Touring Starkweather Creek:
If you’re looking for a recreational paddle near Madison, there are better options than Starkweather Creek. But if you consider (or reconsider, I suppose) and categorize Starkweather Creek as an urban transportation route, (which in its current state, is all it really can be) now we’re onto something. The Starkweather’s branches connect the near east side to Lake Monona and better yet, it connects neighbors to neighborhoods and businesses.
Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 21, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
Starkweather fluctuates with the slightest rain and the weeds can get thick, especially late in the summer as algae takes over, but water levels are usually reliable. Conversely, it floods quickly after steady rain which seems to happen a couple times a year.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Washington Manor Park, Madison, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.10864, -89.34137
Time: Put in at 2:40p. Out at 5:10p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4 (there and back)
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Tenney Park + Back (7 Miles)
Shuttle Information: Easy-wheeling from the Eken Park area.
There has not been one paddle report that has garnered more feedback than Starkweather Creek. It’s actually been a hot-button post. I assume because it’s been up for the longest, we’re based in Madison, and most of our followers are from/near Madison. It’s been strongly suggested numerous times that I reconsider the creek and so I finally did, with my family entow on one of the few times we left the house during the Covid lockdown.
Starkweather Creek was one of the first streams I reported on because I was looking for something in my own backyard to paddle, it had some length, and I had never done a city paddle. My gripes then, are still legit. I mean, this is an urban paddle that flows through an abused area of our watershed. My initial reaction back then was one of disgust and disappointment from seeing the physical garbage floating in the creek or lodged in the riprap along the banks that had found its way into the stream by way of wind, but mostly human indifference.
Ever since, however, I’ve learned that there are far worse things in the water, namely, PFAs. These are man-made chemicals that were commonly used in firefighting foam by the Air National Guard at Truax Field which is located within Starkweather Creek’s watershed. These are nasty substances which cause all sorts of physical issues. And they’ve found there way not only into the creek, embedded under years of creek bed, but also into our well water. In fact, Madison’s well 13 was shut down due to the contamination. (I’ve heard that if PSAs aren’t in your water, your well hasn’t been tested since there’s always some trace amount).
There are conspicuous and inconspicuous informational signs posted around the creek, near bridges, community gardens, unofficial access points to the creek and of course, the official boat landings that state “This water contains PFAs at levels of concern. PFAs are chemicals that can negatively affect health”. They direct humans to not drink the water, let their pets drink the water or swallow the foam and after touching the water, wash your hands, pets or other items to avoid accidentally swallowing these PFAs. That’s pretty telling if just touching the water requires caution.
Of course, there’s also a DNR fish consumption advisory but the link on the sign sends you to the general DNR advisory, not the specific one to Starkweather, where fish have been found to contain very high levels of PFAs. Basically, you shouldn’t be eating anything out of that creek, and probably the greater chain of Lakes.
So, with all that said, what’s the upside to Starkweather? I’ve asked myself that for quite awhile and this return trip may have given me the answer I was hoping for.
Since I first paddled this, I also bought my starter home. It happens to be located (ironically) within a block of Starkweather, not too far from where you can’t paddle north anymore due to it being bogged down with deadfall and other disgusting this-and-that. One day, my wife suggested we paddle to the Olbrich Biergarten. I had just traveled over the creek, knew it was gross and kind of low but thought, what the hell, why not? We hadn’t been out much and needed a break from quarantine. I had just bought some new wheels for my canoe and was waiting for the opportunity to use them so we did just that – we wheeled the the family canoe down the road and we set out for a surprisingly great urban adventure.
There are many access points to Starkweather, depending on where you’re coming from or going to. The creek splits into two branches near O.B. Sherry Park. The east branch is more channelized before splitting into narrow and shallow offshoots just before the homeless encampment under Highway 30.
In my previous report, I traveled from the Yahara River near Tenney Park across Lake Monona and upstream onto Starkweather’s west branch. I gave up near Bridges Golf Course, just north of Washington Manor Park when things got too bogged down. In reality, and current conditions, that really is as far as one’s going to get. As such, there will always be a there-and-back aspect to this paddle as the creek is basically unpassable after Highway 30. So for us Eken Park folks, this is the trailhead for the west branch to Monona where there’s a scrubby and rather hidden access point near the bike trail bridge in Washington Manor Park.
Soon after launching from Washington Manor, you’ll still encounter the humming of East Washington Avenue, where the Taco Bell stands like a champion over the McDonald’s that once loomed large but has long moved down East Wash. Though its wrappers (And Burger King’s) and cups still appear from time to time along the way. The creek is wide open for a bit, flanked by apartments, houses and rocky rip rap heading towards Milwaukee Street. After Milwaukee, it becomes more interesting and more wild (believe it or not) as it winds its way through backyards you’d otherwise never see. There are many more interesting bridges and lush canopy which brings about a noticeable moisture in the air due to all the wild plants and trees.
It’s not too long before the creek opens up once again at the meeting with the east branch. (Much to our surprise, it was there we were met with many paddlers coming downstream from the east branch.) In this area we encountered large beds of weeds but it was mid-summer and the water is generally slow-moving so I’m not sure it slowed us down more than normal. Soon comes a railroad trestle, followed by the lovely Olbrich Thai Pavilion which appears on creek-left right before the Olbrich footbridge and the grounds on creek-right.
Just ahead you’ll encounter heavy boat traffic since one of the two large east side boat landings for Lake Monona is located right at the Starkweather delta. You might be in for some hard lake-left navigating amongst the waves if it’s busy or windy (if this is choppy, this can be frightening with kids, btw). Paddling along the shore of the Biergarten just made us all the more excited and thirsty. We posted up on the Olbrich Park Beach and got our socially-distanced drink on. But responsibly, of course, because we had to paddle back. 😉
What we liked:
So here it was, my return to Starkweather Creek for a totally different reason than when I paddled it a decade earlier. This time though, was the first time I saw it in a new light – as a transportation method – bringing other quarantined individuals out from their neighborhoods and into a socially-distant new reality. It felt good.
Maybe it was the convenience to the Biergarten or maybe it was the freedom from pandemic isolation that made this trip so enjoyable and turned my thought process on it around. Starkweather is very much a valuable transportation conduit to east Madison.
There’s something to be said about an urban paddle, the least of which being the contrast of paddling on a natural body within a totally unnatural environment. Plus, there’s very little footprint being put on the environment and it’s a means to an end. The thing that (pleasantly) surprised us the most was the amount of people using this trail. It was like a neighborhood flotilla paddling up- and downstream.
Best yet, it was a family trip. Mom and Dad got a beer. The kids, some root beer. And all it took was putting-in just minutes from our house. That’s pretty cool. Oh, and we didn’t capsize on any shopping carts.
What we didn’t like:
Well, to be clear, it’s not the prettiest of paddles but it’s quite an interesting way of seeing your neighbors (and their backyards). And it’s stagnant in most parts which requires a solid hand (and foot) washing after.
If we did this trip again:
To be clear, I do not recommend this for recreation but as an interesting urban Madison diversion? Absolutely. Its benefit is less pure recreation and more of an urban watertrail that connects people to places. And there’s huge value in that.
I now have many years between when I first paddled Starkweather, settled a block from it, learned about the water, the PFAs, the airport, as well as the ridiculous military based that should have never been supported, nevertheless, approved. (Tammy Baldwin has done us no favors here.) Perspectives change and mine certainly has. The Starkweather is probably too damaged to repair unless the entire thing is dredged but it shouldn’t be given up on. The military base and airport have a huge responsibility here.
I know from this experience and from the work of the wonderful (and active) Friends of Starkweather Creek that people really do care about this creek despite the health of it and its polluted waters flowing into our lakes. Just don’t eat the fish or drink the water and you’ll be fine.
On our next trip, we’ll head up the east branch to see the other neighborhoods this creeks serves.
Good People: Friends of Starkweather Creek
Alternate Trip Report: Longer Paddle (7 Miles)
Tenney Park + Back
Starkweather Creek is generally a bad idea. Despite the inviting entrance/exit from Lake Monona through the Olbrich grounds, it soon suffers from inner-city pollution and clogged arteries (they kind of go hand in hand being by Taco Bell, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King and all). Sure it’s a curiosity but sometimes curiosity kills the paddle.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Tenney Park Bridge on the Yahara River, Madison, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.09208, -89.36502
Time: Put in at 11:00a. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7 (there and back)
What we liked:
The section of the Yahara river which connects Lake Mendota and Lake Monona is a great little paddle through some beautiful Madison neighborhoods. This busy section makes for friendly greetings with other boaters and paddlers. As you paddle under the many bridges between the lakes, you’re bound to see makeshift residences for the homeless.
When you enter Starkweather on the east side of Monona you’ll paddle between Olbrich Gardens. It’s a very beautiful, although short section. Kids visiting the garden were in awe of seeing a kayak in the water.
What we didn’t like:
This creek has potential but the condition in it’s in right now makes it a disappointing journey. Once you paddle past Olbrich and the low train trestle, the water gets murkier, muddier and more polluted.
McDonald’s cups and wrappers guide your way to (what else?) the East Washington McDonald’s. This section was under re-construction by the city as part of the bridge construction over East Washington at the time of this paddle. The city did a great job enhancing the banks and landscape surrounding the creek as it flows through the Worthington neighborhood. But six months later, there is garbage all over the creek and tagging all over the bridge.
Just past Highway 30, the trees and brush become thick to the point where you need to decide just how often you want to portage in the muck.
If we did this trip again:
Until Starkweather is respected as a creek instead of a trash bin, we won’t take this trip again. However, paddling through Olbrich and back is a recommended diversion if you’re on the east side of Lake Monona.
AnonymousSeptember 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm
Starkweather is very paddleable in the Spring, and only in the spring. The weeds and scum do take over in early June, plus water levels drop significantly. The underpass of Highway 30 can only be paddled in higher water as the culverts are positioned about 8 inches above the bottom of the stream. There has been a significant amount of brush removal done this last year. It's a nice hour long paddle.
Miles PaddledSeptember 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm
Thanks for the comment. Where is your put-in and take-out on this suggested paddle? We'll check it out in spring.
DeaJune 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm
I recommend putting in at Olbrich boat launch next to Olbrich Gardens. I find it a very pleasant paddle and I've seen green herons, lots of turtles, and bass swimming by in the clear water.
Miles PaddledJune 22, 2016 at 12:14 am
For a paddling trip that isn't a lake yet is totally enclosed within the City of Madison, Starkweather has some charm. It's definitely worth doing at least once – especially after a hard rain, which helps flush out the algae and stagnant funk. The Olbrich section is certainly pretty. I used to live one block away from the creek and remember it fondly.Thanks for chiming in, Dea!