The Crawfish River is a significant tributary to the Rock River located in East Central Wisconsin. I’ve spent some time personally scouting its many sections over the years, but in many ways it is just not a paddle friendly river. Upstream of the North/South Branch confluence, logjams are everywhere and I’m not sure if it has a single viable water trail. This is a shame as both branches are gorgeous, rocky and feature many light riffles. The lower Crawfish is just the complete opposite. It’s relatively logjam free, but is boring, muddy, slow, and wide. Between the upper and lower parts is an intriguing compromise segment by Columbus. This seemed to have the best of both worlds and I finally got around to paddling it.
Most paddlers starting in the Columbus area will launch by the waste water plant landing, but we opted to start further upstream at the Udey Dam itself. From the dam to the waste water plant is almost one mile and it is a nice section. Yes the banks are a bit ratty and beat-up, but the current was excellent and there are actually light riffles here during low levels. Unfortunately we did encounter two downed trees, but we were able to hop over them with little difficulty.
Unfortunately, my trusty Wilderness Tsunami 125 sprung a leak at the start of the trip. A hole developed directly under my seat which I suspect was caused by Cedar Creek (that was pretty rough). It wasn’t a large hole, as a fly wouldn’t fit through it, but it did release a steady amount of water into the boat. Thankfully I had my sponge with me and I was able to periodically sponge out the boat to keep afloat (at a rate of perhaps two cups every five minutes). So that was a bit distracting and annoying to say the least. Previously when my boat sprang a leak, I had it professionally fixed and they did a good job. But kayak repair can take weeks if not more to complete and with this being a busy time of the season, I’ll simply have to use my “yellow boat” for now. Something that I’m looking at is a special epoxy adhesive repair kit which people rave about online, and my brother has successfully used it to repair a leak in his boat.
Following the waste water plant, we encountered a fresh logjam that spanned almost the entire width of the river. We were however able to sneak around the far end and there were no more notable downed trees from that point forward. The river though became much less interesting as the current slowed and the channel widened. Along the banks we saw 3-4 farm fords that ran straight through the river. The Crawfish though was a deep river averaging 4-5′ and unless farmers saw a dry spell to get river levels down, they would not be able to access farm fields on the opposite side.
If you imagine this trip as a huge “L”, the bottom leg takes a significant turn east which marked a big change to the trip. Here the channel narrowed, the woods became bigger/healthier, the current improved, rocks started replacing mud, and there were a few light riffles. A highlight was the many majestic bur oaks that towered over the river. It was unfortunate we did this trip on the high side as many rocks and light rapids were submerged underwater…but this was still a really scenic part of the trip.
About a mile south of Ninabuck Road, the current slowed and the river widened as the effects from the Danville Dam started to kick in. By the Ninabuck bridge the current practically died and the final two miles of the trip were for all intents and purposes a lake paddle.
County Road TT marked the start of Astico Park. This is an attractive area shaped like a bowling pin that forces the river to flow around it along a huge hairpin turn. In the middle is a large wooded hill separating the two legs of the river. This was a scenic part of the trip with the highlight being a rustic trestle park bridge on the east leg.
Close to the dam, the channel became surprisingly shallow (at times only a foot deep). This is remarkable as the dam itself is about 10′ which means the Danville Millpond is heavily silted in. The portage is well marked and easy to use, but it is surprisingly close to the main spillway. From the east bank is a fantastic view of the mill and dam…both of which are super photogenic. We ended the trip just below the dam along a gravel bank. This is private property, but we did get permission from the owner to use it.
In summary, this is a bit of a tricky trip to judge. It’s certainly a long trip by my standards (~9 miles), it’s incredibly muddy, and there are a few long boring sections. But…the section by Columbus, the middle section through the big woods, and the river by Astico Park were fantastic. The highlight was the Danville dam and mill which while in considerable disrepair (water was leaking out of one of the mill windows), was an incredible sight to behold. I think this is definitely a water trail locals should put on their to-do list.
Astico Park: This is a nice county park located near the end of the paddle. It’s main feature is its campground, but it has an attractive trail network, a scenic trestle walk bridge, and several artesian wells.
We started the trip at the Udey Dam in Columbus. Locals fish along the east bank here and it is a pretty nice access.
The dam is very easy to portage, so putting in at one of the upstream parks in Columbus is certainly viable (eg Meister Park or Rotary Park).
An alternate access 0.8 miles downstream from the dam is the waste water plant. This is an ok public access but the access road and landing have been pretty beat up by flood damage. Putting in here bypasses two minor snags, but also a zippy and fun section of the river.
We ended the trip just downstream of the Danville Dam. Along the west bank and by Elba Street there is an open gravel area where locals fish and it is easy to get out. But…this is private. Whether you need to get permission or not isn’t exactly clear. I did talk to the owner and received permission, but most fishermen presumably do not get permission to use this shoreline and I don’t think the owner minds. If you take out here, be considerate…the owner doesn’t want people drinking, littering, causing trouble, etc… Also he prefers it if you leave your car a bit downstream from the gravel bar so as not to block other fishermen.
One alternative would be to simply take out at nearby Hwy T (likely the NW shoulder) which would be a suitable bridge access.
There are numerous alternate access options located upstream of the dam. At Astico Park there are three excellent options (see map). Note, while there are no outhouses at the main put-in or take-out, there are outhouses in Astico Park.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
The bike shuttle is a pretty reasonable 3.4 miles. The only downside is that Hwy 60 is pretty busy.
Hazards and Concerns:
Current: Mostly slow, but there are a few fast sections. The first is between the Udey Dam and the Columbus waste water plant. The second fast section is a wooded section south of Tiedt Road. From Ninabuck Road to the take-out at the dam there is virtually no current.
Rapids: There are none at higher water levels. But at low flow rates attractive riffles will form below Columbus and south of Tiedt Road.
Logjams: There are two minor logjams that we were able to hop over between the Udey Dam and the waste water plant. There is a more serious logjam after the waste water plant that we were barely able to paddle around. In lower water, this may need to be portaged.
Wind: This is an open paddle so be mindful of forecasted wind speed.
Danville Dam: Some paddlers may be tempted to run the Danville Dam given its sloped spillway. This would be an awful idea as there is recirculating current at the bottom and irregularities along the face could easily knock a boat sideways. The portage path is well marked and easy to use (although it is concerningly close to the main spillway itself).
River Depth and Navigability:
There is a gauge on the Crawfish but it is located almost 30 miles downstream, so it may significantly lag actual flow rates. We did the trip at 500 CFS.
- 0-100 CFS: A typical fall level. An excellent target rate…the river should be navigable and attractive boulders and light rapids should be visible in select spots.
- 101-200 CFS: An average summer flow rate. A good depth with some riffles.
- 201-400 CFS: An average spring flow rate. Some of the interesting river character would be submerged at this point.
- 401-600 CFS: A high depth. Water clarity will be quite bad.
- 601-1000 CFS: A very high depth, but the river is still quite viable for paddling.
- 1001-1400 CFS: Water quality will be exceedingly bad at this point (a mud fest). Paddlers may want to limit themselves to the parts by Astico Park.
- 1401+: This might be too high for paddling.
Other Crawfish River Trips:
- Upstream of Columbus-Fall River Road: The Crawfish splits into two branches upstream of the bridge. Both branches are very scenic and have some rocky sections that I’ve scouted extensively before. Unfortunately, logjams are a major problem this far upstream and I’m not sure there are many viable legs in this stretch.
- Columbus-Fall River Road to Old Hwy 73: 3.8 miles. A mostly wooded section with perhaps 4 logjams.
- Old Hwy 73 to Udey Dam/Columbus: 3.2 miles. Mostly slow flowage paddling. Somewhat of an urban paddle that goes through the northern outskirts of Columbus. Area parks are alternate access options.
- Udey Dam to Danville Dam/Hwy T: 9.5 miles.
- Udey Dam to Columbus Wastewater Plant: 0.8 miles. An attractive fast section. Rapids and rocks will be visible at low flow rates. As of Sep 2019, there are two logjams, but they can be hopped over.
- Wastewater Plant to River Road (Creek Bridge): 2.9 miles. A mediocre section with one logjam to sneak around. Current slows and the banks consist of a mix of woods and open sections.
- River Road to Ninabuck Road: 3.2 miles. Terrific section with good current, healthy woods, light riffles and small boulders. This would be a very scenic section at low water levels.
- Ninabuck Road to Astico Park (West Landing): 1.0 miles. Mostly uninteresting flowage paddling.
- Astico Park (West Landing) to Astico Park (East Landing): 1.1 miles. A nice hilly section by Astico Park. Current is almost nonexistent though.
- Astico Park (East Landing) to Danville Dam (Elba Street): 0.5 miles. A half mile of paddling a very silted in flowage. The dam can be easily portaged along the eastern bank. Take out southwest of the dam. The mill here is very scenic.
- Note: While local fishermen regularly use the shoreline south of the dam, it is private property. The owner is very nice about letting people use the shoreline to access the water. But be considerate if you take out here. If you want a more public access option, you could take out at Hwy T just downstream.
- Hwy T to County Road TT: 5.1 miles. Artificially straightened by farmers, I suspect this might be an uninteresting segment.
- County Road TT to Austin Road: 3.1 miles. Likely wide, slow and muddy.
- Austin Road to Hwy I: 3.0 miles. Likely a mediocre section.
- Hwy I to Hwy BB: 4.8 miles. A mediocre section that features the mouth of the Maunesha River.
- Hwy BB to Hwy G: 2.3 miles.
- Hwy G to Hubbleton: 4.3 miles. The Beaver Dam River adds considerable volume to the Crawfish.
- Hubbleton to Olson Road: 1.3 miles. Wide, slow, muddy and likely boring.
- Olson Road to Hwy A: 7.7 miles. Likely an uninteresting section.
- Note: I’m not sure if Hwy A is a viable access.
- Hwy A to Aztalan State Park: 3.1 miles. Likely a boring paddle. The highlight is Aztalan State Park.
- Aztalan State Park to Riverview Drive Boat Launch: 7.0 miles. Likely a boring paddle. Take out is located at the mouth on the Rock River.