Even before I ever stepped foot in a kayak, I’d been curious about Black Earth Creek. There it is, zigging and zagging along Highway 14 as you head west from Madison towards Cross Plains, then Black Earth and finally Mazomanie (usually on one’s way to Spring Green or places yet beyond). Appearing on your left, then disappearing mysteriously to reappear moments later off on your right, only to return that peripatetic pattern umpteen more times. From the city, the creek feels like an excited child who holds your hand and leads you into the country, into that boundary of porous borders wherein you enter the beginning of the Driftless Area, that ancient and beguiling landscape where no glaciers bulldozed the earth. Sometimes the highway hugs close enough to the creek that if you squint hard enough past the shimmering riffles and kaleidoscopic sun flecks atop its surface you can just discern a skinny trout hiding in plain sight like the shadow of a cloud in the water.
Even if one doesn’t paddle or fish, one can’t help from appreciating the erratic nature of its meandering course. The trajectory of the creek is that of a ribbon tethered to a wand that’s been flicked by a wrist. Anyone who has spent sixty seconds around a cat, young or old, knows how the flicker of such movement is the surest way to transform that feline from a ball of sedentary sleep to a pouncing puma. A straight canal is fine for farmers or engineers looking for sheer efficiency. But poetry is found in the whimsical audacity of taking the most indirect means from points A to B. So is a good story, one that takes its time and doesn’t mind getting sidetracked with tangents. Black Earth Creek tells a good story.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all about paddling. In fact, it isn’t. That it’s paddleable at all is a remarkable story – a recent one at that – thanks to considerable volunteer work and community organizing to protect and enhance the creek. The creek is a renowned trout stream, and wherever you happen to be, there’s a good chance you’ll see someone fly-fishing. When the water is high enough, what’s good for the fish also is good for the kayaker. I finally set out in spring 2015 to paddle its entirety, to hear its tale and to learn where I do and do not have any business being.
Determining the actual length of the entire creek is tricky business. For one, everything upstream of Cross Plains itself would be a fool’s errand for paddlers. The creek is just too narrow, shallow and ridden with deadfall. That said, it’s worth noting that it does go all the way back to (which is to say begins in) Middleton for a distance at least as great as that between Black Earth and Mazomanie. A glutton for punishment could begin a trip from Stagecoach Road to Cross Plains, but I personally would leave this area to those casting lines. Then there’s the end of the creek. Only half a mile downstream from Blynn Road, Black Earth Creek meets up with Blue Mounds Creek. Technically speaking, the former is a tributary of the latter. Regardless, where the two meet is half a dozen miles above their eventual destination: the Wisconsin River near Arena.
So it is that for practical purposes this guide takes for granted as its starting point the town of Cross Plains.
Cross Plains to Scherbel Road
Miles: 3.5 | 2014 Trip Report
You can reasonably put-in behind the Ice Age Alliance building on Main Street. This segment can be pretty shallow, but it’s quite pretty. The creek runs through a recently developed “facelift” of public land along the banks. With a gradient of approximately 7 feet per mile, it’s riffly good fun and very narrow which will result in having to duck under and dodge around a couple obstructions here and there.
Unfortunately, there’s a mother of obstructions just after the first road bridge at Market Street in the form of a one-two punch. The first is an ugly clog of a logjam gathered up in front of a large impassable tree that straddles both banks. The left bank is definitely private land, as you can see the back yard of a house right there. Only a hundred feet or so from this obstruction is a godforsaken cattle gate you’ll need either to hoist your boat over from dry land or stand in the water to thread it through (without letting go and losing it in the peppy current!). Either way this is a crappy way to begin a trip. There will also be other downed trees to portage around as well as dangerous strainers you’ll want to avoid too.
A pretty section follows after crossing under Highway 14, but there will be more obstructions again. After you paddle under Highway 14 a second time you’ll shoot through a low-clearance culvert with a surprising Class I rapid at its base. Finally, a couple hundred yards upstream of the take-out there is what can only be called a disgusting set of two cattle gates totally obstructing not only the water, but both banks as well. Once again, your choice is either to hoist your boat over the wooden barricades on dry land or wade in the water and thread it through. It’s a real pain in the ass one way or the other.
Scherbel Road to Black Earth (Kahl Road)
Miles: 4 | 2014 Trip Report
I call this the “Don’t Do Section.” Why? Because no one would consider this a fun or relaxing excursion. But on the other hand, if you like to contend with cattle gates (there are three) as well as cattle themselves, and possibly live electrical wires in addition to barbed ones, not to mention lots of downed trees, nasty strainers, and often the proximity of Highway 14 and its noise, then you’ll love getting dirty, annoyed, or even injured! Much more reasonable is to leave this section be; it’s just not worth the aggravation and danger.
There’s good access at Scherbel Road or at Salmo Pond County Park, but it’s only 1.5 miles to South Valley Road from here, where there’s a horrendous wooden cattle gate that barricades the upstream side of the bridge and extends along both banks. You can make your way through via wading or awkwardly plowing through it while still in your boat. Either method is risky and just not worth it.
Like everywhere on Black Earth Creek with similar gates, this one extends past the water up the banks, so you cannot simply portage around them; you must go through. In theory, this style of gate is supposed to swing forward, toward downstream, thus allowing passage (but still enclosing cattle), but I’ve found most of them along the creek to be immovable. Besides, this is a dodgy proposition in the first place.
You cannot simply trust that they will swing forward just because they’re supposed to. When they don’t, here’s what happens in rapid-fire real time. As soon as the bow of your boat hits the gate but does not continue to go forward, the current will push the stern of your boat towards the gate, resulting in your boat going sideways, which one second later will mean you’ll be pinned against the gate. Now you’re in a serious predicament. You’re supposed to always lean towards whatever object the boat is pinned against, but here that means a cattle gate that can be anywhere from 3-5’ high above the water. Conversely, if you lean away from the object against which you’re pinned, the current will immediately fill in the cockpit, and you and boat (assuming you’re still sitting in it) will be pulled underneath the object. If you’re lucky, there won’t be any entanglements underneath the water and you’ll just come up on the other side of the object (fully drenched and probably now separated from your boat). But if there are any entanglements, you may be stuck underneath the water, which could literally be deadly. This is why cattle gates are so dangerous – and of questionable legality in the first place.
From South Valley to Kahl there are some moments of fun riffles and enclosed woodsy scenery, but the bad of the many obstructions outweighs what little good there is.
The paddling does get better at this point – though not without some snares and snags. The put-in is located across the street from Black Earth Community Park, upstream side of the bridge on river-right. There’s a delightful easy drop on the downstream side of the bridge. In the mile or so before crossing underneath Highway 14 you’ll have a few strainers to avoid, but it should be pretty easy paddling.
On the other side of Highway 14 you’ll be awarded with a sweeping panorama of a glacial valley to the north. Unfortunately, after a lovely section with no trees or worries you’ll come upon a zero-clearance concrete road bridge. You must portage around this, which may require technical trespassing (you have no choice here – unless you can shrink your body to fit inside the cockpit of your kayak). After this lie pretty hills, some boulders, and a pleasant stretch of light rapids after you cross under Highway 14 a second time. The gradient here is about 6 feet per mile, which is pleasant.
Unfortunately, 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. The first might already be ajar on the far right, so one could slip underneath it easily enough. But the second will require you to get out and stand in the water to push/pull your boat (and then yourself) through the narrowest sliver. From there it’s smooth sailing to Olson Road.
Olson Road to Walking Iron Park (Mazomanie)
Miles: 3.75 | 2017 Trip Report
Hands down, this is the best segment of Black Earth Creek. There are good-sized rapids, countless riffles and miniature ledges – the gradient here is a reputable 8 feet per mile – along with several pretty views of surrounding bluffs. Shortly after a greenhouse on the left bank and following a bend to the left you’ll hear a reputable 2’ drop just downstream. It’s none too tricky but don’t underestimate it either. It’s a fun spot to play in as well. This is immediately followed by another drop, much smaller and a piece of cake. After these will be one mini ledge after another, so constructed to oxidize the water and be more amenable to trout habitat but with the serendipitous side effect of making nonstop fun for paddlers!
As you pass under Highway 14 – this one conspicuously taller than any other so as to allow for trains in the former depot town that is Mazomanie – you’ll be enclosed within a wooded area for a mile or so, where there are more light rapids. Be careful at the railroad bridge, as debris tends to collect here and may prevent passage between the pylons. While you’ll paddle past many back yards here, the banks are unusually high, allowing for a secluded feel. There’s a fun little drop at the bottom of the pedestrian bridge at Walking Iron Park. Many trips end here, though you could continue for another mile to the next bridge at Hudson Road, where there’s a decent access point on the left, upstream side of the bridge. Plus you don’t have to schlep your boat and gear 350’ as you do for Walking Iron Park.
Walking Iron Park (Mazomanie) to Blynn Road
Miles: 5.25 | 2013 Trip Report
This section is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s pretty and scenic, offering more views of the Driftless hills. The gradient here has slowed down, but it’s still 5 feet per mile, which is nothing to sneeze at. On the other hand, obstructions tend to be a deterrent and Highway 14 is never far away (often, its ridiculously close proximity distracts or detracts from the paddling).
Volunteers do a commendable job maintaining this section, but the narrowness of the stream in tandem with its tree-lined banks means that deadfall is always likely. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to portage all the time, if ever. But it does mean that you’ll need to be comfortable with and capable of maneuvering around, under, or over obstacles in a stream with some current. There is one last cattle gate in this section, located on the downstream side of the Morrill Road bridge. It does swing forward – the gates are actually dangled from above, tied to a guardrail from the bridge itself – but you won’t know that until you actually push through, which can be intimidating!
Lastly, when not wooded, this section is surrounded by nothing more than farmland, and on a windy day this can make for an exhausting and frustrating experience.
Blynn Road to Arena (Wisconsin River)
Miles: 6.25 | 2014 Trip Report
For a number of reasons this trip isn’t really recommended. For one, what has been for all this time since Cross Plains an essentially clear stream with peppy current and an attractive sand-gravel substrate, almost immediately becomes a muddy brown quagmire that will be significantly deeper than the otherwise shallow nature of Black Earth Creek. The reason for this is the merging with Blue Mounds Creek only half a mile downstream from Blynn Road. And the gradient here is about 2 feet per mile. Expect at least two portages, possibly more.
The best thing one can say about this trip is its isolation. After Blynn Road you’ll pass under the last railroad bridge, and then there’s just nothing out there but for trees, grassy banks, hunting blinds and some ramshackle footbridges until the Wisconsin River confluence (“Wisconfluence”?). The confluence is pretty cool. There’s an island that splits the mainstream of the Wisconsin River (which will look colossal in comparison to the creek). If you take a sharp left (the southern channel), you’ll experience a kind of river-creek hybrid feel that’s unique.
If you take the second left, you’ll have a full mile of Wisconsin River paddling, which is a rewarding treat to end the day paddle. In itself, this trip is hardly a bad prospect, but it’s a little dull and blah – especially in comparison to its more classic trout stream nature upstream.