★ ★

Bark River IV

Highway 164 to Merton:
A brief trip made even shorter on account of inauspicious conditions – a river that, this far upstream is more like a brook you’d proverbially jump than a stream you’d paddle, and a streambed that had more grass in it than water, not to mention inaccessible bridges – this stretch of the upper Bark River is rich in springtime potential and offered an incredible array of wildlife, but is a glut of summertime punishment.

Bark River

Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 20, 2017

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: 

2′ per mile in the beginning. > 1′ per mile at the end.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Delafield: ht/ft: 12.8 | cfs: 43

Current Levels:
Delafield: ht/ft: 12.42 | cfs: 17.6

Recommended Levels:
This is below the recommended minimum level. To avoid taking your boat for a walk, look for 55+ cfs.

Highway 164, north of Lisbon, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.17969, -88.26254
Merton Millpond, Highway VV, Merton, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.14871, -88.30684

Put-in note: This is not a viable put-in. Not only is there no access to the water, there’s no shoulder on the road to pull off on. Neither is there a bridge, so even finding the river is a bit challenging. We put-in here because we’re stubborn and determined, but we strongly discourage others from doing so.

Time: Put in at 2:50p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 1h 50m
Miles Paddled: 4

Wildlife: A snake, frogs, bass, carp, deer, turkey, turkey vultures, hawks, sandhill cranes, wood ducks, mergansers, great blue herons, green herons, egrets, 2′-long carp and scores of redwing blackbirds.

Shuttle Information:
4.5 miles, suitable for bicycles.


Maybe it’s because its name is Bark, and we love dogs. Maybe it’s because we’re fans of underdogs in general – the paths less taken, the overlooked obscurities compared to the more popular and pretty places. Maybe it’s because we just can’t get enough of Waukesha County this year… Whatever the case is, we’ve been irresistibly attracted to the Bark River for years now. Gradually, it’s become a goal of sorts to paddle all or as much of it as possible.

Disclaimer: You might wonder, for all that professed interest in the Bark River, why there are so few trips covered on our site – most of them not even favorably rated. Great question! Not counting the three trips we do have on the site, I (Timothy) have paddled the Bark eight other times since 2014. The Rome-to-Hebron segment alone is a personal favorite, which I’ve paddled on five separate occasions, in spring, summer, and winter. There’s probably no other river I’ve paddled so often in the last few years, in fact. There are three Bark River trips in the paddling guidebook I wrote. New trips we do, combined with life itself, prevent us from backlogging the site to include these older trips on the Bark River. Their present absence, so to speak, is indicative of nothing else than circumstance. They’re great trips, and the Bark is a great river!

In the spring of 2015 we paddled a pleasant segment of the Bark from Merton down to Hartland. Being river completists, it only made sense to check out the next chunk of the river upstream. (Incidentally, we did do the subsequent section of the river downstream from Hartland earlier this year.) Additional inspiration and curiosity came from Milton J. Bates’ admirable Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed, a book we really enjoyed reading and recommend for local history enthusiasts and fans of the charming Bark River. From his description of the river this far upstream, I was wary of trying my luck on any part of the Bark above County Line Road, due to the impenetrable hot mess of alders choking and encroaching the water. A friend of mine who works in the area confirmed my concerns about the basic un-paddelable nature of the river in between Willow Road and County Line Road. “Alder hell,” I believe is his term for it. So, I thought I’d just make do with beginning at County Line Road and finishing up at the Merton Millpond, where there’s an excellent little boat launch, a neat and tidy 7.5-mile junket.

Oh, how naïve I was!

In retrospect, I should have taken photos of the river from the bridges – whether County Line Road, North Road, or Hillside Road. It was laughable. It was absurd. At each of these three bridges the river looked more like a ditch, as narrow as it was shallow. No access to the water. Trees everywhere, downed and upright, dead and still growing. I had to consult the map just to make sure I was looking at the right body of water. This is the Bark River?!? The beloved Bark? For real? Where wavy grass wasn’t billowing at the water’s surface, clumps of 3′-tall stalks further clogged the current and made for an obstacle course. An obstacle course while driving a small bus. I’m a romantic by nature, a pretty quixotic guy too often tossing caution to the wind, but this was preposterous even by my standards. Anyone’s standards, really.

For what it’s worth, the actual source of the river, at Bark Lake, is only a few miles upstream of County Line Road. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the river here is such a pipsqueak. And I was looking at it in mid-August, after an extremely hot, wet July, so the flora was in full flourish. In spring, everything would look a whole lot less claustrophobic. Still though, I kept wondering “how in the world did a canoe get through all this?” thinking about Milton J. Bates and his wife chronicling the Bark.

I didn’t want to scrap paddling altogether, not least because I’d already driven 90 minutes to get here. But the scene from each bridge where I did a little recon was as bad as all the ones before it. And I was running out of options by Hillside Road. The next road downstream is Highway 164. After that one, you’re practically at the Millpond already. So, Highway 164 it was. Except that there’s no bridge there! So small is the river still that it simply goes beneath the road via three culverts. And so wildly overgrown with dense grass and weeds are the banks beside the river that I had to drive over the damn thing three times before I actually found the water! (Not an easy feat given the fast and vast traffic on this road.)

No bridge means no good place to put-in. Or park a car, for that matter. I pulled off the road as far away as I could and then schlepped my boat and gear about 40 yards through chest-high grass and god-knows-what weeds. Total and brutal bush-whacking – or yaking, if you like. At least the take-out would be more accommodating!

That’s why this trip is only 4 miles. It should’ve been 7.5, but that would’ve been implausibly impractical. I was starting this obscure exploratory in mid-afternoon as it was.

This brief trip begins in a rather beautiful setting for the first mile. The narrow, shallow river meanders through woods and wetlands in a dense and undeveloped corridor. (To be sure, you’re surrounded by development – McMansions and quarries for the most part – but you don’t see any of this from the water.) It may sound like a stretch, but the environment, however winnowed and whittled from its former self by encroaching development, truly did remind me of the upper reaches of the Bois Brule River up north. Before you scoff and guffaw at the comparison – seriously, Timothy, gated communities the likes of “whispering deer glen” with a state forest 50,000 acres large and protected? – consider this: both rivers were shaped by magnificent glaciation 10,000 years ago and today feature hills, springs, fens, bogs, marsh, boulder gardens, and crystal clear water. To be sure, whereas the Bois Brule is sublime, admirably preserved, and a basic paddler’s paradise, the Bark has suffered the unfortunate fate of “being in the way” first of European settlers and then their descendents’ doubled-down development in places like Waukesha and Washington Counties.

Still though, here and there you get a sneak-peak into what the landscape looked like way back when (and probably won’t anymore in the future. Here, what’s pretty is precisely what’s in spite of or in opposition to the crowded surroundings and sprawling opulence.

Anyway, the bogs, logs, boulders, and woods will give way to a predominant marsh environment with tallgrass and cattails galore for the next two miles. Somewhere during the transition, off towards the east bank of the river is a huge quarry (one of several in the area). Perhaps because it was Sunday, all was silent. But it’s likely quite loud – literally rock and roll – during normal business hours.

Plainview Road is the first bridge you’ll pass under, shortly thereafter followed by a railroad bridge. After the railroad bridge are two totally random-seeming piers, one a fishing platform with a picnic table, the other a basic dock. Both are part of the Lisbon Park Department. This would make for a great alternate take-out, especially in light of the following: the next road just downstream is a real pain in the ass. At Lake Five Road there are again a triple culvert affair that is essentially impassable and will require portaging around (and it’s a nasty portage – see below). Immediately after is a wooden bridge that’s part of the Bugline Trail. Shortly after this is the mile-long slog of Merton millpond, which is nothing more than a mile of “paddling” atop 4-inches of muck-sediment water. I don’t know if this is less grueling in spring, but it was ludicrous how shallow, impenetrable, and questionably pointless the whole thing was when we were there. Fortunately, the concrete boat ramp at the dam makes for an easy, tidy take-out and parking is right there, too.

What we liked:
The first mile is attractive and engaging. While brief, and squeezed on all sides by encroaching bulldozers and future contractors, it’s still very pretty and wild-feeling. The water was way too low (poor planning on my part), but at the right level there would be delightful riffles one after another in this mile. Even the next mile or so of wooly marsh had its own charm.

The wildlife was genuinely remarkable for only four miles in a setting surrounded by development (although maybe it’s because all the critters are being corralled into such tight margins, as their natural habitat thins out and disappears altogether). Really, were it not for the wildlife, this trip would be only 1-star.

What we didn’t like:
Ugh, everything else.

For starters, my guerilla-commando put-in at Highway 164 was fatuously impractical. Not only did it involve schlepping boat and gear about 70 yards to the water through chest-high grass and weeds, but I had to drive my car off-road and probably park it illegally on a small mound that was used for advertising a subdivision. (Sorry, not sorry.)

I don’t know if this part of the upper Bark is even doable in the first place, ever. It sure isn’t in summertime, that much I can vouch for. The water was so shallow I had to walk for half the time in the first mile. And where it wasn’t just circumstantially shallow due to lack of rain, the riverbed was so overgrown with grass, below and above the waterline, that it just made for a workout rather than a tranquil time in a natural setting. Seriously, this was the river equivalent of an overgrown abandoned lot. In so narrow a corridor, downed trees are a problem as well. In normal conditions, you can anticipate having to portage a time or two. Since I was already walking my boat so much, I really don’t know what constituted “portaging.”

I drove 90 minutes one-way for this?!?

It’s understandable for a river to be shallow when the gradient gets steep and is gravel-bottomed. When it’s still shallow in a marsh, however, and half the paddling is through soupy muck, wtf? At least you can get out in gravel and sand and walk your boat. In muck, you can’t. You’ll sink knee-deep, probably lose a shoe or sandal, definitely lose your patience and/or composure, and be in worse shape for wear than having stayed in your boat and slowly, arduously pull your boat through like some belly-dragging sea cow. Or carp, of which there were dozens upon dozens, darting through the mud near my boat, creating little brown plumes beneath the surface. I swear to God, I’m gonna just lose it if one of those things jumps into my boat and onto my lap, I kept thinking…

Marshes are monotonous enough without having to take forever and a day to paddle through on account of absurdly shallow water.

Quite simply, and forgive me for being blunt, but Lake Five Road can go to hell! Don’t just take my word for it; look at the photo. There are three tiny culverts, only the middle of which is taller than 8” from the waterline. But even the middle one is too small to paddle through (unless you’re super flexible and lithe, and don’t mind spiders rappelling down onto you in the dark as you grope for the culvert siding to slide you through, as there is zero current). Why is there no current? Because a disgusting “carpet” of fetid slime and putrid green blocks the upstream side of the three culverts. (True, the slime blockade is itself a byproduct of other factors impeding the current, allowing for such a bacteria-choked stagnancy to occur, but whatever.) Portaging around this crap was quite difficult, for a couple reasons: 1) the pea soup-thick slop of green is impenetrable to paddle through, so even getting through it to dry land is a little tricky; 2) said dry land is weedy and quite steep, so getting out and then schlepping your boat up the bank, over the road, and down the bank on the other side, is no easy matter; and 3) getting back in on the other side is as tricky and unaccommodating as getting out was.

Go to hell, Lake Five Road.

Finally, there’s the punishing slog through the inches-deep millpond. It felt like paddling through sand or glue. The millpond itself or its surrounding landscape isn’t even remarkable. It’s just more marsh, cattails, and thousands of lily pads.

So, to recap: I drove 3.5 hours roundtrip to paddle 4 miles of bullshit, often walking my boat in rocky shallows, then getting my ass kicked in a cardio workout slogging through muck shallows. Carp and crap, this trip was more bite than bark.

If we did this trip again:
It’s highly unlikely, given this very unpromising exploration. However, it might be worth trying in spring. Again, we’d try our luck at County Line Road as a put-in, but now knowing what we do, we’d take out at the dock at the Lisbon Park Department rather than deal with the idiotic culverts at Lake Five Road or the Merton Millpond itself.

Related Information:
Bark River I: Burnt Village Park to Downtown Fort Atkinson
Bark River II: Merton to Highway 83
Bark River III: Highway 83 to Delafield Road
Bark River V: County Road E to Hagedorn Road
Bark River VI: Sugar Island Road to Atkins-Olson Memorial Park
Wikipedia: Bark River

Photo Gallery:

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