North Andover to Highway 81
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The word ‘non-stop’ is defined as continuing without stopping or pausing, and Rattlesnake Creek provides an abundance of non-stop. This Driftless discovery has small stream characteristics and elusive charm including massive cliff walls, rugged brickwork terrain, countless riffles, huge boulders, a peppy current and a feeling of wild exploration. In short, it’s a gem if you can catch it at proper water levels.
September 13, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I (mostly riffles but solid boat control is consistently required)
≈5.3′ per mile
Grant River (Burton): ht/ft: 9.0 | cfs: 700
Gauge note: There is no gauge for Rattlesnake Creek; however, it does drain into the Grant River, so there is a loose correlation between the tributary creek and the mainstream river. However, Rattlesnake drains very quickly due to its steep gradient – much faster than the Grant itself – so catching it at an optimal water level requires a combination of homework and luck. Essentially, it comes down to keeping an eye on the Grant River gauge and/or local area forecasts. Strike when the iron is hot and hit Rattlesnake immediately after an upsurge on the gauge. As a reference, the Grant River was at 14’ the day before our paddle and had dropped to 9′ on the day of our paddle. Going into this trip, we were apprehensive that we’d have too much water and that the creek might be running too fast through the tight bends and obstacles. That definitely was not the case. Unless you are fortunate and catch the creek when it’s up, you will need a high tolerance for scraping and getting hung up several times.
This is the lowest recommended level. Another 3-6″ of water would have been significantly better.
Highway 133, North Andover, Wisconsin (at the trifecta of MC’s Sports Bar & Grill, C’s Tire and MC’s Thrift)
Highway 81, Beetown, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 5:50p.
Total Time: 4h 20m*
Miles Paddled: 7.75
*Time note: This was a long trip due to the slow pace of paddling on account of the high number of sharp turns/meandering, scraping through/getting stuck at the shallows, countless sections to stop and soak in the scenery, a few easy portages, some sawzall’ing, one boat-full water dump, and just a slower pace through the flatwater pools.
Bald eagles, great blue heron, kingfishers, turkey vultures, hawks, geese, ducks, jumping fish, frogs, deer, otters, cows galore and one monstrous bull to whom we yielded and gave a wide berth.
5.8 miles: a challenging climb up the ridge on a bicycle from the take-out with over 320′ of vertical climb on mostly country road (Garden Prairie Road), followed by shoulder-pedaling on Highway 133. This trip’s better in a car than on a bike.
Having paddled the section of the Grant River from County U to Chaffie Hollow Road, it’s hard not to notice the size of Rattlesnake Creek entering into the very long pastureland section in the first leg of that trip. Using the power of Google Maps, terrain view, you can clearly see that Rattlesnake Creek would offer some awesome geology – provided that it is a viable, paddleable stream in the first place. Scouting at a few bridges showed promise, and then 5″ of rain in as many days turned the light from yellow to green.
Since this was a shot in the dark prospect, there are two realistic trip options: Starting at Highway 133 and stopping at Highway 81, or starting at Highway 81 and taking out at either Glassmaker Road (the last bridge over Rattlesnake) or continuing into the Grant River itself and ending at Camel Ridge Road. For reasons having to do as much with hutzpah (a Timothy term) as reckoning from satellite maps that the second option would be more agricultural, we opted for the upstream segment of Rattlesnake: Highway 133 to Highway 81. And we’re glad we did. This “here goes nothing” trip turned into one of the best paddles of 2020.
The rugged landscape is simply beautiful; the vastness of the terrain, steep valleys, cliff walls, rock outcrops and boulders are all amazing on this very intimate creek. In one way you feel quite large in your boat on such a small creek, but then you look at the immense hills around and you feel put back in your place. The peppy current, tight bends, rocks, riffles, and obstacles will keep you on your toes and help exercise your boat control skills. Due to these elements, the Rattlesnake is not for beginners.
Our trip started at the intersection of Highway 133 and County V in North Andover (population: you!) under the bridge on river-right. The put-in was pretty trampled down by fishermen and offered a rocky access point with very little mud. You’ll either need to find roadside parking safely off the highway or get permission from the local business owner to use their lot (which is what we did – much to their bemusement (it helped that it was the Packers’ first game, the game was on, and Timothy was proudly sporting Green and Gold).
The trip starts out quietly through a low lying grassy area but immediately gives you a sneak peek into what’s coming for the rest of the trip by way of rugged limestone walls. After a quick peek at the hillside downriver you’ll enter a cow pasture with some fun splashy riffles, eroded banks and fast moving current. As the creek narrowed to about 15′ wide, we were “greeted” by a huge bull which we caught by surprise and vice versa. He was definitely an intimidating fella tipping the scales around one ton. As such, we waited for him to move. After bumping and scraping through the riffles, we were greeted by our first sharp 90-degree turn and a half-mile long limestone wall some 50-60′ tall. This section is vintage southwestern Wisconsin river-paddling: rock wall on one side and cow pasture or cornfield on the other. Passing through this area will remind you of the Little Platte River with its well-laid masonry of limestone, decorative ferns and overhanging trees.
The cycle repeats itself again with another fun and fast riffle before another tree-laden bluff and more exposed rock. These sweeping bluffs offer great landscapes, relaxing flatwater paddling, and shade from the summer sun. It was through this next area that we practiced our afternoon yoga/limbo skills by ducking under a downed tree while leaning forward and back in our kayaks. Fortunately, the current was rather slow and we played the ‘how low can you go’ game to avoid a portage.
Paddler tip: a decent pair of tree loppers is a wonderful tool to help avoid portaging and also helps to serve those who paddle after you. The second one through the freshly cut path should definitely offer a cold beverage to the arborist. 🙂
For a short spell, the creek shoots you back into the sunlight again through another fun, bumpy, and zippy set of riffles before immersing you once more in an area of beautiful undercut limestone wall-cover in moist mosses and fluorescent ferns. Your eyes and neck are drawn to the right bank and upward at the rock wall hidden behind the foliage; however, a quick peek to the left will remind you that you are in farm country. Two bends before Muscallounge Road, you’ll experience another sign of farm life in the Driftless Area paddling: barbed wire. For this reason you should bring a Y-er in the event that you need to lift the wires to navigate under them. After this wire, the river makes a C-curve to the right in a sweeping move along riprap which creates a speedy zip-line to ride along on your way toward another photogenic limestone brickwork wall. A millennial might take a selfie at this wall, but we Gen X-ers prefer the traditional vantage of being behind the GoPro along with hand-held camera shots with the landscape in the foreground, not in the background. But to each their own…
Immediately upstream of the Muscallounge Road bridge, the creek undercuts a rock wall on the right creating a very narrow ribbon of water only a few feet wide along the saw-toothed wall. Most (re: sensible) paddlers will want to (or at least should) portage over the low gravel bar on the left and not chance running into the undercut wall. Others (re: Timothy) can try running it, but should use excess caution. This section could be in the range of dangerous to very dangerous depending on the water level, corresponding force behind the rushing water, and paddler skill level. I’d rather not go through this “cheese grater” of limestone rock with a strong eddy at the bottom; therefore, a short get-out and stretch break was my preference. It also allows you to take some unique pictures of this work of nature.
Shortly after the first bridge at Muscallounge Road, Kuenster Creek enters from the west (river-right) and adds some much welcomed water to the Rattlesnake. In high water conditions, this little gem in itself may be paddled since looking upstream on Kuenster gives you a glimpse of its own rock formations (which look great!). At the confluence of Kuenster and Rattlesnake Creeks, there is a nice flatwater pool where you can enjoy more 20′ tall limestone brickwork, ferns and shade. As the current increased, ready to discharge us back into pastureland, we experienced our third wire of the trip (of four total). Again, this one was not problematic, but you need to watch for them since they are not flagged and tend to blend in with the surroundings.
The cycle of pastureland, riffles, rock walls and 90-degree turns continues as the creek bounces back and forth through the valley. It’s through these next few sections and cycles where you feel the immensity of the bluff and rock walls tower to well over 50′ tall. And then the boulders start to appear; massive pieces of rock speckled throughout the side of the creek. As if the wonderful trip thus far weren’t enough, the boulders give you another aspect of the grandiosity of geology at work.
Throughout the trip the pools of water between rapids offer a nice balance of time to relax, enjoy the wonders of nature and the full beauty of the surroundings. And also to comment to fellow paddlers how damn lucky we are to have such magnificent wonders of nature so close to our home. The sheer size and scale of the cliffs covered in trees, vines, mosses and ferns is often hard to convey or photograph because you lose a sense of scale in a dinky kayak.
About a half-mile upstream from Muskellunge Creek,* the next tributary, here on river-left, the bluffs grow in height and you continue to feel more “put in your place” by Mother Nature’s grandeur. The addition of many vines to the rock walls add yet another dimension of wildness. The sound of rushing water encompases the cove while you bump along in the shallow creek. Easily navigable, the creek makes a few quick turns before providing more eye candy in the form of a 15′ high shallow cave in the making immediately followed by more undercut limestone which can be paddled under safely. It’s through this section that the creek feels scrubby, like a side act to the bluffs and cave. With all of the meandering of the creek, you get a wonderful blend of cliffs that are 100% protected from the sun and therefore are covered in attractive vines, mosses, and fungi; while others are full sun and show off their massive rugged rock terrain for which tall trees continue to shoot upward which gives the whole landscape even more height.
* Editor’s note: We’re not getting sloppy with spelling. The road is “Muscallounge,” but the creek is Muskellunge. Are there any muskies in these waters? Probably not, but who knows for sure?
Muskellunge Creek offers another nice addition of water to the Rattlesnake as the creek bounces toward and away from the walls creating some more tight turns in pushy water. After a very brief pasture section, you face a megalithic 75′ tall limestone wall which is almost difficult to photograph due to the sheer scale. Like every other section, you’ll then ride along the bluff and get a sore neck from looking up and to the left. Through the next mile the river bounces off of the hillsides non-stop and you might remark “dang, it just keeps going!” It sure does – non-stop!
As we approached Atkinson Road we were crestfallen because we thought our trip was over – mistakenly taking it for Highway 81 (maybe because we had already been on the river for a few hours; maybe because we just didn’t want the trip to end; and/or maybe because we didn’t study the map well enough ahead of time). Much to our pleasure, we still had several miles – and some of the best segments were still ahead of us. Once more, after Atkinson Road you’ll have a wonderful pool area to enjoy the undercut limestone brickwork to paddle up to and under.
The creek returns to farm country through a very shallow and wide section. For me, it was “Take Your Kayak to Walk Day.” Just as you shoot out from the riffles on a fun line of water, you get shown yet another modest wall. By this point, I say ‘modest wall’ because expectations have become so dang high and we’ve become spoiled. It was just so much fun to ride the fast current on a wonderful creek on a wonderful day, I was grinning ear to ear. Soon, you’ll paddle toward another monumental rock wall. How tall is it? I don’t know, but if I said it was the height of an 80′ silo, I don’t think I’d be stretching it.
More riffles, more rock walls, more ferns – more everything. Just non-stop. As we were admiring the scenery, Timothy summed it up by the following simple statement: “God damn, Scotty, where are we?!?” To which I responded “It just doesn’t stop.” Of course, we didn’t want it to stop, so we took a little time to remove a few branches from a nasty strainer so that we could enjoy a fun little chute where the river dropped about 18″ in short order. PSA: For those who can, and are willing, we encourage y’all to take a little time to clear reasonable obstructions if time allows, it’s safe, and you have the equipment with you. For us, that means carrying branch loppers and a battery-powered reciprocating saw (in a dry bag). Everyone doing just a little in this area benefits all. For our efforts, we were mightily rewarded with yet another massive and towering rock face where the river made a 90-degree turn. In other words, you get a full frontal view to admire the cliff ahead as you move through a fun set of riffles.
During the next meander past the massive bluff on our right, we saw what we originally thought were some massive fish or a large turtle floundering around in the water. However, as Timothy got within 15′ of whatever “it” was, we were delighted to discover that it was a pair of otters rolling around in the creek like two puppies. We clearly startled them, and they got the heck out of dodge and moved upstream where we saw their long-necked torsos pop out of the water with their usual curiosity. It was an awesome moment.
Over the next 1.5 miles, we had two very easy portages due to downed trees. Both of these were simple portages at low banks/gravel bars with negligible current to reconcile. Both of us were pleasantly surprised by how few tree obstructions there were since we assumed the creek is not paddled much and there isn’t much clearing going on. We could be wrong on both accounts… Actually, I hope we are!
Continuing through a few more meanders with riffles, once again you will be treated to limestone banks of undercut rocks. If this sounds familiar or redundant, it’s because the beauty and grandeur on this trip is (say it with me) non-stop! This paddle was on a Packer Sunday and we commented that the Rattlesnake just kept scoring touchdowns like Aaron Rodgers against Da Bears. Again, for me these were reminiscent of the Little Platte River near my neck of the woods. A few of the rock outcrop areas had active water seeps after the recent rains with thick mosses. A fun set of riffles took us safely through a downed tree into a little kingdom tucked into a hidden side hill of exquisite and undercut limestone which has bellows and bulges representative of a mini-Dells. I know, I know – most of these sections are hidden but this one just felt even more out of sight and out of mind. In these sections you can’t help but think to yourself that so few people will ever get to see these wonders of nature.
Two more 90-degree bends before Highway 81 finds the second to last of the super-structure bluffs/cliffs that again forces you to stretch your neck as you look upwards some 75-80′ while also admiring the car-sized boulders. Speaking of cars, there’s an actual car tangled amongst the trees and rubble at this corner. How it got there is a wonder to us since either the creek carried it there or someone had a terribly god awful day… This car reminded me of the old poor jalopy that is on the Platte River after the old metal bridge; however, this one is here to stay as it’s pretty darn wedged in and isn’t on an eroded bank. We didn’t check to see if the keys are still in it, because the engine’s likely been flooded (hey-o! sorry, couldn’t help myself).
The last full hard bend to the left gives you a healthy strainer on the right bank. No fear, it’s a short little portage over a dry, flat gravel bar to avoid this hazard for the smart ones of your group (re: not Timothy, who tellingly, before paddling headlong into that thicket, said “I’m probably gonna regret doing this.” He wants everyone to know that he did not in fact capsize, but did in fact take on one metric sh*t-ton of water and had to bilge-pump afterward.) Much to our surprise, the pace of the creek picks up steam in the homestretch and continues to throw everything at you: riffles, fast current, splashes, rugged hills, rock formations, boulders and sheer fun. My comment in the video is “Are you kidding me?!” It was just hard to believe that it was still awesome so close to the end.
Alas, you eventually do end by arriving at the Highway 81 bridge, where you’ll have the opportunity to bump along a few more rocks as you make your way to the take-out on the downstream river-left side. The shoreline is rocky so the footing is pretty stable and dry. That said, it sure does help to have two people carry your boat over the rocks to the grassy area above. Roadside parking is good since the shoulders are wide and parking is plentiful.
What we liked:
As mentioned numerous times, the geology and landscape is simply exceptional on Rattlesnake Creek, which exceeded our expectations. Grant’d (see what I did there?), they were high since it’s in the same geographic area of and tributary to one of southwest Wisconsin’s most beautiful rivers, which always gets high marks; and both the topo map and Google Earth gave us a sneak peek of what we could expect. Nonetheless, this little creek kept us in awe with each riffle set, tight turn, and limestone wall from start to finish. Indeed, it is at least as pretty, if not prettier, than the Grant itself. And it certainly deserves to be put on the same high-bar shelf of the nearby Little Platte, Platte, and Galena Rivers. The bluffs are vintage Southwestern Wisconsin, and the creek is intimate and quite simply an exuberantly fun paddle.
For a creek that likely doesn’t see a lot of paddling action, it was astonishingly clean of obstacles and deadfall. All in all, we made only three portages, all of them easy. (Well, one of us tried to do only two portages, but he wished that he had portaged the third in soggy-hindsight). Speaking of Timothy, while anyone could wear Packers’ Green & Gold on game-day, who but he matches his outfit with the color of the boat he’s paddling? He’s ridiculous… Also, the Pack went on to trounce the Vikings. Go Pack!
What we didn’t like:
For me, using a kayak which sits a little lower in the water directly correlated to the number of hang-ups and scrapes, which was a low spot. Timothy didn’t experience this quite as badly since he’s lighter than I am and also ran the creek in a longer kayak with more chine, resulting in sitting a little higher on the water. Of course, the trade-off is decreased maneuverability for him, but that wasn’t a serious issue.
The signature criticism of Rattlesnake Creek is its shallow nature – arguably too low to paddle most of the time. The thing is, it’s too dang beautiful to be distracted by bottoming out, scraping, grinding, getting stuck, etc. That gets old, quick. This stream is just too impressive to let such distractions detract from its magnificence. But there are also the wires. At our water level, none of them posed a problem; we could safely, effortlessly duck under all of them, without use of the Y-er. But, ideally you’d want to paddle Rattlesnake at a higher level than when we did it, which means the wires would be closer to the river. Something to be mindful of.
Lastly, there’s the often eroded banks and/or views of pasture (or corn). They’re a regular feature in southwestern Wisconsin rivers, and Rattlesnake Creek is no exception to the agricultural rule. (Also, towards the end of the trip you will pass long swaths of invasive Japanese hops.) However, I’d still rather have stunning views on one side of the river to be distracted by than corn and pasture on both sides. In this area, the Rattlesnake is definitely more half full than half empty.
If we did this trip again:
This 4-star trip will definitely go back into the hopper of future trips. That said, we’d try to catch it with more water. Even then, we might call upon a local resident to scout the level at Highway 81 and compare the riffles and rock levels relative to this trip.
Curiosity would also lead us to look at the next section downstream from Highway 81 on the Rattlesnake and into the Grant River, taking out at Camel Ridge Road. That would give you roughly 5.5 miles on the creek (4.5 which are less pastured) and another 2.5 miles on the Grant. The last 2.5 miles on the Grant also gets you past most of the pastureland segment after Highway U.
Lastly, this trip felt long at over four hours for a trip that was just under 8 miles, due to the twists, turns, shallow riffles and obstacles. Next time around, we’d probably cut out the Highway 133 to Muscallounge Road section and instead run Muscallounge to Highway 81.
Camp: Nelson Dewey State Park
Miles Paddled Video: