Ensche Road to Buckhill Road:
Comfortably runnable only in spring or after sustained rainfall, this is an enjoyably bubbly stretch of the river that swerves around bluffs, hills and cliffs. It begins in Wisconsin, where the river is called the “Fever River” and ends in Illinois a few miles upstream of the quaint city of Galena.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 28, 2013
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Gauge note: No gauge reading recorded at the time of this trip.
200 cfs minimum on NOAA gauge (unless you like scraping and bottoming out). Catching the Galena/Fever with adequate water is tricky but worth the effort.
Ensche Road, Benton, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.51397, -90.39666
W. Buckhill Road, Council Hill, Illinois
GPS: 42.45146, -90.38813
Time: Put in at 11:18a. Out at 1:48p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 9.25
A river otter, a woodchuck, big flopping fish, several blue herons, a gazillion cardinals (the state bird of Illinois), an almost constant circling of turkey vultures, a couple hawks, a lot of turtles (including one humongous son of a gun big as a city phonebook), eight deer total and a pheasant. I am happy to report that no cattle did I encounter on or along the river.
10 miles on the nose, at least the route I took, which I don’t necessarily recommend. If by bicycle, the route east of the river is shorter by three miles but the roads are squirrelly and poorly marked. If by car you should take the route west of the river, either the one I did or further out onto Highway 84. If you do a bike shuttle, keep in mind that you are in the unglaciated area, which means there will be some considerable hills. This is not a bike shuttle for everyone, unless a heart attack and/or heatstroke is your thing.
If the Pecatonica and Platte Rivers could have a baby (whatever that means), it would probably resemble the Galena. At times muddy and flanked by steep and ditch-like banks similar to the Pecatonica, there are as many pleasant stretches with a jade green hue or clear water swerving around or ricocheting off of rolling hills and rocky-faced cliffs, just as the Platte does.
The gradient for this nine-mile section drops four-feet, with the resulting effects of a) lots and lots and lots of riffles (at times certifiable Class I rapids, typically around bends with modest drops) and b) low water that can get scrape-prone pretty quick. I did this trip at the end of April, less than two weeks after southern Wisconsin’s recent two week-long bout of heavy rains and it was already notably low. I scraped here and there but never had to get out of my boat and walk (which would have been absurd – and cold! – so early in the season).
But if you can catch the river when it’s running well, this is a fun trip that always captures your attention and marvel. With the exception of only a handful of short segments, almost all of this trip is riffly and flat water or effervescent. And all of this trip is surrounded by the picturesque rolling hills of the unglaciated areas.
Before I go any further, now is about as good a time as any to shed some light on the name of the river and why Wisconsin calls it one thing and Illinois another (cue the corny history class music…). The voyageurs’ name for the river was Riviere aux Feves, which means “River of Beans” (apparently alluding to wild beans that used to grow along the river). English translation corrupted the French from “feves” to “fever.” Whether white folks thought the association between fever and disease distasteful is debatable but the essential reason anyone cared about this river in the first place was its commercial applications with mining.
Remember: this is lead mining country, with nearby town names the likes of New Diggings and Mineral Point. Lead mining is what brought European settlers to Wisconsin in the first place; the original state capital is only a few miles away in Belmont. The word “galena” is the most important lead ore mineral there is on the planet. It’s what the city was named after, as this region of the country led the nation in lead production in the early 19th Century and the river itself was a major shipping route since it is only five miles upstream of the Mississippi River. So to me, it at least seems proper to call this river the Galena and since 8.8 miles of this 9.3-mile trip is in Illinois, I’ll defer to our neighbors to the south. (This in spite of a bridge on the Wisconsin side about a hundred yards upstream from the put-in that bears in humongous letters “FEVER RIVER”).
What we liked:
The riffles and hills! This trip is the only section of the Galena/Fever River I myself have done, so I can’t speak directly to the description mentioned here. That said, I do understand the Yahara River reference but would be willing to make the claim that the scenery and surroundings, plus the river itself, all get more interesting further downstream (i.e., the Illinois side of the river). At least the trip outlined here. From what I’ve read, the closer you are to the city of Galena, the surroundings get more bland and monotonous while the river slows down to a standstill.
You will pass under three bridges during this trip, the last of which is old, handsome and curiously abandoned. The fourth bridge marks the take-out. All along the way you will encounter very few houses (practically none) and seldom ever hear or see a road. This is basically because there aren’t many roads around the river (which makes for tranquil paddling but an indirect shuttle – see below). The wildlife was wonderful. I saw my first woodchuck and river otter on this trip and the hillsides were just beginning to spring into bloom and buds.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in is awfully confusing. Two roads form a “T” with a third that acts as a dogleg. Not all of them have signs indicating what their names are. Nowhere is it obvious where one should or can put in. I drove around a bit until I settled on what may or may not have been private property (Well, it likely was private property but whether the proprietor is alive and well would be another matter.) This sense of disorientation will continue across the border into Illinois, where road signs will be ambiguous at best and wholly absent at worst. What eventually I determined to be the put-in (which is to say where I put in) requires a schlep of your boat and whatever else you’ll be taking, about 30 yards or so through some questionable plant life.
[Editor’s note: Timothy put in where we intended to in Galena/Fever River I but the gate was closed. We don’t know if it’s private property or not either. And yes, it’s confusing as to where exactly you can put-in.]
But the main thing is the low water. Unless there are some jaw-dropping rapids or creek-like intimacy feeling like you’re in a miniature kingdom hidden away from the rest of the world, no river should be scraping this early in the season. The river is seldom wider than 50-feet but such skinny width does not a creek make.
If we did this trip again:
I would if I were in the area again but not as a separate trip from south-central Wisconsin. This area is too far a drive away and the river too undependably low. But if you’re passing through, visiting, or live there, then you should definitely check it out.
Galena/Fever River I: Horseshoe Bend Road to Buncombe Road
Galena/Fever River III: Twin Bridge Road to Bean Street Road
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Video: Wisconsin Paddles
Wikipedia: Galena River