Dells of the Eau Claire Park to Club House Road:
A trip that begins like a rodeo bull straight out of the gate but ends with tamed placidity, this section of the Eau Claire River challenges paddlers in the first three miles, but then offers scores of relaxing rewards after. While finding a precise location to put in is confusing and frankly inconvenient, the payoff is the spectacularly scenic setting of ancient volcanic rock formations in a gorge carved by the river, boulders and ledges, Class II+ rapids, root beer-hued water, towering pines and cedar tones for seemingly endless miles. Good accesses downstream allow for individually-tailored trip lengths. Beside skill level for those first three miles, the only other caveat is catching this stretch of river with enough water – but not too much either.
Quick disclaimer right upfront: this trip begins immediately below the Class III-IV dells, not above and through them. That run is only a quarter mile-long (approximately 1200′), but is above our comfort (and skill) level. Frankly, true whitewater paddlers probably would be bored with the Class II rapids below the dells and likely stick with re-running the big drops. But for us “lightwater” paddlers, those Class II’s are positively thrilling!
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 22, 2019
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈12′ per mile
Gradient note: This steep gradient is found only in the first few miles. After that, the river is slow and lazy, flowing at about 3 feet per mile. In other words, the gradient is closer to 18 feet per mile in the first few miles of this trip – essentially, from the put-in to the end of the second big island, shortly downstream from County Road Z.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Kelly: ht/ft: 1.8 | cfs: 480
Kelly: ht/ft: 0.65 | cfs: 116
We strongly recommend this level. Given the steep gradient, the first few miles are prone to shallow levels and need enough water to run at all (lest you wish to walk). That said, at too high a volume, only advanced paddlers should consider the first few miles. The commendable Wisconsin Trail Guide offers a chart of water levels correlating to conditions paddlers can expect at various water levels. According to the guide, 480 cfs is abysmally low; but for point of record, we loved it. (It was on the shallow side, yes, but never too shallow that we got hung up, had to butt-scoot or gorilla-walk, or get out and drag our boats.) Moreover, the river is rarely above 600 cfs. For experienced paddlers not seeking true whitewater, but nonetheless love a good run of Class II fun, then 1.8′ and 480 cfs was a perfect Goldilocks level that is none too low or too high.
Time: Put in at 2:45p. Out at 5:50p.
Total Time: 3h 5m
Miles Paddled: 10
Great blue herons, green herons, sandhill cranes, deer, ducks, bald eagles and turtles.
11 miles, perfectly fine for bicyclists (although it is a long shuttle, plus there are a couple reputable hills).
We all have sacred places. Places that just click, places that resonate within and feel like home. Could be a cabin up north in Minocqua, could be a summertime camp in Mercer. Could be the heady scent of redolent pines or the salty breeze of a bay. The Dells of the Eau Claire River is one of my sacred places, somewhere I return to every couple years even though I first visited it only in 2005 – a few years before I was even introduced to paddling.
First of all, it’s a haunting place, where walls and warrens of reddish-gray rhyolite and schist – igneous rocks from ancient volcanoes – rise for some 40 feet both along the river and clustered smack-dab in the middle of it, creating a labyrinth of side channels. The river tumbles over and around these pummeled and polished rocks in a series of small waterfalls and pools. And when we say “ancient,” we’re talking about rocks that are 2 billion years old (although they hardly look a day over 1.9 billion years). Upheaval gave vertical thrust to the igneous rocks during the time of the last Ice Age while the receding glaciers sculpted the gorge in unique ways: glacial meltwater created swirling eddies of sand and gravel which in turn ground out potholes in the rock that are readily visible today. We regularly hear about the effects of glaciation, but it often feels abstract and too heady to appreciate. You see a smallish hill in a soybean field, and were it not for a placard somewhere saying something about a melting glacier depositing this and that, you’d never think twice about such a humdrum mound. But these potholes – rounded out depressions in the otherwise insanely impervious rock formations – are intuitively comprehensible and really cool to think about. Check out the photos below. It’s also astonishing just how smooth these huge slabs of wet-black rock are now, thanks to the incomprehensible amount of time they’ve been sculpted by whitewater.
Secondly, it’s a designated county park, and the famed Ice Age Trail runs through its core. Paralleling the river and rocks along both banks, hikers are treated to a variety of paths and loops that wend up and down, past spectacular erratics (i.e., big boulders deposited from receding glaciers) and cedars. Come summertime, local kids (and kids at heart) jump off the rocks into the river below and chill out in the deep pools. For landlubbers, clambering over the rock clusters is more than enough, appreciating all the awesome beauty of nature from the high and dry above the raging rapids.
And were that all not enough, much of the buildings, signs, bridges, and trails throughout the park were originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, so the overall look has that kind of nostalgic aesthetic that is both peerless and priceless.
Oh, and there’s a small campground enclosed within the park, too. It’s nothing all that remarkable, frankly, but it’s an entirely adequate, tidy campground that provides for a perfect overnight option for a paddling weekend.
All in all, the Dells of the Eau Claire is like a snapshot of the Presque Isle River through the Porcupine Mountains in the U.P., but down here in Marathon County (and admittedly smaller in scale, but still). Also, it’s fun to shout, with silly glee, “Rhy-o-lite!” (Think Jimmy Walker here…)
I first came to the park in July 2005, and I can still replay that scene in my head vividly, with a slight sepia tint to a time when I was still in my 20s. I remember jumping off the rocks into the river – which you’re technically not advised to do, mind you, though lots of people do – and then just chilling in a huge eddy of super-aerated water like a cold-river equivalent of a hot tub. Again, this was a few years before I’d step inside a kayak or canoe for the first time. Paddling, in general, just wasn’t on my radar back in those days (which seems amazing and surreal to account for that now…) But I was utterly swept away by the audacious beauty of the place, which is one of the reasons why I want need to return to it, like a kind of pilgrimage, every so often.
Fast forward a decade later, when I returned to the park and the river, this time with a kayak in tow and intent in my heart to paddle. Granted, I was not doing the dells themselves, but rather a 7.5-mile trip upstream and then take out at the beach just above the dam, which is just above the dells. But for as long (if not longer), I’ve wanted to paddle the stretch below the dells. Still not the dells themselves – you absolutely have to be a skilled whitewater paddler, or simply nuts, to run that thrilling section without seriously injuring yourself and/or damaging your boat – but closer to them, plus a beautiful trip with fun and challenging conditions in its own right. As with any stream with a minimum of Class II rapids, catching it with enough water to run is typically tricky and fickle. But I got atypically lucky in late July to be up in that neck of the woods – with a very willing friend no less – and after a delicious consideration of paddling options on the drive up to the Stevens Point Area from Madison, we opted for this section of the Eau Claire River.
This trip begins at the base of the scenic Class III-IV dells. (For paddlers interested in tackling those rapids, you’d put in somewhere above the bridge at County Y and below the dam, via either bank, from whatever rock and eddy you deemed most prudent.) Says Mike Svob for this trip in his iconic Paddling Northern Wisconsin, “put in at the county park below the Dells by carrying your boat past the picnic shelter and down the fairly steep bank.” That matter of fact directive is pretty pat. It sounds good on paper, until you’re actually at the park and totally bamboozled by how many trails there are, which picnic shelter he’s referring to (there are three total), or just how one accesses the water from atop a 40′-tall rock in the first place.
Let’s just air this out right away: accessing the water to do this trip is a bit of a pain in the ass, no two ways about it. But because it’s oh so worth it, here’s what you need to know. There’s only one way to get to the county park itself, and that’s via County Highway Y. The park straddles the road on both sides, west and east. The “beach” (a 30′-wide spit of sand), dam, and campground are all on the east side of the park/east of County Road Y. The dells themselves, the group camping site, the main picnic pavilion, and the primary hiking trails are all on the west side of the park/County Y. There is no designated put-in, period. To paddle this trip, you gotta go rogue.
The most sensible solution we found was entering the park from County Y, and driving in a counter-clockwise direction past the first parking area/picnic shelter, past the group campground and second parking area/picnic shelter, and then around and about to the third parking area/picnic shelter, which is comically very close to County Y itself – but to get there you have to take this roundabout way. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Could be the span of a man’s life or a tiny county park road to paddle a river. Either way, here’s a map of the county park. If the park road from County Y were at 2 o’clock, the third parking area/picnic shelter is at 6 o’clock. (For the record, there is an alternative parking place that could fit 2-3 vehicles somewhere in the 7 o’clock range; and while that option is a shorter schlep to the river, it’s a steeper, less safe schlep, which we ruled out as foolish right after checking it out.) So, from the third parking area/picnic shelter it’s about a 400′ schlep along a trail to the top of one of the 40′-tall dells. All in all, it’s a much better option.
Q: OK, hot shot, then what?
A: Well, you gotta go down.
A: You just go down.
Q: Like, rappelling?
A: No, of course not.
Just to the right of the adorable “Danger Swimmers Rocks-Undercut Deadly” sign, you’ll find a feint but discernible-enough foot path down the rock wall to the water below. For point of clarity, this is along the north bank of the river, or river-right (to avoid confusion, kindly refer to the map below). It’s not all that crazy steep, and, really, only a marginal pain in the tuchus. Just go slowly and be mindful about where you step. The path, such as it is, should not be taken for granted because the rocks are a little loose and crumbly and often wet (re: slick). We understand that this could be a non-starter for some paddlers. That said, only a certain kind of paddler would want to do the first two miles of this trip in the first place. Ergo, the pain/payoff balances out, by and by.
Once you’re on the water, savor the scene in the flat eddy before the current whisks you downstream. A tumble of building blocks for a colossal toddler, great big fat slabs of volcanic rocks, buxom boulders, shifts of schist like rising fins from the water – all of these lie before your saucer eyes. It’s genuinely an extraordinary scene.
(In theory, you could try your luck at a small sample of the dells by paddling up to one of the rock formations/channels, getting out, dragging your boat above a drop, and then running a drop – kind of a shorthand cheat – but it’s a bit of a hassle, frankly. Most paddlers will just proceed from the eddy and catch the quick current only 20 yards away to begin.)
From the makeshift put-in, you’ll be between a 40′-tall rock wall and the cluster of rock islands comprising the dells. A straightaway of 400′ leads you to a shorter but no less formidable – or forgiving – rock wall on the right, where the river bends to the left. Be careful to avoid this, as the current makes a beeline right to the base of this wall. For a full mile, the river is an exciting and exquisite palette of boulders, rapids, ledges, and pine-lined banks with no hint of civilization other than the stately pedestrian bridge built by the CCC (and part of the Ice Age Trail) nearly a century ago. Unless the river is high and wild, the conditions here range from Class I-II, and you’ll be fully engaged the entire time. If your peripheral vision allows for it, and you can eddy peel to get to it, there’s a gorgeous small waterfall where a feeder creek comes in on river-right shortly after the pedestrian bridge.
After the first mile you’ll come upon the head of a large island (called Sandburg Island, for those who are following along at home) that splits the river in two. As such, paddlers will face a dilemma of which channel to take – and have to make that choice in real time under swift conditions. On the one hand, both channels are runnable and offer rapids, boulders, rock outcrops, and tree canopies. On the other hand, they are distinctly different. The main channel/flow is on the right side of the island. It’s about 230′ longer than the left channel and features an S curve requiring solid boat control. The left channel is more of a straight shot that runs through a very scenic mini-dells of its own, but it is narrower and shallower – too shallow to run without bottoming out below 600 cfs, according to the Wisconsin Trail Guide. We went right, so we can’t verify that stipulation.
Below the island the river calms down and flows in broad straightaways to the first bridge at County Z, where there’s a convenient access on the downstream side, river-left. Some paddlers (and, yes, tubers) call it quits here, but there’s a whole lot more beauty and bawdy fun below. A mile downstream from Z comes another large island, this one even bigger than Sandburg. Again, paddlers will have a choice between two channels, left and right. Unlike the rapids at the first island, the ones here (called “Barnard rapids” at Lower Island Dells) are more challenging and technically difficult – Class II in normal conditions (and higher when the river is higher). Both Svob and the Wisconsin Trail Guide direct the paddler to choose the left channel.
So, naturally, we went right.
Svob states that the left channel is “narrower and more difficult, with several small drops.” The WTG claims that it “offers a better – and more scenic – experience for paddlers” with “an awesome wave-train in a narrow channel as you zip past scenic rock formations in a dells setting.”
Well, hell, maybe we should’ve gone left after all…
The reason we didn’t (apart from not bothering to read either Svob’s or WTG’s write-up beforehand, since this trip was a game day decision made on the fly in the car ride up) was we saw a notable horizon line on the left channel, at the head of the big island. It had already been a lap-wet paddle up to this point, and prudence dictated that we go with what we could see, not the unknown drop. Honestly, it was kind of a coin toss 50/50 choice. At first we were leaning to go left, then we wondered about the right, then leaned to the left again, and at the last minute decided “screw it, let’s just go right.” (Incidentally, Svob claims you can get out at the head of the island and “walk along either side to scout,” but all we saw was a mat of 3’-tall grasses and weeds that looked impenetrable.) Furthermore, the right channel, just like at the first island, is wider and more accommodating for two boats, and is a slightly longer run than the left channel. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with either choice. And let us state unequivocally that the right channel is awfully beautiful in its own right and offers yet another fun S curve with boulders to dodge, ledges to drop, and cedars to paddle under.
So, there – now you have the official Miles Paddled option of the right channel, brought to you by Spontaneity, Inc (a subsidiary of Lack of Planning, LLC).
Either way, a short stretch of fun riffles follows the tail end of the island where both channels converge. Alas, these will be the last on this trip. But the surrounding scenery remains very pretty and picturesque, featuring wooded banks, small islands, and occasional rock outcrops and erratics still, even another small waterfall where another feeder stream comes in (on river-left, just above Badger Road). This is more or less the hinge of the Eau Claire River itself, where downstream from here (all the way to the confluence at the Wisconsin River south of Wausau) the surroundings, geology, and conditions all totally change from everything upstream (including upstream of the dells). For paddlers disinterested in the calmer, quainter nature of the river, there are two take-out options after Lower Island Dells: a makeshift but fully functional one at Badger Road (1.5 miles below Barnard Rapids) and another two miles further downstream at County Road N, both on the upstream side of the bridges, both on river-right. But between the rapids and County N are lush stretches of tranquility with numerous islands, side channels, and tree canopies. Totally different in feel and flow from the rapids, this section of the Eau Claire makes for a delightful outing in and of itself.
The longest individual stretch between bridges is found between County Road N and the take-out at Club House Road, a distance of 3.5 miles. Slow and often featuring long straightaways, it’s still lovely and scenic. Indeed, we remarked that if we had such a stretch of river down in southern Wisconsin, it would stand out head and shoulders above so many others. It’s just that in contrast to the wild and wooly rapids upstream, the slow flow afterwards could be considered dull or nondescript. But that’s entirely relative. Our man in Platteville, Scotty – inventor of the ingenious Y-er (not to mention his regatta-accommodating trailer) – coveted how grassy the banks of the river here were and, well, untrammeled by cattle, compared to where he lives in southwestern Wisconsin, where cattle go wherever they damn well please and trample down everything, thus eroding the banks and making sloppy, unseemly mud piles everywhere. But whatever and wherever your frame of reference happens to be, anybody would appreciate the dichotomous mix of soft grassy meadows and hardwood tree canopies in between Badger Road and Club House Road. There’s even an exposed sand bank about 25′-tall just upstream from the take-out.
Speaking of which, following a long straightaway that then gently veers to the right, you’ll see before you the bridge at Club House Road. Take out on the left on the upstream side, where the bank is low and accessible, and there’s a well-worn path from there to a short staircase that leads to the parking area. We saw a separate spot on the downstream side of the bridge on river-right, but the upstream-left seemed too good to pass up.
What we liked:
Few trips begin surrounded by such august, rugged beauty as the dells in the park. The tall walls on each side, the great big slabs of rocks in the middle, the myriad side channels of foamy froth, the raw maw of hydropower itself in its most original sense creating these galloping rapids – and all of it surrounded by towering pines and sweet-scented cedars – it’s a hell of a way to start a trip all before one even dips a paddle blade into the water.
And then a full 1.25 miles of Class I-II rapids right off the bat. I mean, how can you beat that? Moreover, how many trips begin with such gusto? It’s truly exhilarating. And at the water levels we had, it was all good, clean fun (well, and wet). What I mean is, while we certainly had to be on-guard and on-point about reading the river – looking for lines in the rapids to run, watching out for boulders and shallow shoals – there really were no safety concerns for us. Sure, it was a double-shot of espresso adrenaline in our kayak coffee, but not a poop-your-pants kind of paddle.
Furthermore, we really like this accolade in the Wisconsin Trail Guide: “In moderate flows (800 cfs to 1800 cfs), many ‘whitewater novices’ may find the roughly four miles of rapids and boulder gardens below the Dells to be some of the best low-hazard whitewater paddling in Wisconsin. In addition, the stretch between County Y and County Z is very scenic as the river flows past numerous islands, rock formations and beautiful high, wooded banks.” We’re not sure about the 800-1800 cfs range being “moderate,” considering that such a range is very rare, and when the river’s in that range, it’s roaring. For point of reference, here’s a video of it at 1300 cfs, midway between 800-1800 cfs. Regardless, we love the sentiment behind this. Not no hazards, but low-hazard. And, to be sure, that nearly 4-mile stretch truly is very scenic.
After the second island of wrap-around rapids (about a mile downstream from County Z), the river gets incrementally lazy and easy, making for a carefree float. While totally different in feel and engagement from the rapids and rocks upstream, the remaining 7ish miles of our trip were delightful. Here, you’ll be adrift past gentle meadows and occasional farms. Part of that pleasant feel is the pastoral landscape that’s just plain pretty (and yet pretty/different than the farms and fields adjacent to rivers down here in southern Wisconsin). And part of that, for sure, is the high-five feeling (and subsequent relief) of having just run rapids without incident but instead with shit-eating grins from ear to ear followed by maximum relaximum flowing afterward with kicked up feet and stretched legs, a can of beer cracked open, and maybe a celebratory cigarette (the way one does in movies after having sex).
Conversely, Meister Svob grants a scant four sentences – or 60 words – about the river from the halfway point (Badger Road) to the takeout. That seems like short shrift to us (not least because there are two paragraphs worth of space on the printed page in his book that’s inexplicably blank and could have been otherwise delegated to more description… or more something). To be fair, the Wisconsin Trail Guide is even stingier (and quits the trip altogether at County N), alluding just to farms and homes from Badger Road down. Richard Kark’s compendium at least describes the second half of this trip as “easy and scenic” but with an “increasing number of streamside homes,” and adds “shallow rocky stretches alternated with quieter, deeper sections.” All true. But we feel that this second half of the trip is too serene to merely waive off on account of its “whimper” relative the beginning “bang.” From Badger Road to Club House Road is a 5.5-mile trip with no obstacles or challenges that would be perfect for paddlers looking for a loafer’s float.
Finally, the take-out is an A-OK snap. Adequately discernible from the river, easy access off, a clear path from the water to the parking area, and, oh yeah, a designated parking area itself. Basically, it’s the complete opposite from the complications of the put-in.
What we didn’t like:
The only real complaint is how inaccessible the river is at the park itself. Maybe it’s a legality/fear-of-lawsuit thing, maybe it’s simply the rugged volcanic rocks that yield not, but if you’re looking for an obvious place to launch a boat… well, let us know if you find it (along with Jimmy Hoffa’s body, the holy grail, and the lost city of Atlantis). Because there just isn’t a place to do so, period. As mentioned in the Overview, you’ll need to schlep your boat(s) and gear about 400′ from the parking area at the main picnic pavilion to the river itself. And then there’s the slow-but-steady, sure-footed descent to the water down slick and loose rocks and erosion-exposed tree roots. That said, it is absolutely worth the minor inconvenience, no doubt about it. But paddlers should expect some disorientation at first, followed by a careful-minded carriage to the water itself.
Oh, and for the fourth or fifth time now in ten years I managed to kill a camera by getting it wet. Mea culpa, again. That’s why the majority of the photos below are from a GoPro’s perspective. Will somebody please invent me a waterproof camera that has an actual zoom!?
If we did this trip again:
You bet we’ll do this again! Yes, in spite of the inconvenient put-in. The only thing we’d do differently is opt for the left channels around the two islands – roughly one mile above and below County Z – just to compare the two channels for future reference. Otherwise, everything about this trip is simply splendid.
And some day we will indeed run through the dells themselves… Just not yet.
Eau Claire River I (Marathon County): Bear Lake Road to Dells of the Eau Claire Park
Eau Claire River III (Marathon County): Club House Road to Ross Avenue
Camp: Dells of the Eau Claire Park
General: American Whitewater
General: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Video: Kamal Al-Shahethi
Video: Laurence Wayne Lee
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Wisconsin River)
Miles Paddled Video: