Baraboo River Floodplains
Date Paddled: June 30th, 2013
Put-in: Cty U Bridge
Take-out: Waterfront Road Landing
Distance: 5 Miles
Water Level: USGS BARABOO 1400 CFS or 12 feet (very high)
This is the last paddlable segment on the Baraboo River before it hits the Wisconsin. Normally this is a mediocre prospect due to dirty water, lack of sandbars, and occasional log jams (rumor has it that it might have been cleaned out locally). But it’s not a bad section to paddle that can be very peaceful and shady on a hot summer day, in contrast to the wide open Wisconsin River next door.
The goal of this trip was to intentionally paddle this segment during near flood stage, as it becomes a completely different prospect. Why? Well, what happens is that when the Baraboo spills its banks, it floods into the nearby forest, which creates a unique paddling experience. There are two ways this can happen. Either the Wisconsin floods and backfills a decent section of the Baraboo River floodplain, or the Baraboo itself floods. At the time of the trip, both were happening.
For a trip on the lower Baraboo, putting in at Wayside Park (near Cascade Mountain) would normally be a great idea, as there is a fine landing there (no bathrooms though…heck, none of the Baraboo landings/bridges we came across had bathrooms). But, at the time of the trip, the water was encroaching on the parking lot and was zipping. I thought this would be too harrowing and opted for the Cty U bridge instead, which halved the trip to about five miles. This may still be a nice section though, as it runs through a state natural area known for its large diameter hardwoods. This could have been a better floodplain prospect, but I don’t know…from the segments I saw between Wayside and U, the river had not spilled its banks here.
If you do a trip like this, be SUPER careful. For starters, keep an eye on the USGS gauges (our measurements are at the top of the page) and the amount of recent rain, which will lag trend the gauge up or down. The ft. reading isn’t as important as the CFS though. If that is too high, the river will become way too fast and dangerous. Too low and you won’t have adequate floodplain paddling options. In our case, the river was a nasty compromise…tad fast for comfort, but not high enough for perfect floodplain paddling. The most dangerous sections will be the most narrow on the river, as that will force the flood waters to speed up. Once the flood waters spill their banks, you’re actually in very good shape and it becomes actually easier to paddle, paradoxically enough (imagine removing your finger from a garden hose as an analogy). Avoid paddling flood waters with long boats and canoes. You need maneuverability to dodge strainers…so shorter is better. Plus, longer boats are more apt to “dam the current” if turned slightly sideways. Easy to do if you so much as brush against a branch or strainer in fast water. If this happens, keep the current flowing under your boat…never over. Tip the boat up to “eat the current” and you should stabilize somewhat. Key is to never touch or even get close to strainers and to never turn your boat sideways in fast current.
Putting in at Cty U, the drainage ditch had flooded, which made for a perfect access point into the river. Normally I don’t know if the launch area is this nice or if this was a lucky accident. The water was again quite high and, in fact, think with a foot higher we wouldn’t have been able to get under the bridge and would have had to put in on the downstream side. This section of the Baraboo is somewhat unique in that it has been artificially straightened and the banks raised by the local farmers. This is “somewhat” unique because the farmers have done the very same thing multiple times between Baraboo and Cascade (poor Baraboo River!). This is bad for high water paddling though as it funnels the water to speed it up.
We knew this in advance and hoped after some zippy “canal” paddling in the first 3000 ft, the water would spill its banks and everything would slow down. Paddling the big ditch was a little tricky because of the speed and number of strainers. Kind of like playing a classic bottom scrolling video game…you need to be on your game to avoid touching a strainer. As long as you pay attention, have experience paddling, and have a maneuverable kayak, you’ll be fine. But turn your neck once too often and the current will probably force you into and under a strainer. Once the ditch ended, the banks unfortunately were still not spilled. The day before, the CFS was about 33% higher and that probably would have been different. It was still nice to be able to paddle the river in its more natural, curvy state. The banks (at 1400 CFS) don’t really spill consistently until maybe halfway into the trip. You’ll come across occasional sections that you can sneak into (usually you have to plow though a grass barrier) and there are side sloughs/lakes you can mess around in.
The most scenic sections (best forests), about in the middle of the trip, unfortunately were not adequately flooded to paddle (which I remember from being on as a kid). This was a shame, although there were still nice sections to explore. Once the banks no longer consistently hold the Baraboo, the river loses a lot of velocity and it becomes a very easy paddle. Near the mouth, you’ll actually bump into Wisconsin floodplains as well. During high water, the Wisconsin will flood and backfill, which can be an alternative place for flood forest paddling. Paddling the Boo at lower water levels while the Wisconsin is high is probably the safest way to do this…but you’ll miss out on upper river flood forest. You shouldn’t miss the mouth of the Baraboo, despite the flooding (you’ll see the power plant in the distance and a massive hill on your right).
As far as wildlife goes, we didn’t see too much, but one treat we did experience was a bald eagle that let us get relatively close to his perch. A brief note on the log jams…while we never once had to get out to portage, there were some situations that might have been tricky in lower water. I can’t guarantee that this segment is jam free if paddled during lower water levels.
Take-out is actually, technically on the Wisconsin River…but not far from the Baraboo. Hug the right shoreline, as the landings are easy to miss and protected by hidey channels/islands. You’ll have your choice of landings on either Waterfront Road or Thunderbird Road (about the same IMO). I liked the idea of taking out on the first landing–in case I missed it, I could take out on the second. Take-out was a little muddy though for a concrete landing and bugs were bad (bring your DEET-free repellent).
Alternate Baraboo River Trips:
There are a lot of paddling options on the Baraboo. For a visual overview see my overview map.
- Upstream of Union Center: The Boo splits into the west branch and main branch. They seem interesting up to Elroy (or Hillsboro) and have enough water to run, but I suspect jams are an issue.
- Union Center to Wonewoc: 6.2 miles. A great section with the largest rock outcrop on the river (reviewed here).
- Wonewoc to Strawbridge Road: ~3 miles. I don’t know much about.
- Strawbridge Road to N. Dutch Hollow Road: ~9 miles. Probably pleasant but there will be a few jams.
- N. Dutch Hollow Road to La Valle: 3.8 miles. Second best section on the entire river with great rock outcrops (reviewed here).
- From La Valle to Lake Redstone: 4 miles. One of the more underrated sections of the Boo, which I really liked (reviewed here).
- Lake Redstone: Definitely a fun paddle as well with fantastic red rock formations, a swimming beach and a spillway waterfall (reviewed here).
- Lake Redstone to Reedsburg: ~10 miles. Supposedly kind of boring, but the log jams should be cleared out.
- Reedsburg to Rock Springs: 14.8 miles. Good potential but serious log jams are likely. There is a cool canyon to paddle though by Rock Springs.
- Rock Springs to North Freedom: ~7 miles, but there are some jams here (not sure how many). Seems like a nice paddle, with rock outcrops halfway into the trip.
- North Freedom to Hatchery Road: ~7 miles that should be pretty log jam free and is on my to-do list.
- Hatchery Road to Hwy 113: 8 miles. There are many fun rapids though the city of Baraboo making this a great trip (reviewed here).
- From Hwy 113 to Hwy W Landing: 4.9 miles. An unreviewed wooded trip I liked many years ago, but since then log jams have probably become an issue.
- From Hwy W Landing to Hwy 33: 3.56 miles. On my to-do list.
- From the first Hwy 33 bridge to the second Hwy 33 bridge (by Cascade Mountain): 8 miles. A stretch I’m curious about.
- From the Cascade Mountain wayside to Hwy U: Simple but pleasant short section flanked by busy interstates (reviewed here).
- From Hwy U to the mouth: 5 miles. The final leg running through floodplain forest (reviewed here).
View Baraboo River Floodplains in a larger map