Highway 108 to Veterans Memorial County Park:
A perfect little trip if you have only an hour or two to paddle. Whether together with your morning cup of coffee before a long boring day of errands or with a cocktail after a long boring day at work, your spirit will be replenished by the clear water, swift current and pretty environment of this clip of the La Crosse River.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 28, 2014
5.5′ per mile
We recommend this level. The La Crosse should be pretty reliable in general. If you’re paddling upstream of West Salem, use the Sparta gauge. You’ll be fine in the vicinity of 3.5’ and 150-170 cfs. We don’t recommend paddling too much below these levels to avoid scraping in downtown Sparta or on the several ledges. Downstream from West Salem and to the Mississippi River, refer to the La Crosse gauge and look for levels in the ballpark of 3.4’ and 450 cfs. This stretch probably can be paddled at lower levels, but we do not precise information on that yet.
Below dam off Highway 108/County Road C, West Salem, Wisconsin
Veterans Memorial County Park
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 1h 10m
Miles Paddled: 4.25
One bald eagle, a big red fish and a great blue heron.
A simple, straight shot on Highway 16.
Why such a short trip? Two reasons: I had to drive back to Madison and after Veterans Memorial Park there are no landings until County Road B, 9.4 miles downstream (thus making for a 13.5-mile paddle basically beginning at 2:00 pm, followed by a two-hour drive back home, which even by my standards is a bit impractical. Related update in 2019: a reader emailed to let us know that there is indeed an established landing next to the I-90 bridge – thanks Roger!) But this quick section thrilled me. It’s satisfying in every way while whetting my curiosity to seek it out further.
We had paddled a long upstream section of the La Crosse River earlier this year in August and while we enjoyed it and had a great time, neither of us was all that wowed or wildly impressed. We took out in Bangor, about 4 miles upstream of Neshonoc Lake, in West Salem. Unless you’re into lake paddling, it’s best to continue on the La Crosse below the dam that creates the lake, which is where this trip begins.
I don’t know who or what flipped the switch between Bangor and the dam but the river environs are quite different – decidedly prettier and more intimate below the dam. Since I haven’t yet paddled below West Salem, I can only surmise from consulting maps and reiterate from what I’ve read in guidebooks about the rest of the river onwards to La Crosse and the Mississippi River but the beauty, if not also intimacy, just grows as it goes downstream. To be sure, it’s not uncommon for two sections of one singular river to look and feel distinctly different, however geographically close to one another they are. To wit, the Black River above and below the dam in downtown Black River Falls; one is rocky and lined with rapids, the other sandy and slow as molasses and yet each is separated by 10 miles at best. But I hadn’t anticipated such a distinction here on the La Crosse, a much smaller stream. It was a welcome surprise and an absolute delight.
What we liked:
You know that feeling you get in your gut, maybe a tingle in the back of your brain, when even the put-in looks cool and all you can think or say is “aw, hell yeah!” And so this too begins. What’s great about the put-in? A few things actually. One, it’s a dedicated landing with a ton of room for cars and basic privacy if you need to pee or change clothes, etc. Access to the water is a cakewalk. The put-in is basically below the bridge.
About 35 yards away is the quite attractive and historic-looking powerhouse to the left of the actual dam; cream-colored bricks accentuated by red doors and window sills tucked into a hillside, the building looks like a postcard from a bygone era (well, 1940 to be exact). Cooler still, underneath the powerhouse is a tunnel of sorts from which outflow above the dam is funneled through – I’m talking solid Class II rapids stuff (and reportedly generating 2.3 gigawatt hours annually or enough power for about 200 homes). I am 99% certain there would be no realistic or safe way to run this but it’s a fun thought experiment to consider entering this tunnel and riding the rapids in the pitch dark to the other side in daylight! Nonetheless, the outflow creates enough turbulence that a nice wavetrain and Class I rapid perseveres to the bridge and can be accessed depending on where you put-in and how much you feel like paddling upstream strong current. Whether you do this or just put-in sensibly, the setting is picturesque complete with a rolling hill above the opposite shore and it’s a great beginning.
About 60’ wide for the most part, the river here has a sandy bottom and a swift current (not dangerous swift but nicely moving along). Tall banks flank both sides of the river ranging from 30’ to 70’ high – some crowned with pretty stands of pine – while sandbars dot the streambed itself, adding to the sense of intimacy. A couple modest rock outcrops and later an old metal truss bridge generously lend to the esthetics. All four miles of this trip are enclosed within the town of West Salem, so you will see houses atop the banks from time to time but they’re intermittently spaced and nicely ensconced in the natural environment, nothing obtrusive or obnoxious.
Looking at a satellite map of the urban surroundings of West Salem, you wouldn’t guess that this little trip would be so pretty and private, but it is. One particular stretch reminded me of Mirror Lake State Park with a perfect reflected image on the water of high banks topped with pine and this, it turns out, is practically right behind the godforsaken La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway (where we camped at Veterans Memorial Park back in August, racecars throughout the torturous night revved and ran louder than screeching banshees from hell).
There are three sets of short riffles and light rapids, as well as one Class II ledge where a small dam was removed years ago, roughly 20 yards downstream from the County M bridge (also the halfway point at two miles in). The ledge itself is maybe 2’ high but it’s gradual, not sudden. You’ll hear it before you see it, plus you’ll see a house on the right-hand side with a “No Trespassing” sign lest your druthers to portage or scout were on the river-right. An obvious “tongue” of water like an upside-down ‘V’ shows you where to run the drop (or you can portage around it on the river-left). There’s a fantastic hole with a standing wave below the drop on the left that’s perfect for surfing or some light tricks (squirts and turns) if you’re into that. The portage path on the left provides an opportunity to run the drop as many times as your heart pleases. This drop is a delight!
After you pass the Highway 16 bridge, you’ll see a fence on the left and the first signs of Veterans Memorial Park. Once you see either RVs or tents (likelier the former, unfortunately) the take-out is soon to come. You’ll spot a boulder and stone remnants on the left at a campsite (where we’d camped in August, incidentally) followed immediately by a couple rocks in the river by a very tiny island. The take-out is just after this on the left. Because it’s a nondescript “landing,” it’s easy to miss. You should stake it out first so you know what you’re looking for on the river. There are indoor restrooms, with showers, in a building just down a path from the take-out.
What we didn’t like:
Too short and not enough time to do more! OK, that’s on me and not very objective. This is a great little trip – evidenced too by six other kayakers whom I met at the take-out; they too paddled just this 4-mile section.
The only other thing worth mentioning is Veterans Memorial Park. As far as take-outs go, this one is mixed. On one hand, it’s very easy to access and parking is not a problem. On the other hand, it’s not the easiest thing to find! The park is huge and a little bit confusing. You want to first find the campground and from there find the river and start looking for a nondescript spot in between designated sites. Or just ask someone. It’s not a needle in a haystack but it’s not obvious either; the warren of one-way roads adds to the disorientation.
As far as camping goes, we can’t really endorse this place. Sure, it’s better than nowhere… but not by much. The sites are all on top of one another with zero privacy or natural division between them. Our site back in August had been littered with dogshit as though plastic bags had gone out of style the day before. Plus the morally objectionable noise from the infernal Speedway truly was incredible. I’m not talking about how the distant site of a silent plane up in the sky while you’re in the backcountry of Alaska spoils the sense of isolation and wilderness. No, I’m talking dentist drill boring through your eardums combined with a bandsaw ripping through galvanized tin, both on decibel level one billion. That’s how unbearably obnoxious it was. We couldn’t even hear one another talk sitting at a picnic table. Think I’m exaggerating? It’s not for nothing that it bills itself as “Wisconsin’s only NASCAR sanctioned weekly racing asphalt track.” And it’s one mile away from your campsite, wherever you pitch or park. Dogshit, no privacy and deafening noise all for $20 a night. Best to try your luck Sunday-Thursday.
If we did this trip again:
Next time I’ll paddle all the way down to County B for a 13.5-mile trip or, if I’m feeling frisky (and when aren’t I?) keep paddling past B all the way down to the Mississippi River another 4.3 miles for an 18ish-mile journey. Alas, that will have to wait until 2015 probably, as a third trip before first freeze seems unlikely at this point.