★ ★

Rubicon River

Saylesville to Neosho:
A potentially fun river with lots of riffles, great wildlife and pretty scenery but way too many obstructions and portages – there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of the Rubicon River or at least paddling on it.

Rubicon River

Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 27, 2015

Class Difficulty:

6′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Waupun (Rock River): ht/ft: 2.50 | cfs: 40

Current Levels:
Waupun (Rock River): ht/ft: 2.04 | cfs: 8.03

Recommended Levels:
There should always be enough water to run this section.

Saylesville Road, Saylesville, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.30064, -88.43835
Woodlawn Park boat launch, Neosho, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.31191, -88.51365

Time: Put in at 1:55p. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 4h 5m
Miles Paddled: 8.5

Wood ducks (and ducklings), deer, beaver, great blue heron, owl and songbirds.

Shuttle Information:
5.7 pretty miles.


If we could have sound effects on this site, this trip could be summed up in three tones: waw, waw, waaaaawwww… like when a contestant loses on a game show. Or cue the sad trombone. This trip was mostly a belly-up bust.

I’d reckoned on the Rubicon being a kind of river cousin to the Oconomowoc River, given how close they are to one another. And while both are Rock River tributaries, the Oconomowoc is much cleaner, bigger and better in many ways. The Rubicon is one of those rivers that looks better on the topo map than it does when you’re on the actual water. There are hills, to be sure, and a gradient of 6 feet per mile is nothing to sneeze at (whatever that expression means). But the full effect of the surrounding landscape is better appreciated on land than on water; the shuttle route is prettier in some senses than the actual paddling – up to and including distant glimpses of Holy Hill shimmering ethereally nearby. That happens sometimes.

I actually intended on beginning this trip at Highway 60, which I did initially, but the river was an ugly mess only a hundred yards downstream from the put-in and I knew it was nearly 2 miles until the next bridge. Such an inauspicious beginning daunted me, so I turned around and paddled back to the put-in. (I’m sorry, but this was to be a 12-mile paddle and if I had to start portaging already at 100 yards, the trip would’ve taken forever. And I would’ve been filthy and cranky.)

So I regrouped and scouted the next bridge downstream at Pond Road, but there was nowhere to put in. So I made do by the next (third) bridge at Saylesville Road, which was better and at least doable but by no means an ideal launching spot. The bridge and setting at the ad hoc put-in are pretty cool, and delightful riffles begin immediately. The river width was only 30 feet, which made the overall feel even more intimate (but also more prone to obstructions). There is minimal development in the beginning, too. In other words, everything looked great, better even than I’d hoped. At first.

What we liked:
The river bottom alternates between sand, mud and gravel. It’s not crystal clear water by any means, but “clearish” a lot of the time. The landscape for most of this trip is quite pretty with lots of lush, green open meadows, soft hills, steeped bank woods giving a forest-feel and boulder beds with light rapids and riffles. The riffles/light rapids are just sheer fun. When paddling, what’s better than swift current surrounded by a gorgeous landscape?

Even at the end of this trip when the full effects of the lake impoundment are first felt, the surroundings are still quite lovely. Development encroaches on both sides of course, but it’s not distasteful in the way that a lot of lakeshore can be. While slow and sluggish, the lake paddling itself was pleasant in its own right just because the shoreline is erratic and narrow (at first), with dotted islands here and there and a couple impressive kames (glacial hills) for good measure. Once in Neosho proper, the boat landing is easy to find and very convenient. Plus there’s plenty of parking and bathrooms too.

What we didn’t like:
Tree debris! The first obstruction is none too far from the put-in. I started clearing out a passage on the far left, but to do a thorough job would have been a major effort setting me back a good hour and I was already behind the clock as it was after the first put-in mulligan. (It’s a classic logjam in swift water. So not only are there thick limbs in front of you to saw off, there are vines and errant branches from other parts of the tree that are tangled up wet and weedy. And then there are the submerged logs and attached limbs underneath; these too need to be pulled out, dragged to the shore or hurled over the banks. To clear a passage would be a several-step process combining problem-solving logistics, untying knots and brute determination, which you’d be doing in waist-deep water, in swift current while on uneven ground).

I’d noticed that only 15-feet upstream of this logjam is a tiny side channel to the left. I didn’t take it originally because it too had some unfriendly strainers in even swifter water and I didn’t know where it would lead. But I was already wet and muddy, so I decided to take the side channel after trimming off its kinky branches. It turned out to be a perfect circumvention of the ugly logjam. But alas, this first obstruction is just the beginning of many more downstream.

At least half a dozen times I would see signs of chainsawed trees, so someone’s been out here before. How long ago, who knows? Probably a while, since there’s a lot of obstructions that have since filled in the void. I’d noticed on the Google map a placemark called Camp Winding River, (a Girl Scouts camp – I looked it up) between County Road P and Jefferson Road. Most of the chainsaw cuts I noticed were upstream of County Road P, so one might infer that the girls do (or did at one time) some canoeing trips on the river in a maintained segment.

I also saw a wide staircase of five cleats leading from the bank to the river, not quite a dock but a convenient place to take out if say you were a Girl Scout since the staircase is on the left and would be presumably part of the camp property. Or this is all mere coincidence and I should stop playing detective. Point is, someone at some point in time discerned the value of the river here, and it’s a precedent well worth contributing to.

I stopped counting the amount of portages after 10 because I stopped caring (and I was a little cranky). It’s one thing for a stream to be cluttered with obstructions that just isn’t all that pretty or interesting in the first place. You just write it off as unworthy and relegate it to neglect. But it’s another matter when a stream is awfully pretty, fun and full of promise – but also full of downed trees and logjam clots. It hurts your heart a little. The Rubicon is exactly this, at least this segment of it. Further upstream, it’s more urban in Hartford and sadly developed by Pike Lake. Downstream from the Neosho dam, it meanders like someone tipped over a barrel full of curlicues before finding the Rock River.

I took my 9-foot boat for this trip because I knew the river would be narrow and probably contain obstructions, in which type of environment my 15-foot boat is simply impractical. But I paid for that hedge when paddling the lake. From the last bridge at Jefferson Road it’s at least 2.4 miles of mostly lake paddling. That’s a lot for a crossover kayak that has no real hull to slog through – especially upwind. As I mentioned above, the lake landscape (“lakescape”?) is pretty and I definitely was happy to be past the many obstructions but the paddling was arduous – hardly a relaxing way to conclude an already tense day.

If we did this trip again:
If cleaned up some, the Rubicon could be a great little trip but as of now it’s hard to recommend this. But I’d definitely consider doing this again if it were maintained. I don’t know if I’d go out that way from Madison just to clean it up myself because it’s too long of a trek to be considered a stream I’d regularly return to.

I’d sooner spend my time on (and less time driving to) Badfish Creek or the Crawfish River by Columbus. Also, I’d probably take out at Jefferson Road rather than do all that lake paddling again. You could even paddle into the lake and back since there’s little to no current by that point.

Related Information:
Wikipedia: Rubicon River

Photo Gallery:

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