Beaver Dam River
Date Paddled: April 17th, 2017
Put-in: Cotton Mill Park
Take-out: Hwy J
Distance: 5.8 Miles
Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Gradient: 5' per mile (although in town it is 20' per mile)
Water Level: Beaver Dam River @ Beaver Dam 160-415 CFS (see write-up)
The river starts in downtown Beaver Dam right below the dam that creates Beaver Dam Lake (a huge flowage and Wisconsin’s 15th largest lake). To run the river, you want to aim for 30-140 CFS per the local gauge. You rarely see these levels though. Often times the river will be starved at 10-20 CFS (these are Little Plover-like lows), then another week will flip and be swamped at extreme levels like 600 CFS. The fault lies in the local community which has complete apathy for the river below the dam. I monitor river levels a lot…and there is not another river or dam in southern Wisconsin that is this erratic. This is quite tragic as sudden and extreme dam releases hurt wildlife, fishing, agriculture, groundwater, recreation (like paddling), and cause a lot of erosion.
For three years, I’ve researched and scouted this river. In fact I even tried to do it two years ago but had to give up due to low water levels. Finally this spring, the gauge for the week was hovering at 150 CFS, which was on the high-side for paddling, but seemed feasible. When I left the house the river was at 160 CFS, but unbeknownst to me, the dam operator at about 9:00 instantly raised the river to about 290 CFS. I get in town to lock my boat up at Cotton Mill Park and oddly things seem much higher than a 160 CFS river. I just shrug this off, drop off my car and start my bike shuttle back.
At the put-in I thought I overheard a fisherman say a gate had just been opened and shrug it off again. But this HAD happened (again) and the river was now at 420 CFS. In just a few hours the river had nearly tripled in size from a baseline that I already considered high. For many rivers, this wouldn’t be a problem, but the Beaver Dam is a whitewater river, so I was in for an adventure (one I don’t recommend).
The first mile is quite neat and normally a great experience. It’s an urban paddle through downtown Beaver Dam that kind of feels like paddling through a canyon because of the tall buildings, large retaining walls, and huge boulder-piled embankments. It’s also the section with the strongest whitewater. The trip starts nice enough along Cotton Mill Park with hoards of fishermen lining the banks. The first (of many) obstacles will be the low-head dam under Beaver Street. I highly suggest scouting this beforehand by foot, as it would be extraordinarily difficult in high water to portage. It’s a small low-head dam so you should be ok (especially on the left side), but absolutely do not get turned sideways by the rocks.
Shortly after will be the Center Street bridge which has a larger backroller and some Class 2 rapids. If you again aim left, you should just be fine though. After the bridge the rapids continue and run under a nice pedestrian bridge and past a scenic water tower. Normally this is a really photographic part of the river, but not today. Overcast skies desaturated the scenery, and mud and garbage from the high water were an eyesore
Just after Mill Street was an unexpected huge standing wave (maybe 2′ high…figure strong Class 2 or weak Class 3 rapids). If I hadn’t had my skirt on I would have been swamped. As you zip along, you’ll see a large manufacturing plant on your right. It’s for Kraft Foods and where your “Philadelphia Cream Cheese” comes from. Don’t ogle the factory too much as the most dangerous part of the entire trip comes up shortly. A large strainer overhangs the entire channel and over some Class 2 rapids. I tried to come to a halt and scout or even portage this but the current was too strong and I got swept through. I barely ducked under a gap on the left side, before a second strainer appeared (this time on the left) which forced me to thrust to the right but you just can’t move well in fast choppy water and I got pushed into these branches sideways. Thankfully I had just enough momentum that I was able to lift up and clear the end of the branches, but I think most boaters would go under in these conditions at this very spot. This is why I can’t recommend this trip unless done at low levels (or a Kraft employee clears up this mess).
Shortly after is the Davis Street bridge and an alternate put-in. The mix of rapids and strainers continues. You will be ok as long as you don’t touch them, but they do keep you on your toes. I came up on Cooper Street which I had been warned was too low, but actually this wasn’t too bad. Despite the rapids I was able to get through ok…but do choose the far right culvert as it is the highest.
The Beaver Dam wastewater plant then empties its effluent into the river, and a chlorine smell and laundry detergent bubbles will accompany you for the rest of the trip. I don’t want to sound too negative though. Yes, this was a dirty river that day with dead fish in the water and even a tire I paddled past, but during low times it is a REMARKABLY clean river. The clarity can be absolutely fantastic (thanks to the many zebra mussels) which will show off the clear rocky substrate. Typically there are beautiful boulder gardens and the banks have striking white boulders. Not today though as everything was muddy and buried. Just bad timing.
By Hwy 151, the river loses most of the city, relaxes and slows down. But only for a short period, as the river again picks up speed at it enters a heavily wooded section. Typically this is super scenic with overarching branches, boulder gardens, pools, and riffles. But today it was a big brown conveyor belt going by naked brown trees and I was in constant fear of getting shoved into a strainer. There are a couple of ledges that require careful treading, but most of this is navigable. One of the worst is by a partly cleared out logjam in which the current blasts you toward a low branch that requires good control to paddle away from. One of the highlights is a gorgeous 1910 railroad bridge supported by massive stone arches. But this like much of the trips scenery, was difficult to photograph because of the obnoxious current.
Several islands have logjam issues with only one channel being open so you want to choose carefully (usually the right channel is better). Mind the upcoming snowmobile bridge as there is a Class 2 ledge hiding under it. Also mind the two low fences (one of which is electric)…but these are pretty easy to duck under (compared to the Big Green anyways).
The river later starts to open up somewhat with farmland replacing trees. There are some longer stretches of rapids that have an up-north vibe to them and not what you expect from a Southern Wisconsin river, which was neat.
Past the Canary Road bridge, the river slows and opens up. At one point the river makes a tight turn over a chute of rapids and flows closely by a historic red barn which was a nice experience. After Hwy J, the rapids pretty much die off and you have a peaceful wetland paddle. Not exotic, but not obnoxious.
In summary, this is a trip I can’t recommend at my levels even for skilled whitewater paddlers because of the strainers. But at low levels (say 50 CFS), I think it would be an amazing experience, plenty safe and a sure bet 4-star trip.
The put-in is downstream of the Beaver Dam dam, and on the north bank. Most fishermen park south of the dam, then walk over it to fish from the banks…but for paddlers it will be easier if you park on West Street and launch north of the dam from Cotton Mill Park. Easy street parking and there is a local outhouse in the park.
If you want to avoid the Kraft Factory rapids, you can launch a mile downstream at Riverside Park. You can launch at W. Davis Street, but only from the south side (the north side is not part of the park and under video surveillance apparently). You may have to drive a block to reach street parking though.
After a few hours of paddling, you’ll come up on a trio of bridges of which each is a take-out option.
- The first, Canary Road is probably doable, but seems a bit rough.
- The second, County Road S seems like a fine option. The rapids pretty much quit after this bridge.
- The third, Hwy J is the best option and what I chose. Good parking and access to the water. Be mindful that the water is deep here so getting out might be tricky for those with tippy boats.
Pretty manageable bike shuttle at 5.2 miles on Hwy G. This does include one longer hill to climb. Total climbing distance will be 75′ and with 3′ of descent. Hwy G (east of the river) is a tad busy though. If you want significantly less traffic, peddle on Center Street west of the river (more scenic and quieter…but a half mile longer).
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Many! This is a whitewater trip with numerous strainers and should not be done at my high flow rate. Only do this trip during safer lower depths. For more information on these hazards, I highly suggest watching my video.
Countless Class 1’s, a handful of Class 2’s and perhaps even a Class 3 or 2 (at 420 CFS). At lower depths, everything is probably just Class 1. Below are the most noteworthy. Many annoying strainers are not included.
- Beaver Street Backroller: I recommend scouting this before running as low-head dams can be unforgiving if you get hit sideways. You can’t portage this in high water but might in low. The far left side is the safest bet.
- Center Street Backroller: Maybe Class 2 rapids and not a lot of room to maneuver under the bridge. The far left is again your best bet.
- Mill Street Rapids: A strong Class 2 or weak Class 3. Straight forward to run but a large standing wave will swamp open cockpits.
- Kraft Foods Rapids: Two strainers in a row over strong rapids make this a very difficult run. You have to paddle hard to the left and then hard to your right. Very dangerous and difficult to portage in time because of the fast current. If you are alert, you can portage in time on either bank.
- Railroad Bridge Clothesline: Just prior to the railroad bridge there is a low branch over fast rapids that is not easy to avoid. This has been partly cleaned up by chainsaw work and hopefully whoever started this will finish the job in the future.
- Snowmobile Bridge Backroller: There appears to be a minor back roller under the snowmobile bridge. Probably ok but be careful. The rapids are likely Class 2 (I got a full lap of water here).
- Islands: There are several islands with rapids in both channels. Usually one channel is completely blocked by logs while the other isn’t. Choose wisely.
- There is a fence just after the railroad bridge but this is easy to duck under
- There is a 2nd fence maybe a half mile after the railroad bridge. This is much lower, but you should be able duck under this. It appears to be electric, but the current is slower here so it is easier to get under.
River Depth and Navigability:
The river is often too low or too high to run because of the erratic dam releases. Below are my recommendations based on the local gauge. Keep in mind dramatic releases can occur suddenly and without warning.
- 0-29 CFS: The lower river should be navigable but the upper sections and most rapids will have to be walked. Based on my scouting of the river at 12 and 22 CFS.
- 30-90 CFS: A great target depth with clear water and nice boulder gardens. Some of the rapids could be bumpy. Fox Valley Yakkers recommends 30 CFS as a minimum.
- 91-140 CFS: On the high side with muddier water and submerged boulder gardens, this is probably a good depth if you only care about rapids.
- 141-210 CFS: The point at which the strainers and fast current start to become annoying. Experienced paddlers in maneuverable boats can probably run these levels.
- 211+ CFS: The river IMO becomes too obnoxious and in some parts dangerous to run. Based on my trip of 420 CFS and scouting the river at 290 CFS.
Large numbers of fish (mostly carp) that were stuck at the dam, where there were many fishermen. There were three muskrats (including one by the dam), several cranes, and many nesting geese along the shore. These geese should have instead chosen nearby Horicon Marsh as the next 600 CFS surge will likely wash their eggs downstream. I saw what appeared to be a pigeon hit a standing wave and go under. On the other hand, a goose I saw on the rapids seemed to handle them quite well. For some reason the wooded sections had an inordinate number of flies. Lastly, this river has a large population of zebra mussels which are actually surprisingly effective at cleaning up the river during summer lows.
Other Beaver Dam River Trips:
- Hwy F to Clausen Park: 4.7 miles. First half of the trip is on Alto Creek. This is a small marshy prospect that is doable but only in high water. Maybe 1-2 logjams. The 2nd half is on Fox Lake which is an overdeveloped flowage lake and probably uninteresting.
- Clausen Park to Beaver Dam Lake: 4.0 miles. Nice prospect with some rocky sections. One dam to portage…maybe several logjams. Am not sure about take-out options, but you can probably use a bridge or get permission from a local business for disembarking.
- Beaver Dam Lake Entrance to Dam/Cotton Mill Park: 8.7 miles. An uninteresting flowage paddle with many motorboats. Though each summer there is a paddle festival on the lake.
- Dam/Cotton Mill Park to Hwy J: 5.7 miles. A whitewater stretch with good potential but tricky to time. Reviewed April 2017.
- Cotton Mill Park to Riverside Park/W. David Street: 0.8 miles. A neat urban paddle through downtown Beaver Dam with the strongest rapids on the river.
- Riverside Park to Hwy S: 4.3 miles. A mixture of woods and rapids. Make sure to launch south of W. Davis Street and not north. You could take out at Canary Road if you really wanted to.
- Hwy S to Hwy J: 0.6 miles. No more rapids. A peaceful paddle through a mixture of farmland and wetgrass.
- Hwy J to Meadow Road: 2.9 miles. Slower current, wide channel, and fewer trees. Pleasant but not special.
- Meadow Road to Low Road: 2.4 miles. Mediocre prospect. There appears to be a canoe launch by Meadow Road, but you need to park away from the launch and on the shoulder.
- Low Road to Sock Road: 2.9 miles miles. Mediocre prospect. Low Road I’m not sure about for access.
- Sock Road to Dam/Fishing Whole Park: 3.0 miles. Likely an uninteresting flowage paddle. Sock Road is doable but not ideal.
- Dam to Hwy 60: 0.8 miles. Neat little section with some rapids.
- Hwy 60 to Hwy J: 2.8 miles. Probably a weak section. Seems muddy, broad and slow. Hwy 60 is doable for an access, but will require some boat dragging to reach the water.
- Hwy J to Mud Lake Road: 6.3 miles. Probably an uninteresting cattail marsh segment. Note, the river splits for several miles and the take-out is on the west channel. Hwy J is a decent put-in.
- Mud Lake Road to Crawfish River: 5.9 miles. Probably more uninteresting cattail paddling. Just after you reach the mouth on the Crawfish, you’ll need to paddle a couple hundred yards upstream to reach the canoe launch at Hwy G.