Touring Dorn Creek
☆ ☆ ☆
A perfectly pleasant wetlands paddle that is predominantly surrounded by public land, Dorn Creek makes for an easy, tidy trip – without need for shuttling, even – that’s great for early morning before chores, a cocktail hour after work, or the first trip of the year on New Year’s Day.
January 1, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Quietwater
≈ 1′ per mile
Dorn Creek (Westport): ht/ft: 10.7 | cfs: 15
We recommend this level. That said, this was our first time here, so we have nothing to compare it to. Plus it was winter, a few days after an inch of rain (yes, you read that right – winter, rain, Wisconsin… ugh).
Put-In + Take-Out:
N. Shore Bay Drive, Waunakee, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4.5
Wildlife: Great horned owl, muskrats galore, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, and approximately one and a half gazillion trumpeter and tundra swans.
Quick disclaimer right away: I was not intending on paddling Dorn Creek. I’ve known of Dorn Creek, have scouted Dorn Creek, and have entertained the flimsy whim of paddling Dorn Creek, but I’d ruled it out as being too bland, too muddy, too monotonous. My intention for this inaugural New Year’s Day outing was to paddle up the bottom of Six Mile Creek for as long as conditions would allow me to go, then turn around and drift back to the car with the current. (Truth be told, my initial intention for kicking off the 2020 season was more exotic and alluring, but a very late night before and not enough sleep afterward snuffed out that idea.) One of the very first paddling trips I’d ever done was going up Six Mile, via the North Shore Bay Drive bridge and banks, back in April 2009, so I figured why not return to the roots?
But the thing is, the body of water at the N. Shore Bay Drive bridge is Dorn Creek, not Six Mile. Dorn and Six Mile meld together half a mile west of the top of Lake Mendota, which they jointly feed. Which stream is the tributary of which, I have no idea. While the two streams are different, they’re only a few miles from one another, and the backwater their merger creates is an indistinguishable half-mile sprawl before reaching Lake Mendota. At the N. Shore Bay Drive access, Dorn Creek was open and inviting, so I thought I’d just tool upstream for a few minutes (assuming it would be deadfall-laden and/or too shallow to navigate), turn around, and then go upstream Six Mile for much of the same.
Well, spoiler alert: Dorn was totally open and navigable, so I ended up just paddling further and further upstream until I had had my fill, then turned back around. By the time I got back to the N. Shore Bay Drive access, it was around 3:30 pm. Too late to begin venturing upstream Six Mile, instead I paddled down to as close to the mouth of whichever stream it technically is at Lake Mendota before ice blockage barricaded me. This short stretch is a very pleasant and pretty area in and of itself.
You’d have to be a bit of a fanatic to even know of Dorn Creek in the first place. Or a hunter – as there is a Dorn Creek Wildlife Area that’s open to hunting and fishing. Or perhaps you’ve heard of Dorn Creek in the news, as it’s part of Dane County’s illustrious Suck the Muck project – or as the policy pundits (mud mavens?) would prefer, the Legacy Sediment Removal Project. Basically, the county’s Land & Water Resources Department has been dredging phosphorous-laden sediment (aka “legacy sediment”) from some of the streams that are a part of the Yahara River watershed to help stem the tide of toxic blue-green algae blooms in the Madison-area lakes and beaches.
The phosphorous comes largely from manure and fertilizers used in farm fields, golf courses, and home lawns. Rich in nutrients, the algae feed on the phosphorous and propagate like gangbusters. This in turn leads to the demise of other plants, which in turn dissolves oxygen in the water, which results in huge, ugly, stinky fish kills. Technically considered bacteria, the nasty algae is very harmful to kids and pets alike. And there’s something just plain sad about seeing yet another “beach closed” sign on a summer weekend.
Anyway, so Door Creek is one of the first streams to have been dredged. How the stream has changed, if at all, vis a vis paddling, we could not say – as we’d never been here before with boats. But it was entirely navigable the whole way I went up it. There is one obligatory portage about a quarter-mile from putting in, over and/or around the decrepit remains of a small culvert bridge. Just past that is the bridge at County Highway M, where on the upstream side, river-right, is the official USGS gauge. Why there’s a gauge for Dorn Creek – but not one for, oh I don’t know, Robinson Creek or the Plover River or anything in Columbia County for that matter – is anybody’s guess. So it goes.
Dorn Creek flows from the west, but if you’re going upstream in the afternoon, like me, you won’t have to worry much about the sun being in your eyes, as you’ll be facing every compass direction over and over and over again, as all the creek does is meander back and forth, forth and back. Once or twice you’ll pass a stand of attractive pines and oaks on your right, while the designated wildlife area actually is on the left (again, from the perspective of paddling upstream). The environment is predominantly wetlands and grasslands but with plenty of trees now and again to distinguish it from a true marsh outright.
How far upstream you go is up to you. The next bridge up is County Q, but the total distance between M and Q is about 2.5 miles one-way. The closer you get to Q, the landscape will change a smidge, with a large concrete manufacturer and quarry on the north bank of the creek and a huge ag farm operation on the south bank. Or you can skip all that, just turn around, and now go merrily down the stream with the current – perhaps even noticing a couple natural springs along the way (as I did while going up).
Back at the N. Shore Bay Drive bridge, I ventured on, wanting to get as close to Lake Mendota as I could. It’s a straight shot east, but it’s very shallow and, well, mucky. On account of its shallow depth and slack current, it’s more prone to freezing than other sections. I could not make it out onto the lake itself, but came within a hundred feet of it. If you had the time and inclination, you could resume a river tour by heading up Six Mile for as long as conditions (and fortitude) allow. Or simply save that for another time.
What we liked:
For starters, roadside parking and access to the creek itself is excellent. The put-in/take-out is right on the fringe of Governor Nelson State Park, so it’s a well-used area for fishing and paddling.
Also, the wildlife was astonishing. Not only did I get to see an owl within the first five minutes, I later sat in my boat and marveled at the following: at least a dozen wild turkey flutter across the creek 20′ in front of me; the closest encounters I think I’ve ever had with muskrats (a couple feet away preening themselves on top of ice sheets; a couple hundred trumpeter and tundra swans beguilingly nearby on the open water of big ‘ole Lake Mendota; and at least a hundred Canada geese bonking, honking, barking berserk all suddenly awing with a thunderous rush from ice to air, feathers giving upward lift with a threshing frenzy, all because I dared get too close (as in like a hundred yards away from their own loafing float). Some if not all of those same birds would eventually come back around as I was paddling back to the car in various airy skeins of patterns like flung nets flying past sunset-lit clouds in the sky. It was a truly glorious end to a delightful little outing.
This may have little to do with Dorn Creek in particular, but one of the most exquisite aspects of winter paddling is the variety of ice patterns. I lack the backgrounds in both science and math to even fake my way into some kind of explanation, but the fractals and fringe, the hoar frost and ice globule bubbles, the rough-hewn edges of crust-like coast, and the utterly dazzling sound of crystalline collision as wake-made waves from my paddling strokes lap over icy shore or lift underneath like reshingling a roof – it’s all so positively enchanting, the sights and sounds of it. Lots of people give me a double-take of disbelief or roll their eyes in disapproval when I casually mention winter paddling. I get it; we usually think of paddling with bathing suits and flip flops. But a boat in winter on open water is a passport into a unique time and place that is as fleeting as it is delicate. It’s worth the extra effort and inconvenience.
Considering that I wasn’t even intending on paddling Door Creek, the thing I liked most was the surprise gift of being able to paddle somewhere serendipitous. I was shocked to find it so very viable as a paddling destination. Don’t get me wrong – it’s hardly anywhere to go out of your way for. The environment is definitely wetlands, but it never felt as monotonous as a marsh can sometimes. There’s nothing truly dramatic or outstanding about the landscape or paddling itself, but it was perfectly pleasant. For me personally, to paddle somewhere brand new on the first day of the year is a rare gift in and of itself. But when that somewhere is only 20 minutes away, and doesn’t involve a bike shuttle on winter roads, even better.
It may not come as a surprise to some to learn that one of my favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It reads as a dear friend sometimes, while at others it is a stern lecture for which I feel reverence and fear. Regardless, I return to this treasured book year after year. One of my favorite chapters is for the month of January, which of course begins the book. Probably the shortest in all of the book, it quietly but cleverly portrays a simple scene of a man following skunk tracks in the annual thaw of January and the intermittent stories of other critters he encounters on the way, found either in flesh, blood, feathers, or flourish. (It also features a whopper of a line the likes of “The months of the year, from January up to June, are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.” Say what? Who knows – who cares? It’s lovely.) It’s a quick, simple vignette that alludes to a bounty of details and dithering. In a way, I felt that this short New Year’s Day paddle was like that, too. A great little way to start the year off, with much musing and amusement thanks to the wildlife and the sounds of ice, and I a much thanked opportunity to be there in between cycles of freezing and release.
All that said, the romance of winter paddling is tied to risk as well. Keep it simple and be safe. Not sure what to wear, check out our nifty guide to cold weather clothing.
What we didn’t like:
Paddling against a decent current in a stream that meanders incessantly is a bit of a workout. You can be out paddling for an hour but have only gone a mile. One switchback after another after another, a future oxbow here, an already settled one there, back and forth, over and over – it does get a little old after awhile.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this trip again. Next time I might try putting in at County Q and just do this trip one-way with a combined exploration up Six Mile. But this is a fun and pretty place after all the other low-hanging fruit has been plucked and discovered. Especially if you live nearby, and especially if you don’t have much to be on the water – but still need to be out there if only for a short spell.
General: Dane County Parks