Bark River – Delafield
Comprising another “chain of lakes” very similar to its close neighbor, the Oconomowoc, the Bark threads its way through several kettle lakes before heading toward its junction with the Rock River near Ft. Atkinson. Exceptionally clear water carries the paddler past extremely diverse landscapes–the very urban, the busy lake, marshy cattail corridors, and a remote rural landscape with an “up-north” feel.
The trip starts in the heart of Delafield just downstream of Nagawicka Lake. Here you can park at St. John’s Park and launch below the dam. The first 2-3 miles are the best part of the trip, and while you can launch further downstream from St. John’s Park, you’ll miss out on some nice sections of the river.
So how great can the upper Bark be if its first few miles wind through a heavily developed suburb of Milwaukee? Actually very. Because of the nearby parks and protected shoreline, you actually don’t see that many houses. The highlight in the Delafield section is the clarity. This is one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever paddled and afforded great views of the clean rocky substrate and the many fish scooting through the water. The current was also respectable with a number of light riffles that kept you scooting along.
Located maybe a mile into the trip are the remnants of the old Nemahbin Roller Mill Dam. Eight years ago, the owner faced a choice of removing the dam or upgrading it to meet DNR safety standards. The owner chose to remove it, but the neighbors reacted by suing the landowner claiming the removed flowage would lower their waterfront property value. After lengthy litigation and even a jury trial, the owner prevailed and the dam was removed. The result is an attractive rocky marsh where the flowage used to be and the dam itself has been replaced with a fun riffly section.
Soon after the old mill, you are on the big lakes. First Upper Nemahbin Lake, then after the I-94 bridge a longer stretch on Lower Nemahbin Lake. The lower lake is much nicer than the upper and is popular with paddlers. In the middle of Lower Nemahbin Lake is large, wooded and very developed Sugar Island. But this island has a twist… It was heavily developed in earlier years with the promise that a bridge would be built. This never happened, and to this day residents can only get to their homes via a boat launch located west of the lake.
Finding where the river resumes is a bit tricky, but you should be able to find the small entrance on the western end of the lake amidst a massive cattail marsh. The marsh itself is pretty cool to traverse. Unlike other marshes, the river channel is actually narrow and has current. Together with the sheer height of the cattails, this creates a bit of a tunnel effect. Observant paddlers will notice the river forks in the cattail marsh with the north channel leading to the “Blue Hole.” Here paddlers can look down a very deep hole where a marl mine used to operate.
After leaving the lake area, you will come to Sawyer Road. The Sawyer Road bridge crossing was the only unpleasant part of the trip. The bridge and adjacent dam are being replaced, and the entire river channel was being diverted around the construction zone. Paddlers are warned away, but in our case, we had to get through to get to our car and portaging wasn’t an option. The huge chunks of fill rock made it difficult to get a boat over, but with enough “kayak push-ups,” we made it through. The good news is, this bridge and the dam are scheduled to be completed by November of 2016 (and ironically, according to the official plans, will make it easier for canoes and kayaks to portage!).
Following Sawyer Road, the river flows over a large glacial outwash plain with distinct deposits of sifted sand and gravel. The water clarity is still terrific as the channel narrows and snakes through a really cool cattail marsh with occasional lily beds. The Bark then enters the last “bead” on its chain, Crooked Lake, before making a quick exit to the immediate left.
Following Crooked Lake, there is a very popular access option for paddlers located by Genesee Lake Road. The river after the bridge changes significantly. You once again see river banks, and the cattails are mostly replaced with a much more natural and diverse landscape of shrubs, hardwoods, pines, grasses, and flowers. This is an attractive part of the river with a very “up-north” feel to it.
Milton Bates, in his book The Bark River Chronicles describes a favorite spot on this stretch–an island of tamaracks at a sharp bend in the river. The trees have since unfortunately (and mysteriously) died and only their skeletons remain (see a picture of this is in the gallery). It is still an outstanding paddle, with berry-laden shrubs, boggy fen areas, and clumps of blue flag (a June paddle would probably catch them in full bloom.)
Maybe a mile prior to the take-out, the Delafield-Hartland sanitation plant empties into the river after being piped 4 miles around the lakes. This plant has an unfortunate history of contributing pollutants and fertilizers to the Bark, which has led to the river being listed as “impaired” by the DNR. After the septic outlet, the pondweeds increase significantly, but in some ways are kind of scenic because of how they flow in the current and stand out in the clear water.
So, in summary, a great paddle that I highly recommend to others. My favorite section was the first few miles from Lake Nagawicka to Lake Nemahbin, although the lakes and other sections were all quite nice and it is easy to subdivide this trip or lengthen it if need be. The only downside was the road construction, so you might want to wait until November of 2016 to at least paddle the part by Sawyer Road.
St. John’s Park is a good launch option often overlooked by local paddlers. Parking is free, but there are only a few spots for cars and you do have to drag your boat 400′ over grass to reach the dam. Alternatively, you could park in downtown Delafield or by the Post Office, which is right across the street. There is an outhouse, but it was locked.
Ok take-out option off Summit Ave/Hwy 67. The road here is very busy, but there is room to park northwest of the bridge and a nicely mowed access area southeast of the bridge.
Alternate Access Options:
- Naga-Waukee Park: If you don’t mind a mile of lake paddling and portaging a dam, you can launch upstream off Nagawicka Lake’s only public ramp on Mariner Drive. Note:, Naga-Waukee Park has a separate fee from the launch, but if you pay the launch fee ($6), you don’t have to pay the park fee. This is a nice landing and park.
- Delafield Fish Hatchery: Very good parking here with a great canoe ramp northwest of the hatchery. However, if you launch here instead of St. John’s Park, you do miss out on a nice part of the river.
- Cushing Memorial Park: A popular put-in option with local paddlers that has free parking and multiple locations to launch from. If you put in here, you do miss out on nice upstream sections.
- Nemahbin Lakes Ramp: Located between Upper Nemahbin Lake and Lower Nemahbin Lake. This costs $6 for paddlers but does have an outhouse.
- Sugar Island Launch: A great option located on Lower Nemahbin Lake off Sugar Island Road. This launch is the main “ferry” line between the mainland and Sugar Island. You can’t park at the main docks or launch here…but just a bit north of the main docks there is an area set aside for paddlers to park (no cost) and launch which is quite nice.
- Sawyer Road: Traditionally a launch option for paddlers, this bridge (and adjacent dam) are currently under construction and won’t be in service until November 2016.
- Genesee Lake Road: A very popular bridge access with locals that is a good option for putting in or taking out.
- Hwy 18 Wayside: There is a park/wayside (Atkins-Olson) located by the Hwy 18 bridge that would be a very good take-out option. Note: Hwy 18 crosses the Bark multiple times by Dousman…this is the last Hwy 18 bridge. Also note, several paddlers have faced serious logjams between North Main Street and Atkins Olson Memorial Park. Paddle at your own risk.
I am aware of no local liveries for the area, although Panga Bar and Grill located on Upper Namahbin Lake does rent kayaks.
For bike shuttlers this would be a longer 7-mile shuttle, but….a significant portion (at least 6 miles) would be on either the Glacial Drumlin State Trail or the Ice Age Trail (part of which follows the river).
Hazards and Logjams:
While there are multiple riffles, none of these are dangerous. Logjams are not a problem as well.
The bridge at Genesee Street is being replaced and there are warning buoys to deter paddlers, but you can paddle though this, no problem (for now). Hopefully this will be done by the end of 2016.
Of much more significant consequence, the dam and bridge are being replaced at Sawyer Road. This area is roped off and the main channel has been sealed off (literally). If you are desperate to get by, you can by following a side channel around the dam. The current flows over large limestone blocks that make this almost impossible to portage, yet shallow enough not to run. If you are determined and use “kayak push-ups” you can get through (albeit, with a few scratches on your boat). The bridge and dam should be completed by November 2016, at which point it should be an easy portage.
There are are also multiple low bridges to be concerned with. The first is between Crooked Lake and Genesee Lake Road. This should be pretty easy to duck under, but there are exposed nails that you do not want to hit your head on.
After Genesee Lake Road, there are two more low bridges that can be an issue in higher water. Canoes have been known to get stuck under these, so do be careful.
Lastly, there is a super low farm bridge close to a mile upstream of the take-out. Most paddlers portage this. We were able to get through, but have low riding kayaks and the water levels were very low.
2023 Webmaster Update: The dam and bridge repairs have been completed. The dam ledge isn’t that big and can be run at most water levels.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
The local gauge at Delafield read 18 CFS which is below the summer average of ~20 CFS. Statistically the river very rarely gets below 15 CFS. In the spring or after a heavy rain, it will spike up to 30-50 CFS. From St. John’s Park to Upper Nemahbin Lake, you will have to portage (walk) a few shallow sections unless the river is very high. It is worth it though as this section is so nice and portaging in the clean rocky water is not a problem. In fact, I suggest going at the lowest CFS possible to maximize your ability to see through the water (going on a cloudless day helps too).
After the lakes, getting hung up on shallows will never be an issue. But more of a concern will be the four private bridges that are very low. In high water these may all require portages.
The current is decent upstream of Lake Nemahbin with a few riffles. The current slows after the lakes but is still respectable.
In winter the channel stays open between Genesee Lake Road and Dousman, if you’re into cold weather paddling.
Blue herons, many green herons, one beaver, several painted turtles and many fish. The highlight was a large bowfin by Cushing Memorial Park that let me get very close. Bowfins are actually very cool fish. They can breath air, swim backwards and were around when dinosaurs roamed the planet.
Also of significance, the upper portion has a large number of zebra mussels. These are an invasive species, but they actually do a remarkable job of cleaning up water clarity (perhaps why the Bark is so clear). An interesting aside about zebra mussels is that in Lake Erie they are credited with improving the clarity from 10′ to 17′.
- Veterans Memorial Riverwalk
- Delafield Ice Age Trail Segment
- Old World Wisconsin
- Lapham Peak
- Delafield Coon Feed
- Hwy Q to N Road: 0.1 miles. Small, channelized and weedy…this may require high water to run.
- N Road to Hillside Road: 1.4 miles. Small and marshy with maybe 2-4 logjams. High water is likely needed to run this part.
Hillside Road to Hwy 164: 2.0 miles. Maybe 5-10 logjams. Very small and marshy. Likely needs high water to run.
- Hwy 164 to Lisbon Park: 2.9 miles. Maybe 2-4 logjams. The channel here is small, shallow, weedy and bog-like. High water is recommended.
- Lisbon Park to Merton Dam/Firemen’s Park: 1.3 miles. Mostly simple flowage paddling.
- Merton Dam to Bark River Park: 4.9 miles.
- Merton Dam to Dorn Road: 1.2 miles. Very scenic section with great fall color. Highlights include some boulder gardens, springs, clear water, and pine trees. Diverse banks with some woods and some marsh. There is one tricky logjam by the old mill.
- Dorn Road to Hartling Road: 0.7 miles. A short but pleasant open section with no logjams.
- Hartling Road to Rybeck Road: 1.0 miles. A scenic mix of light woods, marsh, and a few boulder gardens. There was one easy logjam to portage and a few hoppers/duckers, but it is mostly open.
- Rybeck Road to Centennial Park: 1.0 miles. Starts open and has a fantastic boulder garden. The last part is more cluttered with a number of logjams to hop over. I never had to portage though.
- Centennial Park to Bark River Park: 1.0 miles. A fast wooded section with multiple logjams. There are about four major logjams in a row, but you can skip them all by portaging on the boardwalk to the east (super easy). There are some additional hoppers beyond this stretch, but I didn’t think they were too bad.
- Bark River Park to Delafield Post Office: 6.1 miles.
- Bark River Park to Nixon Park: 0.7 miles. Terrific stretch through the heart of Hartland. Highlights included many fun Class 1 rapids and one Class 2.
- Nixon Park to Cottonwood Ave: 0.5 miles. Nice stretch with a mix of light woods and suburban homes.
- Cottonwood Ave to Hwy 83: 1.4 miles. Mostly an open marsh section. A few portages are required for downed trees.
- Hwy 83 to Lake Nagawicka Mouth: 1.3 miles. Less marsh and more woods…this is a nice stretch with good water clarity.
- Lake Nagawicka Mouth to Delafield Post Office: 2.2 miles. This is almost all lake paddling. Lake Nagawicka has good clarity and some attractive shoreline homes, but it is heavily developed and suffers from excess motorboat traffic. Several alternate access options exist along the lake shore.
- Delafield Post Office to Hwy 67: 7.7 miles.
- Delafield Post Office to Nemahbin Lake Boat Launch: 1.8 miles. Likely the best stretch on the entire river. Highlights include attractive rocky sections and stunning clarity.
- Nemahbin Lake Boat Launch to Sawyer Road: 0.7 miles. Mostly a simple paddle on Lower Nemahbin Lake. Highlights include great water clarity, an attractive cattail corridor and the “Blue Hole”.
- Sawyer Road to Genesee Lake Road: 2.2 miles. Very nice marsh paddle.
- Genesee Lake Road to Summit Ave: 3.0 miles. A good stretch with ecologically diverse banks.
- Summit Ave to Hwy 18 Wayside: 3.8 miles. A decent prospect. The take-out is a small park/wayside and the last of the three Hwy 18 bridge crossings. Note a recent reader comment says this stretch has many serious logjams.
- Hwy 18 Wayside to Hwy E: 6.2 Miles. Heavily channelized, but some of it still seems like it has potential. Note a reader noted that this stretch has many serious logjams some of which are difficult to portage.
- Hwy E to the Rome dam: 4.2 miles. Half of this leg would be a flowage paddle on Rome Pond.
- Rome to Cushman Road: 5.6 miles. A fantastic stretch and one of southeast Wisconsin’s paddling gems.
- Cushman Rd to Hwy 106 Canoe Launch: 4.4 miles.
- Cushman Rd to Hagedorn Rd: 0.6 miles. A great leg with clear, fast water and many rocks. Only downside is it can get shallow.
- Hagedorn Rd to Hwy 106: 3.8 miles. The first half is pleasant, clear and rocky. The second half is more of a floodplain paddle with more mud and downed trees which was less interesting.
- Hwy 106 canoe launch to Prince's Point Wildlife Area: 5.5 miles. Be careful of the partly removed dam at Hebron. There are definitely downed trees in this section.
- Prince's Point to Burnt Village County Park: 7.1 miles. Mostly floodplain forest and doesn’t look as interesting IMO.
- Burnt Village County Park to the Rock River: 5.5 miles. Does not seem super interesting. Landing is just upstream of the mouth on the east bank.