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
Black Earth: ht/ft: 2.30 | cfs: 65
This is the recommended minimum level to avoid significant scraping.
The Shoe Box Landing, (back parking lot at Highway 14 and 78) Black Earth, Wisconsin
Hudson Road, (the one west of Lions Park) Mazomanie, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 7.5
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.
October 2020 Update:
This morning I checked the creek landings and saw that all of those big yellow signs that said the creek was closed at Highway 14 were all taken down, as was the yellow tape crossing the river upstream of Highway 14. As of 9/26/2020 the creek is open so ENJOY. – Gaila
September 2020 Update:
Gaila has informed us that during the ‘entire’ month of September they will be working on fixing the damaged MGE gas line under the highway 14 bridge. Therefore, until the end of September, the creek will be closed from Olson Road to (Two Bridges) Wolf Run Trail Head. Large cranes, equipment, a coffer dam, etc will be blocking the creek as MGE works on repairing a gas line damaged by the 2018 flood.
July 2020 Update:
Via the Mad City Paddlers. The annoying cattle fence, which is about 1 1/2 miles downstream from the Shoebox put in, has now been improved for paddlers to easily navigate over, thanks to money donated by philanthropist John Wick for this much needed update. Per Gaila Olsen, Black Earth Creek steward, the strands of barbed wire with sharp edges have now been replaced with two simple non-electric cables that swoop down across the creek like the Golden Gate Bridge. 95% of the time you can just slip over them. If the creek ever became super low (which does not occur hardly at all any more) you can possibly skim under on the right hand side or just get out and push yourself under on the right hand side. There is also now a sign about 100 feet before the cable saying cattle fence ahead and a sign at the Shoebox now says cattle fence ahead 1.5 mile non-electric cable. This cattle fence improvement will now make the paddle from the Shoebox to John’s Landing a pleasant, fun outing! A special thank you to both John and Gaila for making this happen!
June 2018 Update:
A reader of the site, Rick, emailed us recently: “I canoed Black Earth Creek on May 23rd, putting in behind the Shoe Box in Black Earth and exiting at the Wolf Run trail head. Beautiful day for a paddle, with the stream running high (91 cfs). All was well until I got to the cattle fences between the put-in and the Olson Road. bridge. There used to be a pass-thru, using PVC piping but that is no longer the case. The only way thru now is unwrapping barbed wire strands to create a small opening. Very dangerous situation, especially for inexperienced paddlers. Someone needs to let this farmer know that he’s causing an unsafe condition and polluting an already-stressed trout stream. I write to you so you can get the word out to those that are considering paddling that same stretch.”
So we followed up with Gaila Olsen who has been working with the farmer to remedy this gate for all parties.
“This farmer has been wonderful. He let us put in the pvc pipes and then kayakers complained that it was too narrow of an opening, so we made it a bit wider and one of the farmer’s very expensive brown swiss cows got out on highway 14 (not killed thank goodness). So we had to go in and take out the pvc pipes on the first fence. We did then resort to just hooking the first fence on the right hand side. So you have to get out, hook and unhook it, but those hooks/wires ‘disappeared’ and it looks like some calves this spring are now going through to the other side. So I think the farmer just did a fast hook –up with barb wire to keep those young ones going straight through. We have a friend who helps his brother-in-law do fencing and just last week he was out there looking at the fence with us and seeing what could be done (on a volunteer basis given that we don’t have much funds to work with). We know that it is a work in progress and the farmer has been sooo helpful in letting us try different things.”
So stay tuned and for the time being, Olson Road is your best put-in spot.
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
Black Earth Creek IV: Black Earth to Walking Iron Park
Map: Black Hawk Trail