★ ★ ★ ★

Eau Claire River: South Fork (Eau Claire County)

Dickinson Road to County Highway H:
A diamond in the rough if ever there was one, a wily and beguiling stream coursing through undeveloped thickets of gorgeous county forest, the South Fork of the Eau Claire will reward patient and intrepid paddlers with spectacular scenery in a near-wilderness setting, an extraordinary array of wildlife, and engaging conditions ranging from quietwater to Class III whitewater. The only caveats are low water levels will make this gem impassable and the likelihood of downed trees to contend with in the first mile or so from Dickinson Road.

Eau Claire River South Fork

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 6-7, 2022

Skill Level: Intermediate for first trip, Beginner for second.
Class Difficulty: Quietwater generally, with one set of Class II+ rapids in the first trip and several sets of Class I+ in the second.

Gradient:
~6′ per mile

Gauge:
n/a. 

Gauge note: There is no gauge for any clip of the Eau Claire River, and trying to correlate water levels by proxy gauges is a fool’s errand. Your best bet is to look up the recent weather and find out if it has rained recently, or do this run this in early spring.

Recommended Levels:
Water levels will be very low most of the time. You’ll want to come here after snowmelt in spring or shortly after a reputable rainfall any other time of the year.

Trip 1 Put-In:
Dickinson Road, Thorp, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.77575, -90.84151
Trip 1 Take-Out:
County Highway H
GPS: 44.72708, -90.9431

Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 6:45p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 11.75

Trip 2 Put-In:
County Highway H
GPS: 44.72708, -90.9431
Trip 2 Take-Out:
County Highway G, Augusta, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.74638, -91.05362

Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 9

Wildlife:
Bald eagles galore, wild turkeys, turkey vultures deer, geese, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, hawks, a million mussels and clams, lots of turtles, and – best of all – five otters.

Shuttle Information:
A bit of an adventure, considering this is all Eau Claire County Forest, so what roads there are, are few and far between and mostly unpaved dirt-gravel (be careful in early spring and after a hard rain – which is when you’d want to come to paddle). While doable, this would be a very arduous bicycle shuttle (unless your ride is a fat tire e-bike).


Background:
The South Fork of the Eau Claire River is no secret; Frank Piraino wrote about it with endearing detail, awe, and humility (see below), and even the venerable Mike Svob gave it a shout-out in his first entry for the Eau Claire proper. For us, we’ve wanted a taste of the South Fork ever since we gobbled up a delicious plate of the North Fork, back in October 2020.

For starters, fire up a satellite image of whatever mapping site/app you use and dial it to west-central Wisconsin. Notice that large, gorgeous green swath from Tomah up to Eau Claire along the I-94 corridor and hugging Highway 12 to the east? That’s all county forest land, a veritable wild and rugged area rare to find in the southern half of the state. It’s a place of unparalleled beauty incised by rivers that are positively dreamy for paddlers. A geological smorgasbord along the border of massive glacial wash deposits and the unglaciated Driftless rich with intact tranquility. An Oreo cookie with creamy goo sandwiched between two sweet chocolate crisps.

The South Fork of the Eau Claire River is one such stream. Its story begins essentially on the line between Clark and Taylor Counties – about three miles west of the Black River – but it doesn’t truly pick up volume until a couple dozen miles south, at Mead Lake, where it’s dammed. From there it runs free and unfettered (well, but for fallen trees) for another 20-some miles until it becomes one with the North Fork and, abracadabra hey presto (pesto?), is the Eau Claire River proper. But all along the way it is surrounded by undeveloped county forest land, thus retaining a primitive and bedazzling nature in its terrain. At the risk of overstating things, the landscape truly has a wild feel to it. But for a set of power lines, a faintly discernible parking area, and the bridge at County H, there are no signs of civilization anywhere along this long section of the South Fork – and you won’t see a single building until three miles downriver from the confluence of the North Fork.

Unless you are A) adventuresome and B) an earlier-riser than I am (OK, and C) more observant while driving and/or following a navigation device that tells you where to turn so that you don’t miss an inexplicably counter-intuitive double right-hand turn via Highway 10 to Highway 12 to County H and thereby drive 30 miles out of your way just because some hapless surveyor six sheets to the wind once decided that to turn north on H while going west on 10 you should first turn north onto 12 and then “north again” 100′ later on H – seriously? What in the hell screwball logic is this?!?), then you will do these two segments as separate trips, as we did. As such, they’re distinctly different – not least since more than half of the second segment is after the confluence of the two forks where the river (now the Eau Claire proper) has twice the volume. But we’re treating this as a singular entry, in part for ease and reducing redundancy, and partly because this was the river we came up to do; there was simply day one and day two.

Overview:
We’d done our homework, read up on what precious little intel there is on this nibble of the South Fork. One of the golden rules of paddling is “there’s a reason why there’s no info out there” on fill in the blank stream or segment of such and such stream. Meaning, chances are good – real good – that it’s not a terribly desirable stretch of water to paddle in the first place. For, if it were, gossip-mongering and paddling yentas would have their way, and suddenly everyone and their brother is all about taking selfies and posting on Insta on wherever had been relatively obscure. In the wake of the pandemic of the last two years, this unfortunate phenomenon is all the more a thing.

For starters, the great white Kark states in no uncertain terms, “Adventuresome paddlers may face a gauntlet of fallen trees by putting in at the Dickerson Road bridge” – and indeed we did…pretty much immediately. Because paddling is prone to a crucible of unpredictable circumstances and variables – deadfall, erosion, and fickle water levels, to name but a few – the intrepid pioneer can blithely forge ahead with the self-serving folly of Pollyannaish good cheer that a landscape of fallen trees could have occurred only after the most recent sweep of straight-line winds, a whim of high and low pressure systems in a happenstance mosh pit, just days ago – and not an ill-omen of crossfit-like inconvenience to come requiring to get out and back into a boat umpteen times. And so we too rolled: anticipating the worst while being fortified richly with ample beverages to laugh at any such bothers and blunders. Besides, all we had was all day to paddle this trip, come what may.

As Jack Kerouac romantically wrote, “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

We did have to portage a handful of times, but each was super-easy and simple. The landscape here comprises low sandy banks with a floodplain feel with occasional hardwood uplands. There is a lot of ducking and dodging in the first mile or so. Plenty of time to appreciate the root beer-hued color of the water! When not essentially flat, the banks will rise a hair in soft bowl-like enclosures lined with pines, making for a pretty and provocative landscape of beguiling duality.

Back to the predecessors… Paddling pioneer and stalwart of the inconvenienced, Frank Piraino, lays out as follows: “Below Dickerson bridge about a mile is very hazardous, very long and difficult, rocky, boulder rapids, Class II-II that should be rough portaged around the woods (no trail) along the left bank above where the first sounds and signs of the rapids appear as river narrows and shores become rocky with large pines.” There’s more, hang on. “There are four main drops – the first two are solid Class I+ affairs with conspicuous chutes to line (though tricky in low water levels); the third is a snarly monster that will be dangerous to damn near impossible to run unless at high water levels; and the fourth is a fun Class II staircase ledge that shouldn’t pose any problem for experienced paddlers.” That was published – let alone originally written – several quaint bygone decades ago, and yet we’re here to say that all of that is as spot-on as a leopard, every individual detail (though it’s also possible that we’re the only people to have paddled this segment of the South Fork since Frank did).

First, there’s a small dells-like entrance to the first sequence of the rapids, an easy Class I boulder garden. Water levels being everything, it can be safely reasoned that unless you’re paddling this trip in early spring (as we did) or shortly after a generous dowse of rain, the rapids here might well be too low to run. There are lots of little ledges and just hundreds of rocks to get hung up on. We were able to bump, scrape, and shimmy most of these hang-ups, but it was a little touch and go – even in the first week of May. The veritable “monster” – to be fair, a true Class III rapid – was too low for us to seriously entertain trying; the likelihood of actuarial kayak/canoe damage – to say nothing of enduring grave bodily injury – far exceeded what fleeting high-fives and woop-woops would have come. It was not the easiest portage (on river-left, kind of a make your path), but not the worst we’ve endured either. As a consolation prize, the geology here is grandiose! On river-right alone there are beautiful rock clusters resembling bleacher stands. Below the monster are a couple more fun switchbacks that culminate finally to a luscious Class II at the staircase-like chute near a set of power lines and a dramatic, steep sand bank.

As the saying goes, that’s a lot of pork for one fork – and this is just the first mile! Rest assured that things do tame down after the rapids, with only an occasional riffle or simple Class I from here down to the confluence with the North Fork. But oh how the surrounding landscape just envelops the paddler in a truly wild setting of natural and undeveloped beauty! Sand banks, sand bars, gentle knolls with lovely swaths of pines – for miles and miles.

Attractive Hay Creek will enter on the left, a future prospect in its own right if you’re looking for a lighter fair. But its entrance will provide a welcome boost to water levels. The setting here is wild and wonderful, just lots of lazy, easy meanders past sandbars and uplands.

Oh, and otters! Yup. Even Frank wrote about the otters, so either these are some very old otters, or it’s a good place for generational otters to cavort. We saw several…and could not geek out or be more giddy each time! Watch for them along the banks and under the cover of deadfall. And after they submerge, watch for air bubbles rising to the river’s surface. They’re there…

Also worth mentioning, in the category of hard to find but ever-present, there is a PITO at Koehler Ford Forest Road (itself off of S. Butler Forest Road) located on the north bank of the river (right-hand side). There’s no bridge here, but there is a parking area marked by large boulders. If you wanted to run only the rapids, this would be your take-out. Conversely, if you thought “no way, José” to those rapids, then you’d begin here. Regardless, from Dickerson Avenue to here is 6.5 miles; and from here to the next access – and our take-out for trip 1 – is 5.25 miles. In other words, it’s a robust 12 miles from Dickerson to County H, especially considering the amount of deadfall and meandering on this narrow stream.

The sandbanks get steeper and wilder below Koehler Ford, with a couple of sweeps that will just knock your socks off. And you’ll hardly find any time to slip them back on, what with all the meandering back and forth and zag to zig you’ll be doing. The whole feeling of being in a rugged landscape is positively palpable, for it’s all county forest surrounding you. What few roads there are, are gravel (cue Lucinda). The sense of abandon is pretty intriguing. Honestly, there are so many sandbars here – and all but a money-backed guarantee of pure solitude (well, from humans at lease) – the opportunities for primitive camping simply abound.

But then as soon as I say that, there’s a bridge, meaning a road – in this case the PITO at County H. Access is good on river-left both up- and downstream of the bridge. Do take note of the luscious tongue of blonde sand on the right on the upstream side of the bridge. It has the whole look and feel of a tributary coming in, but it’s not; either it’s a side channel or sloughed off oxbow from back in Frank’s time. Either way, it’s astonishing. It’s like a boulevard of poured liquid sand.

So that was our first trip. A day later (and now a year older; it was my birthday), we picked up where we left off, at County H.

It’s hard to fully appreciate the velvety quality of this root beer-hued water or its luscious, sugary sand bottom swaths – or how those colors juxtapose with the evergreen blaze of hardwood conifers and spring green-sprung deciduous. The glacial outwash of sand is evident everywhere. Meandering this way and that, 10′-tall sand banks line one side while sandbars stretch along the other. Another doozie of a steep 40′-tall wall of sand lies on river right in a delightfully picturesque vignette.

Not long after this the two forks converge (for who’s to say which flows into which?) and become THE Eau Claire River. It’s about 4ish miles from County H to the confluence, roughly the midway point in our second trip. While not necessarily a whole lot deeper, the river is definitely wider. The crucible of endless meanders is pretty much over. But more notable and fun, the gradient drops, and drops again, and keeps dropping. For the casual paddler, these at best Class I+ rapids are naught but tasty, toothsome fun – al dente paddling in the spring or summer sun! Not technically challenging but approachable for just about any paddler in any kind of boat, the half-dozen or more sets of rapids still send tingles of thrills. Added to these – or an inextricable part to them – are modest boulder gardens, large islands splitting the mainstream into side channels (some with their own sets of rapids), and exposed sandstone rock outcrops along the banks.

You could shorten this trip at the nondescript access at Eisberner Memorial Canoe Landing, on river-right, shortly after the N. Fork confluence…but why would you want to forfeit the fun rapids, beautiful rock outcrops, and astonishing sandbanks? Hint: You wouldn’t.

And speaking of banks, there’s one long, wide, utterly lovely wall of sand along a left-hand bend on river-right that, while not as tall as others found on segments of the Eau Claire River downstream – this one is about 50’ tall – is no less phenomenal. It’s about a quarter-mile long – think Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” meets Tyvek House Wrap. With the wind and its steep angle, we literally watched it erode before our very eyes (cue Days of Our Lives “like sands through the hourglass…”). Very cool.

In this stretch you’ll pass a handful of houses and buildings, but none are long-lasting or obtrusive.

Shortly after the sand facade is a lovely steep bank composed of sandstone and massive megaliths – hints of Driftless scapes to come downstream… As evidenced elsewhere on the fault line borderlands of Eau Claire County between Northern Highlands to Central Sands, there’s an exquisite syncretism here of pervasive sand and cameo moments of granite.

More modest but fun rapids abound before the inevitable bridge at County G looms in the backdrop.

A word about the take-out, as it’s a bit ambiguous. While paddlers can land and take out at the sandy beach generously upstream from the bridge, we do not recommend this, as it requires a frankly unnecessary schlep of boat and gear from the water to where a locked gate forces you to leave a car uphill. Instead, pass the highway bridge to the ornate truss bridge immediately downstream, where on the river-right is an adequate access point with a well-worn path leading up to a large parking area that’s less of a haul.

What we liked:
All of the accesses on and off the river for these two trips are essentially good and user-friendly – a rarity for a pretty obscure stream not often paddled. The sense of wild abandon on the river is simply incredible. There are notable rivers through the state that are popular for canoe/kayak-camping – and for good reason. They’re typically broad rivers like the lower Wisconsin, Chippewa, Black, all on account of their abundant sandbars. Or there are designated campsites along rivers like the upper Wisconsin, or the Brule, or the Namekagon-St. Croix. But the South Fork of the Eau Claire all but begs to be camped along, for you’d be king and queen of the whole wide world (well, subject to the otters and owls). It would be considered “primitive” camping by most metrics, but if you’ve got a canoe, what’s primitive about a cooler full of cold beverages, meat to cook (up to and including plant-based stuff), and a lawn chair to sit on? Nothing, friends. That’s called heaven.

The feeling of seeing the landscape change geologically in real time right before your very eyes is simply magic. Added to that, the miles and miles of sand swaths, undeveloped banks, boulder gardens, and frisky riffles with several rapids of classic good, clean fun, to say nothing of the wildlife – these two trips had us wishing we could order seconds.

What we didn’t like:
Catching this trip, either leg of it, with enough water to float a boat in the first place will be no easy feat. So, there’s that right off the bat. And yes, the “gauntlet” of downfall in the first mile or so can be a little dispiriting. And then there’s this tricky contradiction: the very thing we loved about this river can also be a nemesis, and that is its lack of accesses. A river with accesses few and far between means it’s undeveloped and pretty wild. That’s awesome while you’re on the water. But it makes getting to the water an indigestion of logistics. This in turn gave us one of those million-dollar ideas while we were paddling: why not have an ATV-livery service? Seriously, why not? I definitely don’t want more gas-guzzling combustion engines in the world. But for these parts of the state that are county, state, or national forests with few actual roads but tons of ATV trails, how hard would it be to outfit a rig to haul a kayak or canoe and get a paddler direct access to a river otherwise verboten to cars and trucks?

To any and all enterprising entrepreneurs looking for a kickstarter idea, you’re welcome. Just don’t forget who got you there in the first place…

If we did this trip again:
While I do love sampling a menu and not getting stuck in ordering the same dish, we’d do all of this exactly the same – maybe order an appetizer of a bridge upstream of Dickerson. Otherwise, this was all so tasty we’d just want to savor it again exactly the same. (Well, maybe with a touch more water… Garcon?) The scenery is splendid, and we couldn’t recommend it enough for those who haven’t experienced it. But we’d definitely paddle-camp on the South Fork, too, for it would be a marvelous experience. Just, please practice the principles of leave-no-trace ethics, if doing this!

OK, an idea for dessert or digestif: put in at Hay Creek below the dam near the county park and campground and take out at Koehler Ford Road. Yup, I think we’ll be putting that one in the hopper.

***************
Related Information:
Eau Claire River North Fork: Hamilton Falls Canoe Landing to Canoe Landing Forest Road
Camping:
Coon Fork Lake County Park
Camping: Rock Dam County Park and Campground
Wikipedia:
Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)

Photo Gallery:

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