Black Earth (The Shoe Box Landing) to Hudson Road:
A return trip with a new twist to one of our favorite places to paddle in the Madison area, with notable pros, mentionable cons and several relevant changes since we last paddled these portions of beloved Black Earth Creek.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 19, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I rapids, ledges and one Class I-II chute.
8′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.30 | cfs: 65
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.15 | cfs: 35.5
This is the recommended minimum level to avoid significant scraping. 60 cfs is our recommended minimum level for Black Earth Creek.
The Shoe Box Landing, (back parking lot at Highway 14 and 78) Black Earth, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.14306, -89.74996
Hudson Road, (the one west of Lions Park) Mazomanie, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.1766, -89.81854
Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Black Earth to Walking Iron Park (8 Miles)
Bald eagles, muskrats, hawks, an exotic goose and three dogs.
5.2 miles along Highway 14. A more scenic stretch follows Highway 78 but adds only half a mile. There’s a bike shuttle trail option for a portion of this, along the awesome Wolf Run Trail.
Without ever intending to, we seem to paddle a certain stretch of Black Earth Creek each year in early spring, each time doing it slightly differently: adding something upstream or taking off a segment downstream. And each year has offered not only a different feel by changing things up, but the creek itself has been different on each occasion. The old adage is spot-on: you never do paddle the same river twice.
After exploring the whole creek a few years back, we’d decided that the best segment of it was in Mazomanie from Olson Road (by the high school) to Lions Park (in town). The only downside is it’s only 3.7 miles of paddling. After our exploratory trip on the last legs of Black Earth Creek before it meets up first with Blue Mound Creek and then the Wisconsin River – a trip that kinda sucked, honestly – we knew that there’s really no good reason to paddle past Blynn Road, the last bridge before the Wisconsin River. But even the miles between Lions Park and Blynn Road are only so-so, at least compared with other sections of the creek. Here, there are no more rapids, no more views of hills or valley panoramas, deadfall is problematic, and Highway 14 runs directly parallel to the creek. Finally, we remembered with little nostalgia the portaging obstacle course from Cross Plains to Black Earth.
But last year we met other paddlers on the creek by chance who told us that the awful twin cattle fences in between the “Miss U Hicks” railroad bridge and Olson Road had been thoughtfully altered in such a way as to allow paddlers to push forward through the fence without getting out of one’s boat (more on this below). They told us also that there’s good access behind The Shoe Box in Black Earth. Since then we’ve wanted to check out these promising leads and re-experience this section of the creek. From The Shoe Box to Olson Road are 2.7 miles, thus making for a fuller trip. And then just to bump it one more, we thought we’d try our luck taking out at Hudson Road, instead of Lions Park, to avoid schlepping boats and gear 300′ from the water to the park parking lot, which added another mile to this trip.
Behind The Shoe Box in the town of Black Earth there’s an actual gateway composed of telephone poles. It is arguably the most unnecessarily tall gateway to a tiny creek, but it’s very cool that this is paddler-friendly. There are no facilities outside, and there is a short schlep of about 150′ to the water.
The 2.7 miles from here to Olson Road offer a fun and pretty variation between tree canopy and open valley views, often with rock outcrop bluffs in the near distance. It’s mostly agricultural and meadowy, and you will hug Highway 14 for a few hundred yards. But the current is riffly, and there are even a couple small playful rapids.
After the conspicuous “Miss You Hicks” railroad bride, the paddler will encounter two fences about 8′ apart, parallel to one another, at a cattle crossing at a farm. Each has a section of PVC pipes that swing forward. The logic here is the PVC sections still keep the cattle enclosed but allow paddlers to push forward and through the fences without getting out.
A mile or so downstream from Olson Road, Black Earth Creek starts racing towards Mazomanie. It begins with a wee riffle here and there, then a small rapid, and then it drops in earnest at one Class I-II chute followed immediately by an easier Class I rapid. And then it’s one mini-ledge after another for a couple miles of spectacularly splashy fun.
Commendable work has been done to make this corridor of the creek as recreationally friendly as possible. For one, there’s a new trail called Wolf Run. Even newer is a very pretty covered pedestrian bridge spanning the creek. That wasn’t there a year ago. A big, big thanks goes to the Wolf Family for donating land to the community, not to mention developers and volunteers having the vision and providing the labor. Furthermore, just after the Highway 14 bridge there’s a lovely little pavilion and public park at the Wolf Run trailhead. (Did we mention that there are exhilarating Class I rapids all along this stretch, too?)
From here to Lions Park the creek meanders like it means business. The banks are the tallest here, past the backyards of residential houses, than anywhere else on Black Earth Creek. While developed, the setting is still quite intimate; sometimes, the banks even resemble hollows. Besides, you’ll be spending too much time dodging obstacles and paying attention to the water. As of this writing, there was a new downed tree that you could glide or bump over (depending on the water level) on the far right. The current here is brisk, as is the case always when water goes around or under something. This wooded corridor is prone to downfall, since both banks are eroded and lined with creek-leaning trees. Conditions will be changing constantly here, depending on storms and strong winds, so be advised.
After Lyons Park, the creek pretty much calms down. The surrounding landscape opens up again and is mostly agricultural. It’s not much to write home about (or on the interwebs), but it’s a supremely pleasant, placid final mile.
What we liked:
True enough, there’s a designated landing of sorts behind the The Shoe Box. No dock or anything, but the banks are grassy and low, which makes accessing the water simple and easy. Even on a busy Sunday in spring, there was plenty of parking for our vehicles. Beginning here, instead of at Olson Road, adds two 2.7 miles of paddling through many meanders past fields, bridges, and bluffs, on water whose current ranges from steady, peppy, to a light rapid ledge or two.
Yes, the otherwise infamous cattle fences upstream of Olson Road are now paddler-friendly (though with a caveat). Made of vertically dangling PVC piping, you kinda just plow/push through them. It may not sound great, but it’s a commendable improvement. Before, you had to get out of your boat, knee-deep in the muddy water, push your boat underneath the fence, hold onto it still with one hand, then lift up the fence with your other hand enough to duck your body under – ideally without scraping your skin and warranting a tetanus shot, again all while not losing your boat. In short, it sucked. And there was no way to portage around or over the fence. So, now it’s much better – and much appreciated! The only caveat is the current here is strong, so if you don’t line the bow of your boat straight-on, getting through the PVC will be tricky (as one in our paddling party discovered, to her chagrin). Also, the PVC pipes are rather hard and stiff – they aren’t the lightweight flimsy kind. Be careful not to clobber your noggin going through!
Editors’ note: Since this post was first published, the cattle fences have been mended and amended a couple different times. What the current status is, is anybody’s guess, frankly. The simplest thing to do, of course, is just eliminate the unknown by starting your trip at Olson Road.
A mile or so downstream from Olson Road is when the real fun starts – and doesn’t stop ’til Lyons Park. It can’t be stressed or overstated: a succession of rapids for a couple of miles is quite a rarity in southern Wisconsin. That such a stream is so close to our own homes is the cherry on top. The peppy current is just so much fun! Especially as it’s surrounded by an awfully pretty landscape.
When we first paddled the downtown Mazo segment in 2015 there was a nasty logjam at the railroad bridges. At the time there was only a 2’-wide gap in between the bridge pylon and deadfall, which then led to a small drop of about 18”, a rather splashy and precarious obstacle. Well, that washed out in the years in between. Today, you’d never know that such a hazard had existed! Even the 18” drop is a thing of the past.
The final novelty we noticed was there’s now a dedicated landing at Lions Park, on river-left, with a marked sign stating “John’s Landing.” Thank you, John! This too is a much-appreciated improvement.
What we didn’t like:
For those who paddle just to escape and get away from the world for a while, the couple hundred yards in between The Shoe Box landing and Olson Road where the creek runs parallel to Highway 14 might be an unwelcome distraction. We didn’t mind this, accepting it as par for the course, but one paddler in our party mentioned it, so we feel obliged to include that consideration here.
The PVC piping at the twin cattle fences can be a little tricky and unnerving. Again, it’s a huge improvement from how it used to be, but the hazard may not be suitable or just desired for some paddlers. If this is the case, just put in at Olson Road.
It’s worth recapitulating the always-changing nature of the creek in between Highway 14 (entering Mazo) and Lions Park. Another member of our paddling party didn’t see one such obstacle or at least realize its hazard til it was too late; he got pinned, went sideways, and capsized. (He stood up and was physically fine; the creek is shallow. And we rescued his paddle and his cooler holding our beer, thank you very much (you know, priorities). Alas, his phone made the unfortunate acquaintance with water. Oy… This section isn’t inherently dangerous, but you will need to be cautious and mindful of the obstructions to dodge, duck under, or ride over.
The old pedestrian bridge at Lions Park has been removed!?! Whether it will be replaced is an unknown, but it’s gone – as is the fun rapid that lied underneath it. In Timothy’s paddling guidebook, this marked the take-out for the Black Earth Creek trip (p. 247 for those following at home).
Finally, the made-do take-out at Hudson Road is crap, frankly. The banks are high and muddy, the gradient steep from there to the road itself. It’s not a deal-breaker, but all things considered, it isn’t a very good place to end or begin a trip.
If we did this trip again:
We’ll definitely do this trip again! Probably more often than once a year in spring at that. We won’t take out at Hudson Road, since the access is pretty dodgy. Taking out at John’s Landing at Lions Park looks much easier, and there isn’t anything essential in terms of the landscape or the paddling environment one would be forfeiting by skipping the skimpy mile to Hudson.
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 III: Cross Plains to Black Earth
Map: Black Hawk Trail
Alternate Trip Report: Longer Paddle (8 Miles)
Black Earth to Walking Iron Park
April 11, 2015
☆ ☆ ☆
A trip that’s two-thirds wonderful and endearing and one-third frustrating. But all along is fun riffly water in a Class I trout stream with gorgeous views of a glaciated valley full of pretty hills, meadows and barns. This trip ends in the vaguely urban environs of Mazomanie but it does so with a bang, not a whimper.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.40 | cfs: 80
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.15 | cfs: 35.5
Time: Put in at 10:15a. Out at 1:30p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 8
Beaver, muskrats, wood ducks, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, blue winged teal, snapping turtle, trout, red tailed hawk and a bat (a first, for me, while paddling).
Black Earth Creek has been on my to-do list for years. I’ve put it off due to my apprehension of shallow water and inference that it would be highly susceptible to fallen trees since it’s so narrow. Compounding these misgivings is its proximity to Highway 14 in conjunction with the several obstructions I’ve seen from the road while driving alongside or over it. But the only true way to discover the character of a stream is to be on it, rather than speculating about it from a road, map, or satellite image. I’m sure glad I did so.
For one, I have a new annual spring paddle to take friends on, starting at Olson Road. For another, I now know there’s no reason to waste my or anyone else’s time frittering with the creek upstream of Olson Road.
What we liked:
The creek is at its absolute best after Olson Road but let me not get ahead of myself. The put-in at the community park in Black Earth is very easy and conspicuously permitted for public access (for fishing, technically but it’s still public) and there’s a fun and easy Class I drop below the bridge. For the first half mile or so it’s crumby with strainers and sweepers and town buildings but after the first Hwy 14 bridge there are beautiful views of bluffs, exposed rock outcrops, valleys, pastoral fields – it’s all quite picturesque.
Before you cross under Highway 14 again you’ll go over a mini-ledge and several swift riffles through a modest boulder garden – probably deposits from the last glacial melt. Additional views of bluffs resume below the second Highway 14 bridge, in turn followed by a fun Class I drop running parallel a red barn on river-right.
Downstream of Olson Road, some of the prettiest vistas of the valley sweep before your eyes. After passing under the railroad bridge (and a greenhouse on the left) you’ll be treated to a warm-up Class I drop shortly followed by an excellent Class II drop succeeded by a smaller Class I drop. The Class II is a great run. Even better, there’s an easy eddy to catch on the left to A) get out and run the rapid again or B) paddle upstream into the rapid to surf. It’s a great spot.
Innumerable mini rapids and delightful riffles continue all the way to (and past) the twin railroad bridges below the last Highway 14 bridge in town. Many of these have been strategically lined with stones to create a ledge – presumably to aerate the water for better trout habitat but it makes for serendipitous paddling!
There’s an endearing public pavilion and pedestrian bridge downstream from the notably tall Highway 14 bridge in Mazo. Then there is a tricky drop below the second railroad bridge. At the time of this writing, there is only one open slot without tree debris to run and there’s an 18” inch drop below it. The open slot is narrow and the current is strong, so boat control is key. However, pylon remnants just barely submerged lie below the drop on the left, which you do not want to hit while dropping downward in fast water! It’s an easy portage on the left to avoid this if you wish.
For the next mile the creek is continually riffly with a few surprising light rapids through essentially high banks flanking backyards in a neighborhood setting. If the water were less interesting, this section would be boring and banal but the current keeps you engaged. There’s another sweet Class I rapid below Bridge Street and finally one last rapid below the pedestrian bridge in Lyons Park, at the takeout. This is why beginning at Olson Road is such a blast!
What we didn’t like:
Immediately downstream from the put-in, you’ll run into an obstacle course of strainers and sweepers, hazards I don’t normally mind but dislike having to deal with right off the bat. Due to the peppy current, these can be dangerous for beginners, distracting for the rest.
There is at least one mandatory portage around an impossibly low-clearance driveway bridge at a private residence about half a mile downstream from the first Highway 14 bridge. As soon as you leave the water you’re essentially on private property and while state law concedes the necessity of portaging around such obstructions, natural or human-made, you never know how the landowner will react. In every sense, this is a drag.
About half a mile downstream from the “Miss U Hicks” railroad bridge you’ll encounter a set of two cattle gates, both dirty and dangerous. Each extends past the water up the banks, so you cannot simply portage around them; you must go through. In theory, they are supposed to swing forward, toward downstream but I found both immovable. The first was already ajar on the far right, so I could slip underneath it unscathed and unsullied. But for the second, I had to get out, stand in the water (thank you rubber boot slip-ons!) and push/pull my kayak through the narrowest sliver.
I don’t mind admitting that I had one of those WWEBD moments – you know, What Would Edward Abbey Do? – a la The Monkey Wrench Gang. Alas, I had no wire cutters in my dry bag of tools. Then I had Bruce Cockburn’s song “If I had a Rocket Launcher” in my head. Now, I know that the farmer is an economist hedging his bets not to lose stray cattle, not a sadist looking to entrap paddlers. Black Earth Creek had been virtually unpaddleable until only recently (the last decade or so) so I know this sort of thing is unintentional, but still…
Lastly, maybe it was the previous 2” of rain only days before, combined with spring but I saw no trout on this creek. The water was turgid from runoff and sediment upheaval but it was disappointing given its usual character.
If we did this trip again:
I would skip the Black Earth section and put in at Olson Road. The Mazo section is definitely the best part of the creek.