Harstad County Park to County Road K:
A truly enchanting daytrip that begins and ends with rapids and features mile after mile of sandy banks (including two that are magnificently tall), a gazillion sandbars, tiny islands, pine trees and zero development through a county forest. An alternate access allows for shortening this otherwise lengthy trip.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 29, 2016
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II+)
~3′ per mile for most of this trip, except at the very end at Little Falls.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neilsville (Black River): ht/ft: 6.00 | cfs: 1800
Eau Claire (Chippewa River): ht/ft: 7.40 | cfs: 12,000
Gauge Note: There is no gauge for the Eau Claire River. 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.
Eau Claire River Visual Gauge 1 | Eau Claire River Visual Gauge 2
Hand-painted gauge on the downstream side of the County Road K bridge, river-right. It read 3′ on our trip, a very recommendable level. Incidentally, on the previous day, the river was up to the 4′ mark on the bridge.
We recommend this level. This was unusually high, however, and the river can still be run at lower levels, too (though the rapids won’t be as fun). Do note that the Eau Claire does run quite shallow in summertime.
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 6:20p.
Total Time: 5h 10m
Miles Paddled: 13.5
Great blue herons, bald eagles, hawks, fish, leatherback turtles, turkey vultures, sandhill cranes, songbirds, butterflies, mussels and one snake that slither-swam underneath my boat.
9.8 miles. Longish and a bit tedious but essentially bicycle-friendly.
This is the gentlest and easiest section of all the Eau Claire River. Except for an effortless Class I set of rapids (riffles in shallower water conditions) in the very beginning and then a slightly more adrenaline-raising (but still straightforward) set of Class I-II rapids at the very end, this trip is all quietwater surrounded by a world of sand and pine. In fact, it reminded us of a smaller version of the Lower Black River, since the stream is wide, sandy, undeveloped and has a reputable but easygoing current.
Sandbars are ubiquitous, as are small islands splitting the mainstream into several side channels. The banks are sometimes tall – in two spectacular occasions about 100’ tall – but there are no bluffs outright. As with the rapids, the only rock formations come at the very beginning (sandstone walls hidden on the left bank) and at the end (granite boulders and shelves in the river itself). There is hardly any development on this stretch, allowing you to ease back into a bygone day of paddling down a sandy river surrounded by a piney forest, not necessarily forgetting your cares, but just delighting in the sheer simplicity of such an unspoiled environment.
As seems to be a theme with the Eau Claire River, accesses are OK – by no means the worst we’ve encountered, but surprisingly primitive and, well, not as accessible as one would think for such a popular river on public land. Harstad County Park is the most sensible place to start, but it comes with two caveats: 1) there is a $6 day use fee to leave a vehicle there, and 2) it still requires you to schlep your boat(s) and gear down a ramshackle staircase to the water below, a distance of about 35 yards. Since we were camping at the park anyway, we chose to interpret the vehicle fee thing as being included in the admission cost for our site and usage thereof (we saw no signage contradicting this).
As for the takeout at County Road K (on river-right, downstream side of the bridge), there is a very small parking area that allows for maybe three vehicles. The terrain is very rocky and rugged, fine for high-clearance vehicles but unforgiving to tiny city cars… Depending on where you actually get out at County Road K, expect to schlep your boat(s) and gear 200’ from the water to the parking area. It’s a really pretty spot, however, as it’s basically a large beach.
The singular highlights of this trip are two stunning sandbanks and two sets of rapids. The first sandbank will appear after you pass under a set of powerlines. Its height is simply astonishing, almost imposing. The second comes after the second time you pass under powerlines. This one is easy to miss, if you don’t take the left side channel (as long as there’s enough water to do so). That’s it for the tall sandbanks, each around 80-100’ high, rising right out of the water on a 60-degree angle.
As for the rapids, the first is just downstream from the put-in. You’ll hear them and faintly see them. They’re easy, safe, and fun. The second is just upstream of the takeout. Called “Little Falls” in contrast to the famous “Big Falls” just downstream, this is a solid Class I-II run depending on water levels. It’s not a technically demanding run – there are no drops or ledges, no boulders to dodge. But you’ll definitely take in some water in an open boat. It’s a really fun run, plus an eddy allows for turning around and rerunning them. Or you can portage around them on a rocky island on the left.
What we liked:
I don’t remember who in our group said it, but someone remarked about an hour into this trip “this is what paddling a river should always feel like!” No houses or farms, no cattle or corn crops, no suburban backyards or sounds of lawnmowers, no billboards or highway bridges, no garbage. Instead, here you just have a root beer-hued river with a solid current, a world of lush sand, and lines of tall green pine reaching towards a blue sky. Add several dozen islands and sandbars, together with a diversity of wildlife, and that pretty well sums up this trip. Oh, plus a fun little splash of rapids 50 yards down from the put-in and a really fun 50 yard-run of rapids at the takeout. What more could one ask for?
The environment here is quite easy on the eye, and the whole experience is soothing to the soul. You really do feel like you’ve gotten away from it all while paddling this stretch. The water itself is engaging and attractive, the sandbars are ubiquitous and becoming, and the endless stretches of county forest make you want to move up to this part of the state.
While the huge sandbars and noted rapids are the obvious highlights of this trip, they should be considered more like the guitar solos or choruses to a well-known song. The backbeat and bass line are the sandbars, pine-lined banks, side channels, babbling brooks with weeping seeps, and the dazzling display of wildlife. That’s really the spirit of this trip, the cumulative effect of which cannot be overstated.
What we didn’t like:
Not to sound like a cheapskate, but charging you money just to leave a vehicle at what is nothing more than a dirt road with a dilapidated staircase is kind of draconian. Maybe it’s only a technicality, but one isn’t really partaking of the county park itself when paddling the river. If anything, your vehicle will be “using” the park by simply being left behind while you are adrift on the water. We’re not going to quibble over six bucks, but we’re just saying…
The landscape and the overall paddling experience feels a little worn out and monotonous after County Road D (except for the super-fun rapids at Little Falls, but those are at the very end of the trip). To be sure, this is totally relative. It’s still a very pretty stretch in its own right, just less so than everything up to this point. But 13.5 miles is a longish daytrip in and of itself unless you are river-camping. If all you are looking for is a really pretty landscape and a few hours on the water, then take out at County Road D.
If we did this trip again:
Next time, for giggles and kicks, we’d try to put in as close to the dam at Lake Eau Claire County Park as possible (probably off Highway 27), upstream of this trip’s put-in. It’s a mile-and-a-half from there to Harstad Park, but there’s an enclosed canyon-like setting with lots of riffles and light rapids. (In fact, we marveled at the continuous envoys of foam that floated past Harstad from upstream. Such foam piles are simply aerated bubbles that have coalesced, caused by turbulence – in this case either a dam or rapids. But it seemed improbable that one foam cluster-puff after another would still hold shape from the dam, 1.5 miles away. Nearby rapids are probably better bets.)
Then, we’d take out at County Road D for a 9.5-mile trip. As mentioned above, from County Road D to K there’s nothing so compelling or unique that you haven’t already experienced from Harstad to D – except for the fun rapids at Little Falls. But you could just as easily run Little Falls as many times as you like by putting-in and taking-out at County Road K. Or if you’re a hardcore whitewater paddler, you’d start at K and go down to the crazy fun at Big Falls 0.75-mile downstream.
A word about Big Falls. Less than a mile downstream from County Road K, the Eau Claire River plunges around a huge rocky island in two channels. The left channel (south bank of the river) is a sheer drop of 6-8’, whereas the right channel (north bank) comprises a kind of staircase of half a dozen ledges. Both banks of the river are part of Big Falls County Park – where, yes, there is a day use fee, but at least this one makes sense!
Needless to say, we didn’t do it. I personally had entertained the thought of attempting the right-channel (north bank), since I was with two friends – one who could have rescued my gear, the other who could have thrown me a rope, in case things went bad. But really there just wasn’t any time. Our 13.5-mile trip took longer than we’d thought, and still we had to get back to camp, set up, cook dinner, etc. By the time it would have taken to schlep the boats down to the drop and get ready, we would have been adding at least an hour – all for an exhilarating (if successful!) 60-seconds run. We didn’t have an extra hour, especially after finishing our trip at 6:20 pm. But we’ll definitely come back to check this out. For even if one skipped both main drops, in high water there is a dozen little ledges and boulders to dodge at the bottom of the left channel that would still be a lot of fun to run, catch an eddy, get out, and do again.
A separate trip that also looks fun would be continuing past Big Falls and taking out at the powerlines of County Road QQ, before Lake Altoona. This stretch also has a wild feel to it with additional ginormously steep sandbanks and little to no development.
We did this trip in kayaks, but the Eau Claire River would be an outstanding canoe-camping experience. The river is wide and straight, with only gentle meandering. The only catches are 1) paddling it with enough water and 2) negotiating both the lakes and portaging the dams that create them. Oh yeah, 3) you’ll be wanting to portage around Big Falls as well!
Alternatively, the creek that feeds the Eau Claire right at Harstad Park looks rather paddleable in its own right. Named Bridge Creek, if you trace it upstream you’ll see that it’s the same body of water that creates the Dells Millpond where the quite lovely Dells Mill and Museum is located. If it’s called “Dells,” there must be some rock formations somewhere…
Eau Claire River I (Eau Claire County): Lake Altoona Dam to Hobbs Landing
Eau Claire River III (Eau Claire County): Big Falls County Park to County Road QQ
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)