Boundary Road to Kristof Road:
An exhilarating section of the upper Plover River with spectacular boulder gardens, thrilling Class I rapids, and a gorgeous, mostly undeveloped landscape of thick woods. This trip does however, have a few tricky situations for even experienced paddlers, where fast current combines with narrow side channels around islands and a bevy of boulder gardens.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 27, 2019
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I rapids
≈ 5-7′ per mile
Eau Claire River (Kelly): ht/ft: 1.3 | cfs: 310
Gauge note: There is no gauge on the Plover, so the the best/nearest correlation is on the comparable Eau Claire River. Additionally, there is a visual gauge at the take-out (Kristof Road). Check the center-right boulder on the downstream side of the bridge.
We recommend this level. We still scraped and bumper-bouldered a little bit, but generally speaking there was a comfortable cushion. Conversely, the first couple miles are wily enough without wanting too much flow to make it faster and harder to control.
Boundary Road/Townline Road, Ringle, Wisconsin
Kristof Road, Reid, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:40p. Out at 6:25p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Great blue herons, bald eagles, deer and wood ducks.
5.8 miles for vehicles, all along County Road Y. 6 miles for bicycles up Kristof, Plover, and Esker Roads.
For reasons both personal and circumstantial, 2019 was the year of the Plover (among other things), springing in with beginning at its last section of river paddling (Jordan to Iverson Parks) and eventually falling back on its upper section. (We say “river paddling” with deliberate intention, as the final miles of the chipper Plover comprise the slow flowage of McDill Pond all the way to its confluence at the Wisconsin River (where both rivers are stopped by two adjacent dams). There’s no reason why it’s taken me (Timothy) so long to finally explore the Plover (and subsequently fall in love with it).
Meister Mike Svob, in his venerable Paddling Southern Wisconsin, lays out three separate trips on the charming Plover. The first begins at Bevent (rhymes with “event”) in south-central Marathon County; the second picks up below the Bentley Pond in north-central Portage County; and finally the third sets off on the opposite side of the dam that creates Jordan Pond and winds its twisty way down to Stevens Point – arguably the most popular of the Plover’s paddling trips. Curiously, he makes no mention whatsoever of the river upstream of Bevent. Nothing. Nada. Nary a word. This omission is probably music to the ears to certain devotees of the Plover who know that its most and thrilling segments lie upstream of Bevent, but it just defies understanding in general. Svob is usually reliable in saying something about a given body of water up- or downstream of whatever section his recommended trip covers, but not here. This is practically inexplicable considering that Bevent, his starting point, is more or less the halfway point of the Plover River itself. In other words, the first half of the river gets no recognition whatsoever, even though he lays out three separate trips on its second half (which, for the record, is a higher-than-average amount of trips per individual stream in his good book).
But Svob is not alone in giving short shrift to the Plover’s upper half. On the Paddling the Plover blog, which is devoted almost exclusively to the Plover River, the writer states “There is a lot of stream above Bevent… that are not of much interest or need much explanation” and that all in all “it is very small. Great for trout, bad for paddling.” Fighting words for champions of the obscure… or more evidence of a local conspiracy to thwart out-of-town paddlers from its first half? For it’s precisely in the Plover’s upper stretches where the creek-like river is at its most gorgeous and engaging. So, go figure…
Barry first explored a spectacular stretch of the upper Plover in 2017 (to wit, Esker Road to Bevent Drive) and boldly put this exotic stretch on the map. The tale he tells, along with the corresponding pictures he took, are all captivating and inspiring. Immediately, I knew I had to come and check this out for myself. And so I did in July of this year, doing a paddler’s due diligence by scouting each and every single bridge in a 9-mile swath as the crow flies, from Hatley to Bevent. On my trusty hand-drawn map (‘cause that’s how sophisticated I am), I noted the pros and cons of each bridge together with any honorary mentions (like how “Townline” Road is actually Boundary Road or how “Bridge” Road is actually Bobritch Road; or how there is neither a wayside nor a park despite Google marking a “Wayside Park” due south of the exchange of Highway 29 and County Road Y in Hatley). Curious inconsistencies indeed. Svob’s and a Plover River blog’s omissions, Boundary & Bobritch, nonexistent parks… what’s up with the upper Plover?
By the look of the landscape and favorable access to the river itself, it seemed that Boundary/Townline was the most practical starting point. (At Konkel Road, the bridge upstream, the environment seemed marshy with a fair amount of downed trees to dodge, whereas everything looked neater and nicer at Boundary Road, including roadside parking and a path to the water to launch from.) As for taking-out, the paddler has a dilemma of three choices: Kristof Road, Highway 153, or Bevent Drive. As Barry noted, there’s a compelling ledge underneath the Highway 153 bridge that no paddler would ever willingly forfeit; but the problem is the only access to/fro the river is on the upstream side of the bridge. Furthermore, in the two-ish miles from Kristof to Highway 153 the Plover has a couple problems, as detailed by Barry – namely, developed banks, disappearing boulder gardens, and a dangerous low-clearance bridge. Conversely, the two-ish mile stretch from Highway 153 to Bevent Drive sounds genuinely delightful, but ending a trip at Bevent Drive would make for an 11-mile outing, which is generally long on such a narrow and meandering stream as the Plover, not to mention the probability of obstacles in the aftermath of the wild wind storms of July. And when I was doing the basic recon, right after these storms, the river was way too high and unambiguously dangerous. But a couple months later (uncannily almost to the day, two years after Barry’s trip) a new opportunity to revisit the beguiling Plover availed itself. The water level was lower than in July but higher than on Barry’s trip, which seemed just about perfect.
We chose to take out at Kristof Road since it was already getting late in the afternoon and it was actively drizzling still. We didn’t know what we’d run into on the unknown portions of the river, so the best bet was just skipping the Kristof-to-Highway 153 segment, since we did know that it would be a little lackluster and probably stressful (getting off the water before dark, dealing with a low-clearance bridge at higher water levels, etc). So, why not end on a high note and keep it simple?
The put-in at Boundary/Townline Road is excellent, with ample room to park a vehicle along the road and a well-trod footpath to the river itself. (As Barry noted, just about all of the bridges up here have favorable access – mostly likely from folks fishing, though from some paddlers, too – and generally most offer good to good enough roadside parking, too.) The setting and scenery is beautiful right away; rugged, wooded, and with a copper tincture to the swift-flowing water, surrounded by towering trees and dotted with modest boulders. A steepish hill off to the left lends a welcome perspective to the scale. From the put-in to the next bridge down, at Bobritch/Bridge Road, it’s only 1.25 miles, but it’s a wild ride. The river here is narrow, fluctuating between 30-50′ wide, although this will seem even narrower given the multitude of islands splitting the mainstream into side channels.
Even though it’s only 1.25 miles, there is nonetheless a kind of choose-your-own-adventure element to which side channel to take around these islands – not all of them equal or kind! Since this was our first foray down from Boundary to Bobritch, we have nothing to baseline our experience with. But, on our experience, it was best to go left around all of the islands but one (which was in between Bobritch/Bridge and Esker roads). Whether that’s always the case or simply the dictates of the river during the time of this specific trip, we just don’t know until we paddle it again and/or someone else who’s paddled these sections can corroborate. Generally speaking, we found the right channels to be blocked or at least obstructed by deadfall, whereas the left channels were more open and forgiving.
Before arriving at Bobritch/Bridge Road, the river will get very narrow and conditions downright hairy. We knew this would be the case ahead of time, while scouting bridges. It’s hard to describe, but the Plover gets split into innumerable side channels here by small islands. The scene from dry land is simply stunning, but it’s pretty touch-and-go while on the water. The boulders start showing up here as well, adding to the pinball-like experience. The shorter the boat the better. A canoeist would have a hell of a hard time here… All I can say is take your time here – find an eddy to pause in, look for the channel with the most water, and be on the look-out for strainers and big rocks. It’s not necessarily unsafe, but we really didn’t want to get wet (well, more than what we were already from the rain) since it was late September and only in the lower 50s during this trip.
Beneath Bobritch/Bridge Road lies a fun, easy Class I ledge, after which the Plover plunges into a forested thicket. From here to the next bridge, at Esker Road, is only three-quarters of a mile, but the scenery is just as wild, wily, and wonderful. Huge moss-strewn boulders (aka “erratics” left behind by the receding glaciers of the last Ice Age) are cast about all over the place, and the banks seem to go on forever, with no sign of civilization, instead just stunning cedar trunks with spindly dark legs. Following a relative straightaway, the peppy Plover makes a swift sinuous S-curve right-to-left around a small island. This was the one time that we found it better to go right round an island… although it was plenty dodgy in its own “right”: extremely narrow – too narrow for both paddle blades to dip into the water – with a whole lot of tree stuff along the banks to watch out for, and then suddenly you shoot down a boulder-stubbled Class I ledge. It worked out and was a lot of fun, but it was all on the fly and could have gone awry just as easily. (The left channel, by contrast, had a lot of tree blockages and shallow, rocky spots, necessitating a portage through the woods.)
All in all, you should expect to portage… somewhere during this trip… at least 2-3 times. Absolutely worth it, however.
After this sketchy spot the current slows down considerably and bends to the right around a soft steep bank to the left. This is followed by the first house/farm seen on this trip, also on the left, which in turn is followed by the next bridge, at Esker Road – where Barry began his trip in 2017. Everything Barry wrote about from his trip is spot-on, so I don’t want to regurgitate anything or sound redundant. The current remains lazy but still present as the river meanders around grassy spots and long lines of tall pines on the right. Two more islands split the mainstream, the first of which is huge. Immediately on the downstream side of the second island is a ginormous boulder garden that just suddenly appears out of nowhere. The current picks up a little slack, but it’s not the kind of boulder garden with rapids galore. Rather, it’s like a colossal toddler dropped her marbles in one select spot. It’s quite astonishing!
Another small island or two will break up the main channel, but this 1.5-mile-long stretch (from Esker Road to Plover River Road, the next bridge downstream), is wide, calm, and gentle in its straightaways. It’s a great occasion to relax after the white-knuckled hairy spots upstream.
The next bridge down, at Plover River Road, comes into view in a straightaway. While there is a farm on the left and a set of power lines above, boulders return and provide a welcome distraction. A continual straightaway leads to the sound (at first – and then sight) of a splashy drop beneath a low-clearance farm bridge. Even at our reputable water level, there was no problem getting under this bridge. It is, however, a narrow slot through, and in strong current at that, so do be careful here. An easier, smaller drop follows just downstream through huge piles of fallen trees, as does a large bulbous-shaped island. Below that island is another splashy Class I rapids through boulder-strewn fun. And this is followed by another farm bridge (bigger than before) with another set of rapids beneath it (also bigger than before). All in all, it’s a boisterous and bubbly Class I rapid ledge in a beautiful setting with boulders scattered in every which way!
Minor rapids and umpteen riffles prevail past this point, as do boulder gardens galore. A handful of islands lends intimacy to the river, splitting it into side channels. It’s 2.7 miles from Plover River Road to the take-out, at Kristof Road, and the whole landscape here is gorgeous and engaging – truly, one of the prettiest stretches of river we’ve ever been on. Even when the river widens a bit and slows down, the surrounding banks and intermittent boulders makes the setting as aesthetically pleasing as one can hope for. And then when it narrows and keeps you on your toes with frisky riffles, it’s positively thrilling and will leave you with a grin from ear to ear. For, you’ll get lulled a bit by a longish straightaway, when suddenly the scrappy Plover will bend to the left or to the right, and then the current picks up like a cracked whip, and now there are lichen-speckled and moss-mottled boulders as big as a fridge everywhere you look. Right up to the end of this trip – even past it, including the visual gauge rocks on the downstream side of Kristof Road.
What we liked:
I often like to say that my favorite place to go to is somewhere I’ve never been. An added conceit to that is the feeling of being somewhere no one’s been to. (This is, of course, totally delusional; somebody’s always already been somewhere before you. Multiple times. But it’s the feeling of newness and exploring the obscure that so thrills me. Together with the rich privilege of getting to share those forays into the unknown here.) But to put this in context, the only unknown on this trip was its first two miles. But those two miles are mighty awesome.
To be fair, the upper Plover is not a designated wild and scenic river, nor is it set in a state or federal forest free from development. Farms are never far. But when you’re on the river, it sure does feel wild and scenic – and isn’t that what it’s all about it anyway? From the perspective of paddling, does it really matter whether there’s a farmhouse a hundred yards away or a mile? Or ten miles? The point is the surrounding banks look undeveloped, and thus the feel of the trip is of something wild. In my book, block-solid wildness is preferable to fragile (and philosophical) wilderness.
The hue of the river, its brisk current, the hackle-raising side channels with touch-and-go unknowns; the rapids, the spectacular boulder gardens, the pine-lined banks and spooky cedar groves – this stretch of the Plover River really is markedly distinct from its character further downstream (i.e., in the Svob book). Not necessarily better, as that’s totally subjective, just different. But, wilder.
The one thing I don’t mind repeating that Barry already stated is this: the boulder gardens here really are like nowhere else we’ve experienced. Boulders are just everywhere! Even when you don’t see their iceberg-like tips atop the surface, they’re all still there beneath you. Seriously, how one stretch of river is so ridiculously endowed with rocks is beyond our understanding. But it sure makes for awesome paddling.
On a side note, we drove up from Madison to spend the weekend up in the Stevens Point area, during which it pretty much rained the whole time. It was still drizzling by the time we dropped off the bikes at the take-out, drove to the put-in, unloaded, geared up, and got onto the water. Not a hard rain, but, still rain. Mercifully, the sprinkles tapered off by the time we got to Esker Road, and eventually the sun did come out. But there was enough of a temperature differential during this interval that a beautiful, photogenic, and positively hypnotic fog hovered above the water in between Esker and Plover River roads. Sometimes awaiting our arrival at the end of a straightaway like some ethereal nebula, a gossamer dew perfectly fitting for such a lugubrious day. And sometimes it would suddenly appear in cloistered pockets around a bend. It was utterly enchanting.
What we didn’t like:
As fun as those first two miles are, they are a little dicey. It’s not the most fun to feel like your kayak is a runaway car with no brakes (especially if during that sequence you end up going for a swim, or losing gear, or damaging something – none of which happened for us, but any of the above easily could have). It definitely stirred up the old adrenaline levels… making it unfit for paddlers with high blood pressure. It was fun, because A) it all worked out essentially and B) I do usually think it’s good to challenge one’s comfort levels from time to time.
We didn’t like having to portage where and when there just was no way around certain obstacles, but we take that as par for the course for an obscure trip the likes of this one.
Honestly, if there is one definite dislike we encountered on this trip it was happening upon an animal skull intentionally lodged in a short tree on the left bank along someone’s property. Given the teeth of the skull and the nasal cavity, I’m guessing it probably was a black bear. I don’t know what purpose such a display poses, but I personally found it demeaning and in poor taste.
If we did this trip again:
With all due respect to the Plover River blogger, the upstream Plover is anything but “bad for paddling.” But to be circumspect, any review of a river – glowing or glowering – has to be put in context. Given how much rivers themselves fluctuate thanks to storms and other weather patterns, to say nothing of the work volunteers do to clean up after the inevitable obstructions of fallen trees, a review of a river is dated as soon as it is published (including this one, of course). Sometimes generalizations are fair game, if a certain stream is just too obscure or too prone to deadfall, or, conversely, very popular and routinely maintained. I’d love to be proven wrong about the Rubicon someday, or, better still, the Grand River. But until that crow of plate is served to me, those streams are written off for me. And maybe that’s how it was for Svob et al, years ago. But we are here to proclaim that the upper Plover is an incredible prospect – when the water levels are Goldilocks.
There’s nothing we’d do differently about this trip. It was as scenic as it was thrilling, and the accesses were great. We’d just do it earlier in the day, to allow for time to clip, snip, saw, and haul out some of the dodgier parts to make this trip a little safer.
Also, we’d bookend this trip just as we did, with a late breakfast/lunch at the slightly kitschy but ultimately quaint Rock ‘N’ Roll Cafe in Stevens Point, where I dare you to get to the bottom of your cup of coffee before it gets topped off half a dozen times minimum. Plus the hospitality there is genuinely personal – and personally genuine. And then for dinner, since we were nearby, Mikey’s Bar & Grill, where the tap list is as delicious and robust as the Louisiane pasta dish (Andouille sausage and spicy cream sauce with wild rice, what?!?) Oh yeah – O’so Brewing’s taphouse is located next door for a nifty nightcap. Just saying.
Plover River I: Jordan Park to Iverson Park
Plover River II: Esker Road to Bevent Drive
Plover River III: Shantytown Road to Jordan Park
Camp: Collins County Park
Camp: Dells of the Eau Claire County Park
Outfitter: Divepoint Scuba Paddle & Adventure Center
Wikipedia: Plover River
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video: