Fox River III
Highway 33 to County Road O
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
For all intents and purposes, this trip is the first chapter in the epic story of the historic Fox River in Wisconsin. Beginning at the famous portage that gave a city (and county) its name, marking a trade route that would link the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River, this section of the upper Fox begins isolated and beautiful and then ends with a little monotony and development. Fortunately, there’s a halfway point to allow paddlers to double-down on the good stuff and nix the meh.
March 1, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater (with one easy Class I drop)
≈ 1-2′ per mile
Pardeeville: ht/ft: 7.26 | cfs: n/a
We recommend this level, but water levels are usually reliable. Notably lower levels will result in getting stuck in shallows. Stay off the river when at/above flood level w(9′).
Highway 33, Portage, Wisconsin
County Road 0
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Wildlife: Mergansers galore, wood ducks, geese, bald eagles, hawks, osprey, sandhill cranes, kingfishers, cardinals, woodpeckers, muskrat and mink.
“Perhaps the chief allure of a trip on the Fox is the realization that you’re paddling on one of the most historically significant rivers in America” – so opens Mike Svob’s first of two recommended trips on the Fox River in the classic guidebook, Paddling Southern Wisconsin. He’s referring to the trade route from the Fox, which empties into Lake Michigan, to the Wisconsin River, which empties into the Mississippi River. “Hang on a sec,” you exclaim! “Those two rivers don’t connect. Wait, do they?” No, they don’t, rest assured. But they come awfully close to one another, about 1.5 miles to be precise. And it’s not just that they’re near one another – no, sir. It’s that they’re so near one another and yet flow in exactly opposite directions – the Fox northeast to Green Bay, the Wisconsin southwest to the Iowa border. To begin with, there are precious few rivers anywhere in Wisconsin that flow north. Most that do are simply circumstantial, a wayward meander around some imposing land mass on their way to wherever they’re bound. Some drain into Lake Superior, but too few to name. (Even in the U.P., most rivers flow south into Lake Michigan, not Superior.) Fewer still technically flow north in modest ways to feed a bigger river, like the Blue River in southwestern Wisconsin, but they’re short and rarely paddleable. So, the wily Fox stands alone, especially in the southern half of the state.
As is generally known, the area narrowest between the two rivers – where for centuries Native Americans had gotten out of their canoes from one stream and then schlepped to the other – later became named “Portage” after, well, you know, thanks to the French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and the French missionary priest Jacques Marquette, who famously teamed together, along with native guides, in 1673 to “discover” the Mississippi River and the way to get there from the Great Lakes.
At around 200 miles long, it would be silly to try and summarize a river as any one thing. We certainly take Mike Svob’s point about the historic nature of the Fox, but frankly, he’s underselling it – at least this trip.
To be sure, there are many tedious, at least monotonous, stretches of the Fox, both upper and lower. Broad, long straightaways surrounded by marsh. And much of the river is either flatwater impoundment behind a dam or actual flatwater lakes (Buffalo Lake, Puckaway Lake, Lake Butte des Morts, Lake Winnebago…). Furthermore, from Lake Winnebago to Lake Michigan the river is bridled behind a gazillion locks and dams in a predominantly urban and industrialized area (Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Kimberly, Kaukauna, Ashwaubenon, Allouez, etc). Alas, as fun as those place names are to try and pronounce, they spell out a kind of paddling tragedy, for the lower Fox naturally is a rambunctious river with raucous rapids beneath each of the locks and dams.
Fun Fact: one of the river towns in the Fox Valley is called Little Chute; and the word chute comes from the French for “fall,” as in falling water.
But the half-dozen miles both south and north of Portage, the city, are especially pretty and need no supplemental history lesson to capture a paddler’s attention and admiration. But in the interest of pairing up a fun fact: the reason why the City of Portage and Portage County are different is originally Portage County had a land area size humongously bigger than what it is today. As the state’s population grew, these behemoth counties – mini-states compared to Delaware or Rhode Island – became unruly and unwieldy, so they were downsized. Consequently, the City of Portage in southern Wisconsin was sundered from Portage County in central Wisconsin.
OK, let’s just get on the river and go already.
The put-in is at the wayside area at Highway 33, downstream side of the bridge on river-right. There’s plenty of room for parking and several historical signs denoting the importance of this location. It’s essentially right here where Marquette and Joliet with their native guides, after having paddled upstream the Fox from its mouth at Green Bay, disembarked at the banks, portaged to the Wisconsin River approximately 1.5 miles southwest using a trail now known as Wauona (which can be used still today). There is no obvious or dedicated launching area at the wayside, but the banks are generally grassy and low.
One of the first takeaways is the attractive clarity of the water, augmented by the typically shallow depth of the river here together with its sandy bottom. The picturesque landscape also is hard to miss – gently rolling hills, lots of gnarly bur oaks, sandbars, a whole lot of open space. After half a mile or so the left bank will open up to what appears as a tributary stream with a pedestrian bridge in the background. This is the Portage Canal, an engineering project begun two centuries after Jolliet and Marquette’s trip that singularly transformed commerce in the nation, effectively linking the Atlantic Ocean (by way of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway) with the Gulf of Mexico (via the Mississippi River). The Canal was decommissioned from commercial use some 70 years ago, but today can be paddled in its own right.
As alluded to above, the first five miles of this 10.5-mile trip are prettier and more engaging than the latter half. All along the left bank you will see drainage ditches and dredging, often coupled with pedestrian bridges. Until 2014, all the land on river-left comprised an easement section of the Ice Age Trail that extended from the canal to Governor Bend park, but since rescinded by the property owner. The ditches and drainage are relicts from the bygone day of steamboats plying the waters of the Fox up- and downstream. (Spoiler alert: the whole “Foxsconsin” failed to live up to its game-changing premise, in part because of unreliable water levels, general mismanagement, and eventually the completion of railroad lines. Indeed, paddling today, it’s fascinating to think that big boats could even make it on the little Fox up in Portage.)
The first bridge comes into play about three miles into the trip, at Clark Road. What with our kibitzing and BS about Marquette and Jolliet, we redubbed the bridge – keeping with theme of famous pairs in American exploring – “Lewis-and.”
Meanwhile, this section of the river retains a kind of wild and undeveloped flair, with attractive swaths of pines, gentle knolls and rolling drumlins, and steep-enough banks to keep things feeling intimate. The river itself, in this part of the trip at least, is rarely wider than 60-70′, which helps with the intimacy. After another mile and change, the river will bend to the right, then left, and you’ll hear the sounds of rapids. This signals Governor Bend County Park. There used to be one of the Fox locks and dams here, the rubble from which creates this otherwise unprecedented and relatively startling drop. It’s an easy, clean Class I rapid with a discernible inverted ‘v’ to steer the bow of your boat into. For paddlers with the time only for a short trip or inclination for the very best that this section of river has to offer, there’s a decent place to take out at the downstream side, river-right, of the pedestrian bridge at the park.
While there is a bridge in between the park and the take-out at County O (at County CM), it’s a poor access with nowhere really to leave a vehicle. I mention this because the rest of this trip – which is to say slightly more than half total – is distinctly more nondescript and monotonous than everything up to this point. This is not to say it’s without redeeming features. Rather, it’s simply to say that in this part of the trip the river widens a bit, the landscape flatter, and there’s more development. Don’t take just our word for it either: Svob gives a scant paragraph – four sentences total (half of which are about potters from England in the 1840s and a ferry on the Fox River). Alas, it’s an unremarkable second half of the trip.
That said, the mouth of Neenah Creek (on river-left a little more than a mile downstream from Gov Bend) invites paddlers to head upstream however much their curiosity wonders and wanders. (We love Neenah Creek and have paddled its entirety a time or two throughout the years, even if we haven’t documented all those trips on the site. Also but unrelated, Neenah Creek has nothing to do with and is nowhere near the city of Neenah, even though both are connected to the Fox River. Just to be clear.) Behind the confluence, a huge wide sprawl rather like a floodplains marks a flatter and decidedly different feel to the landscape. Indeed, even if you’ve never paddled Neenah Creek, you’ve experienced the change in topography when driving northbound on I-39 past the last exit for Portage (i.e., Highway 51 south). Shortly north of the exit you pass some rock outcrops as the highway slips beneath a bridge at Grotzke Road and then descends to a lower lying landscape. This landscape has at its basin Neenah Creek to the west, the Fox River in the middle, and French Creek to the east. But the whole area is a sprawling wetlands that is essentially flat.
Shortly after Neenah, the rickety bridge at County CM (and former back story of English potters seeking freedom) comes in. If you were paddling solo and are subtle, you could theoretically end your trip here, but the infrastructure here could not accommodate a group of paddlers. Just downstream from the bridge are the original bridge’s pylons, today looking like a floating tumulus of admirable masonry.
For the remaining 3.5 miles of this trip the river gets slower, deeper, and wider, broadly flowing in straightaways past occasional rows of houses, what appears to be a mix of summer homes, dilapidated shacks, and perfectly functional, appealing regular residents. Without the houses, the landscape would convey a spooky feeling, as it’s a floodplain backwater. With the houses, one wonders how people live here, as it very visually seems like it’s below sea level. Water is everywhere, parallel to and roughly as tall as the roads themselves. (Cue Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.) Indeed, high-water marks bedaub the bases of trees along the banks, adding to the spooky sense. But then, further downstream, the banks will rise a bit, sandier, with a gentle roll here and there in the immediate wooded background, too. Soon enough the cross-hatched wooden piers of the bridge at County O come into view. The excellent access is on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-left. Incidentally, this is the southern boundary of the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge, which we paddled in spring 2015.)
What we liked:
Taking Svob’s lead, I (Timothy) my first paddle on the Fox was this trip, back in 2013-14, when I began compiling trips first in my head, then on paper, for what would later become my own guidebook. I loved this trip right away (well, the first half for sure). Purists might take issue with calling it “wild,” but it does have a very rugged, undeveloped nature about it. The narrow intimacy of the river together with its clear water and sandy bottom add to the surprisingly unsung or at least underrated nature of this section of the Fox River. To top it off are the lovely rolling drumlins marking the background to the east in between the canal and Governor Bend park. Speaking of, who doesn’t welcome a splashy little Class I drop?
And yes, it is pretty cool to reflect on the historic backstory to the Fox River itself.
What we didn’t like:
While the splendor of riverside houses and, well, shacks in flood-prone backwaters is hardly lost on us, to say nothing of the alluring sprawl of the mouth of Neenah Creek, one of my own personally treasured streams, the second half of this trip – Governor Bend to County O – can feel a little tedious, redundant, and dull. Long straightaways in broad, flat water for 5.5 miles surrounded by private residences (many of them run-down or vacation homes) can hold the captive attention span of the casual paddler for only so long. A mile or two, sure. Five and a half? Not so much.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again – although we’d just as soon nix the second part (Governor Bend to County O). If time and inclination were at the ready, we’d put in at the public boat launch at Swan Lake, swing due west for the river’s outlet, and then venture north as the creek-like river meanders through a wide sweep of open public land for a “prequel” paddle tallying 5.5 miles to the wayside at Highway 33. (Although we’d only do that with another vehicle, as it would be a tremendously long and indirect bike shuttle!) Or we’d just keep it simple and neat at 5 miles total from the wayside to Governor Bend.
Last thing I’ll say: we chose this trip in no small part because there was a stiff southern wind at 15 mph, virtually all of which was at our back. Why not take advantage of a phenomenal north-flowing river at such a time? It’s one of the paddler’s dilemmas this time of year in particular – we get itchy to be on the water on the first several abnormally warm days in late winter, but that often is accompanied by windy weather ushered in from southern climes. And what humidity is to making heat feel worse in summer, wind is to making cold feel even harsher in winter.
9 miles, pretty much a straight shot north-south along County Road F, all perfectly safe for bike-shuttling.
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video: