Rockbridge to County Road AA:
A wonderful stream that slowly meanders around the bluffs of Driftless Richland County, this trip will require the whole day to paddle but you’ll love it. Just don’t bother doing it in a canoe. About 30’ wide, very windy and with lots of obstructions, this is more of a kayak river.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 26, 2014
Previous Trip Report:
April 7, 2013
1.5′ per mile
Gauge note: There is no gauge on the Pine River but water levels are usually quite adequate. Call the local outfitter to find out for sure.
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 7:50p.
Total Time: 5h 50m
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Great blue herons, kingfishers, cows, bulls and lots of beautiful butterflies.
Just shy of 6 miles, though all of it on Highway 80. There’s little traffic on the road but vehicles will pass by pretty fast, so if you find this intimidating, you may want to shuttle via car instead of bicycle.
Earlier in the week friends of mine, avid canoeists, asked me if we all could go paddling on the weekend (quite possibly the silliest and most unnecessary question a friend could ask me, along the lines of a wife asking maybe, pretty please if her husband could watch the game with her). After running through the pros and cons of a couple different stream options, they chose the Pine River in Richland County.
I’ve been scoping out the Pine the last couple years and it has, at its heart, three essential characters: Upstream by Rockbridge it’s narrow, windy and lined around cool rock outcrops. “Midstream” by/in Richland Center it’s more urban but still awfully pretty with a peppy current and even a fun Class I-II drop. And then downstream towards the confluence with the Wisconsin River it widens out, slows down again, gets muddy and the landscape begins to flatten out (while offering occasional views of pretty rolling hills). Miles Paddled is missing a couple links still before we have “completed” the Pine River but for my friends’ sakes I wanted to put the river’s best foot forward, so we went back to Rockbridge.
In the interest of eliminating redundancy, I am simply going to refer you to my earlier trip on the Pine River, (see below) rather than recap the whole thing here. No, no, I’m not trying to quote myself or take the vain academic route of referring to my previous work in the bibliography (“bi-blog-raphy”?) of an assigned book for class.
What I want to pronounce here though, in as clear and unequivocal a voice as I can muster, is this: the thing I best loved about this trip – the cool rock outcrops – are no less true or sincere a year and a half (and lots of other paddles) later. The thing I most disliked about this trip – the obstructions and frustrating deadfall – also are no less the case, in spite of a new rental/livery company that has cleared out some of the mess I first encountered in the spring of 2013.
What we liked:
If you’re looking for an intimate stream that wends this way and that, is narrow and showcases beautiful bluffs and exposed sandstone rock outcrops, the Pine is all those and then some. There are at least five major sections of cool rock formations, ranging from 20’-50’ high, most located in the first six miles and most lining the water itself. This trip is possibly the most scenic anywhere on the Pine River. The river is narrow and creek-like, winding all the time, always alluring. There are deep pools by the rock walls, so I can imagine the fishing to be pretty good. The water quality isn’t great but it’s clear and shale-gray in some sections, typical of Driftless streams. The only trouble is that between the Highway 80 bridge by County Road SR and the bridge at County Road AA, you’ll find lots of downed trees.
What we didn’t like:
Let me back up some before I delve into this dislikes. Before we even drove to Richland County I had told my friends (had assured them) that a new local outfitter had cleaned up the tangled section from Highway 80 to County Road AA. Pine River Paddle and Tube reached out to us last year, after we reported on the ugly logjam monsters and told us they had cleared it all up. Sweet, let’s go! I thought. When I paddled this last year it took me 3.5 hours to paddle 10.5 miles. This time around, going at a slower pace and two of us in a canoe, I thought it would take 4-5 hours but maybe even less since there should be no obstructions slowing us down.
As we were putting-in at the county park in Rockbridge a friendly woman came up to us and started chatting. Turns out, her great grandparents owned the land on which the county park now sits but that’s another story. She asked us how far down we were going and when I told her AA, she seemed to chuckle and then ominously mentioned that when she paddles that same stretch with her girlfriends it takes them about 7 hours. Yeah, yeah, whatever I thought; we were younger and experienced paddlers. I inquired about local efforts cleaning up the deadfall. She allowed that yes, a local outfitter does go through but they leave a lot of it intact in order to preserve the natural setting. OK, we all thought, that’s cool. And so we set off.
Almost immediately, just past the first bridge at Highway 80, about 100 yards from the put-in, there’s a whole lot of crap to dodge, duck, slow down and hope for the best. The two in the canoe gave me that look of what are you getting us into? Six hours later, I wondered the same. Six hours!?! We were only one hour faster than a bunch of grannies!
We encountered a ton of crap in the water, a lot of it totally non-negotiable. Yes, there were indications of sawed off limbs and so forth but the cuts and clearing seemed arbitrary at best. For instance, if you’re going through the trouble of cutting back nasty branches with the potential for even nastier strainers, then why for the love of all things holy not cut it all the way back? Why saw off a limb midway through and not at the base of the trunk? I then started thinking about this allusion (illusion?) of preserving the natural setting by not removing the whole tree. That’s great and all if you’re way away up in northern Wisconsin in a pristine setting or a protected wildlife setting for beavers or bird habitat or whatever. But the Pine River basically runs parallel to Highway 80 during this entire trip, so what does preserving a natural setting have to do with highway traffic never out of earshot?
This trip was pretty awful in a canoe (we all swapped boats midway through the trip). The Pine is just too twisty and there’s just too much damn shit in the already narrow stream to make canoeing fun. You really want to paddle this in a kayak.
The upshot: In the first report on this section I warned about two low-clearance bridges that would be “impossible to pass under in a canoe.” Well, I was wrong about that. Having first run this in April last year, the water must have been much higher. Still though, I strongly discourage paddling this in a canoe. Moreover, I don’t want there to be bad blood or vibes in the paddling community. Before writing up this trip report I checked the Facebook page of Pine River Paddle and Tube, and the most recent message on 8/7/14, stated this:
“Section 3 (Highway SR/80 Bridge to Highway AA Bridge) is now in great shape for kayaking and is able to now be used by Canoes as well!! Josh Cunningham and I took a 7 hour pass through the section and removed all of the ducking points. Places that we passed up before due to danger were taken out. This provides you with better options. Starting at Highway D now gives you a 3-4 hour option with a very nice landing area to finish at!! Thanks for your patience. Check it out this weekend.”
Well, dog my cat. So maybe we missed this by two weeks. Maybe we just happened to catch the Pine during a bad time. I don’t know. Timing is everything when paddling. I offer all of this for the reader to make her own best-informed choice. The Pine is a great river and absolutely worth the drive. Whatever obstructions there are also are worth the effort. But do plan accordingly and give yourself a lot of time before paddling this section and at least mentally prepare for getting dirty and wet, even if you don’t in the end.
One last thing, my friends the avid canoeists, told me the following day that they were going to sell their canoe and buy kayaks instead. My intention was not to evangelize kayaks at the expense of canoes but I took this as a good conclusion to what I worried had been a bad experience. Nope, they loved the paddle and took it all in good stride (even though one, in my 15’ kayak, tipped over after running into a tree and got awfully wet).
If we did this trip again:
I love this stretch of the Pine River, so yes, it will be done again in future. Not in a canoe though. And not starting mid-afternoon! I wouldn’t take newbies on this either. While the current is slack, there are too many tight turns and obstructions, plus it’s a long day of paddling. But otherwise this is a great trip that gets a strong endorsement.
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:
Previous Trip Report:
April 7, 2013
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Paddle through a huge irregular rock formation, then wind along the rolling hills of Richland County as you round one exposed rock outcropping after another.
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Wildlife: Lots of cranes, a blue heron, wood ducks, muskrats, a beaver, a turtle, cardinals, blue jays, geese, some fin-flapping of fish and bulls, sheep and an alpaca if you want to count farm animals.
Years ago I did a segment of the Pine downstream of Richland Center to its confluence with the Wisconsin River which was pleasant but not spectacularly memorable. So I thought checking out a stretch upstream of the small city would be in good order. It was many times better than I had hoped.
There’s very little available information on paddling the Pine River (which often gets mixed up with its better known namesake in Northeastern Wisconsin) so I hope this helps get the word out because it really is a great river to paddle.
What we liked:
Exposed sandstone! There’s so much of it and you pass by so many formations (many of them 50-feet high) that I lost count (there were at least a dozen in this segment alone). The rocks are reminiscent of the Dells on the Wisconsin River but the Pine is much more remote and significantly less-paddled.
The accesses deserve their own mention too, the take-out especially. The County Road AA bridge landing is an inspiring one (it had me rubbing my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming). Not only is it nicely maintained but there’s a floating dock for easy access. Mind you, you’re kind of in the middle-of-nowhere, yet someone thought to put a floating dock by an unadorned bridge a couple miles north of Richland Center. It’s one of many serendipities you will encounter on the delightful Pine. All that said, I don’t recommend taking out there (see below).
The highlight and surprise deserving the most attention may very well be Pier Natural Bridge Park, the put-in for this trip, right off of Highway 80. It’s a 50-foot high, half-mile long Lego block of sandstone rock through which the West Branch of the Pine River flows. There’s a ladder there that gives you access to the top of the rock as well as a tunnel that allows you to walk through it to the other side where there is a mowed area allowing for up to six campsites (for next to nothing). It could not have felt more random. The West Branch itself is hardly paddleable (you can almost jump over it from one bank to the other) but you can and should paddle through the rock because how often do you get to do that?
I don’t know what distinguishes a river from a creek but for all intents and purposes the Pine feels much more “creek-like” than a river. It’s rarely wider than 25-feet (and often much skinnier and tapered than that, especially around bends) and boy does it meander. Bear in mind you’re awfully close to the Kickapoo River whose moniker is “the crookedest river in the world.” The Pine might not earn the same serpentine superlative but it should receive an honorable mention.
Just to give you an impression of its wavering course, consider the following: while the distance from Rockbridge to Richland Center is 9 miles along Highway 80 (which is as direct as flying like a crow can get), the river distance between the two towns is 14 miles! Moreover, the road distance between the County Road D and County Road SR bridges is 0.9 miles. Paddling between the two is 2.5 miles. So if you don’t like zigzagging, this paddle might not be for you.
What we didn’t like:
There was a lot of deadfall. You will tangle and contend with multiple sitings of deadfall, some of which are a little dangerous and definitely so in high water. Only once did I have to get out of my boat and pull it over a downed tree (still skittish after pinning against a tree and then being dragged under on the Sugar River last month). The rest of the time (and there are many such occasions) I was able to thread my way through (or crouch under) to safely pass without portaging.
I did this in my 9-foot crossover kayak so a longer boat would certainly have a more difficult time. Since the Pine is so crooked, I do not recommend paddling this in a canoe (unless you enjoy frustration) or if you are a beginner (unless you have a penchant for challenges). The ideal boat for such a trip would be a smaller kayak in the 10-foot range designed for creeks.
Also, there are two low-clearance bridges you will encounter. They are impossible to pass under in a canoe and even in a kayak, safe passage is a close-call. In high water, they would be impassable. Don’t be dumb about it, portage if you are unsure.
Lastly, I should point out that while there are moments of intimacy and remoteness, you’re never far from Highway 80 or the sound (and occasional sight) of cars.
Upon reflection: The night before this trip I had been reading a lot about the paddling ordinances of Illinois, which are rather onerous. Whereas just about all of the rivers in Wisconsin are open to the public, only a few in Illinois are (most of the time you are inadvertently trespassing). Perhaps with that still in mind, I became a bit apprehensive when scouting the takeout with my little VW Golf (like the silly city car it probably is) out in rural farm country and a big old truck slowed up to me at the bridge, its driver-side window rolling down. Aw, crap! I thought. This guy’s probably gonna give me a hard time about something.
In fact, the opposite happened. The man inside, “Rocky”, (I kid you not) was absolutely affable and friendly, routing me on, asking questions and chitchatting about the Pine River. Thinking that I was just finishing up (I hadn’t even begun!), Rocky even offered me shuttle service. I told him I had my bike and was OK but I was really touched. Kindness of strangers…
If we did this trip again:
I probably will though not until paddling some other segments first. Being early April, the landscape was still pretty barren. I’d recommend doing this later in spring, in summer or during the autumn colors (if the water level allows).
Also, as delightful as the improved take-out is on County Road AA, I would finish the trip at the bridge before it on Highway 80 and County Road SR. Between the two bridges is a lot of deadfall (much of it annoying quite frankly). Plus, after all the deadfall there isn’t anything you haven’t already seen leading up to the AA takeout. So do yourself a favor and leave the deadfall to the beavers who caused it in the first place.