Hatfield to Black River Falls:
Combining two trip types into one full day of paddling – the first a couple fists of adrenaline-inducing rapids through rugged granite rock outcrops, the second a calm palm of relaxed water but no less beautiful – here you get the best of the Black River’s boast.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 8, 2015
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class II+
≈18′ per mile, first 3 miles; 10′ per mile to Halls Creek; ≈1′ per mile thereafter.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neillsville: ht/ft: 3.8 | cfs: 300
Neillsville: ht/ft: 4.21 | cfs: 502
This was rather low for hardcore whitewater enthusiasts but pretty perfect for us novices. Nothing rated higher than Class II+. At this level you could even put-in a bit upstream of the County Road K bridge, via the trail through the woods off East Clay School Road, without exposing yourself to the dangerous shelves, slots and drops.
In general, when it comes to the Black River, it really depends on whether you’re north of the interstate/Black River Falls or south. South is more forgiving, as the river is slow and wide and sandy. Look for a minimum of 250 cfs to avoid grounding out too much in sandbars and shallows.
Upstream it’s a different story using a different gauge. Here you want a minimum of 200 cfs just to run the rocky bottom without scraping or dragging. Really though, you want to begin at 250… and above – way above, for some paddlers. The rapids intensify with a higher volume of water, so it really depends on what you’re looking for and comfortable with. 300-700 cfs is great for whitewater-curious novices like myself. 700-1000 cfs is ideal for most whitewater paddlers. Above 1,000 cfs you should be a pretty good paddler to handle the flow. At 1300 and above, you better be an expert and/or have a solid life insurance policy. This is essentially relative the Hatfield Dam to Halls Creek section. Above Lake Arbutus the river still has a good gradient, but not as dramatic. Upstream or downstream of Neillsville, 300 cfs is the bare minimum. Again, higher will be more fun – but challenging.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 6:10p.
Total Time: 5h 25m
Miles Paddled: 12.5
Bald eagles and unidentified fish (the three of us were pretty chatty and tongue-in-cheek silly, so we no doubt spooked what wildlife there is than a quieter paddle would more realistically encounter).
12-ish miles. You can either go east or west of the river, both involving routes nearly as long as the paddle itself, mile-wise. These are better car-shuttling roads than bicycling but each is indeed bikeable.
The inspiration for this trip (besides the fact that the Black River Falls area is one of my three favorite places in the state) was discovering, entirely by coincidence and good luck, that the once-a-month recreational release of water from the hydroelectric dam on Lake Arbutus was on Saturday. I knew I was going somewhere to paddle and camp this specific weekend with a couple friends, but finding out that there would be enough water to paddle the Black, despite the recent lack of rain, was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Prior to our trip there had been a lack of rain for a good two weeks. But two days beforehand the area received upwards of 2” of rain overnight. This mini-deluge eventually worked its way downstream… the day after we left! Consider this: the gauge shot up from 300 cfs to 3000 cfs overnight! That’s ten times the amount of water in 24 hours. For point of reference, last year Barry and I explored and clambered on the rocky outcrops below the Hatfield dam when the Neillsville gauge was at 1600 cfs. At that level it was probably the most turbulent water I’d ever seen – at least on par with Pier Gorge on the Menomonee River. It made us nervous just looking at the rapids from atop the rocks. We met up with a skilled whitewater paddler who’d come up all the way from Milwaukee, a guy with rapids bona fides (Montreal, St Louis, Wolf, etc), and even he admitted this was too dangerous. It’s a short run, all things considered, but you simply cannot afford to make a single mistake; the consequences would very likely be fatal. Again, that was at 1600 cfs. So something almost twice that amount simply is in every sense of the term unfathomable.
But even though it had rained two inches a couple days before we arrived, and even though we were there precisely when the recreational release was occurring, the water levels were surprisingly modest – certainly not enough to run the crazy stuff. So I’m not sure what accounts for the disconnect there.
The Black River has three identities. From its headwaters in Taylor County, just west of Rib Lake, the river begins as little more than a small brook trickling its way through national forest.
Not until it crosses county lines into Clark County will it begin to widen, but it remains marshy and mostly paddleable only to the degree of your willingness to forbear deadfall. Starting around Highway 64, the environment becomes more favorable to paddling. By Neillsville, the Black becomes a river to love for real. The water is wide, the current swift and the landscape is quite easy on the geological eye.
The gradient starts to drop in earnest as well, much to the delight of light whitewater paddlers such as myself. From Neillsville to Lake Arbutus one will find mostly Class I’s with two spots of Class IIs when the water is high enough. From the dam at Lake Arbutus to the mouth of Halls Creek the Black River is at its most rough-and-tumble. Here the river plunges down and funnels through braided channels of spectacular igneous and gneiss rock outcrops in a setting that is as rugged and northcountry as you will find – like a slice of the U.P. but without having to drive six hours or travel back in time to the 19th Century (and not unlike the U.P., many of these rock formations are the vestiges of ancient volcanoes).
After Halls Creek the river slows and quietly flows past the beginning of many sandstone rock outcrops; and while there is still – but used to be more of – one last raucous playground of granite boulders and outcrops at the dam in the town of Black River Falls (hence the name of the town and why a dam was built there in the first place) the landscape geology transitions to the Driftless – where the glaciers never scoured the landscape – and remains as such all the way down to its terminus at the Mississippi River by La Crosse. Below the dam in downtown Black River Falls, the river bottom is sandy (think a smaller version of the Wisconsin River), the landscape wonderfully woodsy and hilly, and the current is sluggish. By its confluence at the Mississippi River it’s a beguiling floodplain. Truly, the Black River is a sonata of tough rock and soft sand.
My two friends who joined me for this trip are both whitewater novices. One was about to test his comfort level on Class II rapids for the first time, while the other is settling in nicely with Class I’s. As such, the former and I began at County Road K; the latter drove down to Powerhouse Road, the next access point, about 3 miles downstream to meet us. In between those two points the river drops some 45 feet.
The basic breakdown of Black River rapids in this area is as follows: directly below the Hatfield Dam at Lake Arbutus, in the right conditions of water levels (a minimum of 1000 cfs), one will find a thunderous series of Class IV-V drops and whirlpool cauldrons, truly an amazing sight. There are several play spots at the bottom of these drops for those looking to squirt, spin, cartwheel, flip, etc. It’s here where the river is at its friskiest and has its freak full on. Not coincidentally, the landscape geology here is at its most beautiful too.
From County Road K there is an immediate Class II drop with a series of intermittent Class I’s and then riffles in the right channel of a large island. This in turn is followed by placid water before a second and even more fun Class II drop (Class III in high water) at a tight right-hand bend where outcrop islands diverge the river in two channels (go left). From Powerhouse to Halls Creek there are many riffles, some easy Class I gurgles and one reputable 18” ledge. A general rule of thumb is to stay to the right of all the islands, not for the sake of safety so much as not scraping.
After Halls Creek the current slows down quite a bit, and there will be not even a riffle (unless the water is very low). The last two miles will be flatwater – the impoundment created by the next (and final!) dam on the Black River, in Black River Falls, but the river width does not blow out like a lake as often is the case upstream of dams.
This is actually the second time I paddled the Black River from Halls Creek landing to the dam. The first time the water was considerably low – sometime in August 2011, in that murky twilight of my days before Miles Paddled, or pre-MP. I don’t know what the levels were then but there was a fair amount of scraping in a canoe. I swear I remember there being more rocks in the streambed itself, but that’s possibly faulty memory or some kind of nostalgic halcyon – unless they really are there and were exposed in the lower water conditions. I’m really glad I did this section again to put everything into better perspective.
It’s worth noting that in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin, he writes about this stretch as two separate trips, which makes consistent sense, as one is whitewater, the other is quietwater. But I’ve never been one for false dichotomies; why not have the best of both worlds? We’re Americans!
Thus a 12.5-mile trip that starts with a bang and ends in a whimper with unsurpassed spectacular beauty all along the way. Sometimes you need to think outside of the books to create your own best trip!
What we liked:
Um, everything! It’s awesome and gorgeous. You should totally do this, stat. Period. The end. Next!
OK, OK, I’ll be a little more discriminating. From the put-in to Powerhouse Road, the river has the two most challenging rapids of this particular trip. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t a little apprehensive about what to expect. I knew that starting at County Road K wouldn’t be as rambunctious as just upstream below the dam, but I had seen enough paddling videos of the Black River (alas, often bereft of indicating the names of put-ins and takeouts, or the water levels at the time) to inspire respect. This combined with the scheduled release, I just didn’t know what to anticipate.
At 300 cfs there was plenty of water to avoid scraping for sure and the two Class II rapids were safe (but still formidable for us amateurs). At higher levels the second of these two will bump up to a rollicking Class III. In other words, while somewhat kittenish compared to its potential roaring lion, the water level was great for us whitewater-curious boaters. You’ll want a spray skirt for sure, and you may want to hold off opening that first beer until after you run the first drop below County Road K!
As fun as the element of moving water is, the surrounding landscape may well be the best feature of this trip. The geology is just stunning – granite, gneiss, igneous, metamorphic; rock shelves below you, in front of you, on either side, the overall feeling is one of rugged and wild, something northcountry and undeveloped. But once you reach the basic halfway point at the mouth of Halls Creek the landscape truly changes, the river literally takes on all the characteristics of a Driftless stream – sand bottom, sandstone rock outcrops, lush ferns like a green rash of wildfire spreading on the banks. You may want to stretch your legs out on Halls Creek and/or pee (not that there are facilities, but, y’know…). What you’ll definitely want to do is check out the magnificent and unique rock formations immediately downstream from the landing on the right.
Looking like a cross between portabella mushroom gills and petrified wood, the fissures of these rock outcrops are vertical, not horizontal and delicately fractious. As far as I could tell, they’re located exclusively here, just below the mouth of Halls Creek. It’s really a cool sight to behold.
Moving on from the metamorphic to the anthropomorphic (eh?), there are at least two other interesting sights between Halls Creek and the public boat launch upstream of the dam in downtown Black River Falls: the railroad bridge and the twin interstate bridges. The railroad bridge is simply glorious in stature and craftsmanship and it totally invokes that scene from Stand By Me. It straddles the big width of the river and towers above it some 100 feet. It had been a predominantly overcast day pretty much exactly until we came within view of the prominent bridge, at which point streaks of sunlight appeared from behind the clouds like slants of Venetian blinds and the effect was something ethereal indeed.
The other human-made notable is the super-fun rope swing underneath the westbound I-94 bridge on river-right. If you’re paddling alone it will be virtually impossible to do this without assistance, as the rope is not quite long enough and the rocks from which to swing off are a bit too high to hold onto the former while climbing atop the latter. But if you do have a paddling pal, holy smokes is this fun! If you let go at the apogee of the swung rope’s arc you will be a good 20 feet above the water. Don’t worry: it’s extremely deep below. Just be careful here; motorboats cruise up and down this part of the river and you do not want to be pushed into the rocks by their waves!
The takeout is a dedicated boat launch with a very accessible ramp and plenty of room to park a vehicle. There are no bathrooms or water, however. The take-out/launch is immediately upstream of the dam in downtown Black River Falls, off Highway 54. It’s worth hiking along the short portage trail for a view of the rock formations and rapids below the dam. There you’ll find a small snapshot of what the landscape looked like before the dam. Presumably there are more rocks and even more rollicking rapids buried underneath the dam, but it’s all but certain they’ll never see the light of day again.
At the Powerhouse access point, where our party was reunited, we met and talked a while with the keeper of the powerhouse, a great guy named Matt. He and his family live in the house adjacent to the powerhouse itself. For point of reference, the water that turns the turbines and produces energy comes from a 2.5-mile-long canal that begins at the southwestern edge of the Hatfield/Lake Arbutus dam. At the day’s beginning the water was flowing at 200 cfs. By noon Matt turned it up by 50 cfs. When we met him at the rendezvous and chatted he had cranked it up again to 300 cfs.
Fun fact: back in the day, the hydroelectric juice here was transmitted to Winona, Minnesota, to power its streetcars. Today the power goes to some greater grid, impossibly complex to trace – and not nearly as romantic. Streetcars in Winona! Now that’s nostalgic.
What we didn’t like:
The only thing not to like about this section are the last couple miles, when the current slows down to a crawl and development starts poking out from the banks. You’ll be sharing the water with motorboats too. The geology remains to be interesting and pretty but that feeling of coming back to reality dilutes the overall effect.
Also, a word about the recreational release. I was expecting a more profound impact but instead was surprised (not necessarily disappointed, but surprised) by how essentially underwhelming the results were. The weekend before, Barry and I were up in Wausau for the once-a-month recreational release at the Whitewater Park, the effect of which is a night and day difference between when the floodgate is open and closed. I suppose I had had that in mind. The water height of Lake Arbutus needs to be maintained at a certain level and perhaps there was only so much water the dam could legally release…? I don’t know, so take this with a grain of salt; it could’ve been a fluke of bad timing.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this trip again! But next time I’d like to try my luck when the water is higher. And now that I’ve experienced the Halls Creek to the Highway 54 dam section twice, I don’t think a third time is all that necessary. But the Hatfield Dam to Halls Creek I’d do again in a heartbeat – a thump-thump heartbeat of adrenaline at that!
Also, as a side note, if you do put-in or take-out at Powerhouse Road, finding the actual access is a little confusing at first. Look for the yellow gate and fire sign #8784; turn there and take the left drive, and follow the sign that says public recreation access. There is another part of the powerhouse with a yellow gate and fire sign at #8820, but that is not want you want. You might meet Matt though!
Black River I: Black River Falls to Melrose
Black River III: Melrose to North Bend
Black River IV: River Avenue to Riviera Avenue
Black River V: Willard Road to Grand Avenue
Black River VI: Highway 73 to Willard Road
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Map: Black River Country
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Wikipedia: Black River
Miles Paddled 2021 Video: County Road K to Halls Creek Landing
Miles Paddled 2021 Video: Halls Creek Landing to Roosevelt Road