Black Earth to Walking Iron Park:
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.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 11, 2015
Class I (One class II below Olson Road)
8′ per mile
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.40 | cfs: 80
We recommend this level (60 cfs is our recommended minimum level for Black Earth Creek).
Black Earth Community Park, Black Earth, Wisconsin
Walking Iron Park, Mazomanie, Wisconsin
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.
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
Black Earth Creek V: Black Earth to Hudson Road
Map: Black Hawk Trail