Eau Claire River: North Fork (Eau Claire County)
Hamilton Falls Canoe Landing to Canoe Landing Forest Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A relatively obscure jewel of a trip set in a truly beautiful landscape that is as rugged as it is rewarding, the North Fork cuts through a borderland of northern glaciated and southern Driftless, past spectacular outcrops of granite and sandstone alike. Along the way are wonderful low-hazard rapids and pleasant hills while surrounded by a wild environment thick in county forest free from any development. The downsides? Accesses are a little tricky and good water levels are frequently inadequate. But putting up with inconvenience and having patience for rain will pay off in paddling dividends.
October 23, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I-II (with one Class II “falls” at the put-in that can be run or skipped outright)
~10′ per mile
Gauge Note: The best check is whether it has rained a measurable amount in the previous couple of days. In the absence of a gauge, the only reliable way of determining water levels is eye-balling the riffles above and below the bridge at Channey Road. If the river looks runnable there, you’ll be set for this trip. On the other hand, if it’s Scrape City, you’d be best to save this for another day and paddle the main Eau Claire River instead, which should have regularly reliable water levels.
We recommend this level.
Hamilton Falls Canoe Landing off Hamilton Falls Road, Boyd, Wisconsin
Canoe Landing Forest Road, Augusta, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 7.75
Bald eagles, wood ducks, kingfishers and hawks
12.1 miles – most of which lies on dirt-gravel forest roads that will be unnerving to non-negotiable in vehicles without at least AWD, and possibly unpassable without 4WD after a hard rain. It’s a long shuttle, too, since this trip is surrounded by county forest; there just aren’t many roads or shortcuts.
The Eau Claire River begins, at least in name, where the North and South Forks meet, not unlike a wishbone. From there the mainstream flows for approximately 40 miles until meeting the mighty Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire. This then begs asking that perennial question of stream nomenclature: what constitutes a fork or branch ? Along with the timeless wonder of what makes a river a river and a creek a creek, the assignation of places has as much to do with history and whimsy as it does anything remotely scientific – accident and incident alike. We’ll let this sleeping dog lie, as it’s kept philosophers and scholars alike burning candles long into the night for lo these many years now.
Also, now seems as good a time as any to make sure we’re all on the same page here knowing that this Eau Claire River is the one in the namesake county and not to be confused with the Eau Claire River in Marathon County or in Douglas County.
Like so many streams, we have Meister Mike Svob to thank for putting the North Fork on our plate in the first place. In the classic guidebook, Paddling Southern Wisconsin, under the first trip he lays out for the main Eau Claire River he also offers a postscript about the North Fork, the South Fork and even Coon Fork Creek (which we paddled back in 2016). Specifics are scant, but he recommends a segment from Hamilton Falls to the landing at Eisberner Memorial Park as “pleasantly narrow, winding, riffly, and isolated,” all of which is spot-on. Upon further review, both the topo and satellite maps showed great promise: thick, lush swaths of deep green forest and no signs of civilization abound with beguiling bumps indicating hills and steep banks. Thus the North Fork quickly became a solid prospect in the list of trips trick tucked under our sleeve. It was only a matter of time – and timing – to make it happen.
We stuck with the basics on this trip by putting in at Hamilton Falls and taking out at Eisberner Memorial Park, a distance just shy of 8 miles. There are several additional options to make this trip longer, but we kept it simple since it was cold (32 degrees and sleeting), we had no idea what we’d encounter (down trees/portages?), and daylight is a precious commodity come late October (and we had a nearly 2-hour drive to do after we were off the water).
Paddlers have two options for launching a boat – above or below so-called Hamilton Falls (a bedrock drop that’s about 3′ tall). But before we get to that, first we have to get to Hamilton Falls itself, which requires something akin to an article of faith or at least perseverance. You’ll turn south on Hamilton Falls Road from County MM. Then you’ll see a sign for Township Memorial Park on your left, but go past that siren-song, as it won’t be of any help relative the river. Eventually, you’ll come upon a gate, which appears to be a portal beyond which only ATVs may enter, but keep on keeping on – I swear this is legit. For shortly after that, following a little zig here and zag there, you’ll see a big sign on the left that reads “Hamilton Falls Canoe Landing” with a short driveway leading down to a surprisingly spacious parking area adjacent to the water. From the turn-off at County MM, it’s approximately 2.25 miles to this canoe landing.
Hamilton Falls lies 300′ downstream from the landing. Alternatively, if you don’t want to run the Class II ledge here, then look for one or two feint footpaths down the steep banks below the drop. Unload your gear here, schlep with a careful step, and then park your vehicle at the official landing so as to keep the road/trail free.
Hamilton Falls is an essentially simple one-and-done drop down a 3′ ledge. The only trickiness to it is that it lies on a diagonal – the river bends gently to the right then left. So, on the far right side (outside bend) lie a couple curler waves that could easily flip a boat, while the left side (inside bend) is shallower and prone to exposed rocks. Goldilocks lover that I am, I ran it center-left, and it was fine. (Skilled, nimble paddlers can try their luck in a side channel on the far left side, where there’s a less precipitous drop; but it’s very narrow and more sinuous a meander in pretty peppy current, so good boat control is a must.)
But hang on! That ain’t all. Naively, after running the falls I immediately ran aground a sandbar to “gear down” (removing my spray skirt and helmet). Well that would prove to be wet mistake that we’d endure for the entire trip thereafter, for there’s a wavy Class I+ rapids only 600′ downriver that gave us a brisk and not entirely welcome lap-full of water on this 32-degree day! Lesson learned.
Before we venture too far downstream, the surrounding landscape deserves a shout-out of utter adulation. Gentle hills and steep banks abound and surround the river, some teeming with natural springs coming from who knows where, rushing at the willed mercy of gravity through the woods. The environs will change some downriver – subtle shifts in geological features ranging from exposed bedrock to swaths of sandbars and then a spooky but cool floodplain bottoms near the confluence with the South Fork – but nowhere on this trip will you see a house, cabin, farm, or factory.
Indeed, the first half of this trip – Hamilton Falls to Channey Road – is entirely surrounded by public land aptly named the North Fork Eau Claire River State Natural Area, which the DNR describes as a “relatively wild reach” that “contains several rare aquatic invertebrates.” What are these critters? Don’t know. But it goes on to mention that “the cliffs and steep-sided terraces harbor many more rare to uncommon plants and animals.” Such as? Again, no further info. Finally, it states “these types of natural communities have received little recognition for their ecological reference attributes in the past.” We’re always sorry to hear about ecological reference attributes receiving scant recognition – I mean, who isn’t? Maybe this little paddling blog can help give the area the shout-out it deserves. We saw several bald eagles and wood ducks, and the river itself is a touted place for muskellunge, walleye, and smallmouth bass (aka muskies, wallies, and smallies, for those who actually fish). Additional wildlife encounters by other paddler-scribes include hooded mergansers, deer, and otters.
On average, the river is approximately 60-70′ wide, which is the aforementioned “pleasantly narrow” Mike Svob ascribed. When it meanders, it generally does so in broad bends – meaning that there many stretches of straightaways that comfortably accommodate a pod of paddlers (while still feeling like an intimate stream). Similarly, a handful of easy but no less noteworthy boulder gardens with Class I+ rapids lie here and there.
A little ways after a mile you’ll hear and then see a very attractive tiny creek tumble down a rockbed on the right, behind which is a quaint bridge over it along the ATV/snowmobile trail that runs parallel to the river. (A word about that: in theory at least, one could use that trail for the shuttle, which would cut that distance (and time) down in half. But I don’t know how legal that is in a non-ATV vehicle, to say nothing of whether it’s even doable – probably in a truck or Jeep, maybe in a high-clearance AWD, don’t even think about it in a front- or rear-wheel drive.)
About a half-mile after that you’ll come upon a positively dazzling rock outcrop on the left bank at the base of a small knoll flanked by stately pines. Comprising hints of pink and lichen-green, this garage-sized chunk of granite is beautifully fissured and wizened with wide-spanning cracks like a wrinkled palm. A quarter-mile later you’ll pass under a set of power lines. Just below that is an inconspicuous side channel on the right around a rather large island. Short stretches of frisky riffles follow.
After some straightaways, the river will meander more tightly left-right-left, the current picking up as it does so. You’ll hear rapids, and what follows is an extraordinary scene where a castle-size rock outcrop of staggering granite looms over on the right bank while the left bank is flat and totally sandy. Leading up to this is an exhilarating stretch of Class I rapids. The whole thing is as fun as it is beautiful. We got out here to poke around and play; you should, too. It’s quintessential west-central Wisconsin, that beguiling borderland between the glacial retreat and never-glaciated Driftless area – hence granite being cheek by jowl with sand. Now, some of that sand is glacial outwash, sure; but this part of the county (and state) lies on that periphery all the same. It is a study in contrasts, a geological yin and yang, and it’s just gorgeous. Just be mindful of paddling away from the giant rocks while navigating the rapids.
Another elegantly sinuous curve with brisk current leads you to the one and only bridge on this trip at Channey Road (aka Channey Forest Road). Located some 4.5 miles downriver from Hamilton Falls, it marks a distance a little more than halfway to the take-out. It’s certainly accessible as a put-in/take-out for paddlers looking to begin or conclude a trip here. It’s also the most reliable visual gauge, from the bridge, of river levels. Immediately below the bridge is a huge pool of water called Knights Pool, created by what I’m not entirely sure (sand deposits?). Consider this: the river width leading to the bridge is 50’ wide, but at the pool it’s 200’ wide. On the right side of a large flat island is a pleasant steep sand bank. It’s worth noting here that from this point on the landscape changes: gone are the granite outcrops and most of the gentle hills; in their stead is sand, sand, and more sand. It’s very cool and unique to see such a stark contrast in transition all while on one river trip. Indeed, it reminded me of Morrison Creek in many ways (which, all things considered, is not too-too far away).
While the surrounding landscape changes downriver from the bridge, the current itself doesn’t – you’ll be treated to untold stretches of short Class I rapids like a flourish of goosebumps and raised hairs on your arm following an unexpected wind. The river itself meanders more in this second “half” of the trip than upstream of Channey Road, which naturally adds to the brisk current. Abounding these meanders are wild and ragged sandbanks, some as steep as 20′ high. Downriver still but before the confluence at the S. Fork, you’ll make an abrupt right-hand turn then pivot gently left along the tall right bank that’s composed of a woody, mossy mix spiked with pines at its crown, towering at least 30′ above the waterline. It’s one of the prettiest features in this section of the trip.
A few more squiggly zigzags precede the S. Fork, enter stage left. As alluded to earlier, where these two forks merge is the creation myth/conception/fill-in-the-blank metaphor of the Eau Claire River proper. It’s both kind of cool and kind of surreal to see another river come into view, the two blending together in at least an emulsification of nomenclature, and suddenly you’re on a river that is neither one but something altogether “new,” half hocus pocus and half abracadabra. To be sure, that’s a bit of an affectation – it’s just a merging – or emergence – of another body of water. But here it’s more nuanced, for neither fork is truly a tributary of the other, which means too that neither has a mouth. Thus, perhaps marriage is more apt: the N. Fork and S. Fork come together as one and from there become something else marching on with bashert after the wedding.
It’s a lovely location, arguably a sacred place, for like a bride and groom both forks are damn near identical, with a low grassy bank on one side and sandbars on the other, each the perfect reflection of the other in a kind of geographical chiasmus – the S. Fork receiving the bountiful brawn of the N. Fork’s reach of brawny bounty.
From this inception it’s about 0.75-mile to the take-out. (So, maybe more a shotgun wedding…) While the mainstream Eau Claire has now in effect doubled, it’s subtle. The notable change is it’s a deeper river; there’s twice as much flow now. For at the elopement of the forks, each is about 50′ wide, whereas downriver the mainstream is only 70ish’ wide. (That will change, the river swelling more, on its way to the Chippewa.) Anyway, this last leg is as fun as it is beautiful, with peppy Class I rapids punctuating here and there, some weeping seeps and natural springs, towering conifers along wild, undeveloped banks. Even the landing, which is dedicated and official, is rugged and hardscrabble. Be on the lookout for it on river-right, for it sneaks up on you and is easy to miss on account of its inconspicuous nature in cahoots with the peppy current. Not unlike the put-in, the road that leads to this landing is a dirt-gravel-sand composite, with gnarly ruts carved by yahoos tearing hell for leather in pickup trucks. You’re in the heart of a county forest, so it would be a hell of a spot to get a car stuck. It was entirely fine in my little Cub Scout Subaru, but non-AWD and/or lowe-clearance vehicles might have a trickier time here.
What we liked:
This trip is just truly wonderful in so many senses, offering a kind of perfect pitch of pay-attention moments in Class I+ rapids along with float-and-loaf pools; gorgeous geology in totally unexpected places – including that dazzling and unique dichotomy between glaciated granite and unglaciated sandstone outcrops; and a palpable feeling of wild surroundings. You’d want to have some paddling experience under your belt before boating this trip – especially in cold water/weather. And no newbie should ever consider this trip in high-water. But at safe conditions this trip really offers a sense of adventure.
On a more sentimental note, this trip ended up being our first winter paddle of the 2020-2021 season – even though it was only one month and a day after the fall equinox. Originally, we’d planned on a paddling-camping weekend for the weekend before this (as well as the weekend before that), bumping it back further and further on account of crappy weather forecasts and assuming/hoping (wrongly) that eventually the weather would get better. (It did – in November.) We knew what we were in for on the day of this paddle (not to mention the next two days’ trips), but after this very weird year of all things Covid, and spring, summer, and what felt like two weeks of autumn, seeing snow again (and paddling in 30 degrees) was quite lovely. It made me chuckle, too, for my last winter paddle of the 2019-2020 season was on the Eau Claire River in Marathon County. So this Eau Claire River winter paddle made for a charming circle-round of continuity.
What we didn’t like:
As far as paddling goes, nothing; we loved this river and feel very fortunate to have paddled it when we did. The only thing we didn’t like is the shuttling. We regret when paddle trips are somewhere between impossible and imprudent without a car or truck to do the logistics in between the put-in and take-out – especially when said vehicle ought to be an AWD or 4WD. But that’s just how it is for this trip. The reward for that is a landscape blissfully bereft of development. But the “hidden fee” is the extra work it’ll take to get there. Worth the price of admission? You betcha.
If we did this trip again:
We definitely will be coming back to the North Fork; we had such a fun time on this trip! On this occasion I used my crossover kayak mainly because it seemed like the better vessel to run Hamilton Falls in, but also because I knew that the next two day trips during this last paddling junket of a long autumn weekend I’d be in a canoe – so why not use the kayak here since I took it up in the first place? But the next time the North Fork is on my plate I’ll be in a canoe, because it’s a perfect environment for canoeing – pleasantly narrow, swift, and surrounded by forests in the shadow of the mighty Chippewa River.
Really though, the only thing we’d do differently is elongate the experience by putting in further upstream, before Hamilton Falls, and/or continuing further downriver to the County Road G bridge, where we ended our fabulous paddle down Coon Fork Creek many moons ago.
OK – and maybe paddle the river in weather warmer than 32 degrees while overcast and sleeting…
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)
Miles Paddled Video: