Black River Flowage
Date Paddled: July 13th, 2013
Put-in: Halls Creek Landing
Take-out: Black River Falls Dam Landing
Distance: 6.2 Miles
Time: 3 hours 23 minutes
Gradient: < 1' per Mile
Water Level: Black River Falls 36.3' or 550 CFS (good depth)
There are a number of nice prospects in the Black River area, but for this trip we did a more obscure segment that is probably only say the 4th/5th best route…yet was still very nice. You can kind of divide the Black River in two. Paddling above the dam at Black River Falls and paddling below. The vast majority of trips occur below the dam, which is quite nice for about 20-30 miles (and still decent after that). Far upstream on the upper Black, you have very obscure segments that I don’t know much about and probably require decent rainfall. Then you have the rapids, which make the Black River famous…but few, other than experts, paddle these regions. The rapids and boulder gardens pretty much die at the mouth of Halls Creek though, which makes this a navigable section all the way to the dam.
When I asked the local livery companies about shuttling above the dam, almost all turned me down…they pretty much serve exclusively below the dam. Eventually I was able to convince Black River Canoe Rental & Liquor (715-284-8136) to shuttle two of us to Halls Creek for 40 dollars while we left our car at the dam. Despite the local liveries knowing nothing about upstream paddling (even though they should!), we came across a very nice canoe landing at Halls Creek where friendly locals let us know that this was a very nice section of the river. At the put in, you’ll see the “last” of the rapids and some very cool stratified rocks to the right of the landing. Just a heads up that neither the Halls Creek nor the Dam landings have outhouses.
After the first bend you’ll see some very nice rock formations and this is the start of a ~3 mile stretch that has beautiful bluffs. It kind of reminded me of the Dells/Kickapoo. There are shallow areas here and there, but if you stick to the main channel you’ll be fine (we went during low water, too). While I’ve labelled this section as a flowage, this is only partly true. The flowage does not kick in maybe until mile 2 of the trip…and then doesn’t really become pronounced until halfway through the trip. Even then the river stays very narrow because of the steep hills so this doesn’t feel like a classic flowage.
The bluffs aren’t the only treat on this segment. You’ll encounter a lot of nice plants (mosses, ferns, flowers) on this trip. The water is very beautiful, clean, and has a root beer color to it which is unique (well, relative to southern Wisconsin rivers). There are also several nice “micro-waterfalls” and “raining” bluffs that are very nice. On occasion you’ll see a random boulder in the water which you can paddle around. Maybe about mile two into the trip there is a nice tiny creek/sandy area that you can get out and explore (all in the pictures).
Roughly speaking, the halfway point on the trip is marked by a very large railroad bridge (impressive structure). Unfortunately this marks the end of the better half of the trip. The upper first 3-4 miles are protected from development by a state natural area and are very nice. But once the state natural area ends, development, piers and power boats are prevalent and there is even a private island/party area. Before you go under the railroad bridge, hang a sharp right and you’ll come across the best of the “micro-waterfalls”–which I used to clean off the dirty nose of my kayak…
As the flowage kicks in, the deeper water allows the power boaters to go nuts and they are a nuisance. Because of the bluffs on the river, the waves don’t dissipate like normal, but bounce hard off the cliffs and can be a mouthful to handle. Some boaters were considerate and slowed down when they passed us, but they were a small minority. One particular tubing power boat must have passed us at full speed six times! Besides the wake, the noise of the boats (and the people) were unfortunate. Some of the locals don’t seem to care for scenic beauty and just want to party on the water–a shame as there are plenty of opportunities to do that elsewhere, while scenic areas like this are unique.
The other (minor) gripe I had that kept this from being a five star trip was the lack of current after the flowage kicks in. Current helps make trips go a lot more effortlessly…and it is a lot of work to paddle many miles with no helping current. The development and piers detract from the shoreline beauty and while they start as a trickle, become much more common once you get close to Black River Falls. In some ways the lower half reminded me of Lake Wisconsin in terms of lakefront development and activity.
These are minor gripes though, and all in all, this was a positive trip despite the second half. There are still nice areas that are completely buried in the flowage on the second half. The white pines are quite scenic, and you’ll see occasional nice mini-bluffs and boulders (would be more glorious without the dam). We came across a teenage eagle by its nest, which was a treat as well. Again, despite this being a flowage, it is still very narrow so it seems somewhat like a river…but with no current.
The take-out before the dam is easy to spot. It will be the large landing to the left of the dam. The dam itself is roped off somewhat, but obviously you don’t want to get near it. Our shuttle driver told us the story of a family on a pontoon boat that went over (during high water). His cousin attempted to recover the bodies later below the dam, but ended up drowning as well, despite being roped to other rescuers. There are pretty mean rapids below the dam as you’ll see from the pictures. Getting back to the take-out…it is a nice (but busy) public boat ramp, with free parking, but no bathrooms. There is a portage path around the dam but it isn’t terrific and would be a bit of a hike, especially for one person, as the path is quite rocky.
Even if you don’t have to portage, make sure to explore around below the dam. You can access the bottom area from both sides of the river, but the side by the landing is probably easiest. Here you’ll see a wonderful panorama of the dam gates, the rapids, boulder piles and the downstream sections of the river. Very photogenic…
The canoe trip author Mike Svob suggested visiting nearby Castle Mound, which we did. It’s a nice public trail system/overlook in a state campground that is marked on the map and has some nice rock formations, but also has a lot of mosquitoes and campfire smoke. Maybe figure 40 minutes of hiking round trip to get to the Mound (very scenic). The trail system is part of the famous ski trail system in the Black River Forest that is quite extensive and is considered by multiple sources to be one of the best cross country ski trail systems in the state.
Alternate Black River Trips
Headwaters to Neillsville:
- Upstream of Colby Factory Road: Probably navigable in higher water, but don’t know much more.
- Colby Factory Road to Warner Drive: (7.8 miles) Minor riffles prior to Popple mouth. Afterwords, Hemlock Rapids is Class 2-3. Alt access on Popple River.
- Warner Drive to Hwy G/Greenfield: (4.3 miles) Multiple Class 1 rapids and a Class 2.
- Hwy G/Greenfield to Sladich Road: (0.9 miles) Includes a Class 3 in Greenwood Rapids.
- Sladich Road to Twenty Six Road: (4.4 miles) Multiple Class 1 & 2 rapids.
- Twenty Six Road to Hwy H: (4.9 miles) Multiple Class 1 & 2 rapids.
- Hwy H to Grand Ave/Hill Road: (8.0 miles) A great trip with several Class 2 rapids and scenic granite outcrops. Reviewed here.
Note, for more details on the upper Black, I highly recommend “Indian Head Rivers” by Michael Duncanson.
Alternate Black River Trips – Neillsville to Black River Falls:
- Grand Ave/Hill Road to Hwy 10: (2.2 miles) Section with good potential and several Class 2 rapids.
- Hwy 10 to River Road Landing: (4.3 miles) 600′ hike through arboretum trail to reach the water by Hwy 10. Several Class 2 rapids and two Class 3’s.
- River Road Landing to Opelt Ave Bridge: (1.1 miles) Not sure there is anything special about this stretch.
- Opelt Ave Bridge to Hwy 95: (4.4 miles) Ok…nothing special. Partially reviewed in my Wedges Creek Review.
- Hwy 95 to Russell County Boat Ramp: (2.3 miles) Scenic Class 3 rapids in Red Granite Rapids, followed by some slower flowage paddling.
- Russell County Boat Ramp to Hatfield Dam: (2.4 miles) Probably uninteresting lake paddling on Lake Arbutus.
- Hatfield Dam to Powerhouse Road Landing: (3.3 miles) Popular section for serious whitewater paddlers. Includes a Class 3 & 4. Alt put-in by Hwy K. Reviewed by American Whitewater.
- Powerhouse Road Landing to Halls Creek Landing: (4.0 miles) Scenic section with a few Class 2 rapids and a steep ledge.
- Halls Creek Landing to Black River Falls Dam: (6.2 miles) Wonderful sandstone cliffs. Reviewed here.
Alternate Black River Trips – Black River Falls to Mouth:
- Black River Falls Dam to Mason’s Landing: (4.7 miles) A great little section reviewed here.
- Mason’s Landing to Irving Landing: (9 miles) A good section reviewed here.
- Irving Landing to River Road Boat Landing: (8.7 miles) A popular section with nice bluffs and a waterfall by Roaring Creek.
- River Road Boat Landing to Melrose Landing: (3.9 miles) A shorter section but with a really nice rock outcrop before Melrose Landing.
- Melrose to Hwy VV Landing: (10.8 miles) A classic stretch with three sets of nice rock formations.
- Hwy VV to Hwy 53: (12.8 miles)
- Hwy 53 to Hwy 35: (8 miles) A nice section with epic sand banks that is reviewed here.
- Hwy 35 to Lytle Road: (3.97 miles) Goes through a protected floodplain forest.
- Lytle Road to Fred Funk Boat Landing (Mississippi): (5.0 miles) Multiple options because of the river delta.
Alternate Black River Trips – Noteworthy Tributaries:
- Robinson Creek: One of the best paddles in all of Wisconsin. Reviewed here.
- Halls Creek: Also one of the best and with amazing sandstone walls. Reviews: Part 1 and Part 2.
- Morrison Creek: Very scenic creek with some fun whitewater. Reviewed here.
- Wedges Creek: Great paddle with amazing boulder gardens. Reviewed here.
- East Fork of the Black River: Some fun riffles and unique granite geology. Reviewed here.
- Perry Creek: Shallow but a super scenic creek. Reviewed here.
- Roaring Creek: Very scenic creek with a great waterfall at the mouth, but might be a challenge to paddle.
- Dickey Creek: An intriguing prospect if the logjams ever get cleared out. Reviewed by American Whitewater.
- Beaver Creek: Some fun rapids and amazing sandstone in Galesville, but logjams at the end. Reviewed by Rick Kark.
- Popple River: A shallow whitewater river reviewed by American Whitewater.
- Vismal Creek: Super scenic but has a lot of logjams and is shallow. Requires very high water conditions.
- Plus countless small creeks that are too small to paddle but quite fun to explore by foot. If you know of viable paddling options, let me know! Am very curious to know more about Douglas Creek, Levis Creek, Arnold Creek, O’Neal Creek, Crawley Creek, Rock Creek, and the Popple River.
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