County Road O to Endeavor:
A trip that has its pretty moments but is also monotonous and slow, with virtually no current since the river starts to sprawl out into a huge lake near the takeout. That said, it makes for a great after-work, early morning, or late afternoon trip. The flocks of cranes alone make this section special, to say nothing of the rest of the diverse wildlife.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 30, 2015
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
< 1′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Princeton: ht/ft: 6.2 | cfs: 1200
Princeton: ht/ft: 4.13 | cfs: 591
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 1:30p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 5.5
Dozens of sandhill cranes, deer, frisky fish, wood ducks, teal, great blue herons and turtles galore.
6.1 miles along a pretty road with great views of the little hills off to the east.
I’d always found it odd that this segment of the Fox River gets such short shrift, bordering on hate mail and aspersions cast. Especially considering that over 1,000 acres along the river are federally protected lands, the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge, a conservation area whose sole purpose is to promote sandhill crane habitat, and not to mention that the boyhood home of John Muir is just down the road from the put-in (today a dedicated county park and state natural area). Is it just an aversion to the Buffalo Lake impoundment? Or that I-39 is due west? I had to find out for myself.
What we liked:
Both the put-in and takeout are excellent and convenient (though the latter is rather inconspicuous). And while the river is wide on this trip – over 100 feet – it retains a sense of intimacy since the surroundings are little developed. Technically, the southern perimeter of the wildlife refuge begins right at County Road O, but it will take a mile or so paddling downstream to feel the full effect of solitude and sanctuary. But once you’re in the heart of it, it’s palpable.
I paddled this on a rather windy day, (a bad idea; see below) but still the cranes were out and about in spades. It never gets old or under appreciated, the prehistoric trumpeting of cranes, or their aerial ballet. That a nationally protected landscape is devoted essentially just for cranes seems almost too good to be true, especially these days. To be sure, just about any marsh is a good place to find cranes, especially in spring and autumn, but here it’s all but guaranteed.
I was surprised by how becoming the surroundings are. I’d expected the areas east of the river to be marshy based on satellite maps and since that’s where the refuge lies. But just east of that are soft upland hills towards Montello. They’re not amazing or anything and they are far away, but they added a pretty punctuation in the background to the otherwise flat foreground. In addition, there are several genuinely cool woodsy areas on the left bank of the river, some with undercut sandbanks, some topped with coniferous trees. There’s more to this marsh than cattails and sedge meadows, though, there’s a lot of those!
Towards the end of this short trip, just before the river becomes little more than lake impoundment, there’s a series of islands (some large, others just cattail plots) that provide the paddler different channel options to choose. As big and wide as this river is, I found myself run aground in a random super-shallow channel that rather shocked me. But this braided network makes the big river seem smaller and more intimate, which is a nice effect.
What we didn’t like:
Unless you’re simply masochistic, learn from my mistake and don’t paddle this on a windy day! The wind was from the east, so I thought, “Great, I’m going northwest!” which turned out to be naively irrelevant. The gradient on this segment of the Fox is next to nothing – actually, most of the Fox until the locks in Appleton and Kaukana is at best a foot per mile. The closer you paddle into Buffalo Lake, the slower this already slow effect will feel. Unless you’re paddling into the wind, in which case the gradient is essentially “negative feet per mile,” meaning you’re going backwards blown to smithereens by the blustery wind. I paddled non-stop on this 5.5-mile trip, and still it took me 2 hours, which is quite slow. I imagine this is not uncommon, given the general openness of the refuge and surrounding landscape. I definitely recommend this trip, just not if the wind is whining.
Also, if I hadn’t known about the public boat landing on Island Drive, there’s no way in the world I would have come upon it. It’s like trying to find the Batcave or some secret “undisclosed location” of some operative where you’d half-expect to see Dick Cheney sipping a strong Scotch on the rocks. But if know which road to take to find it, you’ll be awfully grateful, as it will spare you the probable tedium of slogging through Buffalo Lake. Which, heck, may not be so bad after all, but it adds another 5 miles – all of which will be slow paddling further compromised by motorboats, and the shoreline will be developed as you enter the outskirts of Packwaukee.
If we did this trip again:
I would definitely do this again, in autumn especially, but only when there is no wind. And I do recommend stopping by John Muir County Park, where there’s a great mile-long hike around a kettle lake surrounded by swales, sedges and upland oaks. It’s a special place in its own right, to say nothing of how it must have infused the wee lad’s spirit with what would become a tireless zeal to preserve the sacred outdoors. Marquette County’s drumlins and kettle lakes created by the last Ice Age surely do not rival the glacial valley of Yosemite, but it can be argued that the latter would not today be a protected national park without the former.