Dunnville to Durand:
Combining the tail end of the Red Cedar River with a lower segment of the Chippewa River, this trip makes for a quintessential loaf float for a lazy summer day. While it’s not as scenic as other sections of either river, it does offer a fabulous paddle-and-pedal bike shuttle that combines two state trails, which in turn provides a dividend of riding over the big Chippewa on the Red Cedar Trail, a truly picturesque experience.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 3, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
~3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Durand: ht/ft: 3.25 | cfs: 4300
Durand: ht/ft: 2.98 | cfs: 4600
We recommend this level, but water levels are usually reliable for the lower Chippewa River.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Bald eagles, osprey, turkey vultures and turtles.
By bike it’s 9.25 miles, nearly every square foot of it state trail. You’ll need a trail pass (daily $5/ annual $25), FYI. This section of the Chippewa River State Trail is full of leafy canopy and composed of rough asphalt, while the Red Cedar State Trail is made of compact dirt-gravel. The two connect – much as the namesake rivers do – culminating in a dramatic and scenic bridge crossing over the big river a smidge upstream of the confluence. That view and experience alone is worth every penny of the trail pass.
By vehicle it’s 11 miles and not nearly as cool. Just saying.
Of all the (never intentional) omissions on this website, missing the Chippewa is chief among them. On anybody’s top ten list the Chip would have to be there, for historical significance at least if not paddling bona fides. Plus it’s one of the longest in the state (not counting the expat streams that, in brave but absurd defiance to the tropes of tourism, escape from Wisconsin and go down to Illinois – looking at you Rock, Fox, and Pecatonica).
For those following along at home, this is Mike Svob’s Chippewa River 4 trip in his outstanding guidebook, Paddling Southern Wisconsin (a combo Bible and paddle vade mecum for most of us). This stretch is covered also in Michael Duncanson’s admirable A Canoeing Guide to the Indian Head Rivers of West Central Wisconsin.
The put-in is as developed as it gets: concrete boat ramp plus a large parking lot. At the risk of bursting a bubble, this is not an indication of catering to paddlers; this is for motor boats and the like. But it does make things easy for us silent sports folks. No two ways about it, this is big river paddling: the lower Red Cedar here is 160’ wide, and the Chippewa is twice that. The first mile is the final mile of the beloved Red Cedar, second only to the Flambeau as far as tributaries of the Chippewa. There is neither hint nor whisper of development otherwise in this beginning stretch. Rather, the last leg of the river here is surrounded by a state wildlife area– aka “the Dunnville Bottoms” – for as far as the eye can see. The scenery is entirely pleasant, comprising oak savannas, prairies, and pine barrens. Not a bad way to begin a trip on the Chip.
Once on the really big river, the world is aswirl with blonde washes of sand in the foreground and luscious green swaths along the banks. About 1.5 miles downstream from the confluence lies, at least in theory, a noted side channel on the right where ginormous Nine Mile Island (a state natural area) allegedly splits the river, called Nine Mile Slough. If I sound cagey or skeptical it’s because we saw neither hide nor hair of any such slough – and we had our eyes peeled for it. And this is in spite of the indomitable Duncanson’s good word that it “always has plenty of water for good canoeing.”
Never say “always” when it comes to rivers…
We did see several unsightly No Trespassing/ Private Lands Ahead signs on one such stretch, river-right, where I’d have thought the slough to lie, but I could be mistaken. (It’s not without precedent…) So, assuming that you too miss it or it’s impassable or it’s blocked off, you’ll simply saunter downstream like it ain’t no thing. ‘Cause, really, it ain’t no thing; it’s all good paddling.
The river will bend to the right, where across the way on the left bank are a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outcrop of sandstone followed by a modest but cool rock shelf just above the water-line. Past this is an access point, also on the left, as inconspicuous as the quick hiccup of geology preceding it (but arguably a better, more viable take-out for those paddling the section of the Chippewa upstream of this trip, say in Meridean, to avoid paddling against the current on the Red Cedar while also staying on the south/left bank of the river, since bridges are literally few and far between).
What follows for the next few miles is the loveliest section of this trip, where huge Nine Mile Island lies along the right bank and a nearly oceanic expanse of wind-blown sand terraces comprise the left bank – meaning there is zero development here, the whole effect feeling like a wild environment.
The mighty Waubeek Mound will soon rise above the right bank like a buxom full moon. It’s here where at least this section of the Chippewa River most resembles the lower Wisconsin River, with its wooded bluffs, islands, and sandbars galore. Take your time and let yourself soak up the scene. After all, you’re on the Chippewa River— the Chippewa River! You’re on a mystic mingle of waters from the Red Cedar all the way up from Rice Lake; from both forks of the Flambeau up by the loons of Mercer and the tranquil waters of the Manitowish in the heart of Vilas County, not to mention both forks of the Eau Claire River and their rough and tumble mix of granite and sand; and of course the headwaters of the Chippewa River itself in the northwoods Lac Courte Oreilles and Chequamegon Nicolet. All rivers are a Creole stew, just as they are all works in progress continually becoming something else, growing and going somewhere else. We paddlers are present merely in the here and now.
And now, from the sublime to the ridiculous… As Nine Mile Island tapers, you’ll see another rash of No Trespassing/ Private Lands Ahead signs on the left bank. True to form, we passed a party of folks hanging out here in lawn chairs, inflatables, an airboat beside them (see soapbox below). In the not-fast-enough time it took us to pass them – not only out of sight, but sound – we heard “American Pie” and “Jack and Diane,” songs I swear that exist anymore only when it’s a holiday weekend and one is outdoors. (I honestly don’t think anyone cues up Don McLean or John Cougar Mellencamp while working out, gardening, or driving to Costco to pick up toilet paper. Only when there’s a cooler around, flip flops, trucker hats, and fireworks.)
We craned our necks towards the outlet of so-called Nine Mile Slough to see what allegedly is “a high, sandy cut bank that was called the Waubeek Yellow Bank by early river men,” according to Meister Svob, and “a large yellow sand cutbank…about 100 feet in height,” as stated by Mr Duncanson. I don’t know how one misses a wall of yellow sand 100’ high, but we did. Maybe in the full blush of summer foliage it’s hidden…? Beats me. But this whole Nine Mile business felt like a mirage.
It’s still another 3+ miles to the takeout, but this final third of the trip is a bit nondescript. It’s mostly long, broad straightaways due south with a likelihood of “sharing” the river with any contraption driven by a combustible engine trying not to get stuck in the sandy shallows. As you approach the Highway 10 bridge you’ll see beguiling Eau Galle (“oh golly” – not kidding) Mound in the background. Both Svob and Duncanson indicate accesses/ take-outs on the upstream side of the bridge, but once again we saw no discernible presence of such. Instead, there’s a developed concrete ramp and small parking area half a mile downriver from the bridge on the left, in Durand proper.
What we liked:
It’s always enjoyable to complete a river (in this case the final mile of the Red Cedar) while essentially beginning a new chapter of a different one (for us, the Chippewa). Due to its huge width, gentle meanders, and zero obstructions, this is an easy-peasy paddle for beginners as well as seasoned paddlers looking for a lazy float trip. Where the river takes the appearance of a wind-swept barrens with nothing but wild sands for the eye to take in, the whole feel is incredible and attractive. We passed several humongous trees dry-docked on sandy scapes hundreds of feet from the water-line, which invoked two provocative questions: when was the river so high as to deposit something so large so far away, and which enchanting forest did that majestic tree first come from?
Fun food for thought while merrily flowing down a stream…
For us, who came with the intention and sought-after preference to bike-shuttle along a dedicated trail, the pedal from the take-out back to the put-in was as fun as the paddle itself. The diamond in that tiara is the Red Cedar River State Trail bridge crossing over the Chippewa River. That we have a network of such recreational opportunities in this state is pretty amazing and leaves one feeling quite lucky to call this place home.
What we didn’t like:
While no fault of either river themselves, each is a victim of those god-awful airboats. Needless to say, this is an absolute nuisance entirely created by humans and our absurd, obscene predilection for the combustible engine. I readily recognize my own bias here, as I’m a boat paddler and bike pedaler (and someone who rues with terrific self-consciousness my own carbon footprint to get me to a river in the first place). This is not some sanctimonious diatribe about motor boats or jet-skis. But these airboats are in a category of obnoxious shamelessness all their own. It’s not only how insanely loud they are; it’s the whining, needling, murderously piercing annoyance of noise dialed up to a million decibels while also wafting hurricane-like bursts of gale-force wind. All so that a handful of yahoos can swiftly zip up or down a big river prone to shallow shoals, which is approximately as close to getting in touch with “nature” as barreling down a country road in a convertible BMW with a broken muffler. Even a Quaker would feel their inner Edward Abbey invoked – and stoked. At the very least they’d hum a bar or two of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”
Leaving that aside, it was a little disappointing to find no access to Nine Mile Slough (aka None Mile); given the wide-open expanse of the main channel itself, slipping into an intimate side channel would have been a nice detour. But it’s likely that the sands of the Chippewa have blocked off this option…at least for the time being or at least when we were on the river. Similarly, I don’t know how we missed Yellow Bank, but apparently we did. Maybe it’s like the alleged boat landing on the upstream side of the Highway 10 bridge…? Rivers change all the time, well we know. It’s one of the things we love most about rivers. But this felt a little ridiculous, making me question occasionally if we were even doing the same trip as in the books!
Big river paddling is not without its charms, but it’s a somewhat functional means to an end – in this case, paddle-camping on sandbars. If you’re not doing that, but instead simply day-tripping, they’re bereft of the intimacy of small rivers and creeks. This clip of the Chip is certainly pretty, but without scenic rock outcrops or sweeping vistas of never-ending bluffs, the overall effect is a touch lackluster. Especially given the company of loud and power-driven personalities you’ll encounter on a big river.
If we did this trip again:
As an individual day trip, this paddle is a little pell-mell. But all the secret sauce you’d need is making an over-nighter on a Chippewa sandbar and adding more Red Cedar miles, ideally by starting in Menomonie. This would combine the final two segments of the Red Cedar River – arguably its prettiest – with a camp trip on the Chip (a river that lends itself to paddle-camping). Moreover, you’d get the best of the best bike trail shuttling by doing this, up to and including crossing over both rivers on super-scenic bridges.
Wikipedia: Chippewa River