Willard Road to Grand Avenue:
A long outing that could be easily divided into two separate day trips on account of excellent accesses, this stretch of the beloved Black River offers the paddler a medley of outstanding features such as large wooded islands, riffles and Class I rapids for miles on end, striking rock outcrops and boulder gardens galore, and hardly any development at all. The only caveat is catching the river with enough water, as its steep gradient drains quickly, and attempting this trip in low-water would frustrate even the most optimistic paddler.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 20, 2019
Skill Level: Intermediate/Expert
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈ 7.5′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neillsville: ht/ft: 4.7 | cfs: 720
Neillsville: ht/ft: 4.27 | cfs: 530
Black River Visual Gauge
There’s a spray-painted gauge on a pillar of the Grand Avenue bridge that read approximately 4′ on this trip.
We recommend this level. To put it in context, this was higher than average – especially for late October – yet the river was oddly shallow in some spots. Still though, a very good level all around that provided a balance of not so high as to submerge all the boulder gardens but not so low either as to make getting through the boulder gardens without scraping or getting hung up like threading a needle.
Time: Put in at 10:45p. Out at 3:20p.
Total Time: 4h 35m
Miles Paddled: 15.25
Wildlife: Hawks, bald eagles, wood ducks, deer and geese.
14.3 miles for motor vehicles, pretty much all along Highway 73. 19 miles for bicyclists, along a combination of dog-leg side roads (most of which are dirt-gravel – and uphill) and county highways to avoid Highway 73.
It’s no secret that the Black is one of my (Timothy’s) favorite rivers. In fact, in the exceedingly improbable and quite absurd scenario that I had to make a point-blank decision about my favorite river, I’d side with the Black. The sentiment might be more of a tell than show on our website, since this post marks only our fifth documented trip on the long and very varied river. But that’s simply because we haven’t written about all of the tips we’ve paddled on it. (Several trips have been repeats, and some were done too late in the season to make the end-of-the-year final cut.) Regardless, my professed effusion for the river being what it is, that puppy love has been nuzzled mainly in targeted areas, all circa Black River Falls itself. It hasn’t been until 2019 that I finally began to explore the river’s Black-magic further upstream.
Long on that list was day-tripping from Neillsville to Lake Arbutus, which we finally got out to in early July this year and lavished in every splashy bit of it. That trip was toothsome and tasty, but teased us for more. The Black is a big river, just shy of 200 miles long. (Not counting the Mississippi River, since it’s pretty much the western boundary of Wisconsin, and leaving out the Pecatonica and Rock rivers, since half of their total length lie in Illinois, the Black is the third longest river in the state, behind only the Wisconsin and Wolf, respectively.) There’s a whole lot more river to paddle upstream of Neillsville; the questions were, where and how long and what’s it like?
The venerable Mike Svob, guidebook guru and paddler cum laude, alludes to “21 river-miles north of Neillsville” as a scant afterthought with no detail in the “other trips” addendum to his recommended Neillsville to Lake Arbutus trip in Paddling Southern Wisconsin. This is the first of six total trips he lays out for the Black River in that book. Curiously, in it, he offers but one trip on the Black – some 50 miles upstream of Neillsville. Stranger still, that trip in the northern book seems fairly nondescript and unequal to the livelier and slightly less obscure segments downstream (re: Longwood-to-Greenwood; Greenwood-to-Christie; Christie-to-Neillsville). Why so much attention from Neillsville to North Bend in one book, but next to nothing north of Neillsville in the other? We wanted to know and had to find out.
Fortunately for us paddlers with incurable curiosity, Svob is not the only one who’s poked around this part of the state. One of my favorite paddling periodicals is Michael Duncanson’s A Canoeing Guide to the Indian Head Rivers of West Central Wisconsin, as much a paean to an area as it is a monograph. It’s an old-school guidebook, wherein 20-mile trips are treated as single outings – when paddlers had all day to be on the water (and wanted to be on the water all day!) – and given only one page of pertinent information for such a long trip (half of which is a map, which almost appears hand-drawn). For a semi-Luddite like myself, a book like this is the bee’s knees. What it lacks in explicit details, it makes up for by simply inspiring a reader to go and do the given trip in the book and virtually discover the river for one’s own. Often, that’s all one needs; the rest really is “fudge.”
So, Duncanson lays out three trips upstream of Neillsville, starting in Longwood. (Bless his heart, he continues to follow the Black all the way down to the Mississippi River, which even Svob’s book stops some 30 miles short of). Because I was feeling ambitious – and did have all day to be on the water since this was a solo trip – I combined two of Duncanson’s sections with a minor adaptation of an alternative put-in location. I had a gut feeling that this was going to be my last “big” trip for the year, so I doubled down on Black. But I knew I couldn’t do everything in a single outing; and besides, I did want to leave something undone in order to come back to, fresh and anew, next year.
Enter the Clark County Tourism Bureau’s Paddling the Black River, a wonderful and admirable brochure I found somewhere online and owe a huge thanks of gratitude for. Where Duncanson paints a large mural for the imagination, Clark County fills in the gaps with super-helpful nuggets like river-segment gradients, micro-managed descriptions of shortened segments, and alternate access points to begin or end a trip. Plus a big-ole map – in color – like a full-page ad in a newspaper. Were it not for this brochure, I’d have never known of Willard Road as an access point. It’s a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere that by all appearances from the atlas gazetteer and satellite map would seem like it leads to somebody’s private property half a mile down from the main road, Highway 73. Instead, it leads to a primitive public boat launch. (Very primitive – there’s no signage or even designated area for parking. It’s a hang-out spot to fish, drink beer (and then litter the evidence of said drinking), drop off an unwanted mattress, lose your virginity in the back of a pickup (because nobody wants that mattress), etc.) It’s hardly a boat launch in the conventional sense, since the Black is too shallow for motorboats. Remember Chris Farley’s/Matt Foley’s van-down-by-the-river bit? Yeah, Willard Road is where that van would be. I know it sounds dodgy, but it’s a fine place to launch a kayak or canoe.
This trip begins at a side channel of the river created by an island that’s a thousand feet long if it’s an inch. On this stretch at least, it’s the first of several such islands dotting the Black River in Clark County, which, according to the tourism bureau’s brochure, are technically under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In other words, they’re public land, not private property. In other other words, one may camp/picnic on these islands. Not all of them will be amenable for such on account of their terrain (some are too rocky or brushy or home to poison ivy patches, others are near bridges or houses, etc.). But all public land is welcome and wonderful, whether it’s used or viewed.
The first of innumerable riffles/Class I rapids (aka “rips” in the vernacular of Duncanson) comes shortly after the end of the island. It’s a fine line between frisky riffles and Class I rapids, one that’s equal measure eye of the beholder and current water levels. The same can be said, though not to the same degree, of Class I and I+, or Class I+ and II. This trip has only a few spots where conditions can get as bumpy as Class II rapids, and the river will need to be high enough to quantify as such.
When the river isn’t dotted with islands, it’s generally about 100′ wide and often flows in straightaways. For this reason, on top of the essentially minor rapids (at least at these water levels), a bigger boat is better for this stretch of the Black River. While there are several very prominent mounds nearby – Christie and Neillsville Mounds especially – there are no real cliffs or bluffs on this trip. What the landscape does have to offer, however, is a seldom-ending series of steep wooded banks. In autumn in particular, these banks line the river with cheery yellow, crisp red, and bellowing orange. But whatever the season, one’s eyes are riveted towards the rocks on this trip. They are spectacular. At their most modest, they are like iceberg tips in a boulder garden belying their massive size beneath the surface. The mid-management level are outcrops along the banks, big embedded blocks by themselves or part of a whole shelf. And then there are the grand pooh-bas, also along the banks (typically the left bank, near the midway point and towards the very end), granite and rhyolite outcrops ranging from seven to thirty feet tall, burnishing in the sun, blushing with rusty pinks.
Some mid-grade outcrops appear on the right after which a set of solid Class I rapids is found. The river will calm down for a spell in a sluggish straightaway before quickening again in an even livelier pitch of Class I rapids in a reputable boulder garden. The upper Black River down to the Halls Creek confluence is a classic pool-riffle-pool stream (although better make that pool-rip-pool). So, while there are down times in between the riffles and rapids, they are typically brief. Before the first bridge at County Road OO, for example, there will be two sets of engaging boulder gardens, each with impressive rock outcrops along the banks (and of course boulders to dodge in the river itself).
After about two miles the big bridge at County OO comes in, where there’s adequate access on the downstream side, river-right. A long stretch of rips precedes ginormous wires overhead. For the next five miles or so the river is on the move through boulder gardens and past lots of long, lovely islands. My notes state simply “non-stop fun!” Do yourself a favor, and set the map below to satellite view in order to appreciate how undeveloped the surrounding landscape typically is on this long trip. There are so many swaths of thick green! The river here is not only picturesque, but it’s quintessential upper Black: a wide river in long stretches with only subtle meandering along steep wooded banks, punctuated here and there with dollops of small(ish) boulder gardens with little rips and pleasant rapids, some impressive rock outcrops, and virtually zero development. It can be easily mistaken for the fabled Flambeau River further northwest. Except that it’s right here in Clark County, where the census still counts more cows than people.
After a smorgasbord of boulder gardens and delicious rips, a long but skinny island will split the mainstream in two, offering a very intimate slip down the left side channel. A straightaway follows, but gives way to a slight sway to the left and another, squatter island. Here, on Duncanson’s map, he’s christened the spot “Riffle Rips,” which, I’m sorry, has to be the single cutest name relating to whitewater I’ve ever heard. Winsome Riffle Rips precedes the next bridge, at County Road H, which is essentially the halfway point on this trip. Alternatively, paddlers can either end or begin a trip at the bridge, where there’s fine access (and excellent parking) on the downstream side, river-right.
The river drops in earnest below County H, with the effect of one riffly rip after another. It’s more subtle than abrupt, but seen from a bird’s-eye-view, the gradient has a descending staircase resemblance. The most notable pitch is a Class I-II rapids, after which the river makes an atypical 90-degree bend to the left immediately following a rugged sentinel-like outcrop also on the left. The banks here are grassy and low, so it makes for a pleasant place to pause or picnic. There are rock outcrops also along the right shore; it’s a beautiful area, all in all.
For the next few miles the river takes its time and flows in broad boulevards. It’s all still very pretty, of course, but if you’ve got somewhere else to be (than where you are, which is why you’re there in the first place), then this 7th inning stretch might try your patience. There still are some frisky riffles here and there, a large, long island or two, as well as some very cool looking rock outcrops with wild striated patterns all pointed skyward like stoical prairie dogs basking in the west-setting sun. At the mouth of Mound Creek on the right the river will bend to the left and then smile and chatter at another set of Class I rapids. Same thing but in opposite order: at the mouth of Cawley Creek on the left the river will bend to the right and then treat you to more easy rapids. Cawley Creek is far more conspicuous than Mound Creek, and the reason this is relevant is twofold: a mile downstream from Cawley is perhaps the funnest and most beautiful stretch on this trip, and only a mile or so after that this trip will have reached its end. So what I’m saying is passing Cawley is a good time to savor the river before it goes a little bonkers in the best imaginable way. And, in response to that perennial question while paddling when we start sensing we might be close to the take-out but aren’t totally sure – yes, this is a fine time to open up one last beverage!
After a straightaway, the river will bend to the right, then left. Another straightaway follows. And then the river bends to the right and keeps craning its neck in that direction. Lively Class I-II rapids called “Rocky Gorge” start galloping and frothing in every direction. These in turn lead to the Upper Neillsville Rapids (the Lower ones are downstream from Highway 10 and part of the Neillsville-to-Lake Arbutus trip). Gorgeous, gnarly rock outcrops dot the left bank and rise some 30′ high. Sheer-faced as though incised with a scalpel, pink-hued or lichen-mottled in chalky green, these granite beauties are a true treat I had not anticipated! And they’re suddenly nearly ubiquitous, found along both banks. Oh, and did I mention that, in addition to these rock-endowed banks, the river itself is handsomely stubbled with boulder gardens galore? It’s true. And the arboreal artistry of autumn is nothing to take lightly or for granted either: evergreens mix exquisitely with tragic deciduous in a “huephoria” of swirling colors. It’s a helluva finale.
As a fitting denouement, there are some pleasant rips to finish out the day, not to mention some phenomenally polished boulders that reminded me of the rhyolite rock outcrops at the Dells of the Eau Claire River. A large squat brick building can be seen on the left bank just before the Grand Avenue bridge. There’s a perfectly normal/good access on the downstream side of the bridge on river-right. Kindly indulge us a moment about this take-out. (Or feel free to skip ahead to the “What We Liked” section.)
Up until this trip, there had been this strangely ambiguous question of where to access the river in Neillsville. Considering that Neillsville, as small as it is, is nonetheless the county seat of Clark County, and that the Black River here has been a very popular paddling trip for decades, one would think that there would be a better access point to the river, whether beginning or ending a trip. Something at the very least established, somewhere clear and obvious. Not so, here in Neillsville. Or so I had been led to believe. (Although it’s worth noting that the river does not flow through downtown, but rather at its outskirts. Why the town was platted away from the river is above my paygrade.) Approaching town, there are three inconspicuous access spots, all on river-right.
The first is where both Duncanson and the Clark County brochure make reference to a dirt road that runs northeast of the Grand Avenue bridge, at the end of which there’s parking and a path to the river, at a side channel created by an island. The second is where Svob alludes to somewhere along Hill Road a third of a mile west of the Grand Avenue bridge. I considered this for taking-out, but at the time of this trip there was nowhere to park on account of some folks fishing. The third option is where we guerrilla-launched in July via a 50′-long foot path off of River Road, approximately ¾ of a mile downstream from Svob’s spot. And as much as we prefer to link trips by beginning a new trip where an old one left off, or vice versa, finding this precise spot from the river would have been tricky (as well as adding another mile to an already long trip).
But then there was the forehead slap moment, where for giggles and kicks I thought I’d just take a look-see at the Grand Avenue bridge itself. Since no guide says anything about accessing the river via any of the bridge’s banks – even though this is conventionally where 99% of all paddle trips begin or end – I simply took it for granted that there must be a reason for that. And maybe there was, at some point back in the day. Beats me. But I can say that today there’s a perfectly good path from the river to the road on the downstream side of the bridge on river-right. Why any guide would recommend somewhere close to this but not this is truly confusing. Roadside parking is fine, the banks aren’t prohibitively steep, and the area isn’t abundantly weedy. Had we known this back in July, we totally would have begun our trip here at the Grand Avenue bridge instead of our guerrilla monkey business. Lesson learned.
What we liked:
In a word, everything. I didn’t just like this trip; I loved it. Some of that was circumstantial, some of it was introspective. But it really is an awesome trip.
The morning began in one of the thickest, densest fogs I’ve ever experienced. No joke. Just walking around outside, anywhere, and you were damp from head to toe, fingertips to eyelashes. The forecast for the day was sunny, with a high of 60 degrees, but you’d never know that from the look of things. From the time I put in it took about an hour for the sun to begin burning off the fog. (See the before-and-after photos below.) During that time, I did something I haven’t done in years: listen to music while paddling. Now is not the time and here is not the place, but I can assert unreservedly that few people are as obsessed with music as I am. But in spite of that obsession, I almost never listen to music while paddling. Driving to and from paddling, of course. The first thing I do after selecting a campsite and turning the car off is turn on my tunes. But while paddling, I typically have too many other things bandying about my brain.
That said, I choreographed the beginning of this trip with one of my all-time favorite albums, Bruce Cockburn’s instrumental Speechless. (If you’ve ever been kind enough to attend one of my solo presentations at Canoecopia, and you arrived early during the set-up, then you’ve heard a song or two from this impeccable album.) Since I was a teenager I’ve associated autumn with acoustic guitar, and this album is a showcase for both. It’s one thing to revel in a song entitled “The End of all Rivers” while paddling one’s favorite river. But it’s quite another to see that beloved river reveal itself thanks to a burning fog during another song entitled “Sunwheel Dance.” It was sheer serendipity how that all played out.
For me personally, my first “big” trip this year in early May was a new exploratory down the East Fork of the Black River, nearby on the other side of the “JaClarkson” county line. While I really enjoyed that trip, I’d wished that I’d chosen my solo canoe for it, as opposed to my crossover kayak. So, for this trip and time around, half a year later, I deliberately took the canoe with me, and it was a great choice. Maybe I was invoking my inner Duncanson, but this stretch of the Black truly called for a canoe.
This trip… it’s easy to take for granted – one set of light rapids after another, a bevy of boulder gardens. Undeveloped banks, several rock outcrops, for mile after mile after mile. Perhaps this is why Duncanson was light on detail: in a splendid, sacred place, it’s all about the all. By contrast, in good places with caveats, it’s easier to compartmentalize into tiny pieces. I have no holy idea why Mike Svob disregarded this section of the Black River, but thank heavens Michael Duncanson didn’t. And it’s good grace too that Clark County would provide a promotional brochure about the marvels of its main river.
Finally, I love this time of year in general, but especially while paddling. Everything is up in the air – a rustling wind, birds migrating, leaves falling, temperatures and daylight falling. (And on this day, fog.) I don’t know if there’s anything quite as bittersweet as autumn; it’s so very heartbreaking in every sense – it’s as lovely as it is melancholy, a feeling of blissful joy followed by solemn lament. Eat, drink, and be merry…for tomorrow we die. The weather is not hot, yet the sensation of that October golden sun on one’s skin is scintillating. And I swear the sky is at its bluest hue. There’s no humidity, no more bugs, no more crowds. Solitude surrounds, and this is both welcome and wonderful… until you realize that part of that solitude is mere departure and abandonment. Flora and fauna alike are hunkering down for the long, slow, cold, dark curtain that is winter to fall. And yet all we have, all there really is, is the here and now (come what may).
For me, I knew that this trip would be my last “big” one of the year (preceded by the last camping the night before). Between personal schedule things and the date itself on the calendar, I simply knew this would be my last splash at somewhere different and exotic. (Little did I know at the time that in the weeks to follow southern Wisconsin would see its snowiest and coldest October in recorded history.) So, sensing this would be the last paddle, I bet it all on Black and hit the jackpot. And as long as the water levels are good, you will too, whatever time of the year.
What we didn’t like:
As for the river or the paddling itself, there wasn’t anything; this trip is a true gem.
But the bike shuttle sucked. Only few paddlers bike shuttle, we get that. Even fewer do a bike shuttle that’s 19 miles long. I knew this shuttle would be a doozie, but I was feeling ambitious and wanted to get in as much time on the water as possible, which meant adding bike-shuttle miles afterward. I chose a combination of back roads so as to avoid the whirring traffic of Highway 73 for as long as I could. That meant taking a less-direct route…and one that often corresponded with dirt-gravel roads, most of them pretty hilly. The whole affair was fine, but long and fatiguing. Needless to say, this is not a criticism of the river itself or this paddle trip specifically.
If we did this trip again:
I’m already looking forward to the next time I do this trip, but there are two things I’d consider on a second trip: 1) putting in a few miles upstream, in Greenwood, and making this an overnight experience by camping on one of the BLM islands; and 2) not bike shuttling again.
Black River I: Black River Falls to Melrose
Black River II: Hatfield to Black River Falls
Black River III: Melrose to North Bend
Black River IV: River Avenue to Riviera Avenue
Black River VI: Highway 73 to Willard Road
Camp: Levis/Trow Mound Recreational Area
Wikipedia: Black River