★ ★ ★

Black River: East Fork I

Overguard Road to East Fork Campground:
The East Fork of the Black River is a wide river and pleasant paddle through classic Central Wisconsin Pines with occasional rapids but none too dangerous at these levels.

Black River East ForkRating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 29, 2014

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neillsville: ht/ft: 6.22 | cfs: 1,940

Current Levels:
Neillsville: ht/ft: 3.46 | cfs: -999999

Recommended Levels:
The level recordings are correlated to the USGS gauge. They were fine with only some bumping and scraping. It’s best to reference the NOAA gauge in the future. Unfortunately we don’t have these levels on record.

Overguard Road, north of Pray, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.41102, -90.59928
East Fork Black River Campground boat launch, Black River Falls Area/Hatfield, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.42173, -90.67879

Time: Put in at 12:20a. Out at 1:50p.
Total Time: 1h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4.5

Blue heron, woodpecker, a (possible) muskrat, a snake, fish and turtles.


The East Fork has been high on my list of paddles to kayak after seeing the Morral River Films folks paddle it a few years back (and as featured on their excellent River Trails of Southern Wisconsin video).

Knowing nothing of the area or water levels, I traveled to Black River Falls in 2012 to encounter a dry river. It was disheartening and I nearly (and stubbornly) tried to paddle it since I was there. You want to know if it’s unpaddleable? At the easternmost part of the East Fork Campground is a trail that leads to a lookout point to scout Campground Falls, the last rapids on the East Fork. If you see more rocks than water, it’s non-navigable. In hindsight, I’m happy I didn’t attempt it because I ended up scouting Robinson Creek and even more surprisingly, paddling it even though the water was incredibly low (that was a beauty of a paddle).

Our initial plan (as it was in 2012) was to paddle from Pray Road (the put-in is under a bridge, with a slightly steep incline) to the East Fork Campground. However, a day earlier, we met a local at the put-in to (the stunning) Halls Creek and he recommended a put-in further downstream because, in his opinion, the best of the East Fork was between the Overguard Road and Campground section.

So with water levels up early in the middle of summer, we took advantage of the East Fork’s levels and since we had camped the night before on the river (camping at East Fork Campground is one of my favorites, especially river-side. For those of us who like to passively fish, there’s nothing better), it seemed like a good opportunity to keep our footprint small.

So we set off on The East Fork the next morning.

What we liked:
There was nothing particularly spectacular about the East Fork but it sure was pretty. It’s a classic Central Wisconsin river with pines flanking both banks. It’s an easy paddle with easy rapids at these levels. It paled in comparison to the excitement we had just experienced the day before at Halls creek but it was still a very beautiful paddle.

The East Fork is wide and yes, quite black and deep and the current has a way with your boat but it’s also much tamer than I expected.

There are three listed Class IIs which were nothing more than Is if I compared them to the classified Is. They all kind of felt the same. In higher water, I can’t imagine these rapids geting any Class II-ier (is that a word?) and in lower water, you’d be scraping so it’s quite the conundrum as to why they are classified as IIs or when/if you could potentially run them as such.

The best part is the isolation. There is almost no development, just one cabin ideally located on an outcrop overlooking Cabin Falls, which is no doubt, where it gets its name.

The take-out is at the entrance to the East Fork campground so it’s maintained and is of the traditional boat-landing type of exit.

What we didn’t like:
The put-in sucked. It’s a hike of a few hundred yards in tick-laden tall grass and while I’ve experienced much more difficult put-ins, it’s just not ideal. The road to the put-in, Overguard Road, is also not clearly marked. It eventually opens to a sandy parking area. It’s here you’ll find trails leading off in two directions at a fork in the road. You’ll want to keep left/straight. To the right, is a longer hike which contrary to my initial thinking, actually opens up to a beautiful little pond/lake that doesn’t actually connect to the river.

With only one cabin the whole stretch, we expected to see more wildlife. Of course, being such a wide river, it made sneaking up on wildlife a bit harder. We didn’t encounter much, just turtles, a heron and a snake.

Lastly, I was expecting a little more excitement on this paddle with three rated Class IIs. They felt pretty tame for my liking but are still fun enough to keep the casual paddler happy. There was also a lot of straightaway paddling, which again, on a wider river with a decent headwind, can be a bit bothersome.

Overall, this trip was part surprise, part disappointment. I was surprised the excitement level wasn’t ratcheted up a bit. Had we paddled this before Halls Creek, I probably would’ve enjoyed it a bit more. But then again, it’s hard to compare the beauty of Halls Creek to the East Fork. They may be connected but they’re quite different.

If we did this trip again:
I’m glad we truncated this trip because if this was the best section, than it would’ve been a whole lot of flatwater paddling until the put-in on Overguard Road. But for those looking for a longer and leisurely paddle with just a splash of excitement, than Pray Road to the East Fork Campground is perfect. If you’re paddling right up to your campsite on the East Fork, it’ll make the trip even better.

Related Information:
Black River East Fork II: Steponik Road to Overguard Road
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: East Fork of the Black River State Natural Area
Good People: Friends of the Black River
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Overview: The East Fork of the Black
Video: Morrall River Films
Wikipedia: Black River

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Robert Eckert
    August 5, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Paddled here today at about 400cfm. A fair amount of scraping but absolutely doable.

    This is a nice paddle, the article is right on about everything. The put-in isn’t all that bad.

    • Reply
      Miles Paddled
      August 5, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      Hey Robert,

      That’s good to know. There are two unfortunate things: (1), it looks like the NOAA gauge for the E. Fork is currently working, otherwise that would’ve been a more accurate sense of correlating height with runnability; and (2) much of the southern half of Wisconsin got clobbered with rain yesterday, meaning this trip today is probably rocking! Timing is everything. Still, it’s a really pretty trip. We’re glad our site is useful, and thanks for your kind words. Cheers!

  • Reply
    May 19, 2023 at 8:21 pm

    Wish I knew the level but I ran this in high water once and it was gnarly. There were big haystacks by the bridge with gauge. Was the biggest rapids I ran up till both Wolf Rivers at 1000 cfs, then surpassed by Mill Creek at 2.5 ft.
    It was pushing class III for that section by bridge and I had the fear briefly. The haystacks were doing this odd space invaders motion and everything got quite and thankfully my concern subsided and was replaced by that ecstatic glee that only rapids can fill thee. I even scouted the rapids by the rock wall on river left so if you can catch this with lots of water it’s on par with many a great paddle!

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