County Road CF to County Road G:
Two outstanding streams in one trip, beginning with an exhilarating series of Class I-II rapids in a narrow mini-gorge that is true creek paddling at its finest, and then finishing in the broad sun-and-sand fun that is a slower, lazier float on a bigger river (one still with occasional sets of rapids not to be taken for granted).
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 30, 2016
~12′ per mile the first half-mile, then 3′ feet per mile for most of the rest of the trip (steeper in the rapids on the Eau Claire section).
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neillsville (Black River): ht/ft: 6.4 | cfs: 2000
Gauge Note: There is no gauge for the Eau Claire River, much less Coon Fork Creek. The best proxy is the Black River in Neillsville. Bear in mind that the Black River is bigger and drains a much larger area. Referring to the gauge will give you a good idea at least of current levels, high or low. For Coon Fork Creek you can visually check the rapids below County Road CF. If there’s enough water to run those, there’s enough water to run the rest of the creek. Alas, it’s usually too shallow to run. Also, for point of reference, I first scouted Coon Fork Creek on Saturday, 5/28/16, and it was raging – a good half-foot higher than 48 hours later when we paddled it on 5/30/16, even though the Black River gauge was 300 cfs lower on Saturday 5/28.
Neillsville (Black River): ht/ft: 3.45 | cfs: 202
We recommend this level.
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Great blue herons, bald eagles, deer, fish, songbirds and mussels.
8.6 miles. A pretty route past hills and Amish farms but most of this is on gravel roads that would be fairly miserable on a bicycle, especially at 8+ miles.
We knew of Coon Fork Creek – or as one of us dubbed it, “Corn Freak” – thanks to a brief reference Mike Svob makes in his write-up of the Eau Claire River, stating that it’s paddleable when water levels are up (which is rare) and that it’s 2.5 miles long (it’s at least 3.5 miles – probably 4 to 4.5, frankly). But that’s it – he provides no description (and may not have even paddled it for all we know).
I scouted the creek on a Saturday when it had rained heavily the day before and morning of. It was roaring! For about half a mile just below the dam lies one fun drop after another, some with serious Class II rapids. What’s more, these rapids are in a narrow mini-gorge with glorious rock outcrops, lush ferns, small waterfalls and pine trees everywhere (there’s a trail that parallels the creek on the west bank starting at County Road CF. It’s wise to scout this ahead of time. Like they say in whitewater lingo, “walk before you run”). I knew it would be tough to catch an eddy, and some ledges you’d have to line just right to avoid crashing into a rock or tree limb. But holy man did it look thrilling!
To make a short story long, I scouted this on Day 1 of a 3-day weekend and I was meeting two friends (also coming from Madison) in Eau Claire. I scouted for as long as I could stand the ticks and rain before turning around and hiking back to the car. I knew we weren’t going to paddle the creek that day, and I wasn’t sure if we’d do it at all, considering it might be too rowdy. Two days later it had dropped a good half-foot and now looked perfect.
The funny thing, in retrospect, was that where I stopped scouting and turned back happened to coincide with the last significant rapid. I mention this because the only first-hand knowledge I had about Coon Fork Creek was during my scout, which is all rapids. There was no reason to think that the whole trip wouldn’t be like that, just one long incredible run. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s really only the first half-mile or so, although little riffles and rips do await downstream too. Still though, it’s a hell of a half-mile.
That’s Coon Fork Creek.
As for the Eau Claire River, which is fed by Coon Fork Creek, there’s plenty of info out there. Once you commit to Coon Fork Creek, there’s no getting out. In fact, the only real landmark is the confluence at the Eau Claire River (there’s zero development along the creek – it’s all a public land). Upstream of the creek’s confluence there are only a few miles of the Eau Claire proper, further upstream of which there are two branches, the North and South Forks, that form to “create” the main Eau Claire River. This section is reputed to be peaceful and serene with occasional interruptions of Class I+ rapids. I knew we’d miss some of those rapids coming in from Coon Creek, but by this time we’d already paddled two separate trips on the Eau Claire and we were eager to experience a narrow, more intimate creek. We’re so glad we did, because it was fantastic (except for the portaging – more on that below).
There are two options for putting-in as well as taking-out. For putting-in on Coon Fork Creek you can either park your vehicle in a small lot on County Road CF and then walk 25 yards down to the creek just below the dam, or you can park along the bridge at CF and access the water that way. Both are on river-left. The latter is steeper and rocky with loose fitting but it’s less of a walk. Also, you’d have to pay a $3 day-use fee to Eau Claire County Parks Department to park a vehicle in the lot. Kind of silly to pay money for a park you won’t be using.
As for taking-out, both accesses are on river-right – one upstream of the County Road G bridge, the other downstream. We chose upstream since it’s a lovely sandy beach and it was easier. This is technically off Channey Road. The downstream option should be doable in lower water, where there is a short staircase. This was submerged at the time of our paddle. Furthermore, the banks above the stairs are muddy and steep, making for difficult, dirty access – especially hauling a boat and gear. Whichever you use, you’ll have to schlep your boat and gear from the water to the car, in either scenario a distance of 50-70 yards (for what it’s worth, Mike Svob states that “a rough, sandy road leads down to the bank” for the downstream option. While this is essentially true, the only kind of vehicle that could handle such terrain is a high-clearance AWD/4WD. Like African safari. Any other vehicle would never be able to do this).
What we liked:
The environment of Coon Fork Creek at the put-in is just about the prettiest, most exciting premise you can think of. The water has that root beer hue we’ve come to love on northern streams touched with tannins, the environment is a mini-canyon maybe 20’ wide, there are rapids everywhere, and big bulbous blocks of sandstone are in every direction. The rapids are ridiculous fun. We all had lapful’s of water within minutes. There are two definite Class II rapids, the rest frisky Class I’s. There are some tricky turns to make to avoid danger, and you’d definitely need to have some experience with light whitewater and solid boat control. But this is such an exhilarating beginning!
As mentioned, the raucous rapids don’t last for more than 20 minutes but the surrounding landscape remains gorgeously intact. In fact, we remarked that it felt like Coon Fork Creek, despite its short length, comprised three separate micro-climates: the rough and tumble rocks, soft lush sandy banks, and a pine barren forest (part of a dedicated state natural area). It’s truly rare to inhabit so many different geological features in so few miles. It felt downright enchanted.
To be expected, it gets sandier the closer you are to the Eau Claire River. At one point you’ll pass by a 50’-tall sandbank on the right. Given its isolation and juxtaposition with the narrow width of the creek, it rivals any similar feature on the Eau Claire. All in all, Coon Fork Creek combines the very best of Robinson Creek and Wedges Creek. It’s intimate, primitive, narrow, meandering and fast – just quintessential creek paddling at its finest (and most fun).
Once you enter the Eau Claire River you can relax and indulge in a leisurely float since it’s so broad and wide (unless you’re paddling it at a low level, in which case you’d have to pay attention to navigating around the shallows). You can hear and see a set of Class I+ rapids about a hundred yards upstream of the confluence. Not to worry; there are at least three additional sets of rapids below the confluence, so you’re not missing too much. This stretch of the Eau Claire is known for featuring the most continuous rapids, and you’ll appreciate why. Nothing ranks as high as even a Class II, but some do require a bit of sensibility to avoid capsizing. Several of them are long “fields” of rapids – meaning, little waves and chutes far as the eye can take in – in front of you, to the left and right. They’re a lot of fun. After each one you can kick your feet back up and again and relax. It becomes a pattern you’ll soon appreciate: relax, rapids, relax, rapids, repeat.
When not rollicking, the Eau Claire in this section is very pretty and definitely pristine. One notable highlight is a 40’-tall sandbank called “Yellow Banks” on the right. Otherwise, it’s just easy paddling, ubiquitous sand, and no development until one cottage toward the very end. There are even little hints here and there of sandstone on the left bank near the takeout.
What we didn’t like:
Coon Fork Creek has one of the worst portages we’ve ever endured. We had to portage only twice, all things considered (which was remarkable, given the obscurity of the creek and its narrow, meandering nature). The first one requires portaging on the left, on account of a logjam pileup cluster. This one is straightforward and pretty easy.
The second one required getting out into the water on the right, pushing your boat up a steep 4’-tall bank – you wouldn’t be able to get onto the bank and pulling your boat up it unless you had an anchor – and then schlepping a good 20 yards through questionable grass, weeds, tick communities, up and over four down trees, and then carefully re-entering via a lowering of the bank in swift current. This portage just sucked. Worse, one of us counted 12 ticks total on his arms and legs after doing it. Twelve! And he was then dubbed “the tick magnet.” At a lower level you might be able to negotiate the deadfall on the water and not need to portage, but you wouldn’t be able to paddle some of the rapids in the beginning if the creek is too low. Them’s the breaks. Worth the pain in the butt? You bet. But it was a pain.
It was both surprising and disappointing that all the real rapids on the creek are in the first half-mile. The remainder of the creek is still quite beautiful, but after such a thrilling beginning you want to keep paddling rapids. Also, Coon Fork Creek is the longest 3.5-mile meandering stream we’ve ever paddled. It took us almost 2 hours to arrive at the Eau Claire confluence. True, the logistics of the portaging ate some time but the creek is probably longer than 3.5 miles. It’s narrow width, meandering nature and environment surrounded by trees makes it exceedingly difficult to measure accurately on Google Maps.
The only other matter we didn’t like is the takeout access and parking (mentioned above). Not that carrying your boat and gear from the water to the road is a big deal – and both of these streams are so worth paddling that putting up with a short schlep is a pretty cheap price of admission – but it’s worth pointing out here.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, though probably not for a while since A) it’s a 3-hour drive from where we live and B) there are so many other trips. Nonetheless, next time, for good measure, we’d start upstream on the Eau Claire River. For that you have several choices:
1. The dedicated landing as Eisberner Park, off Channey Road, one mile downstream from where the North and South Fork converge.
2. Channey Road over the North Fork.
3. County Road H over the South Fork.
Each of these has its own feel, pros and cons. But what a lovely weekend it would make paddling all of them!
Eau Claire River I (Eau Claire County): Lake Altoona Dam to Hobbs Landing
Eau Claire River II (Eau Claire County): Lake Harstad County Park to County Road K
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)