Highway 73 to Willard Road:
Two-for-one fun combining primitive-feeling creek paddling with the bigger but still rugged Black River, this outstanding trip is blessed with easy accesses and multiple options to shorten or elongate your time on the water – to say nothing of its numerous Class I-II rapids, impressive boulder gardens and wildlife opportunities.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 22, 2021
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈ 7.5′ per mile
Black River (Neillsville): ht/ft: 4.0 | cfs: 380
We recommend this level – although it was on the low side. Below 300 cfs will be scrape city, but at this moderately shallow level we were treated to a dazzling display of exposed boulders. At higher levels most of these will be submerged, which in turn will make the rapids splashier.
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Wildlife: Bald eagles galore, wood ducks, deer, otter and kingfishers.
7.75 miles, pretty much a straight shot up and down Highway 73. Much better for cars than bikes.
Let’s get the quick disclaimer out of the way right away: This Popple River is not to be confused with the trophy stream up north by the same name, which, together with the Pine and Pike Rivers, comprise Wisconsin’s first three Wild & Scenic Rivers. No, this Popple River is a tributary of the Black River in Clark County, west-central Wisconsin. OK, we cool?
The headwaters of this Popple River are up in the Owen area, a wee hamlet some 45 miles west of Wausau. There’s only scant info out there on the Popple of Clark County, and we’d never done previous recon, so to try our luck at all was going to be a crapshoot. Accordingly, we hedged our bet by making this trip mostly a Black River paddle by putting in on the Popple at the last public access place to do so, a wonderfully convenient wayside right on Highway 73, about a mile upstream of its confluence. Not knowing anything about the Popple beforehand, we were delighted to find it much wider than we had reason to think it would be, 60-80′ in most places. Delighted too to hear the sound of light rapids within earshot of the wayside.
As for the Black, the last time we embraced its upstream charms was in October 2019, a truly fabulous trip we recommend for just about any paddler, experienced or new. That paddle began at Willard Road, so it made sense to link the two sections by ending this trip at the same spot. At the risk of repeating ourselves, you won’t find this trip in either of Mike Svob’s venerable guidebooks, Paddling Southern Wisconsin or its northern equivalent. In fact, he merely alludes to the river upstream of Neillsville in the southern book with zero detail, while in the northern one he lays out only one segment of the Black, which is measurably upstream of both our 2019 trip and this one, up in Taylor County, where the Black begins. In other words, what about the nougat-filled nuggets between his recommended trips, aka the Clark County sections?
Fortunately for the curious canoeist, Svob is not the only paddler to have put pen to paper (no, the irony of this sentence is not lost on me). There’s the endearing A Canoeing Guide to the Indian Head Rivers of West Central Wisconsin by Michael Duncanson. Long out of print and hardly indispensable in terms of specifics, it nonetheless admirably covers whole streams or lesser-known sections of popular streams that otherwise would have gone under the radar (especially in those “dark ages” before the internet). More recently is the very commendable Paddling the Black River brochure provided by the Clark County Tourism Bureau. It’s a neat and tidy two-page document that breaks down the 30-mile section of river coursing through the heart of Clark County in easily manageable chunks, complete with gradients, suggested time durations, brief descriptions, access points, and a helpful map.
For instance, the brochure states that the segment from Riplinger Road* to Greenwood Park is 3.2 miles, should take about 80 minutess, has a gradient of 9.4 feet per mile, and has “abundant, large rocks and rapids creating Class I-II conditions.” It’s that fetching, eye-catching 9.4 fpm that allured us, together with the also appealing 6.5 fpm gradient in the three miles from Greenwood Park to Willard Road. So, we combined those two segments with the teasing trailer of the Popple River’s final mile to make this trip a fun two-for-one combo clocking in at 8.6 miles.
* Note: for no explicable reason, Google Maps labels Riplinger Road as “Warner Dr.” It’s not. Never was and not gonna be anytime soon. Don’t believe everything on the internet…
The put-in is located at the wayside is on the southwest corner of the Highway 73 bridge over the Popple River. There’s ample parking space and also a short path leading to the water, where it’s a pretty simple and tidy affair to launch a boat. As foreshadowed above, a little boulder garden lies immediately downstream, which in turn will be followed by another… and then another… and then… There are short breaks in between, following the quintessential pool-riffle-pool pattern. Surrounding you on both banks are thick woods with no discernible trace of development. Together with the engaging boulder gardens and peppy Class I rapids, the cumulative effect is that of something entirely wild, woolly, and wonderful!
It’s only about a mile from the wayside to the Black River confluence. About midway you’ll come upon a seemingly out-of-place bridge, presumably for snowmobilers. It does have the look and feel of a proverbial bridge to nowhere, especially since there’s no hint of trails or fields for as far as the eye can see. Following a long, flat straightaway, the Popple will take a left-leaning hook to the south and then the Black River will come into view, looking like a swift and massive conveyer belt of water.
The Black, too, is loaded with oodles of boulder gardens and light Class I rapids. At our skimpy water levels everything was runnable, but another couple of inches would have made the runs more fun (and wet!). While definitely wider than its tributary, the main river retains a sense of intimacy. Regardless, it could be 200′ wide, as long as it had cool rock formations and enjoyably entertaining light whitewater. Like the Popple, there will be periods of rest, but from the confluence to the midway point at Greenwood County Park, expect at least a dozen such geological playgrounds.
Similarly – but not limited to the first half of this trip only – expect to paddle past a dozen+ rather large islands, all of them (somehow) under the jurisdiction of the BLM /Bureau of Land Management. So says the Clark County brochure:
“When the U.S. government first surveyed Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, the surveyors passed by most of the small islands in our rivers and lakes. Since these islands were not surveyed, they were never sold to homesteaders and have remained federal public lands.”
Now, it’s not clear whether “our rivers and lakes” refers to Wisconsin in general or Clark County in particular. Because if it’s the former, then wouldn’t most/all such islands be considered public, whether federal or state? It seems incongruous that hole-in-the-wall Clark County would be endowed with BLM spaces but other, more notable parts of Wisconsin aren’t. (The short answer is it’s complicated – and beyond the pay grade of this author. But for what it’s worth, many of the many islands in the Wisconsin River alone are considered BLM.) All the same, the islands are lush and lovely and break the mainstream into fun explorable side channels.
A delightful set of “rips” (aka light whitewater boulder gardens) precedes the first road bridge, at Riplinger Road, where there’s access to the water on the upstream side, river-right. (As it happens, we noticed an even better, and by all appearances entirely intentional access, a third of a mile down from the bridge on river-left. It could be private property, though there were no such signs saying so.) Below the bridge and essentially continuous til the next bridge are Class I-II boulder gardens, depending on water levels. There are small islands and sandbars, too, but the bulk of the bigger ones don’t appear until approaching the town of Greenwood. Speaking of, you’ll see a large park on the left, where there’s camping opportunities and a convenient put-in/take-out, before you get to the unexpectedly elegant truss bridge that is County Road G. It’s been 5.5 miles from the wayside park at the Popple River, for those following along at home.
Less than half a mile downstream from the bridge is a large island that offers two distinctly different rapids opportunities: the right channel (which actually splits in two, so technically there are three channels), which is tamer (Class I) but shallower, or the left channel, which is way more fun, not technically difficult, and has more volume – it’s a straight-on Class I-II flume of water, just follow the tongue. The next three miles are tamer than upstream, though there will continue to be plenty of riffles and a couple more rips. The only notables are some strange dam remnants on the left bank, which we saw only after our attention was drawn to what sounded and looked like a weeping seep; then the mouth of Rock Creek, another tributary that appears to be eminently paddleable in its own right and basically comparable to the Popple River; and finally a huge island – the biggest on this trip – that, along with some overhead power lines, are your head’s-up to watch for the easy-to-miss take-out on river-left, a veritable “down-by-the-river” backwater that is the dead-end of Willard Road once cheerfully described as “a hang-out spot to fish, drink beer (and then litter the evidence of said drinking), drop off an unwanted mattress, or lose your virginity in the back of a pickup (because nobody wants that mattress), etc.” Otherwise, those three miles are marked by the cumulative effect of forested banks with no discernible spoil of development and intermittent pockets of strewn boulders.
What we liked:
Who doesn’t like two-for-one bargains? Nobody; we all do. Even if it’s only for a mile or so, the little appetizer of the Popple River here is tasty and toothsome! Its width is pretty much perfect – wide enough so that a fallen tree isn’t an automatic obstacle, but still narrow enough to be cozy and intimate. Together with that is the wild-feeling forested thickets along both banks and boulder gardens galore with splashy baby rapids.
While much wider and more developed, the Black River itself is still quite beautiful and engaging, given its many boulder gardens with even better rapids as well as long stretches of forested banks and all those islands.
What we didn’t like:
While totally doable, our water levels were right on the margin of acceptable and too low. Otherwise, this is a great trip that exceeded our expectation.
If we did this trip again:
We really enjoyed this trip, so it’ll be on repeat for some future time for sure. Essentially, the only thing we’d do differently is paddle it at a higher level. Alternatively, we might add a few more miles on the Popple by putting in at County N and either making it a long day by taking out at Willard again or keeping it simple by taking out at Greenwood County Park.
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 V: Willard Road to Grand Avenue
Camp: Greenwood County Park
Wikipedia: Black River