Lemonweir River – East Fork
Date Paddled: May 3rd, 2020
Put-in: Buckley Ave
Take-out: Hwy 173
Distance: 4.6 miles
Time: 4 hours 42 minutes (2.5 hours would be more typical)
Gradient: 3.0' per mile
Water Level: Lemonweir River @ New Lisbon 526 CFS or 5.27'
The Lemonweir River isn’t an elite paddling prospect but it does have some pleasant parts, with the stretch below Mauston being the most popular with paddlers. The river upstream of New Lisbon isn’t bad, but logjams are typically too much of a plague for most, and it sees little paddling traffic. Close to Tomah, the river splits into two branches that are relatively open and intriguing as possible water trails. At first glance this wouldn’t seem to be so as this part of the state is a bit scenically challenged. It’s been “borgified” by countless cranberry marshes and frac sand mines. Large drainage ditches connect numbered lakes hemmed in by long cranberry dikes, while huge sand piles loom on the horizon like a giant sandbox. But I scouted both branches in depth two months ago and liked what I saw. This is the first of what I hope will be a series of paddling reports on the Upper Lemonweir.
I started the trip at Buckley Ave where there was an unexpected boat launch in the ditch. This was surprising as this is a nondescript area and the river here is no more then a creek, which would be a tight fit for powerboats (although I did see one).
The area by Buckley Ave is very inviting, with many pines and great scenery. Following the bridge, the East Fork wanders through a marshy area with bog plants and pines in the distance. It was very much reminiscent of Northern Wisconsin and rivers like the Manitowish.
The current in the first half mile is slow as the East Fork is backed up by a dam located about a mile downstream. After about a half mile of flowage creek paddling, the river spills out into a large artificial lake hemmed in by cranberry dikes. During harvest season the farmers likely “pull the plug” on this unnamed lake to flood their beds for floating the cranberries.
Huge wind gusts (25+ mph) kicked up just as I started my lake paddle, but fortuitously blew me exactly where I wanted to go. I kept an eye out for the outlet as its not intuitively located at the bottom of the lake, but rather on an out of the way side bay. After literally surfing some small white caps, I finally found the outlet and the dam.
The portage of the dam was really easy and the area was kind of scenic. The wind here was so strong and perfectly directed that it sent a lot of water over the dam and the adjoining boardwalk. This little wind storm likely raised downstream levels by a decent amount.
The next two miles were a pleasant creek paddle and it was great to finally experience current again. The banks here were open and grassy with scattered trees visible in the distance. The water was clear with a red hue and there were a number of small sandbars along the banks. If this sounds like last week’s review…it’s because Lower Robinson Creek is actually surprisingly similar to the East Fork of the Lemonweir (minus the outcrops). This shouldn’t be too surprising as these two watersheds are neighbors separated only by Interstate 90. Outside of the dam, there weren’t any obstructions or logjams (so far) but there were a few minor brush piles to get over (perhaps former beaver dams).
On the last leg of the trip I encountered a large fence along the bank which marked the start of the large cranberry dikes. The creek still flowed somewhat freely, but the character changed dramatically. Things became more wooded, sandier, and I finally had to start dealing with logjams. But the scenery improved, with cleaner and redder water and more white pines. I ended the trip at Hwy 173 which had a manageable bridge access.
Whether this water trail is right for you will depend on your preferences. It’s certainly diverse and scenic (perhaps the best scenery on the Lemonweir), but I did have to deal with 8 logjams. Typically that number would be a deal breaker…but…the shoreline was very flat and sandy with little mud, so they were really easy. In fact I wasn’t phased and thought of them as just unplanned sandbar breaks, but others might disagree. If you’re a local and are a bit adventurous, I think you’ll have a good time.
Buckley Ave: This is a great access with a surprise boat ramp. Note, if you park here, make sure you don’t block other vehicles with trailers from launching.
Alternate Put-ins: In theory you could start a trip 3 miles upstream at Hwy EW…but you would have to deal with a number of logjams and it likely isn’t worth it.
Hwy 173: This was an ok bridge access. The road is a bit busy and some boat dragging up an embankment was required to reach the car, but I didn’t think it was too bad.
- Dove Ave (0.9 miles downstream of Hwy 173): This stretch is open and super sandy with many small sandbars. Dove Ave is a feasible bridge access.
- Cooper Road (3.3 miles downstream of Hwy 173): Same as above plus more woods, cranberry farms, frac sand mines and maybe two logjams. Despite that, it’s a good prospect. Cooper Road is a bad access because of a lack of parking.
- Backwater Bar and Grill (3.5 miles downstream of Hwy 173): Same as above plus a small but nice flowage section. The dam behind the bar is open to the public and is a great take-out option.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Hwy 173 to Buckley Ave: 4.2 miles. This was a pleasant bike shuttle with no troublesome hills yet had good scenery. Much of the shuttle is along Dead Creek where I appropriately enough found the roadkilled porcupine. The only downside was a pair of obnoxious dogs that chased me near the put-in. Normally I can out-pedal pursuing dogs, but these got out in front of me and I had to do some tight swerving to avoid hitting them.
Hazards and Concerns:
- Current: No rapids and only a few minor riffles. Overall a safe and lazy stretch.
- Dam: There is a dam to portage but that’s super easy.
- Getting Lost: The outlet of the lake isn’t super obvious and it is easy to miss. I suggest hugging the east shore so you don’t miss the dam/outlet.
- Wind: The lake is very open and vulnerable to the wind. Be mindful of forecasted wind speed and direction.
- Logjam #1: Super easy portage
- Logjam #2: Super easy portage
- Logjam #3: Super easy portage
- Logjam #4: The banks are a bit bigger here so this isn’t as easy as the other portages, but wasn’t bad.
- Logjam #5: Easy portage (and scenic)
- Logjam #6: Super easy portage
- Logjam #7: Super easy portage
- Logjam #8: A mediocre portage…I waded through…but it might be easier just to use the west shore.
- Note: Yes, this was a lot of portages but the banks were shallow and sandy which made them relatively easy to do. Each jam is marked precisely on my map. I also marked where on the trip video each jam was using Youtube’s new channel marker system. This way you can judge for yourself if you think they are manageable or not.
River Depth and Navigability:
Nearest Gauge: Lemonweir River @ New Lisbon, Wisconsin. This gauge is located 25 miles downstream on the river and should somewhat accurately reflect flows on the upper stretches.
- 0-150 CFS: Maybe too shallow
- 151-400 CFS: Good clarity and many great sandbars.
- 401-600 CFS: A good depth with some good clarity and sandbars. I did the trip at 526 CFS which was above normal but fine for paddling.
- 601-1000 CFS: A high depth with poor clarity, but would be suitable for paddling.
- 1001-1800 CFS: A very high depth with murky water…but still viable
- 1801+ CFS: Banks are just about to burst (based on scouting I did on March 14th). River is likely too unattractive for paddling.
Lemonweir River - Main Branch:
- East/South Fork Confluence to Hwy PP: 1.0 miles. Maybe 3 logjams.
- Hwy PP to Funnel Road: 2.0 miles. Very straight. Maybe 6 logjams.
- Funnel Road to 2nd Ave: 1.2 miles. Very channelized and straight. Maybe 3 logjams.
- 2nd Ave to Hwy H: 1.8 miles. Maybe 4 logjams. The channel at times is not well defined.
- Hwy H to River Road: 2.3 miles. Maybe 4-6 logjams. There are confusing side channels and getting lost may be an issue.
- River Road to 6th Ave: 5.4 miles. Probably doable but there are a lot of logjams.
- 6th Ave to 37th Street Landing: 4.4 miles. This is occasionally paddled but does have some logjams. Definitely a future trip.
- 37th Street Landing to New Lisbon: 6.6 miles. A big, long lake pretending to be a river. Honestly, somewhat boring, but a nice rock outcropping, fall leaves and attractive white pines gave it redeeming value when I paddled it.
- New Lisbon Dam to Hwy 12/16 Shoulder: 7.9 miles. Nice prospect with the “Little Dells” rock outcrop…but some jams (maybe 6). The Hwy 12/16 shoulder where a small creek enters the river is a speculative access option and may not be practical.
- Hwy 12/16 Shoulder to Riverside Park in Mauston: 4.6 miles. Mostly slow open flowage paddling.
- Mauston Dam to 19th Ave: 4.5 miles. One of the nicer stretches on the river.
- 19th Ave to Hwy HH: 13.1 miles. Not as interesting with slow current.
- Hwy HH to the Mouth: 3.3 miles. Good section with attractive rock outcrops. A prelude to the Dells.
Lemonweir River - East Fork:
- Hwy EW to Buckley Ave: 3.1 miles. Starts with some flowage paddling and then transitions into a marsh paddle. Some of the dikes may be confusing to navigate. Perhaps 12 logjams...but most are clustered near the end.
- Buckley Ave to Hwy 173: 4.7 miles. One of the most scenic stretches on the Lemonweir. This is a diverse paddle with a marsh, a lake, cranberry bogs, sandbars, and scenic pines. There are a handful of logjams but they are mostly located at the end of the trip and are easy portages.
- Hwy 173 to Backwater Bar and Grill: 3.5 miles. An interesting prospect through frac sand country and on my todo list.
- Hwy 173 to Dove Ave: 0.9 miles. Very open and sandy with countless small sandbars. Good prospect.
- Dove Ave to Cooper Road: 2.4 miles. Sandy stretch that runs by some frac sand mines and cranberry farms. Maybe two logjams, but mostly open.
- Cooper Road to Backwater Bar and Grill: 0.2 miles. A scenic stretch on a small flowage. Note, I called the local bar and the access by the dam is open to the public.
- Backwater Bar and Grill to Hwy 21: 0.5 miles. Many likely logjams...perhaps almost nonstop.
- Hwy 21 to East/South Fork Confluence: 0.3 miles. Maybe 2-3 logjams.
Lemonweir River - South Fork:
- Butts Park/Lake Tomah to Forbes Road: 4.5 miles.
- Butts Park to Lake Tomah Dam: 0.2 miles. A short paddle on Lake Tomah to reach the dam. Lake Tomah is a nice lake but nothing special.
- Lake Tomah Dam to Memorial Park: 1.2 miles. A small sandy stretch with many downed trees to deal with.
- Memorial Park to Tomah Dog Park: 0.6 miles. A mostly open and pleasant stretch...but there is one large logjam that was a very difficult portage.
- Tomah Dog Park to Forbes Road: 2.5 miles. The first half contains many logjams, some of which are difficult portages. The second half is mostly open but does require two logjam portages.
- Forbes Road to County Hwy N: 6.1 miles. A future trip.
- Forbes Road to Hwy ET: 1.6 miles. Pretty open...maybe 2 logjams.
- Hwy ET to County Hwy N: 4.5 miles. Surprisingly open and a good prospect. Maybe 3 logjams.
- County Hwy N to Excelsior Ave: 3.0 miles. The golf course is pretty open but the woods likely have a number of logjams....maybe 6-8.
- Excelsior Ave to East/South Fork Confluence: 0.5 miles. Likely countless logjams.