Horseshoe Bend Road to Buncombe Road:
A stream in the heart of lead-mining country in southwestern Wisconsin, the Galena (aka Fever) River alternates between swift riffles and flatwater as it meanders around cow pastures, wooded hills and attractive rock formations. The highlights on this trip are two abandoned railroad tunnels, both of which can be explored on foot.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 21, 2014
8′ per mile
Buncombe: ht/ft: 3.40 | kcfs: .2 (cfs: 200)
This is the recommended minimum level.
Horseshoe Bend Road, Lead Mine, Wisconsin
Buncombe Road farm bridge
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 5:50p.
Total Time: 3h 50m
Miles Paddled: 11.25
This trip is for the birds! In addition to the usual suspects of great blue herons, bald eagles (both of which are always welcome to see and never taken for granted!) and turkey vultures, (which, sorry but I can take or leave) the songbirds were thick as thieves: a striking orange Baltimore oriole and a blazing blue indigo bunting, one cedar waxwing (I think), plus lots of nuthatches and of course redwing blackbirds (“singing in the dead of night…”). But the best by far, for me, was a mother blue-winged teal and her ducklings. Also, there was one moment when I was some 25 yards upstream from a bank when suddenly one by one by one times seven more turtles kerplunked into the river, easily ten in all.
Only 6 miles but a hilly six miles at that. The beginning stretch on Buncombe Road is quite pretty and pastoral as it runs parallel to Coon Branch Creek… and cows.
Well, it was Saturday on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, so why not take advantage of that extra bit of sunlight and have a double-header paddle (the first being Carroll Creek) capitalizing on the effects of high water from heavy rains earlier in the week?
The upper Galena/Fever River has been on my to-do list for years. The wait? Water volume. This trip averages a gradient of eight feet per mile, so it drains quickly. For the last two months, I’ve kept my eye on the gauge and the prospects have been dismal. The river usually hovers around the 3’ heighth mark, which I determined to be too shallow. After a rage of rain last week I thought this would be a good time to check out the upper segment. As of Thursday (June 19th) the gauge read 4.8’, the highest I’ve ever read it at. On Friday it had dropped to 4’. Come Saturday, when I ran it, it had dropped down to 3.4’. That’s a drop of 16” in 48 hours! It was mostly fine at this level, with a little scraping and butt-scooting here and there. It might be runnable as low as 3’ but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Boring History Lesson: So what the heck is the correct name of this river anyway, Galena or Fever? Well, both basically. Last year I made a case arguing that it should be Galena and never mind the bucolic colloquialism in Wisconsin where it’s known as the Fever. My reasoning is “galena” is the lead ore that put this area of the country on the map in the early 19th Century and lead to the lead mining and smelting bonanza. While that’s all true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s also true that the voyageurs’ original name for the river was Riviere aux Feves, which in French means “River of Beans,” alluding to wild beans that used to grow along the river. It’s possible that the English translation corrupted the French from feves to fever.
More telling (and tragic) though is the original Indian name for the river: “Maucaubee,” which translates as “fever” or even “fever that blisters,” which was their term for small pox. The story is that after crossing the stream in what is now the city of Galena, in Illinois, the Indians contracted and brought back with them smallpox infections. Thank you white people! (this actually happened all over the place, wherever white settlers were led by so-called Manifest Destiny, not just here in the Upper Midwest, or what then was known as the Northwest Territory.) Anyway, many Indians died because they had no prior exposure to smallpox and thus no resistance to it. As such, they named the stream “Small Pox River” – why mince words? Tell it like it is. Chlamydia Creek? The South Branch of Syphilis Brook? Old habits die hard, more so in rural areas where sleeping dogs are let to lie. On most maps, the stream (even in Wisconsin) is called the Galena River. Once in Illinois it’s incontestably called the Galena River. But there is a back-story and a backstabbing history here, which I believe ought to be respected. Hence the two names, Galena/Fever.
Also, if a single-entity stream can abruptly and whimsically change names just like that, as is the case in Amherst, Wisconsin, where the Tomorrow River magically “becomes” the Waupaca River by virtue of nothing more than passing a dam (and what is a dam but artificial and arbitrary) then why shouldn’t a river that begins in Wisconsin (known there by one name) and ends in Illinois (known there by something else) be different? A state boundary line, especially the one in between Wisconsin and Illinois, is essentially arbitrary and artificial, no less so than a dam altering the course of a river. It’s confusing, certainly but maybe more interesting because of the ambiguity. In my oh so humble opinion.
What we liked:
The rock outcrops and bluffs are lovely. To be clear, they’re not as incredible as those found on Carroll Creek (where I had been earlier in the day) or even the nearby Grant River but they are quite nice in their own right. Last year I ran the segment of this river that begins where this trip ends. The two are similar and are very pleasant. The distinguishing point between them is the presence of two abandoned railroad tunnels on this trip.
The first one, named Strawbridge Tunnel, a mile downstream from the County Road W bridge, comes fast on river-right above a sharp left turn and a frisky riffle. Seeing it is easier than accessing it. You’ll see a huge concrete abutment on the left-hand side. At the time of this writing (June 2014), the banks on the right-hand side are pretty wild, wooly and overgrown. You’d want to be wearing pants and closed-toe shoes if you care to venture into the tunnel. With the mercury in the mid-80s and a humidity index of a million percent, I was not about to be donning a pair of pants, thanks just the same. Fortunately, the second tunnel, called Buncombe Tunnel (about half a mile or so upstream of the take-out) is much easier to access and explore. It’s nothing like an epiphany and you don’t even need a flashlight, because it’s so small it’s naturally lit. But it’s still fun and maybe preferable for those with a fear of bats, darkness, and small spaces.
Also, there are two Class I rapids in between the Bennett Road and Ollie Bell Road bridges, the first a small ledge, the second a fun 50-yard run of tiny standing waves. Speaking of bridges, there’s a very handsome old red iron truss one you pass under near the second tunnel. I never tire of those old hallmarks, vestiges of a bygone time.
What we didn’t like:
The fun stuff notwithstanding, one could say that this river is bullshit. Literally. As noted previously, there are cows and bulls all over the river, often in it, often pissing and/or crapping in it too (supposedly the river runs clear, but it was very muddy when I paddled it. Probably due to the recent rains but also, you know, the poop plopping out of the livestock right into the damn stream right in front of your own two eyes!).
On a more serious note, because the livestock is so rampant, there are lots of young calves. Cute as dickens, no doubt about it. But get too near one and there’s sure to be a standoff and tense moment between you and mama cow. Should the cute calves be on one side of the river, the rest of the herd on the other, and then there you are with no more motive than to just keep on keeping on the stream, you’re asking for trouble. Now, maybe nothing would happen. Perhaps the parent(s) or foster parent would simply bellow menacingly in that admirable I-love-my-baby way but would be virtually powerless to do anything about a paddler happening to cross in between them and the calves. Would a cow really leap off the bank and charge into the water, thereby very actuarially breaking its legs? Answer is: I have no idea and don’t care to find out. The paddling matador would rather wait it out.
But I had to wait twice on this trip. The first time no more than 25 yards from the put-in with nothing more to do than stare at my car and wonder if trying to do two paddles in one day was a dumb idea, all for four calves to cross one by one across the river back to mama calling over from the other side. Again, endearing, truly. But come on! The second time was for the whole herd, horned and all, to decide to slowly, ever so slowly hoof it across the water so as to avoid a “confrontation” with yours truly. I even started shouting “H’yah!” in hopes of inspiring the lackadaisical cattle to take less time than forever and a day. I felt as artificial as Billy Crystal in City Slickers. What on earth is a New Jerseyan doing shouting at bucolic bovines very obviously out of his element in something masquerading as a commanding manner?
The put-in itself is fine but a little annoying. The bridge at Horseshoe Bend Road is a designated fishing area so parking is more or less friendly. You’ll have either to slip your boat underneath barbed wire, hoist your boat up and over the ladder staircase provided for the public or some combination of the two (that may or may not involve scratching your boat and/or damaging the barbed wire fence – just saying).
There are cows upstream and downstream here and on both banks of the river, as already mentioned, so be prepared for a traffic jam. But not even half a mile downstream of the put-in is an absurdly low double-wire combo. It’s impossibly low in the center of the stream. But even on the far left or far right sides, by the banks, the wires are precariously close to the water. I didn’t know whether the first was electric but I wasn’t about to find out while standing in the water (which is what I felt like I had to do since I wasn’t comfortable ducking or going limbo underneath them, especially as both are at a swift riffle). The second wire is barbed. There’s about a 1’ gap in between the two wires.
Let me just recap all that: Two wires, the first possibly electric, the second certainly barbed, parallel to one another, dangling very low and close to the water, above strong, pushy current. Cute, huh? All only half a mile from the put-in. Whoever set this up is a sick sadist. With wires that low, what is the goal? To try and trip the hooves of would-be jail-breaking bulls?
So I got out, straddled the first, then the second, all while holding onto my kayak so as not to lose it, yet always mindful not to touch the potentially electric first wire. Mind you, I had only been on the river for half a mile and this was after waiting at least 15 mins for the stupid calves to cross the river. Not a great way to begin an 11-mile trip at 2 pm! The Highway 11 bridge comes shortly after this and I very seriously thought about just taking out right there, giving up on this trip, and walking back to the car. But I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’m not personally too convinced about “signs” or the universe telling me anything. Really? The universe is gonna go out of its way, with all the shit going on, both here and around the whole damn world, to suggest to one skinny kayaker originally from New Jersey now in Benton, Wisconsin on the Galena aka Fever River not to paddle it? I think not.
Really though, the main thing I didn’t like about this trip is how flat and slow the river was in some sections. For such a gradient notorious for being shallow I was not at all expecting to be working so hard. Minus the coffee and cigarette breaks for the cows, and the tunnel detour, I paddled constantly and vigorously. This stream is a drive from most directions, more or less a 90-min trip from the Madison area. That’s a decent drive for a creek with little to no current in some sections. I wasn’t terribly keen on the “muddy” water either (at least I sure as hell hope it was mud).
If we did this trip again:
Well, for one thing, I’d use a longer kayak or canoe and not my whitewater crossover. The river is never wide but it sure was slow in many sections and I was sweating just to keep moving in my 9’ boat. But I’m not sure I would do this trip again anyway. While not geographically so far from my home, this river is only indirectly accessible due to the country roads. It’s a commitment of time, and I’m not sure the best investment in gas driving to it. I’d sooner check out as yet paddled stretches of the Pecatonica River or return to the Platte, Little Platte, or Grant.
Additionally, this stream can be paddled only infrequently due to its gradient (unless you’re OK with taking your boat for a walk). That said, if I lived in the area my attitude towards this stream would be different. As such, I’d try my luck on an even more shallow-prone segment of the river, putting in on Twin Branch Road and taking out at Horseshoe Bend Road, for instance. But such an upstream stretch would be very difficult to catch at the right time with adequate water, thus something sensible only for local paddlers to attempt. Hint, hint…
At some point, perhaps later in the season, I will complete my reconnaissance of the Galena/Fever by putting in where I took out on last year’s trip in Illinois and paddle into the city of Galena and down into the Mississippi River. But that’s just part of my OCD logic of dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
Galena/Fever River I: County Road W to Ensche Road
Galena/Fever River II: Ensch Road to Buckhill Road
Galena/Fever River IV: Twin Bridge Road to Bean Street Road
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Video: Wisconsin Paddles
Wikipedia: Galena River