Cross Plains to Black Earth:
A section of the beautiful Black Earth Creek that’s a lot of fun if you like a little adventure and can manage a whole lot of obstacles.
By Denny Caneff
A Miles Paddled contributor
(And fellow guerilla paddler whose nom-de-bateau is Marie Francoise)
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 25, 2014
Black Earth: ht/ft: 1.94 | cfs: 40
This were low levels. We recommend a minimum of 60 cfs for comfortable paddling.
Zander Park, accessible from East Street, village of Cross Plains, Wisconsin
Kahl Road/Park Street, eastern edge of the village of Black Earth, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:45p. Out at 5:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.25
Trout and cows (if cows, count as wildlife).
What we liked:
We undertook this run as a “guerilla paddle” and it did not disappoint. By that I mean, where’s there’s little to no record of paddlers having traveled a particular stretch of stream, there’s usually a reason for that – like being barely navigable for various reasons. We were ready for the occasional climb-over of deadfalls. We were not ready for the number of cattle crossings and barricades (more about those under “What we didn’t like”). But I sorta like that kind of stream.
What is so delightful about this run is that this is a place that very few people go. Trout anglers have their few entry points and there is little evidence that landowners use the creek, except for the farmers with livestock crossings but even they cannot experience this creek the way a paddler can. There are only two roads that cross the creek, although Highway 14 traffic is audible and the railroad track often visible. Still, it felt very remote.
This stretch alternates between tight turns amid wooded banks and curvy sections in open grassy areas where you can grab full expanses of sky – and wind gusts too. The current is steady but not so fast you that can’t control everything you do, which is especially helpful when negotiating the many deadfalls and snags you will encounter. You’ll also find occasional riffles and rocky bars.
The water level was low the day we went (2.8 feet at the gauge at the Cross Plains sewage treatment plant) but probably average for this groundwater-fed stream. I’m guessing that if the gauge at the sewage treatment plant was over 4 feet, the stream would be quite pushy and difficult to navigate. On this day, we scraped bottom a few times but flow was adequate.
The water was cold and clear, the bottom sandy or gravelly – ideal habitat for the trout that has made this stream famous for that activity. Given that paddling and fly fishing on small streams are not exactly compatible activities, paddlers may have stayed away from this piece of Black Earth Creek out of respect for that use of the stream. I hesitate to widely promote paddling here for that reason but this part of the creek has great appeal and potential for paddling (but I would NOT recommend canoeing this run; kayaks are better suited to the many very tight turns and tight squeezes through the many logjams).
What we didn’t like:
We encountered four or five devices that give cattle access to the stream, either to cross it to get to pastures on the opposite side or to get access to the water. Given all the money and effort that has gone into conserving Black Earth Creek for nearly three decades, it’s stunning that there are that many cattle crossings that, to me, are of questionable legality.
Farmers can put barriers over streams to confine their cattle but they are not supposed to block or obstruct public access on the water (this is supposed to prevent stream travelers from having to trespass to get around the barriers).
Two cattle barriers on the creek were of the same design – wooden fences hanging from cables strung across the creek that are supposed to swing up- and downstream to allow debris and boaters, to pass underneath the barriers. In one case, it worked nicely. In another case, the farmer had wired shut the sections of the wooden fencing that is supposed to swing in and out. That forced us to heave our kayaks over the wooden fencing – twice, as there were a pair of these barriers, ostensibly to keep the cows from wandering into the stream. They would not do that, so this defeating the function of these swinging gates almost seems like an act of defiance by the farmer.
The most bizarre cattle encounter was with actual cows. They were standing in the stream (again, a shocking realization to me that cows can still freely shit in this stream). We slowly approached them, made a few gestures with our paddles and they got out of our way. What’s remarkable about this crossing is this particular farmer (it’s the Statz farm and you can see their cattle crossing from South Valley Road) has only cables, marked with white tape, stretched across the stream, thereby making it very easy to get through in a boat.
If we did this trip again:
People on this site seem to fuss about put-ins and take-outs a lot (Editor’s note: “Fuss” is kind of a strong word – we report on the quality of the PITO’s from the casual paddler’s perspective – but we do appreciate all points-of-view – oh, and we’ve had our fair share of terrible access points). It ain’t guerilla paddling if the accesses are nicely graded and prim and proper. That said, where we put in and took out were easy enough.
I’d be tempted to do this at slightly higher water levels. The faster current would be fun and many of the snags and deadfalls would likely be more passable (we had to portage maybe six times, with at least that many what I call “scooches,” where you scooch your boat over the obstacles).
The die-hard and intrepid among you might make a day of it and continue past Black Earth and on to Mazomanie, where there’s been a commitment to clean out the creek and make it more accessible. I’ll try that section next spring.
Lastly, eating and drinking rewards await you at any number of taverns and inns in the village of Cross Plains after a rewarding day on the water.
Black Earth Creek Overview: Black Earth Creek Paddle Guide
Black Earth Creek I: Walking Iron Park to Blynn Road
Black Earth Creek II: Blynn Road to Arena
Black Earth Creek IV: Black Earth to Walking Iron Park
Black Earth Creek V: Black Earth to Hudson Road
Map: Black Hawk Trail