Eau Claire River III (Marathon County)
Club House Road to Ross Avenue
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A wonderful section of a terrific river that embodies the best of “finding adventure in your backyard,” this stretch of the Eau Claire River courses through a mix of residential development, remote stretches of floodplains, and several boulder gardens with super-fun Class I rapids.
April 18, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner/Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈4′ per mile
Kelly: ht/ft: 1.75 | cfs: 480
We recommend this level. You could get away with a couple inches shallower, with occasional scraping, or a couple inches higher, with compromising a smidge on water clarity.
Club House Road, Ringle, Wisconsin
Ross Road, Weston, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Wildlife: Wood ducks, geese, hawks, bald eagle, deer, mergansers and beaver.
As a guy with skin in the guidebook game, I’m always interested in what is – and isn’t – included in river trips. Rivers are generally long and diverse and typically parsed into individual trips, not all of them equal. Some sections will be dull, other sections dangerous or just not doable. Plus there’s only so much room in a guidebook; the editorial staff on the cutting room floor tends to miserly side with the “less is more” outlook. As such, a given river in a guidebook might well showcase only a couple individual trips. This is as it should be, to be sure. But it does inevitably create an unintended consequence, which is the subliminal message that what’s in a guidebook is the only part(s) of a river that can or should be paddled. While a highlighted section of a river is an intentional choice – the end result of pros and cons weighed and then compared to other sections up- and downstream, and deemed to be the best or among the best in a proto-democratic consideration of factors – it nevertheless carries a subjective bias according to the author: it’s their choice of where they think we should go. We readers rely on such authority – or the guidebook is garbage.
But, just as deep cuts and b-sides sometimes end up being the favorite songs of bands we love, sometimes the most fun trips on a river are not the ones listed in a paddling guidebook. Furthermore, sometimes the most fun rivers themselves aren’t even spelled out in a guidebook. It all depends. But having been on both sides of the aisle – novice paddler and guidebook scribe – I can appreciate the big picture as a consumer of another’s work as well as a creator of my own. It was definitely an epiphany when I first began venturing beyond the margins and then pages of prescribed guidebooks, following an inner lead instead of reading about where I should go. Call it a “watershed” moment.
This is not to question the worth or weight of guidebooks whatsoever. Moreover, I totally get that most people are not even half as fanatical as I am about paddling in general or exploring the obscure in particular. (Life is complicated and stressful as it is. For those of us lucky enough even to have the time and the means to while away an afternoon on the water, we just want to be told where a good place to go is and leave it at that, right?) But an individual trip on any given river is like a movie with an unresolved ending: there’s always an elusive and alluring curiosity about what lies around the next bend. Or a movie whose opening scene reveals a mystery that hooks you in: something unseen that just happened. There’s always more to explore, whether upstream or downstream. And the more one investigates these mysteries, the more likely it is that at some point one is going to check off each and every segment til one has felt the full breath of that stream. We’ve called this devoted adulation – bordering on OCD mania – river completism. A beckoned compelling to check every box and leave no stone unturned.
The Eau Claire River in Marathon County is a classic case in point. The grand pooh-bah of paddling guidebooks, Mike Svob, lays out two iconic sections for day trips in his Paddling Northern Wisconsin: Bear Lake Road to Dells of the Eau Claire County Park and Dells of the Eau Claire County Park to Club House Road. Svob is not alone. The highly commendable Wisconsin Trail Guide likewise singles out the Eau Claire from Bear Lake Road to County Highway N. This is all for good reason, as the river’s best attributes are richly invested in these sections. (And, as an added premium, the first trip is more appropriate for beginner/experienced paddlers, the latter for experienced/seriously skilled paddlers – particularly the section in/around the county park.)
But, naturally, this prompts the question: what about after Club House Road (or before Bear Lake Road)? For years now I’ve wondered. (Doesn’t everybody?) But until recently that wonder was confined to the Google maps I made and poring over the trusty DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer that rides shotgun everywhere I go. From my home in Madison, the Eau Claire is a two-hour drive away, and that distance is past my jurisdiction of there-and-back day trips. (For me, anywhere beyond a 90-minute drive is too much windshield-time unless I’m able to camp overnight and get two paddle trips in for one drive. My basic rule of thumb is the time on the water needs to be as long if not longer than the drive to the body of water. That’s just me, however, and I’ll be the first to admit that exceptions have been and will continue to be made for special occasions that do necessitate in driving time surpassing paddling time.)
And then sometimes there are circumstantial anomalies too serendipitous to pass up. For me, in April 2020, I ended up buying a new(er) car in the Wausau area. (It’s a long story that, on the face of it, makes no sense at all, given the current global pandemic and economic crisis. But it’s a fluke thing that lined up uncannily perfect, like a blue moon on a Friday that’s Feb 29th. Or perhaps I’m merely rationalizing a midlife crisis, since the car purchase closely coincided with my 43rd birthday.) To get to the seller of said car – or “Newbaru” – one literally crosses over the Eau Claire, only a few miles away. So, of course I took a boat and bike along since the opportunity presented itself right then and there. The Crosstrek itself was bashert, and the Eau Claire was kismet. Away we went.
The river is generally about 100′ wide – wider still when islands split the stream into side channels. In other words, leave your play bloats at home; this segment of the Eau Claire is excellent for canoes and rec kayaks – heck, even SUP boards. And whereas most of the river up to this point has flowed in a southwestern slant, on this trip it generally careens west (with enough meanders north and south that no matter what direction the wind is coming from, you should be generally shielded). As such, this last reputable stretch of the river would make for a revelry of late-afternoon sunset basking. It is generally residential, with houses and backyards being more norm than exception, but the landscape is still quite pretty and diverse. Plus the fun Class I boulder gardens are plenty to keep your mind off suburbia and your eyes on the prize that is this dazzling gem of a trip!
This trip picks up from where we previously left off last year on the Eau Claire, at Club House Road. It’s an outstanding access (upstream side of the bridge, river-left), with a dedicated parking area and developed staircase leading down to the water, where the banks are grassy and low.
Even on a cloudy day the clear color of the water, tinged with that root beer hue we so love, will be prominent. A thick lush swath of forest on river-right swaddles the landscape, a bygone abandonment for and from high-water floodplains. Occasionally these thin tall trees will lean towards one another with enough grace and elegance to imagine the long necks of giraffes or some sculpture garden of wrought iron in art nouveau. Some careful threading through occasional strainers and submerged trees will be required in the first couple miles, especially considering the reputable current. After passing a handful of tree-shorn houses on the left bank and the first of low-lying islands, the river slips into some wooly woods where the banks are sandy and lined with a stubble of shrubs and golden grasses. Here and there you will see some houses again, but only briefly. By and by, the river itself is practically sheathed in a green corridor otherwise surrounded by development.
(We did this trip in late April, but spring was still far off. Indeed, stretches of snow etched the banks still in white, recalcitrant holdovers to a few inches that had fallen earlier in the week but had not yet melted. But later in the season, once the leaves return, such sections of the river would feel like a hidden kingdom of shade and dappled greens.)
Following a left-hand bend past a quaint house with a wooden fence on the right, the first boulder garden appears. It’s a simple affair but offers a full-pledged smile. A straightaway due south comes next, followed by a beautiful sweep of a steep left bank crowned by pine trees on the left as the river ricochets to the right. But for this anomaly, the banks here are otherwise sandy and low-lying. Here, however, you get a glimpse of something grander in scale. (Since this sweep is north-facing, and at the base of pine trees all huddled together, the snow here was rich and added to the wintry twinge.) A short pass of development can be seen on the left further downstream, but only briefly. Then comes the first bridge on this trip, at County Road J, where one could easily put in or take out at. At the 4-mile mark for a 7.5-mile trip, it nearly splits the river in equal halves.
On the downstream side of the bridge is the next boulder garden, a bit more formidable than before but still generally easy to follow and flow through. It is notably longer though, half a mile more or less, with little pitches coming one after another, each one fantastic and hollering fun! Frisky riffles ruffle the river’s surface where the original bridge abutments lie plunked on each bank apiece. A big flat island splits the river in two side channels. On the right bank is a modest cluster of rock outcrops neatly embedded. This stretch of water is wide open, relative tree canopy, with nothing but big sky. That will change soon, however, where the river narrows some and the landscape is more of a floodplain as in the beginning of this trip. It’s still quite attractive, just a different trick of aesthetics. And while calmer than the boulder garden below County J, the current still peps along quite well. Worry not: there is still one additional boulder garden, definitively modest but no less satisfying.
The last few miles leading to Ross Avenue – the next bridge and take-out for this trip – finds the river generously wide and can be characterized as flowing in straightaways tweaked every hundred yards or so with a little zig or zag, left or right. More developed than the first “half” of the trip – which makes sense since you’re getting closer and closer to the town of Weston – it doesn’t feel overly developed. Moreover, there are still so many attractions to distract you from all that, be they gorgeously spooky floodplains, tall pines, boulders and frisky riffles. There’s a short hiking trail near the left bank that runs parallel to the river. When you see that, know that, alas, the end of the trip is nigh. For indeed a quick jab left-right-left – all in peppy Class I rapids – will leave you with double-vision seeing two bridges: the first a pedestrian/bike trail over the river parallel to Ross Ave itself. There’s a dedicated landing on the upstream side of the bridge, on river-left. It’s immediately preceded by a small rapid, so it’s best to run the rapid and then eddy-peel out of it back to the landing. From here, it’s a short schlep from the river to the road, where there’s a parking lot up the incline.
(For the record, my paddling partner continued past Ross Avenue to the next bridge, at Camp Phillips Road, where there’s a public park called Yellow Banks and another designated access to the river. I’d left my bike at Ross Ave because I wanted to pedal the Mountain-Bay State Trail (one of the longest in all Wisconsin, essentially connecting Wausau and Green Bay), which runs parallel Schofield Road and provides an outstanding bike shuttle alternative to driving. It’s another three miles from Ross to Camp Phillips, so I figured that in the time it would take me to bike back to the car at Club House Road and then drive to Camp Phillips Road my friend could enjoy a saunterly paddle alone on his own, something that he hardly ever gets to do. I’m not including that section of the river since I myself didn’t paddle or document it. That said, he described it as being a little scratchier and woollier than what we’d done up to that point. Meaning, more strainers, more downed trees. Pleasant, by and by, but unequal to the beauty and more diverse features in our 7.5 miles.
(And my friend, Big Tim, being Big Tim, he rescued a stray fishing kayak that was snagged in a strainer – no sign of the paddler – and then towed it back to shore using a strap attached to his back handle. Mind you, that’s not the easiest thing to do, paddling with another kayak tethered to you, especially in a stream with current and lots of meanders and lots of downed trees as well. But that’s Big Tim, a true mensch. At our rendezvous at Camp Phillips Road (perfectly timed, I don’t mind saying; I pulled into the lot just as he coming up to the bridge), we carefully ensconced the lost kayak next to a bench. At the time of this writing, that was a full month ago, so surely the kayak has found a new home by now – or, ideally, back to its original owner (assuming s/he also wasn’t lost).
What we liked:
This trip offered more excitement than I’d anticipated, mainly the many Class I rapids. But the mix of floodplain forest and pine-lined steep sand banks, themselves juxtaposed with nothing-to-sneeze-at boulder gardens, packed a lot of appreciable punch in a 7.5-mile trip that is, or can be, very residential. Plus the accesses are excellent.
On a sentimental note, there were two additional charms on this trip for me especially: 1) the friend who joined me on/for this trip, an avid paddler whose photo has been taken on many other reports on the blog, had never been on a river this far north; and 2) there were still random remnants of snow blankets lacing the landscape hither and yon, with the combined effect of accentuating the trip’s northern distinction and also making it the last “winter” paddle of the year. The snow was a lovely touch and lent itself to the we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore feel of what would have been a terrific trip anyway.
From the Miles Paddled Lawyers Bureau: notwithstanding the commonsense guidelines of social distancing, in order to drive a car home from somewhere else, one needs first a preliminary vehicle to get there and then another body to drive it back. (We wore our masks.) Second, my friend on this trip is one of a select half-dozen intrepid souls who paddles all year round, as long as there’s open water somewhere. Thus, for us, a last winter paddle marked a kind of transitional hinge from one season to the next.
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, there’s next to nothing to critique here. We knew in advance that this section of the Eau Claire would be more residential than anywhere upstream, so there was no disappointment or surprise on that score.
If we did this trip again:
Because I personally am an OCD river completist, this trip has been ‘asimmer on my back-burner for more moons than I can count. Having now done it, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. That said, I wouldn’t advise anyone going out of their way to do it – especially if any of the upstream sections of the Eau Claire hadn’t been done yet. But if this is a local stream for you, I could not recommend this trip more strongly! If I lived nearby, I’d be hitting this trip as often as I do Badfish Creek down here in Madison. At 7.5 miles, this trip on the Eau Claire is a great, easy length, and at 100′ wide, it can accommodate a couple boats easily. Throw in a viable bike shuttle state trail, too…this trip’s a keeper!
Eau Claire River I (Marathon): Bear Lake Road to Dells of the Eau Claire Park
Eau Claire River II (Marathon): Dells of the Eau Claire River Park to Club House Road
Miles Paddled Video: Dells of the Eau Claire Park to Club House Road
Camp: Dells of the Eau Claire Park
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Wisconsin River)
Miles Paddled Video: