Touring the Lake Waubesa Wetlands in Dane County:
A pretty network of backwater sloughs and spring-fed streams to explore, the Lake Waubesa Wetlands are an interesting local diversion, conveniently located just fifteen minutes from downtown Madison.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 13, 2016
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater + Lake Paddling
Being a lake with spring-fed streams, water levels should be always reliable.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Goodland County Park off Waubesa Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.00018, -89.33949
Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 5
Turtles, ducks, geese, owl, green and blue herons, muskrat and two deer.
I’ve known of and been curious about these wetlands for awhile now. In fact, I half-remember tooling around back here once many years ago, before I really knew anything about paddling. On a rainy Friday the 13th, paddling a spooky wetlands seemed like a cool idea, particularly as it meant a 10-minute drive and no bike shuttle.
The wetlands complex comprises three area features of interest: Swan Creek, Deep Spring and Murphy Creek. Paddling southwest from the put-in at Goodland County Park lines you up with these, respectively. Of the three, Murphy Creek is the prominent, allowing one to paddle up it farther than the other two. The navigable section of Swan Creek is mostly straight and very narrow. Deadfall and silty shallow water will prevent any significant exploration of it but poking around takes only a few minutes. Deep Spring is definitely worth the minimal time and negligible effort of paddling up and exploring. One slough after another lie back here in a setting that feels very far away from settlement or civilization, considering how close you are both to Madison itself and McFarland. Murphy Creek feels more like a tributary stream. The current is slight, so paddling upstream it is easy and rewards you with good wildlife opportunities and more quaint cranny-nooks.
What we liked:
Lake Waubesa is a rather pretty body of water. It’s kind of like the George Harrison of Madison’s four lakes in that it’s the unassuming, self-effacing lake that receives the least attention, after the hugeness of Lake Mendota (John), the cuteness of Lake Monona (Paul) and the exception-to-the-rule Lake Wingra (Ringo). (I realize this analogy could rival Talmudic scholars in its interpretation. Shouldn’t George be Wingra and Ringo Monona? Or John be Waubesa and Paul Mendota? Maybe. Whatever. Let’s move on.)
Compared to Mendota and Monona, Lake Waubesa has very little shoreline development. Indeed, its northwestern and southwestern corners are all public land. So even though we’re little enthused about most lake paddling prospects, Waubesa has a lot to like, the designated wetlands in particular (so does Wingra, by the way, as it’s almost all enveloped within the UW-Arboretum, but that’s another story). The water is very clear, even on an overcast, rainy day, and on shore there’s an attractive mix of cattails, shrub-carr, and fens. There’s even a gentle knoll here and there to stand out from the otherwise flat horizon of a lake environment.
Most sensible people probably don’t think of paddling when it’s already drizzling outside, but I’ve seldom considered myself to be most or sensible. Indeed, with the right clothing and attitude, there’s a real novelty to it, in a quiet backwater wetlands in particular. Everything already is saturated and literally bogged down – when in Rome… I would even go so far as to recommend paddling an easy there-and-back trip like this (a wetlands, a swamp, a floodplains, etc) specifically on a rainy day. For one, you’ll have the whole place to yourself. Secondly, fog, drizzle and spongy seeps all kind of go hand in hand. If atmospherics matter to your paddling druthers, then a wetlands on a rainy day is a great outing.
I liked Deep Spring and Murphy Creek the best. Deep Spring has a series of seemingly endless sloughs and back channels. Most don’t lead or connect anywhere, but they’re still cool back alleys into the natural environment; who knows what secrets lurk there until you happen upon them?! And Murphy Creek itself is a fun sidetrack in that it allows you to escape the lake proper for a spell and feel like you’re creek paddling.
What we didn’t like:
To be brutally honest, I wasn’t expecting much of this trip. Saying nothing of the cool, rainy weather, this last-minute trip was all about just being on the water and making the most of it, as it was my only time to paddle that weekend. It ended up being much more pleasant than I had expected. The only disappointment was not finding any bubbling springs in the Deep Spring section. This could have been due to a couple things – the gray skies causing the water to look darker than it would in sunlight; the fact that it was drizzling for half of this trip; and that I have no real idea if there are actual springs one could visibly see (and if so, where they’re located specifically).
It would have been nice to paddle upstream further on either Swan or Murphy Creeks, but deadfall precludes that option (incidentally, neither of the creeks can be accessed at the nearest road bridge west of the lake. Both are more like bubbling brooks that far upstream).
Fee or free? Then there’s the ambiguity of whether paddlers have to pay to use the boat launch at Goodland County Park. If you’re operating a boat, then yes. But if you’re paddling? I don’t know. Or perhaps it’s to park a vehicle in the lot (more on this here). I’m a better-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission kind of guy and there’s something inherently flawed in my own worldview about paying money to paddle a lake unless we’re talking Great Lakes or really good ones like the Boundary Waters or Sylvania. But it would be a real bummer to come back to your vehicle with a ticket on the windshield, so it’s best to resolve this ahead of time.
If we did this trip again:
Sure, I’d revisit this trip another time, although maybe not if I’m actually required to pay money to do so.
General: Wisconsin DNR
General: Wisconsin State Natural Areas
Guide: Waubesa Wetlands in Scientific Context