Black River – Power House Road
Date Paddled: July 23rd, 2017
Put-in: Powerhouse Landing
Take-out: Halls Creek Landing
Distance: 4.0 Miles
Time: 5 hours 7 minutes (without side adventures, 2 hours is more typical)
Gradient: 10' per mile
Water Level: Black River @ Hatfield Power House 787.1' or 176 CFS
The Black River is one of Wisconsin’s truly special paddling destinations. Most prefer to paddle downstream of Black River Falls, but savvy paddlers know the river’s secrets lie in its upstream portions. And of these upstream portions, the most interesting is a 13.5 mile stretch from Lake Arbutus Dam to the Black River Falls dam.
This “dam to dam” portion is likely a little long for most paddlers, and I suggest doing it in parts. For this trip we settled on a 4 mile segment from the Hatfield Powerhouse to Halls Creek Landing. We could have launched 3 miles sooner at Hwy K or Clay School Road Landing, but this would have included some rough Class 3 rapids (super scenic though). Hardcore whitewater paddlers often start at Clay School Road, but then portage their boats over massive boulders to ride the Class 5 chutes below the dam. Casual paddlers can easily launch below the chutes, but still face some Class 3 rapids (such as Canyon Rapids after Hwy K).
Playing it safe we simply started at the public launch off Powerhouse Road. The powerhouse itself is somewhat interesting in that it is 3 miles disconnected from the dam upstream. Engineers accomplished this by creating a 3 mile long millrace that parallels the old channel, before being piped into the powerhouse and back onto the main channel. This millrace has upset many in the paddling community as they feel it frequently starves the old channel of sufficient flows for paddling.
From the launch, you’ll see the tail end of Powerhouse Rapids (typically Class 2) flanked by fantastic granite boulders. Being adventurous, I portaged the east bank by the rapids to run part of these rapids which were a little bumpy but fun.
Just downstream of the powerhouse, we saw the only few homes on the trip (most of the shoreline is a protected natural area) and came across our first island. These are noteworthy because islands equate with rapids on this trip. The least obstructed path is usually on the right/west channel. After some light riffles and small boulder gardens, the river settles down and flows between scenic banks filled with white pines and river birch. The substrate was a mixture of sand, rocks and gravel which you could sometimes see through in the red-tinted water. At several times, there were seeps flowing from the banks, and a unique crumbling rock substance that looked like wood but wasn’t (really cool!).
The next island represented a somewhat ponderous decision to make. The left/east channel had nicer boulder gardens, but we decided on the right/west channel for its fun Class 2 ledge. This is easy to scout from shore if you wish, but not imperative as it is pretty safe (at our flow rate anyways). Immediately following the ledge, we deviated sharply right to paddle through a narrow slot and ledge created by large granite boulders. At the bottom of the main island, we doubled back to scope out the east channel which was quite striking with a fantastic boulder garden. For trips like this it pays to explore and poke around to find hidden chutes, ledges, micro-waterfalls, and unique geology.
Immediately following this island was the Brickyard Road Canoe Landing and perhaps the largest boulder garden of the trip. The middle seemed a little shallow and obstructed but there seemed to be good chutes on both sides, with perhaps the best being on the left/east end of the river.
After a pleasant flat-water section, we came across yet another island. This had a spectacular 2.5′ ledge in the middle which you could possibly run (maybe Class 3), but I elected to go around it. This is super easy to do by wrapping west/right around the ledge or by following the entire western/right channel around the island.
Once the two channels rejoin at the bottom of the island, the river really starts to change dramatically. Hardwoods become more prevalent, most of the granite outcrops go away and the rapids are demoted to minor riffles at best. After some flatwater paddling you’ll come across yet another island…but this one is massive (likely 1.5 miles long). I initially tried going left/east, but really it was too shallow and I gave up. If you can make it onto this channel you’ll paddle past the mouth of Morrison Creek and an east bank landing immediately thereafter.
We chose the right channel which was bigger, shorter and faster. This was scenic in its own right as there were MASSIVE gravel bars and sandbars (would be a fantastic camping spot). Here and there, you could see the carnage left by the major floods of 2016. Banks ripped open, big trees in the middle of sandbars and even a canoe that had been cleanly ripped open and wrapped around deadfall (hopefully the paddler from Morrison Creek or the Upper Black was ok). The flood was so strong that the Black River Falls dam even lost one of its gates and it ended up downstream.
The take-out by Halls Creek was great. Just downstream from the ramp is that cool “I can’t believe it’s not wood” rock I recommend checking out.
This was a terrific trip which we intentionally took our time to explore and to take pictures. Faster paddlers I suspect may want to do a longer section which would be easy to do. Instead of taking out at Halls Creek, you can keep paddling for 6 miles to the Black River Falls Dam, which while a flowage contains some fantastic outcrops reminding me of Wisconsin Dells. Whitewater paddlers can again launch 3 miles sooner at Clay School Landing or Hwy K for a super scenic part of the river.
The power company has created a public launch area below the powerhouse (just off Powerhouse Road). Good parking, a nearby outhouse, good gravel launch area and scenic. This is a popular spot with local fishermen.
Again, serious whitewater paddlers can start the trip 3 miles sooner at Hwy K or Clay School Road Landing.
Just below Halls Creek, there is a popular public canoe landing with plenty of parking but no outhouse.
Again, if you are ok with lengthening your trip by 6 miles, you can paddle the Black River Falls flowage (very scenic) and take out at the Black River Falls dam.
The bike shuttle would be pretty doable. Only 3.2 miles, but a few hills to climb (167′ of climbing and 118′ of descent).
There are a couple of rental and livery options.
- Hatfield Sports Shop: 715-333-5009 Note, their website is down so they may no longer be in business.
- Black River Canoe Rental: 715-284-8136 The owner prefers to do Lower Black, but I believe he’ll service the upper sections if you schedule an appointment in advance.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
No logjams to worry about. Well, close to the take-out there were some strainers along the bank but alert paddlers should be able to avoid these easily.
This segment contains a number of rapids and riffles separated by long stretches of flat, slow water. Most of the rapids are pretty easy and Class 1.
There is a Class 2 set of rapids just prior to Brickyard Road landing (marked on map) that is pretty easy. The river will be split by an island…go right (more open and unobstructed channel) to enjoy the rapids here.
The other significant rapids are at the top of the next major island. Here a 2.5′ ledge is a Class 2-3 option for adventurous paddlers, otherwise it is easy to paddle around it (right/west) to take a Class 1 detour.
At higher flow rates, the rapids may become more pushier, unforgiving and dangerous.
River Depth and Navigability:
Despite there being 4 Black River gauges in a 20 mile radius of the put-in, determining a proper flow rate is a contentious and subjective evaluation. I prefer the powerhouse gauge by the put-in, but this doesn’t include the main channel (just the millrace), so is somewhat inaccurate, but likely not too bad. Below is a guide based on my preferences and guestimates.
- 0-100 CFS: All the rapids would likely have to be walked, but the rest of the river would likely be navigable.
- 101-150 CFS: Pretty shallow and bumpy. I think this would be doable for rec paddlers but you might have to walk some sections.
- 151-200 CFS: A good target depth for rec paddlers. IMO not too shallow nor too deep. We went at 176′ CFS which I thought was perfect.
- 201-250 CFS: A bit higher, but should still be plenty good.
- 251-350 CFS: Likely doable, but the scenic granite boulder gardens may start to become submerged. Some of the Class 2’s maybe pushy.
- 351-500 CFS: IMO a high depth not enjoyable for rec paddlers, but would be great for serious whitewater paddlers.
- 501-1000 CFS: Only serious whitewater paddlers should attempt to paddle the river at these levels.
As a complicating caviet, the Hatfield Dam does special releases periodically to help out hardcore whitewater paddlers which won’t be reflected by this millrace gauge. This usually happens on one Saturday a month from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. The schedule for 2017 is June 10, July 8, August 12, and September 9 (plus a calibration release on the previous Thursday). For more information on the these special releases see Weather.gov. If you are a hardcore whitewater paddler, these releases are a godsend. If you are a rec paddler they can be annoying though and you may want to pick another day when the river won’t be as pushy.
Two fat water snakes, many clam shells, several dragonflies, one immature bald eagle, some geese and a slow bass that was hanging out by one of the kayaks (we thought it might have been injured). For plants there were a lot of white pines, river birch, some bitternut hickory and a handful of wildflowers.
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 Oct 2016.
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. Reviewed Jul 2017.
- Halls Creek Landing to Black River Falls Dam: (6.2 miles) Wonderful sandstone cliffs. Reviewed Jul 2013.
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 Sep 2016.
- Mason’s Landing to Irving Landing: (9 miles) A good section. Reviewed Jul 2016.
- 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: (127. miles) Likely a nice stretch with sandbars, large sandbanks and maybe a few outcrops. Unfortunately it is very long.
- Hwy 53 to Hwy 35: (8 miles) A nice section with epic sand banks. Reviewed Sep 2013.
- 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.