Brodhead to Avon:
A surprisingly interesting and isolated stretch with a lot of sweet scenery and a couple unique features found nowhere else on the Sugar River, this long(isn) trip can be broken in two by using the convenient put-in/take-out at Clarence Bridge Park, where also you may camp for free.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 6, 2014
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
2.1′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Brodhead: ht/ft: 3.2 | cfs: 1010
Brodhead: ht/ft: 1.56 | cfs: -999999
These levels were very high – not dangerous per se, but a little pushy. The following day the river crested just above the banks at flood stage. The gauge is located at Ten Eyck Road bridge some 4¼ miles downstream from put-in, so the reading correlates perfectly.
Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 4h 20m
Miles Paddled: 14.5
Great blue herons, kingfishers, muskrats, bald eagles, turkey vultures, hawks, frogs and sandhill cranes.
For all the times I’ve maligned the Sugar River as bordering on the dull, this trip challenges those past experiences or associations. In fact, there are moments on this journey that are positively exquisite!
For one, the put-in is uniquely cool. Decatur Park sits atop a tall bluff – yes, a tall bluff on the Sugar River (I know, right?!?) – where there is a pavilion and large lawn overlooking the dam and lake flowage. Secondly, the takeout is that rare but awesome combination of convenient and dedicated, yet situated in the middle of nowhere – “nowhere” being a large swath of public land.
In between these two points lie miles of barely developed shoreline and many photogenic spots along the way. This leg of the trip is not blessed with rock outcroppings or riffles and the river is relatively wide but it’s sweetly intimate and pretty nonetheless. I highly recommend it.
What we liked:
Decatur Park is a relic from a bygone age. There has been a dam at this spot on the river for well over a century and way back when someone had the good sense and vision (no pun intended) to dedicate a public park atop this rare bluff overlooking the river. A makeshift trail leads down to the base of the bluff below the dam to the right of the pavilion (a separate short trail leads upstream of the dam). You do not need to be a sure-footed mountain goat to schlep your gear and boat down to the river but this put-in admittedly is not for the feint of heart – or hoof. I personally enjoyed the “inconvenience” simply because I love sandstone bluffs and I was delightedly shocked to find one here on the Sugar River. Putting-in felt more akin to an adventure.
So too was finding a good place to actually launch. You don’t want to be too close to the dam, of course but after trekking down the steep bluff you want to be done and on the water already. This was my only time being here, so the first impression is all I have to go on. The water was way high at the time – still reeling from the Labor Day weekend deluge – which I’m sure made finding an adequate place to put-in trickier and more elusive than in normal conditions, where and when it would likely be more obvious and less ambiguous. Take a moment to appreciate the unique geology.
For the first three miles and change you’ll see nearly no signs of development but for a couple bridges and the peripheries of farms from the banks. What’s novel about this is on the other side of the river (on the opposite shore from the ginormous island) is the button-cute town of Brodhead, yet from the channel of the river you’re on, you’d have no idea that there’s a town on the other side! The sense of isolation feels real and palpable.
A word about this ginormous island… How did nature create a 3.5-mile long island on the essentially skinny Sugar River? It didn’t. A millrace was hand-dug in the early 1860s to operate a gristmill. This is pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it: a 3-mile long canal dug by manpower (and horses, I’m sure) back in the mid-19th Century. The effect was twofold: now there was a de facto island in the river and Brodhead became the second city in all Wisconsin to generate its own electric power. Today, a grant from the DNR has gone to improve the millrace and give it a recreational makeover. You can paddle the millrace itself (for what it’s worth, Mike Svob covers this in his official “Sugar River 2” in Paddling Southern Wisconsin) though it is likely flat, slow and more developed than the wild-feeling side this trip covers.
On a side note, at the time of this trip I truly had no idea Svob’s trip goes all the way down to Avon. It was not until I came home, still riding high on my unknowingly delusional sense of discovery thinking I had done something new, if not unprecedented, that I learned that the takeout for his trip is not at Highway 11, as I had thought for some reason. Just the same, let me point out that his mileage is significantly off. His map mileage is correct from Putnam Park to Avon at 12.3 miles but he lists “Sugar River 2” as 10.3, which it most certainly is not. This probably is an editorial oversight – for which I’m hardly criticizing Meister Svob! It’s just an fyi.
County Road F provides for an excellent alternate put-in, if toeing your way down the bluff at Decatur Park isn’t your cup of tea. A mile of totally unspoiled landscape is found below County Road F until the Crazy Horse Campground appears on the right. Immediately after this a picturesque metal railroad bridge. The cool railroad bridge is quickly countered by the humdrum Ten Eyck Road bridge. There’s nothing interesting about the bridge itself but it does signal the first signs of development, mostly cabins and shacks on river-left (one of which featured a rather impressive wooden sculpture of a life-sized grizzly bear holding an actual keg of bear on its shoulder – outside art, if not “outsider art”). Woods thickly reappear and the cabins seem to recede. Small islands and occasional downfall provide navigation choices to help spice things up.
You’ll begin to see a gentle rise of the right bank and some very modest crumbling rock exposed. Once you see the huge Highway 11 bridge, look to the right and up (and maybe a little bit behind you): a very pretty, very cool, very old rock outcrop slopes down to the river on a sharp angle. The surface is smooth and weathered and probably a couple hundred million years old. I may well be wrong, but to my knowledge, this and the bluff at the put-in are the only two such geological notorieties on the Sugar River (cue the hate mail and Facebook messages schooling me on how wrong I am…).
Just below the Highway 11 bridge on the right is Clarence Bridge Park, which makes for a great put-in/take-out, plus there’s free camping (at least for your 96-hour, or 4-night, maximum stay). There’s a port-a-potty, but I saw no potable water. Also, vagrants might live here and have squatting rights. Plus the road is right there, and traffic is fairly steady. Anyway, just after the bridge/campground (and by campground I mean roughly a dozen sites) is the eye- and ear-sore that is Sugar River Raceway, a go-cart circle of hell eloquently written about in Dante’s Inferno. A word to the wise: plan your trip when races are not being held. Don’t worry: you’ll be past all this within minutes, after which there are little to no signs of civilization (the noted exception to this rule are dozens of “No Trespassing” signs. I’m not sure onto what one was prohibited from trespassing, since there is nothing around but the signs in and of themselves, to say nothing of their stupid and stupefying number, were tasteless).
Sandbanks appear, together which attractive deadfall in the water that is easy to maneuver around while enhancing the authenticity of the river’s character. The Sugar meanders a bit here but mostly in broad strokes. There are some wide sections but mostly the width is about 60’. The bottom becomes increasingly sandy and less muddy. There’s a low-clearance (but not dangerous) abandoned railroad bridge you’ll pass under. Otherwise, there’s just beautifully nothing out here except pretty stretches of unspoiled scenery. This is the Sugar River at its best.
Finally, you’ll first pass under the County Road T bridge, where you could take out, but more sensible is paddling two more miles down to the Beloit-Newark Road bridge where the attractive landscape will make it worth it. Swenson Wet Prairie State Natural Area encloses both banks of the river and marks the northern boundary of the vast Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area that extends pretty much all the way down to the Illinois line. Just downstream from the Beloit-Newark Road bridge on the left is a dedicated landing at a parking area for the pretty and protected Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area.
If there’s one thing you take away from this trip report, let it be this: paddle this trip during autumn while the colors are really coming out. The second “half” of this trip (from Highway 11 to Avon) has striking trees and is fairly wild feeling. Some teases of fall foliage began to wink coyly in early September when I paddled this, so I can easily imagine how truly glorious it would be in October.
What we didn’t like:
Hardly the river’s fault but there is an airport right in Brodhead and tiny amateur planes zigzagged in the air for hours. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me but the noise was pretty constant. That combined with the raucous din of the go-carts can be distracting.
If we did this trip again:
I would gladly do this trip again. Alternatively, and just to try something different, I’d explore the millrace if only because I’m a sucker for all things historical.
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River V: Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian Road
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Wikipedia: Sugar River