in the Blue Heron Loop around Fields Island, that trip is only 3.5 miles long.
Wildlife: Bald eagles galore, honorary great blue herons, dragonflies by the hundreds, hawks painted and leather-back turtles, woodpeckers, songbirds and splashy fish.
Some of our favorite trips happen totally by chance and word of ear. Let us just say here and now that readers are welcome to skip ahead to the Overview for details specific to this trip. But we do feel that the back-story is worth recapping.
The “Contact Us” tab on our site probably is the simplest and most spartan page there is in the Miles Paddled ecosystem. No fancy graphics, no baroque vocabulary (not even any bad dad puns!).
The simple shingle hung on its digital door reads Kudos or grievance? We’d love to hear from you. This is the means by which we hear from all y’all out there where the interwebs and real world meld. And our sincerity is one hundred percent genuine: we do love hearing from you.
Most of the time, the mail department of Miles Paddled is a quiet little bureaucracy that hums along modestly. Other times we plead with Indeed.com to find a secretary who’d work for free and be able to read our minds. We get a fair amount of requests for info, such as trip planning or recommendations on clothes or types of boats. Or someone wanting a couple stickers – which we’re still happy to send out. Other times folks want nothing more than to express their thanks for what we do and provide, which is always appreciated but never expected. (Recently, we received an anonymous donation that we literally couldn’t not accept, even if we’d wanted to, the extraordinary generosity and forward-paying nature of which still leaves us a little dumbfounded and utterly humbled. Thank you again In Cognito!) And yes, once in a while we’re schooled about not drinking beer, not wearing a PFD, not providing data as scientifically or systematically as paid professionals would, perhaps forgetting that we’re just two guys with our own real lives who are amateurs in the most literal/Latin sense and do this as a labor of love (and occasionally a love of labor).
And then every once in a while a message comes through that is unlike any other. In June of 2017 we received one such missive totally out of the blue, totally intriguing, from the Director of Marketing at the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Melissa Sabel. After assuring us that she herself was not a “spammy” bot, she asked us if we’d be willing to weigh in on a premier visitors guide she was working on, specifically its water trails/paddling section. We of course said yes and offered our two cents on places like the Plover River, the Tomorrow-Waupaca River, Mill Creek, etc. The updated guide was published earlier this year, and it’s a beauty! It’s visually lovely and chockfull of recreational recommendations, from paddling to pedaling, hiking and skiing, one to two miles long or twenty, for brand newbies or seasoned souls. It’s a fantastic guide that you can check out here.
Were it not for that guide, we’d have never heard of the Blue Heron Loop, a water trail around a huge island called Fields Island that is approximately 300 acres large – and one of several islands in a swirl of slips, sloughs, side channels, and backwaters. We were intrigued. A paddle trail called “Blue Heron” in the central waters of Wisconsin, it wasn’t a tough sell.
From southwest to northeast, there are three big islands, Fields Island being the biggest, the one next to it being the second biggest, the one next to that being the smallest. Think of them as 3-2-1 (contact!). These do not include the half-dozen smaller islands also along this trip. Depending on how much time you have, and how much you want to paddle upstream a current that can be nothing to sneeze at in some areas, you may wish to follow the route we chose, aka the John Henry trail, that has you paddle around all three of the big islands. But we understand that some paddlers may well prefer to loop around the big island only. If that’s the case, there are two options: clockwise or counter-clockwise. Each has its own pro and con. Going clockwise requires paddling upstream for only ¾ of a mile. However, the current will be increasingly strong, as the more upstream you paddle, the closer you’ll be to the rapids and boulder gardens shortly below the dam. With a little imagination, if you thought of Fields Island as the head of a Great Dane in profile (I’m thinking something like this), the rapids and boulder gardens are by the tip of the ear. It’s a short distance, but a bit of a workout. Conversely, taking the counter-clockwise route requires 2.75 miles of upstream paddling, but in all honestly, most of that water is totally flat (only a mile and so of that will have current you’d be actively paddling up). And then once you get to the tip, you’d just turn left, with the current, and cruise through a fun boulder garden and light rapids. We can’t – and wouldn’t even if we could – decide which route you should take, so the overview below will cover the one we took. Paddlers can then determine which portions of this archipelago they’ll want to explore.
At the end of Blue Heron Lane is a dedicated boat launch with a concrete ramp and full facilities. I booked it due east (and then eventually north, going counter-clockwise) and went in between the opposite shore and a small island to the left, followed by an even narrower sliver of land after that. The opposite shore here is entirely developed with houses and docks. (Being stubborn and intrepid, I tried my luck paddling up a back channel that looked viably navigable, but I had to give up after half a mile or so, as there were too many downed trees. It’s a cool effect and felt like paddling through a hidden jungle. Instead of retracing my strokes, I just dragged my boat over maybe 15 yards of grass and re-launched into the main side channel. By pure chance and good luck, where I did so brought me straight across this striking water-diversion chute the likes of which I’d never seen before – see photo below.) As you paddle north to what would be the “nose” of the Great Dane – or, to be less poetic and more geographically precise, where the mouth of the Little Plover River enters on the right – there are essentially two routes to choose from: the one on the far left keeps you paddling along the Great Heron Loop, the counter-clockwise option; the one on the far right goes further north and away from Fields Island, around other islands.
Upstream only some 800′, you’ll have another dilemma of route choices: left or right of yet another big island. If you go left, you’ll be paddling between islands 1 and 2; if you go right, you’ll be in between the eastern bank of the river and island 1. I went right and paddled parallel to a railroad tracks. Here, there’s hardly any development, thanks to the railroad, and the bank is notably steep (compared to everywhere else), at about 30′ tall. Here and there you’re likely to encounter downed trees, but I never had to portage (despite the county’s namesake – hey-o!). As you start making your way westward, the sounds of machinery and the nearby Neenah Paper dam will become more notable. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you’ll see and then paddle under a narrow bridge and pipeline with such charming signage the likes of “Mill Effluent” with a directional arrow pointing towards a different back channel of the river you’re currently on. Just after this you’ll come upon the next route choice dilemma, this time with three choices:
RIGHT takes you towards the Neenah Paper dam.
STRAIGHT has you going to the ear tip of Fields Island.
LEFT completes the loop of island 1, now going downstream, with the current for the first time of this trip, and with island 2 on your right. That’s what I did, in part out of uncertain orientation about where I was – I didn’t have GPS or the most detailed map – which made me unwittingly forfeit seeing the dam. So it goes. Now finally going with the flow, you can relax and let the current do some work. Just off the left bank/island 1, I saw what would otherwise resemble a natural spring of bubbles percolating from below. And as much as I would love to believe that’s exactly what it is, it’s far more likely that it’s the aforementioned mill effluent. Indeed, so it goes. All that said, this section is gorgeous and primitive-feeling, as you’re paddling a side channel in between two large islands. Expect to quietly encounter a lot of wildlife.
Going with the flow/effluent is a brief three-quarter of a mile ride until you come to the bottom of island 1. From there to the bottom of island 2 is about a third of a mile. Turn right to paddle upstream again – this being the counter-clockwise option for Fields Island, which will be on the left (and island 2 on the right). The current here is stronger than the previous loop around island 1, but the surrounding landscape is especially wild and pretty (again, you’re between two huge islands). There are a couple of sandy spits and gravel bars on the Fields Island side to stop off and take a break at. I highly recommend it, if only to savor the beauty here. It’s not often – and certainly not often enough – one is in the middle of nowhere while entirely surrounded by civilization. That’s the palpable feeling here on the Blue Heron Loop. Downtown Stevens Point is only 3.5 miles away, the small city of Plover even closer. There are ginormous municipal dams still even closer. And yet you truly do feel like you’re in an urban oasis here. Because you are.
Before you get to the “ear tip” of Fields Island you’ll see a sliver of backwater – what we jokingly call a side channel of the side channel – to the left. In theory, this would be a shortcut back to the main channel and, for better or worse, it would allow you to bypass the Class I rapids and boulder gardens upstream. But when I checked it out, it was choked with fallen trees, so I skipped it. And boy oh boy, am I glad I did. For I had no idea that there’d be light rapids and small boulders just ahead. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the geology of central Wisconsin and why these dams along the eponymous river are located where they are. But still, being a flatfooted outsider unfamiliar with the area, I was delightfully surprised.
After that backwater sliver you’ll see two small islands on the right. If you paddled towards them and continued past them you’d enter a small flowage below the Neenah Paper dam. Or simply pass them by and find yourself soon after back into the main channel of the river for the first time since launching your boat. As such, the water is wide here. But the current is pretty strong, too, on account of the light rapids. In front of you, just a bit to the right is a smallish island. Just upstream of that is the other dam here, at Al Tech County Park, which you’ll be able to see faintly (it’s on the other side of yet another humongous island that basically splits this dam from the Neenah Paper dam). Strong paddlers can forge upstream and go around it to the left (and then turn left again in order to ride more of the swift current), but the current is formidable – you’d be paddling upstream Class I rapids for about 100 yards. I started to do this, but after five minutes of going what felt like a distance of five feet, I gave up, and instead ferried over to the other shore, the west bank of the river. Why? Because while driving to the boat launch I’d noticed a beautiful looking side channel that runs right next to the road, in between it and a medium-sized island. It looked like creek paddling at its finest and too pretty to pass up. So that’s what I did. It’s only about a quarter-mile long, but it is really fun and pretty. If you decide to take that route as well, be sure to determine that it has enough water to run it in the first place (you can scout it from Blue Heron Lane), otherwise it’ll be too shallow and rocky, and you’d be walking your boat through it.
Of course, one may skip that altogether and simply turn into the current at the “ear tip” and ride a quarter-mile of splashy rapids through quaint boulders in the main channel. Totally up to your own druthers. Whichever route you choose, the rapids will soon peter out, leaving you with half a mile of slow but steady current and a long straightaway back to the boat launch on the right.
What we liked:
Before launching, I knew this trip would be work. I often joke that friends don’t let friends paddle upstream, but this was a pleasant exception. Circumnavigating all three big islands might not be everyone’s idea of a fun afternoon, but I really enjoyed it. The urban oasis this archipelago provides is truly extraordinary – like an arboretum, but instead of hiking trails, there are paddling trails. Even getting to the boat launch is fun, as you take a dirt road to… you don’t really know where, or how long it’ll take, or even if it exists at all (of course it does, but one’s imagination/anxiety never knows…). And then lo and behold there’s a whole dedicated area, with signage, bathroom, trash and recycling cans, and a concrete launch. I love that such places exist. In today’s era of budget cuts and No Trespassing/Private Property signs, a hole in the wall like Blue Heron Lane just wouldn’t exist. Thank goodness it does.
The wildlife alone makes this trip worth doing. I saw several bald eagles and too many herons to count, one of which – and I swear I’m not making this up for the sake of a better story – was implausibly poised at the very crown top of a very tall tree, king of the big island. It must have been meant to be.
And of course the totally unexpected rapids and boulders were the icing on the cake of this surprisingly diverse trip. Whether you paddle them in the main channel or through the creek-like side channel, they’re really fun and worth the upstream paddling work it takes to be rewarded by them.
What we didn’t like:
Only the paddling-against-the-current part. Otherwise this trip’s a real gem.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this again. But I’d probably skip circumnavigating islands 1 and 2, and instead take the counter-clockwise route around Fields Island, poke up as close to the Neenah Paper dam as I can (since I missed it on this trip), and then paddle as far upstream the main channel and to the Al Tech County Park dam (immediately west) and then ride the rapids in the main channel.
Or, to do something totally different, I’d make this trip a Point-to-point trip (as it were) by passing the boat launch after circumnavigating the big island and paddling to the mouth of Mill Creek, some 4.3 miles downstream, and treat myself to one of the famous Bloody Mary’s at Rusty’s Backwater Saloon.
Regardless, I’d start my morning exactly the same, which is by having a dual breakfast at Emy J’s Café and a baked good at The Main Grain Bakery next door. I’m a sucker for mixing savory with a side of sweet, call me self-indulgent. I splurged on both and felt as much of a king as that tree-topped heron!
Wisconsin River XVI: Lake DuBay Dam to County Road HH
Wisconsin River XVIII: Al Tech Park to West River Drive
Camp: Lake Emily County Park
Camp: Jordan County Park
General: Stevens Point Convention & Visitors Bureau
Map: Stevens Point Flowage
Outfitter: Divepoint Scuba Paddle & Adventure Center
Outfitter: Nature Treks
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River
It felt unnatural to paddle without shuttling, so I went on a bike ride to experience the “western half” of the awesome Green Circle Trail that runs a ring around Stevens Point – to wit, the Westside Loop, Riverfront Loop, Stagecoach Trail, Brickyard Trail, back through town, and then catching the River Pines Trail to get back to the Westside Loop and my car. It was a wonderful bike ride and all the more fun to ride a bike for its own sake, not as a necessary component to shuttling while paddling rivers. To be sure, the bike ride was ancillary to this paddle trip. But there’s a public parking area right at the intersection of County Highway HH and River Drive, and across the road is access to the Westside Loop. If nothing else, do the Westside Loop to the River Pines Trail. Better still is then connecting to the Paper Mill Trail and then taking the Schrader Connection back to River Pines. You’ll be paddling along the river for most of that, including some photogenically gorgeous white pines and fascinating mill buildings.