Ashippun Lake to Ski Slide Road:
An impromptu trip done on a lark with no prior mapping or intel that ended up being one-third fun, one-third frustrating and one-third disappointing. There were no riffles or rapids to speak of but the wildlife was great as was the clarity of the river itself. Throw in an anonymous “liaison stream” through a labyrinth of cattails and marsh grasses plus the funkiest dam we’ve ever seen for good measure. Countervail those attributes with a lot of strainers and portage-necessary down trees and there you have the Ashippun River.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 27, 2016
2′ per mile
Not applicable since we can’t really recommend this trip in good conscience.
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 6:30p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Wood ducks, one owl, several great blue herons, deer, unidentified fish and sandhill cranes.
5.3 surprisingly scenic and entertaining miles.
A friend of ours, aka “the Kayak Guru,” suggested this trip after driving over several area bridges spanning the Ashippun River the last few months. I myself happened to be in the area on this particular day and lord knows I’m a romantic sucker to explore the obscure… even if there are not enough daylight hours to do so… even if the forecast is windy and calls for imminent rain.
For those who are curious, the Ashippun is a tributary of the Rock River that originates south of Hartford, in Washington County, at the evocatively named Druid Lake. This trip spans only the last few miles of the Ashippun and in no way reflects the character or potential paddling of any upstream segments. We intended on paddling into the confluence at the Rock River and then down to Kanow Park. But given the late start, the bad weather and the total crapshoot of what we’d encounter on the river, we hedged our bet in the end and left a car at Ski Slide Road, about half a mile from the Rock River itself.
Also, it’s worth clarifying a couple matters. One, this trip does begin on a body of water named “Ashippun Lake,” yet the Ashippun River does not flow into or out of it. Two, the trickle-stream of water that does drain the lake and eventually flows into the Ashippun River has no known name of its own. Yet it is on said anonymous stream where this trip essentially begins for the first mile or so since the outlet is only 50 yards away from the public boat launch on the lake.
Access to the lake is a cinch thanks to the public boat launch. The lake itself looks a little like an eggplant lying on its side, its top half on the left. It’s towards that top that the outlet is located; it’s undisguisably itself and not difficult to locate. It’s basically a corridor of cattails that leads to a mucky marsh. Turn right (north) to locate the outlet of this body of water. This will take a little more work and patience to discern the outlet and orient yourself to the surroundings. But it’s kind of a fun challenge – like a kayak escape room. For a moment or two things might feel wild and abandoned, even though you’re only four crow-flies miles away from downtown Oconomowoc. That exoticism will surely if not quickly come to a halt upon encountering a private driveway culvert that you’ll need to portage over. Only 600’ downstream is the confluence at the actual Ashippun River, where you can finally relax and crack open a refreshing beverage.
The river environs here are mostly marsh and some woodlands. Its biggest appeal is the lack of development and the primitive feel it offers for a short while. We were greeted by deer, a swooping owl and of course great blue herons. After many meanders north the river makes an abrupt turn to the west, where the current disappears and the whole landscape sprawls. This is the millpond, and it will be slow-going. Between it being flatwater and shallow on account of un-dredged sediment back-filled by the dam, the pond is a slog. But it’s an easy portage around it and back to flowing water on the other side. The dam itself is just funky, but in a good way! Instead of a straight line or an arc, as most dams have, the dam here is W-shaped. We’ve never seen anything like that before. To be sure, we don’t care much for dams in general, but this one is pretty trippy.
Below the dam lies a tumbling rubble of boulders and logs in an unrunnable rapid. For the next ~5 miles the river behaves like a river should, without the false starts. But impediments remain – not culverts or dams, but natural downed trees. The river will meander a lot in this section, which will increase the likelihood of obstruction pile-ups. For those who don’t mind the challenge of this kind of slalom course, the river is engaging (although after so many encounters, it began to feel more like work than play for us). It’s also really pretty, featuring clear water coursing over a sand-gravel bottom. And while you’re never far from the trappings of civilization here – bridges, wires, barns – it feels gentle, not an intrusion.
While there is a bridge at Ski Slide Road, we took out a hundred yards or so upstream of it. Why? Well because the road runs parallel to the river at this spot and there is presumably public grassy area along the banks that is low-lying and simply easier to access than at the bridge.
What we liked:
We always like connecting to or fro one body of water to another. When a lake itself is involved, the feeling is even more prominent (let’s face it: more often than not, when it comes to river confluences, the effect is pretty subdued and is hardly discernible from an island splitting the main channel of a single river to one river entering another). What made the very beginning of this trip especially venturesome and fun was following the outlet from Ashippun Lake to… somewhere – somewhere, it was to be hoped, that would eventually connect to the Ashippun River itself. It all made sense on paper, but we had no idea what the actual reality would be.
Did we consult or confirm this on a satellite map first? Of course not. Where’s the adventure in that? But one can see an outlet from the atlas/gazetteer map leading from the lake to the main river itself, which is where we took our lead. Would it work out? Would it be open? It did and it was. It was very narrow and shallow and one has to maneuver around trees but it was totally doable. Not only doable, but it was fun! It was fun going on a mini-adventure, fun trying to find something that may or may not have worked out, fun finding that it actually worked out in the end.
That’s what we liked most. Plus the wildlife and water quality of the river.
What we didn’t like:
Quite simply, the obstructions. There are just too many downed trees and logjams and too many annoying strainers that need to be portaged to make this trip worthwhile. We paddled 7.5 miles and had to portage twice around human-made structures and at least four other times around natural obstructions. That’s a lot of baggage for little reward. Add to that the slow lake effect of the dam and this trip took on a grumpy tone shortly after its initial charm.
If we did this trip again:
This trip is pretty but doesn’t really warrant going out of your way for or justify the nuisances of its obstacles and obstructions. It would be worth clearing up, especially if one lived closer to it, but it just wasn’t worth it to us. All in all, it felt like the river and weather conspired to whip our Ashippun in shape (the proximity of “ass whippin’” to Ashippun was not lost on us), but it was a workout whose end did not justify its means. As such, we’re not likely to do this trip again.
Wikipedia: Ashippun River