Sunset Drive to Gramling Lane
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Where the natural wild meets the wiles of exurban development, Scuppernong Creek quietly meanders past back yards and across small lakes, around natural springs, soggy bogs, cattail corridors, hemlocks and tamaracks, with stunningly crystal clear water. The wildlife is incredible, but paddlers can anticipate a half dozen or so portages. Alternate accesses allow for shorter trips, but the one laid out here lends itself to a fabulous bike shuttle.
April 26, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈3′ per mile on average. The creek drops quite a lot in it the first half of the trip, whereas the latter half is flatter.
Bark River (Delafield): ht/ft: 12.75 | cfs: 40
Gauge note: This is a correlation gauge and offered only as an approximate comparison, since there is no gauge for Scuppernong Creek.
This is the bare minimum – which had us scraping a lot. Ideally, look for 70-90 cfs to comfortably paddle this trip without sacrificing the insanely translucent water quality.
Sunset Drive/Highway 18, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
Gramling Lane, Dousman, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:30p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Wood ducks, geese, mergansers, sunfish, muskrat, frogs, toads, crawfish, osprey, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, wild turkey, deer, painted turtles, softshell turtles and snapping turtles (mating at that).
By car it’s a skimpy 3.5 miles, virtually all of it on Sunset Drive. By bike it’s only 4.3 miles – half the total paddling miles – and 98% of it all on a dedicated state trail, the Glacial Drumlin.
I first pedaled over Scuppernong Creek back in 2014 while doing a bike shuttle after paddling the Bark River. We revisited that trip on the Bark last year and likewise recapitulated the bike shuttle. Once again, I noticed the little but surprisingly substantial looking creek and had to look it up. Turns out it’s called Scuppernong Creek – not to be confused with the Scuppernong River, whose origins lie just six miles due south as the crow flies but is an entirely different stream altogether (and one that Barry explored last year), even though both streams are very similar.
One might think that the creek would feed the river, but it does not. That said, both river and creek are tributaries of the Bark, both coming in from the east, just at different places. And both river and creek are pretty minuscule streams with respect to width and depth, both spring-fed and quite lovely. We’ve pondered about the apparently arbitrary nature of what designates a “river” and what a “creek” elsewhere on this site – spoiler alert: the answer seems to be sheer whimsy – but for two separate streams to share the name “Scuppernong,” well, that caught my attention. I (Timothy) am a word guy, as anyone who’s spent five minutes around me knows, so this was like catnip for me.
Feel free to skip ahead if word origins and delicious coincidences aren’t your thing.
Pop Quiz: where does the following passage come from?
“Our tacit treaty with Miss Maudie was that we could play on her lawn, eat her scuppernongs if we didn’t jump on the arbor, and explore her vast back lot, terms so generous we seldom spoke to her, so careful were we to preserve the delicate balance of our relationship…”
No, that’s not Chelsea Handler, but A for effort! It’s Scout, of course, from To Kill a Mockingbird. A “scuppernong” is a variety of muscadine, which is a species of grape. (“Scuppernong & Muscadine” – for all you songwriters out there, you’re welcome! Scuppernong & Muscadine flows like a veritable bottle of wine, does it not?) “Scuppernong” comes from the Algonquian word ascopowhich means “sweet bay tree.” Fun fact: the scuppernong is the state fruit of North Carolina. Indeed, none other than Thomas Jefferson himself applauded the budding state of North Carolina for its having produced “the first specimen of an exquisite wine” – that being Scuppernong wine, praising its “fine aroma, and crystalline transparence.” It’s that last sip of elegance (“crystalline transparence”) that pairs so serendipitously with our purpose here of describing Scuppernong Creek, because it very likely is the clearest water I’ve ever paddled, anywhere.
The whole scene at Sunset Drive (the put-in) is surprisingly excellent and essentially unprecedented. For starters there are designated parking spaces at the bridge right off of the road (aka Highway 18). No shoulder pull-off, no spot on the grass; no, actual parking spaces. Crazy. Secondly, there’s both a manicured path down to the river from the parking spaces as well as a makeshift pier/dock/stairwell. Taken together – parking, path, pier – this trifecta strongly suggests that the bridge is popular for fishing… or something. We took it as a favorable omen.
The next thing you’ll notice is how unbelievably clear the water is – like, is there even enough water to float a boat on? Now, sure, part of that may well be that the stream is shallow – it sure was for us! But part of that also is just visual deception, a trick of the eye. Except for when traversing across the lakes and a turbid stretch near the take-out, Scuppernong Creek otherwise lives up to its etymology and “crystalline” ascription. You’ll notice also, and no less, a series of natural springs quietly percolating along the opposite bank. Altogether, it’s quite a picturesque way to start a trip.
But, of course, it’s not perfect: low water, big rocks and occasional strainers will slow your speed, if not curb your enthusiasm. In our opinion, however, that’s all worth the cost of admission (and, honestly, to be expected when exploring the obscure). After a hundred yards or so, a small culvert private bridge will come into view, easily passed through for us. A quarter-mile later, following a lot of meandering and a raised ridge behind the left bank, another bridge will appear – Waterville Road. Friendly folks in the backyard of a house just southeast of the bridge warned us that immediately after it is a big ole downed tree we’d need to portage. Being the stubborn Taurus I am, wielding a battery-operated sawzall and all, I thought to myself, “OK, let’s see…” Well, I did, and it’s impassable. Fortunately, the portage is easy.
Another quarter-mile of meandering leads you to an attractive “brunnel” (bridge/tunnel) that was built originally for railroad passage, in 1905, but today is part of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail. (Incidentally, it’s this trail that will provide 90% of the shuttle for bicyclists.) A mix of lowlands and grassy marsh surrounds the crystal-clear, sandy-bottomed creek. Indeed, the water is so clear – how clear is it? – it will seem at times that your boat is merely hovering above the sandy bottom, not actually floating on it. Soon, an opening will appear and the creek enters the first of three lakes on this trip, Dutchman Lake, a small, mostly undeveloped kettle lake. Locating the outlet at the southwest corner is intuitive, but if in doubt, hug nearer the southern shore (left-hand side), which is quite pretty in its own right.
Following the outlet, the creek heads due south for 0.75-mile through a beautiful stretch of wild rice, cattails, conifers and lowland trees. A low-clearance private bridge (more of a fat slab) shouldn’t pose a problem, but this will be followed by a preposterously impassable one that you’ll need to portage on river-left. An atypical straightaway that’s actually wide (well, wide for this trip – at 50′) lets you relax a spell before playing limbo at the next low-clearance bridge, a culvert, at Parry Road. From here it’s about a third of a mile to the inlet to the next lake, Hunters Lake.
Hunters is entirely different from Dutchman; it’s over half a mile of lake paddling, all of it straight south. And while the east shore (left) is generally undeveloped, the right-hand side is nothing but houses and docks. Expect some motor company on Hunters. Fortunately again, the outlet for the lake is easy to discern, at the southeast corner of the lake. And while it’s fun and cozy to be back on a stream after a lake, don’t get too comfortable yet, for in another 100 yards downstream from the outlet you’ll need to portage again at an impassable low-clearance bridge, here at stately sounding Manor House Road. (Living up to its tony name, the little bridge here is accentuated with unique but quite aesthetic stone columns more or less resembling salt and pepper shakers.) There’s a minor annoyance of a wooden fence on the downstream side of the bridge you’ll have either to lift your boat over or thread it underneath.
After traveling south, Scuppernong Creek now chugs along westward. And it’s from this point forward that the river environs vary from cul-de-sacs to wild-looking tracts of land. Where you don’t see houses, the creek resembles the beginning mile: natural springs, lush sandy bottoms, lowland trees, some strainers to avoid. But in one weird stretch you’ll paddle alongside a metal-staked fence on your right. The video captures this better than I can explain. All I can say is that on the other side of the fence is… the creek. Whether intentional or not, there’s a fence running in what at least feels like the middle of the water. Who, what, why? No idea. We got through ok, although it felt a bit dodgy and touch and go.
The bridge at Highway 67/Summit Avenue comes next, nothing to write home about, followed by a very engaging combination of marshy cattails and woods. And a million meanders in between. When facing north, you’ll see houses and yards. Seconds later, when you’ll be pointed west, then south, then west again, or even east, you’ll see nothing but abundant beauty and a wild-feeling landscape. It’s a pretty crazy juxtaposition. But, for better or worse, the meandering will calm down, and the creek slows down, lazily headed west now in a straightaway section surrounded by nothing but cattails. This will eventually lead to the third and last lake inlet of this trip, a small mill pond only a thousand feet long created by a curious dam located on the northwestern side of the pond. It’s a necessary but not inconvenient portage.
At this point you’re more than half-way done. From here to the next bridge, at County Road Z, are two miles flowing northwest – the first half of which is woodsy, gorgeous and totally undeveloped; the second, alas, surrounded by marshy cattails, subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. And mud. And carp. But things do improve after the bridge at County Z. From there to the take-out it’s only 1.3 miles, the creek here meandering north, then promptly west. Except for one isolated stretch that’s exclusively marsh, most of the time one of the banks will be lined with trees (tamaracks and hemlocks). And the clarity of the water does get better as well. Before reaching the take-out you’ll paddle under a wooden bridge that’s part of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail again. Immediately before the bridge is a fallen tree that leaves >just enough< room to work your way over on the far right. Finally, the triplet culverts at Gramling Road come into view. On our trip, both the left and right were totally open – but the middle seemed impassable. The take-out is on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, with an easy, grassy bank that gently leads up to the road.
What we liked:
I’ll say it just one last time: if there’s a single take-away from or highlight of this trip, it’s the “crystalline transparence” of the creek, likely the cleanest, clearest water I’ve ever been lucky to paddle. Whether its substrate bottom is lush sand or sparkling gravel, the visual effect truly feels like you’re hovering above the water, not floating atop it. Not since the little Tomorrow River, in central Wisconsin, have I experienced this sensation, always swearing that it’s too shallow and that I’m sure to scrape or get stuck… only to sail through blithely by!
Considering both the put-in and take-out, not to mention portage paths along the way, it’s quite evident that Scuppernong Creek is a popular place to paddle, despite its obscurity outside of locals. We love learning new “secrets” like this.
We love also the sense of adventure this trip ensouls, given the creek-lake-creek nature of its course. Whereas a lot of river trips feel like a continuous take from start to finish, this paddle truly captures a narrative sense, whether that’s parts or acts or whatever. Nearing one inlet to a lake, paddling across it, locating the outlet – it all adds a welcome palate cleanser and sense of adventure to what otherwise would be mere creek paddling.
The cattail and wild rice labyrinths were really fun to thread through and figure out where the main channel continued. (Hint: look for a current.) Again, it added to the adventure.
I’d be remiss to point out the awesome shuttle this trip presents. Because the creek flows west, south, west, and northwest, the shuttle is pretty much a straight shot east, by bike or car, at a distance that’s less than half the miles of the paddling itself. That comes as a relief after a longish day of paddling the narrow meanders of the creek.
Lastly, the wildlife was ridonculous! I mean, seriously. It was like paddling through a conservancy (notwithstanding the adjacent cul-de-sacs of wonderful Waukesha County). One moment I must share… Towards the end of the trip I saw what I swore was a dead snapping turtle in the water. I thought it was dead because it was not moving and at a weird upside-down angle as well. As I drifted a little closer to take a picture it suddenly moved…and then split in two. And by “split in two” I mean of course that there were two turtles suddenly sundered. And while one tried to swim away, the other – and I’m just gonna go on a limb here and guess it was the male – was not having any of that. They were mating – coitus interruptus, terrapin style. My bad.
What we didn’t like:
Needless to say, nobody really likes portaging half a dozen times. That said, only one of the portages was on account of nature (a fallen tree); the rest were all impassable low-clearance bridges plus one incomprehensible dam. C’mon, Waukesha County, lift up your bridges!
The other thing I can’t say we liked was the low water level. We scraped a lot and got quite a core workout from all the butt-scooting. This didn’t come as a surprise, and it was after all manageable. I guess the same can be said about the subdivisions and cul-de-sacs: par for the course for this part of the state.
If we did this trip again:
There are various access points to make this trip shorter (and cut down on the amount of portaging), all perfectly viable options. Paddlers doing a car shuttle might want to take out at County Z and shave off 1.3 miles – which, frankly, is not terribly interesting. (I wanted to persevere to Gramling Road in order to take advantage of the fabulous state trail bike shuttle opportunity.) Likewise, paddlers could just as well take out at the dam at Mill Pond Road for a favorable and flavorful 5.2 miles, which features most of the highlights found on this trip.
Camp: Kettle Moraine State Forest – Lapham Peak Unit
Miles Paddled Video: