Date Paddled: May 31st, 2014
Put-in: South Cemetery Road Bridge
Take-out: State Forest Access by Creek Mouth
Distance: 7 Miles
Time: 3 hours 10 minutes
Gradient: 20' per mile
Water Level: Black River @ Neillsville 350 CFS or 3.77'
A spectacular wilderness adventure through rapids, rock bluffs, massive boulders, wonderful plant life, clean water…and with not a single house in sight. This Black River tributary is not without its caveats though. This stream has possible access issues, an unpaved bike shuttle, the rapids were more serious than expected, and parasites were a drag.
Let’s get to the legal issues right off the bat here in case you’re the type who skims these write-ups. The Ho-Chunk are the native inhabitants of a good portion of Wisconsin and their modern day headquarters is located just northeast of Black River Falls by the mouth of Morrison Creek. You can read about their history at Wikipedia, which is quite interesting. While the bulk of Morrison Creek runs through Black River State Forest, a portion (close to the mouth) does run through Ho-Chunk territory. Federal law is very permitting of paddle access on most waterways, and Wisconsin even goes so far as putting navigation access in the state constitution. However, the Ho-Chunk operate as a separate nation and may have exceptions to close off navigable waterways under complicated Federal/Native American Law. I do not know and was not able to determine the legal status of running this creek. If you know more about this, leave a comment below and I’ll update the review for readers. Before running this creek, I do suggest contacting the Black River State Forest unit of the DNR and/or the Ho-Chunk nation to inquire about these matters, as many native tribes have very strict trespassing laws and independent judicial systems.
The other legal issue of importance is access to the take-outs and put-ins. I’ve marked three put-in options and two take-out options on the map below. Four of these are clearly public access and there is no legal issue with using these. However, the prime take-out location for Morrison Creek is located on the East Bank of the Black River just downstream of the mouth. When I planned this trip, I initially believed this was clearly a state access area. However, when I arrived and walked down to the landing, I met a Ho-Chunk fisherman who asked if I was native. I said no (my red beard should have been a give-away) and he then said that non-natives were not allowed there. Mind you, he did not see my kayak, so probably thought I was just another fisherman. I walked away and we didn’t have any further problems. When I got home, I double checked my research…and, to my best determination, the evidence showed I was right. Not only was the drive leading into the landing marked as State Forest Property (I took a picture), but cross-correlating a google map with the DNR’s Black River Forest map clearly showed that the drive and access was public. It could be that these maps are out-of-date? Or the Ho-Chunk have special fishing rights to these state forests and I was mistaken as a fisherman? I do not know. If you want to avoid this access (which has a rough one-lane road, garbage everywhere, and a steep pull-out area), then I suggest taking out a mile downstream on the west bank of the Black at the Halls Creek landing….a terrific public canoe access. More on this later…
Issue #2 was the bike shuttle. You car shuttlers don’t have to worry about this! But those of us going solo don’t have livery options, so outside of hitchhiking, biking is our only bet. The most direct bike shuttle route is on Morrison Road and Karner Blue Road…but that is unpaved and was unpleasant for my hybrid Trek. This is an unfortunate reality for many “northern” Wisconsin rivers and especially tricky, as it is not always easy to determine ahead of time if a road is paved or not. Your best bet will be to shuttle to the south (all marked on the map) which will avoid all unpaved roads except access to the take-out. The ultimate preferred option would be to bike shuttle north and cross the Black River at Lake Arbutus and come back down to Halls Creek. Ten miles, yes…but should be all paved and should be well clear of Ho-Chunk property. Editors update and note…a recent comment from Austin (see bottom of page) informs me that Hwy E is not bike friendly (very busy with heavy traffic and poor shoulders). Peddle (to paddle) at your own risk!
After finishing my tough bike shuttle under a hot sun, I wasn’t in the best of moods. I had plucked some ticks off of me, wasn’t feeling 100%, it had been a long car drive, I was upset at being labeled an unwelcome non-native, and half-feared finding my car impounded when I paddled back to the take-out. This set the stage for Issue #3. The creek was deeper, faster, and rougher than I expected. I’m not a whitewater paddler. I had done Halls Creek last week and it was a wonderful paddle–perfect for rec kayakers like myself. I assumed this was Halls, Part 2. Wrong. This was a much bigger creek that was much faster (20′ per mile compared to Halls’ 10′ per mile…plus Morrison starts the first mile or so at 30′ per mile). The Neillsville gauge (not great, but best measure) was low at 3.77′. Whitewater kayakers like to run this at 5’+, so this should have tamed the tiger, so to speak…but the water was significantly faster and more pushy than I expected. In fact, Halls is supposed to be a whitewater creek with class 2’s…but practically every other rapids on Morrison was more significant than the greatest rapids I faced on Halls. Halls is peaceful…Morrison is not. Halls is a rocky gorge, with some rapids. Morrison is an intermediate whitewater creek with some rocky gorges. If you want to run Morrison as a non-whitewater paddler, do so in a short boat (my 10.5′ flat bottom Equinox was perfect). My 12.5′ Tsunami would have rolled multiple times. Also, run this in shallow water. (My depth of 3.77′ was actually perfect in hindsight). Does this mean you’ll hit more rocks? Yes…but it will be harder for your kayak to be turned sideways because the water will have less power to it. Plus, if you do go over, it means you probably won’t drown and can get out. At times, getting stuck is a good thing, as you’ll get the time to scout and even get around obstacles you would have normally been shoved into.
The put-in at Cemetery Road is good for bridge access–ample pull-off space, okay launch, and a small trail to the water. No facilities here though and ticks can be an issue in the tall grass.
Let’s finally get to the creek itself. This is an absolutely fabulous creek that was IMO more scenic than Halls (which is elite in its own right). The water starts clean but black (not sure why) then will turn a fun transparent root beer color close to the mouth. There is little in the way of civilization. The bridges…some power lines…a noisy state ATV trail at the put-in…a noisy Ho-Chunk ATV trail near the take-out…and that was pretty much it. Don’t remember houses or any other development. The first couple of miles of the trip are the roughest, with multiple class 2’s, but the scenery is terrific. The rapids are striking, as is the bank quality and flanking pines. You’ll see random boulders on the shore, but not too much in the way of rock outcroppings (yet). After the first mile, you’ll pass the Oxbow Pond launch. Great access option if you want to avoid some of the rough stuff from Cemetery Road. Parking is terrific (and the drive paved for bike shuttles). There are facilities here and and not too much long grass for ticks to hide out in.
If you put in at Oxbow Pond launch, you still have some rough waters ahead. There are maybe two rapid runs after this…then a big turn that will prepare you for the worst on this trip. Basically, there is a tricky class 2 run that morphs into a class 3…and it can be difficult to spot the class 3 in time to portage. I’ve marked this on the map and here is a video @ 4:29 when I encounter this. Your best bet will be to study the maps and to stay left. Right might be an easier portage…but the left channel avoids most of the heavy class 2 stuff (minus one big drop) and gives you a limited option (that may be tricky in higher water) to get out in time to avoid the class 3. In fact…in hindsight, I think there was a small sub-channel that ran on the south side would have been a perfect detour of the class 3. There would be two drops on this detour, but not bad in small volume water. After seeing the class 3 from the downstream side, I was very happy I portaged them.
This will be the last class 3, but there will be more class 2’s ahead. A couple of whitewater pointers: Don’t use a long boat. Don’t use a v-bottom boat. NEVER get turned sideways. Avoid getting the bow stuck on rocks (that is how you get turned sideways….in slower water this is okay, but in fast water it can be an issue). If you get stuck on a rock, keep the boat pointing forward if possible. If not, make sure the current flows under the boat and not over it by angling the boat by shifting your weight. Sometimes it is best to back out of stuck situations instead of going forward. Avoid spots where the “current goes underwater”. That is very dangerous…if the current doesn’t keep flowing over the top of the water, it circulates and can keep you under if you roll. Also, always scout when possible…bring a rope for portages and aquatic footwear.
By the K bridge, most (not all) of the problem rapids are behind you. In fact there is a class 1 or 2 under the bridge. This would be an alt put-in (maybe makes for a five mile trip to mouth). Steep, not great parking, with poorly placed guard rails and fast traffic…it would be an option though.
After K, the best scenery lies ahead for the next few miles–massive boulders on the banks, stunning rock walls, terrific sand banks and rock stratification in a carved-out creek valley. A terrific wilderness experience! The plant-life was lush and green (why you don’t run this in the early spring). Wonderful mosses growing on the seeps and micro-waterfalls. Terrific fern colonies and thick skunk cabbage patches. This was the highlight of the trip and was fantastic.
Wildlife wasn’t great on this trip. Saw what I thought was an eagle. Saw some dragonflies, clams, and the highlight was a porcupine. “Lowlight” were the mosquitoes…not super bad, but annoying at times…especially close to shore and where you weren’t moving fast.
The last few miles are “floodplains” and the nice sections pretty much go away…but for a floodplain it is still nice despite the hardwood deadfall that kicked out the nice pines. The water turns root beer red and the substrate consists of mostly sand or nice pebbles. The current is still mean, but this time there are half-submerged logs to dodge instead of rocks (rocks are preferable…trust me). There was a tough log jam halfway into the trip (see map) that had me ramming my way through a downed pine tree (not recommended). For this last section there were multiple downed trees and two necessitated portages. Some tough squeakers in fast current as well. These are tough because you are using your upper body to pull yourself through the limbs…but you lose balance and don’t have paddle control when you do this. Easy to be turned sideways, and here I took on a little water….but my terrific “fishing kayak” stayed upright (fishing kayaks are great stream runners!).
With this in mind, it was a relief to get to the mouth and into the Black River. After accidentally taking out prematurely (I hadn’t been able to properly scout the take-out because of the fisherman), I finally found the take-out on the left bank, marked by 3 rocks. I feared encountering another fisherman, a Ho-Chunk police officer, or to find my car impounded…but thankfully my first sight from the water was a Thule j-bar…a fellow yakker! And nobody else in sight, with my car in one piece. In whitewater circles this is actually a popular creek, despite its issues, and on this trip I ended up seeing three cars of yakkers doing this run.
In hindsight, I suggest not using this take-out. There is trash everywhere, obviously there was the issue with the fisherman (even if the maps show this to be state forest land), and the one-lane, rutty road to the launch can’t be healthy for your car’s (or your bike’s) suspension. Bike (or car shuttle) the 10 miles and take the bridge to the north to the Halls Creek landing to avoid unpaved roads and possible conflicts with the locals–maybe an extra mile paddling on the Black but not bad, with some fun class 1’s just above Halls Creek.
As for alternative options upstream of Cemetery, I don’t know. The creek looks easily navigable…but I have no idea about access points or dangerous rapids for the far upper Morrison.
If you’re in the area, consider checking out Halls Creek or Robinson Creek (top notch prospects). The Black River flowage is also top-notch and there are intriguing options on the upper Black. The East Fork is much slower than Halls/Morrison (maybe 3′ per mile) but does have some rough drops…but is scenic. The lower section below the Black River Falls dam is the most popular and is well serviced by liveries. Good sandbars, rock outcroppings, and some riffles…but not as exotic as the upstream sections and creeks.
A special thanks to Frank F. Piraino for his very helpful write-up about Morrison Creek (and the locations of the rapids) in “Small River Canoe Adventures of Wisconsin“.
Also, thanks to the gang at American Whitewater for their review of this hard-to-research creek. Definitely read it, but keep in mind this is written by and intended for whitewater paddlers with an overemphasis on dangerous (but fun for them) high water. I’m not sure I would run this higher than 4.5′ without whitewater gear. And 3.7′ for me was fine (but for them would have been too “boney”).
MapZoom in to de-clutter the icons or click here for a full size map:
View Morrison Creek in a larger map