Whitehall to Independence:
A truly inviting river that gently flows through coulee country on its way to the Black River, the Trempealeau is short on excitement but sometimes excitement is overrated.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 16, 2014
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Dodge: ht/ft: 4.76 | cfs: 390
Dodge: ht/ft: 5.33 | cfs: 414
This is the recommended minimum level.
Time: Put in at 1:35p. Out at 4:25p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 8
One deer, two bald eagles, two hawks and two heron (almost a Noah’s Ark paddle, if you will).
Normally, this is not the kind of river I’d travel a great distance to cover but it was exactly the kind of river I was hoping for to take my sister, a relative beginner, out on for her first kayak excursion (to her credit, she has canoed before). With its easy access, clean water, sandy bottom and generally shallow nature, the Trempealeau seemed like a relatively safe bet for the uninitiated.
In Paddling Southern Wisconsin, Mike Svob begins his report by commenting on how the river is hard to spell but fun to paddle. I completely agree on both accounts. Plus it’s fun to sing because I can’t shake the melody and rhythm of “Buffalo Soldier” while pronouncing “Trempealeau River” from my head.
What we liked:
Prior to our car shuttle, I met a woman at the take-out with whom I inquired about this section and the water level. She said she usually paddles the downstream stretch from Independence and it was definitely low but her daughter had paddled from Whitehall a few weeks back and only had to contend with a few downed trees. She pointed out that its sandy bottom makes for an easy and delightful walk if need be. Lucky for us, there was no walking or even getting hung-up in the shallows which is what I was expecting.
After scouting the put-in options as recommended in Mike’s writeup, I opted for the more appealing put-in at Colonel Larson Park in Whitehall. It’s been my experience that anytime you see a “Canoe Landing” sign, you know you’re welcome, so why look a gift-landing in the mouth?
The entire river is sand-bottomed, clean and clear. While averaging probably a foot-deep, it did alternate between a few inches in places and chest-deep pools near bends and strainers. But the key word here is sand – this is ALL sand – everywhere. The only sight of mud I saw was near the end at the take-out where Elk Creek meets the Trempealeau.
The environment alternated between tree-covered canopy to gentle grassy openings with sand-cut banks. The river is never too narrow, never too wide and a lot like the Yahara River in size but there is plenty of deadfall along the way. Beginners, even on this relatively tame water should steer clear and have good boat control because the current gets surprisingly swift. It got a little pushy in areas and while it’s wide enough to paddle around the many fallen trees, there were plenty of perfectly set strainers that required caution since, as is usually the case, the water was deeper and swifter at these points. My sister did fine and handled it like a pro but it’s something to watch out for. Follow the current and you’ll be fine getting through at these levels.
We didn’t see a lot of wildlife and despite the clear water and river-bottom lacking in vegetation, I was surprised we didn’t see any fish. The highlight however, was coming around a bend and in the distance we spotted a huge buck standing in the middle of the river. The fact that we were 100 yards away and it appeared so incredibly large had me thinking it was a horse at first… it was that big. It was a welcome sight on an otherwise tame wildlife-viewing experience.
There was one must-portage, about 20 yards from the put-in. It consists of 3-4 large and dense trees laying across a broad stretch. There is a very convenient worn (and sandy) path on river-right to portage around it. There is also another potential-portage near the very end, within a quarter mile of the take-out. I was able to scoot over it but I had my sister portage it because it was one of those tricky two-tree, v-shaped (pointing downstream) blockages in deep water.
The shallow and inviting Elk Creek greets you on river-right indicating the take-out point. It’s easily accessible at the rather expansive Four Seasons Park in Independence.
What we didn’t like:
It’s not often I write about things outside of the actual paddling experience that I didn’t like but there are a couple things to remark on since I like to view the trip itself, as a whole.
First, Whitehall is under mega-construction. For a town of a handful of people, they’ve decided to tear up the whole downtown and make it difficult to travel on 93 so we had to take County Q to Whitehall. It’s on that road that I witnessed the craziest and most extreme sand-mining operation I’ve ever encountered. In a valley you can’t possibly miss, bluffs are carved open and an impressively-sized factory stands ominously in the middle of it. Dual tubing (or conveyors?) surround the facility for miles and then around a farm and then up to a bridge created specifically for these tubes to continue over the highway (something I’ve never seen before) where it stretches for another mile or so down the road to yet another facility surrounded by piles of sand and stalls for trucks to haul it away. It looked like a Wisconsin Dells waterslide on steroids or a modern day mining cart system (think Indiana Jones but above ground). Who knows if it’s frac sand but all signs point to yes considering the complete lack of aesthetic to the area. It’s pretty disgusting and haphazard. It’s a cash-grab kind of architecture. Whoever needs this sand doesn’t care what the area around it looks like, they just want to dig it up and move it out. Of course, a week after this paddle, Trempealeau County voted against the year-long silica sand mining moratorium… so again, all signs point to a frac sand operation and one that is seemingly welcome in this part of the state.
Next, I chose to skip the county park camping options, of which there are a few, including Colonel Larson Park, the Lions Club Campground at Four Seasons Park and Joe Pietrek Park. Instead, I chose to swing through Arcadia, once home to the historic Arcadia Brewing Company, on my way down to Perrot State Park, a park I had been meaning to check out for awhile now.
Maybe because I was traveling from the north and not the usual route but I found this to be, hands-down, the most poorly-marked State Park in Wisconsin. There are two entrances but you’d never know that unless you can make your way to the office which is not located near the campground or at either entrance but in the center of the park (and this is a damn large park). I came to a Y intersection where I was greeted by a “Welcome to Trempealeau and Perrot State Park” sign but there was no indication of which direction I should head to actually get into the park (Entrance this way, Camping that way or even Office over yonder, doesn’t seem like too much to ask for). Even the campsite is oddly marked and lacking obvious exit signs. I should add that, this is a beautiful park and I do hope to spend more time there but early in the year when the water is still flowing down the falls (now that I know how to navigate it).
Lastly, as is sometimes the case when it gets late in the day, I opt for the local cuisine when I’m in an interesting part of our state and skip out on the chore of cooking camp food in the dark of night (sorry, emergency can of stew). So I checked out the historic Trempealeau Hotel. It had all the makings of the kind of place I dig and was excited to try it as soon as I read “meals from scratch, using responsibly sourced and local ingredients” on the front of the menu. But this was another disappointment. The service was severely lacking. I felt like I was bothering the bartender for the menu in the first place. And it might have been the ordering of a pint or the pouring of the pint (I’m not really sure) but one of those jobs really seemed to put him out. Plus, I’m all for recycling but the dude picked up a dirty napkin, refolded it and put it under my pint… so, I reluctantly left with a half-pint in my belly but still hungry.
So after seeing there were no other dinner options in the immediate area, I headed back to the Highway 35 intersection where you’ll find three bars in eyesight. It’s times like these, I choose the one with the most cars. Beedle’s was it. It’s an odd mixture of new sports bar meets old supper club with a love for Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. I was greeted with a delightful “welcome”, ordered myself a Summit and a pretty incredible turkey sandwich which was highly recommended by the girl behind the bar (and which, I too, now highly recommend). It made for fine end to a long day.
If we did this trip again:
I wouldn’t go out of my way as a sole destination paddle but coupled with another paddle in the area, I’d definitely continue my way down the Trempealeau. The section we paddled sounded more appealing than the following according to Mike’s writeup but man it was pretty and clean and in hindsight, really fun. You can’t ask for much more. This is a great day trip and I’d gladly explore many more miles of this easy stream.
Miles Paddled Video: