★ ★ ★

Wisconsin River XVIII

Al Tech Park to West River Drive:
A fun and scenic trip featuring terrific accesses and excellent wildlife, together with a tranquil drift that’s fit for beginners, this overlooked section of the Wisconsin River has a lot to look into.

Wisconsin River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 28, 2019

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: 
Riffles + One Class I

Gradient:
2′ per mile

Gauge:
Consolidated Water Power Company: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 6,000

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. But there should always be enough water to do this trip.

Put-In:
Al Tech Park, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
West River Drive (Ole River Road) Boat Landing

Time: Put in at 10:15a. Out at 1:00p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Wildlife:
Sandhill cranes, great blue herons, pelicans, beaver, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.

Shuttle Information:
3.9 miles, easy and straightforward and suitable for bicyclists as well.


Background:

Earlier this year we began working on a kind of paddling guide project with the good folks at the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, a first of its kind opportunity we feel fortunate to be a part of and flattered to have been asked in the first place. It began with weighing in about paddling prospects for a gorgeous recreation guide they eventually came out with that you can check out here. We basically figured that was that and were happy to shed some light and offer our two cents. But that initial seed in turn germinated and inspired our first ever (but hopefully not last) Miles Paddled Guide to a general place, not just a specific river.

The culmination of the collaboration was to have a (2 live?) film crew tag along for one of the paddles and document the experience, in tandem with recording a voiceover of something I wrote for the occasion in their studio downtown. This whole shebang had been in the works since spring, but between schedule conflicts and routinely ridiculous bad weather, we decided to wait til autumn for the film shoot. Plus everything is prettier in autumn – especially in central Wisconsin.

I chose this section for the filming for both technical and cultural reasons. Technical because we needed a river wide enough and accommodating to make it easy to film sequences, with few to zero hazards, yet still aesthetic to inspire. That ruled out most of the paddling gems in Portage County like Mill Creek (Class II rapids), the Plover River (too much meandering around downed trees), and the Tomorrow-Waupaca River (too narrow for canoeing). Cultural because I wanted to capture some essential elements of the area – namely, the industrial footprint of the dams along with the abundant beauty of central Wisconsin. Plus I wanted the trip to be fun and pretty while actually paddling so that it didn’t feel exclusively like work.

Hence this section of the Wisconsin River, beginning at the base of the last dam in Stevens Point and ferrying across some formidable current while combing a path along a riffly boulder garden, threading our way through the scenic sanctuary of Fields Island, loafing past easy backwaters, and finally treating ourselves to lunch and fabled Bloody Mary’s at Rusty’s Backwater Saloon, right at the take-out.

Overview:
The put-in at Al Tech Park is convenient and easy, even if the park itself is a little tricky to locate. The park is more of a wayside with a pull-out and picnic bench, virtually indiscernible to the eye unless one were deliberately looking for it. But it’s perfect for paddling purposes once espied. Look for the “Canoe Put-in” sign and the short path that leads to the water. On the opposite end of this short strip of a park is the dam spillway, an impressive sight in and of itself, given the turbulent water and the hint of huge boulders dotting the landscape (and streambed) here and there.

Earlier this year in a separate report about the Wisconsin River in this part of the state we spilled the beans about all these dams and how it got the moniker of “hardest working river in America.” We won’t recap that here, except to say that this trip begins at the base of the third of Stevens Point’s three total dams. And we took-out well before the next dam, in Biron, which spared us A) the brunt of flatwater paddling upstream of the impoundment and B) figuring out how to get back to the opposite shore, as the put-in lies on river-right, the take-out on river-left (cue the Zeppelin song asking “where’s that confounded bridge?”).

Our pal in Platteville, Scotty, came up for the weekend junket in no small part because he went to school in Stevens Point and loves the area (which in turn made it all the more fun for me, to be a vicarious sidecar… plus he drove the whole time, which was awesome, as I never ride shotgun). While having a look-see at the dam at Al Tech Park, Scotty invoked an earth sciences professor from his bygone days at UWSP who asserted that, were it not for all the dams, the Wisconsin River would have better whitewater than the Colorado in the Grand Canyon and that some of the boulders were as big as houses. I don’t know if that’s apocryphal or even how anyone could know that today (benthic-telescopic x-ray lens? Scuba divers? riverine submarines?), but it’s a fascinating thought experiment nonetheless.

Damned if you do, dam’d if you don’t, I guess…

Regardless, the terrain here is beguiling. By the spillway at least, you will likely see the iceberg-like tips of huge granite outcrops, by the shore and also across the way at an island some 300′ downstream from the dam. If you can get there, it’s worth checking out, but it will require some vigorous ferrying across the strong current and rough boulders. A second, less rocky island follows it downstream. Here, we did ferry across the broad river in order to access a side channel of the ginormous Fields Island and revel in the Blue Heron Loop. It was touch and go, whether in a canoe or kayak – and, honestly, I didn’t know if we’d all make it; the current is no joke! But we did, and the payoff was a lackadaisical, near-paradisaical float down the stunning beauty and solitude of Fields Island.

I toured around here in late July. After we posted that trip a reader sent us the following message: “One of the islands was known for having a heron rookery on it. Fields Island used to host a dairy farm, they bottled their milk under the name Treasure Island” along with an image of said dairy operation’s insignia. Very cool. Don’t you love when the internet does stuff like that? (As opposed to stealing your identity or selling your data to third-party profiteering market-parasites?)

Given the peculiar shore outline of Fields outline (previously likened to a Great Dane in profile), taking this side channel adds a notable 2.75 miles, whereas skipping it and just paddling directly from put-in to take-out would make for a simple 5-mile affair. But it’s truly oh so worth the “upgrade.” If it’s true that the soul of the Mississippi River lies in its backwaters, as it is said, then there’s a similar charm and charisma to the side channels of the Wisconsin River. Sure, the fastest, most economical path between two points is a straight line, but isn’t it more fun to be a little kinky sometimes? If you have the time, take the side channel around Fields Island. If you don’t, then think about doing this trip another time, when you have more time. It’s not that you’ll see singularly amazing features like rare waterfalls or cliffs or caves. It’s simply the luxurious notion of embedding yourself in a wild place surrounded by civilization.

Speaking of, after a subtle left bend in the side channel a straightaway will take you to a direct view of the truly stately Noel residence, a resplendent home on the confluence of the Little Plover River at the Wisconsin River. In the past, I (Timothy) have cracked jokes about palatially huge private houses on rivers and lakes being group homes for troubled inner-city youths, usually in more posh necks of the wood in Wisconsin (yes, often in Waukesha County, but not exclusively there). The thing is, this huge house actually is – or, rather, will be; the homeowners have set up a trust for the house to function eventually as an extension of the Boys & Girls Club of Portage County. For real! Read about the homeowner here. Bravo, Mr & Mrs Noel.

The side channel will make a huge rightward crescent-shape bend, nearly a mile and a half long, before merging with the mainstream. The steep left bank will be dotted with houses, but a few large wooded islands pleasantly provide continued variety while on the water, including wildlife opportunities. But soon enough you’ll find yourself back in the main channel. On the right is an excellent public boat launch at Blue Heron Lane, which could be used if paddlers wanted only a taste of the modest boulder gardens by the dam and the quiet backwaters of Fields Island. But to make this a fuller outing, we pushed on.

The remainder of this trip (which, admittedly, is the majority of this trip) is easy-peasy and relatively nondescript, but not in a monotonous way. While the river here is broad and flows in long straightaways, the cumulative effect of the wide water and open sky – especially on a crisp autumn day with just the right palette pattern of puffy clouds and peering sunshine – is that of one magnificent canvas stretched out before you, reflected on the surface, as far as the eye can behold. Especially when the wind is slack. Crack open a beverage and simply savor in the sauntering. Here and there you’ll pass a momentarily developed shoreline with boat slips and houses, not to mention a set of powerlines overhead, but generally speaking this section of the river is still naturally intact and rugged. Even the golf course on river-right blends in seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.

You’ll pass a boat landing on the left shore at Galecke Park, after which the river will make a broad bend to the left. A series of long islands follows, allowing the wayward paddler to choose from an array of side channel options and backwater explorations. In another mile the river will then change its mind and make a broad bend to the right now. Here, it’s wise to hug closely to the right shore. You’ll see a skinny slip of a side channel to the right that can be easily mistaken for the mouth of a tributary creek. If you miss it or simply are uncertain whether it’s the correct choice, you can skip it. But we recommend taking it, as it allows access to an archipelago of islands and backwaters that are positively wild-feeling and primitive. A big open bay will appear, which may be disorienting at first, but keep paddling northward with a shore on the left. This will lead to yet another side channel on the left; take it and now hug close to the right shore, which will lead directly to the boat launch/take-out at Ole River Road. This more ambiguous backwaters option can be bypassed by turning right after the aforementioned “skinny slip,” where there’s a much bigger, better defined backwaters to paddle up. Either way, you have to turn right, away from the main channel of the Wisconsin River, and head north for half a mile.

If this sounds a little confusing, it’s on account of the curious confluence of Mill Creek. The Wisconsin River makes an unusual S-curve, first bending to the right, then to the left, near where Mill Creek enters (from the north, on river-right). Leading to this meander, the big river is about 500′ wide. At the confluence, it’s 2600′ wide, or five times as wide! The whole backwaters comprises an area of 100 acres, or 1.5 miles in circumference. That’s pretty substantial – and fairly unusual. Hence having to paddle north, up the confluence, for half a mile in order to find the take-out, where Mill Creek enters the backwaters of the Wisconsin River. The take-out access itself is excellent, sandy and mud-free, with a gentle slope for minimal schlepping. A huge parking area is only a few hundred feet away, and there’s the utterly alluring (and aptly named) Rusty’s Backwater Saloon located right there. Actually, it’s the only thing located right there, but the rustic charm and isolation of it perfectly lends itself to the spot.

What we liked:
It’s not everyday that a film crew follows you on the water. (Actually, you might say that it’s never happened before.) The experience was tremendously flattering, and the gentlemen of Thousand Lumens, Jade and Zach, made it very casual, natural and fun. We got to learn a lot about the area thanks to them, up to and including the presence of Sentry Insurance and Berkshire Hathaway, both of which had only been names in my head prior to this trip. Jade and Zach met each other in school, found similar passions and appreciation for each other’s work and vision, and together created a company. They’re now able to do that full-time – in other words, it is their day job – which is just about the highest achievement an artist can hope for. Scotty and I both had the utmost respect for them and thoroughly enjoyed their company on the water, at lunch at Rusty’s, and then at their studio for the voiceover. Kudos to Jade and Zach!

But as for this section of river itself, it’s truly a delightful trip. Combining some riffles and minor rapids in the very beginning and a beguiling boulder garden with the alluring side channels of Fields Island, there’s a lot of beauty and diversity in this otherwise passed-over section of the Wisconsin River. Add to that excellent accesses and no obstructions, this trip is perfect for beginner paddlers and those just craving water solitude and simplicity.

What we didn’t like:
Is it the most exciting section of the Wisconsin River? No. But time on the water isn’t always about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that would be missing the, um, point. Honestly, there wasn’t anything we didn’t like about this trip.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again, although it would never be the same without the great company of Jade and Zach. We all did what we could to align this trip with peak autumn colors, but we still were a week or two too early. It had been a very wet and warm September, so the foliage kept its chloroform longer than in years past. We did see a couple of blushing beauties, hints of things to come. But this section of river should be awash in flaming foliage in late September/early October, and that we’d try to align better, if we did this trip again.

Alternatively, a different kind of trip entirely would be a kind of hat trick paddle of Stevens Point’s three dams. Why would anyone subject themselves to back-to-back-to-back portaging around dams? Did one lose a bet? A tough mudder for paddlers with a penchant for masochism? Maybe… But in all seriousness, I think it would be neat to tour these impoundments and their own wooded islands with rocky shorelines, plus the iceberg-tips of rock outcrops, as it’s the closest we’ll see of what the Wisconsin River used to look like before the dams were built. After all, Stevens Point gives a dam about its rivers.

Regardless, what we’d definitely do again, what I recommend everyone who’s in the area does sometime, is stop by Central Waters Brewing Company, in the nearby hamlet of Amherst. To be totally unabashed, Central Waters is my single favorite Wisconsin brewery, period. It’s not for nothing that my car has one of their stickers on it. This was Scotty’s first time there, which made the experience all the more special. When you go (not “if”), and you’re feeling hungry, I could not more strongly endorse the smoked beef sandwich (more properly known as the Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Smoked Beef Sandwich), made by the fabulous Chef C’s Munchie Mobile food truck outside of the brewery. It’s decadent. It’s sensational. It’s a sandwich I remembered vividly after having had only once before, three years ago – and yet it was as good (no nostalgia additives!) this second time around.

And of course at least a Bloody, if not also a bite to eat, at Rusty’s. The caged bears outside might be a thing of the past, but the ambiance inside is still unmatched!

***************
Related Information:
Wisconsin River XVI: Lake DuBay Dam to County Road HH
Wisconsin River XVII: Blue Heron Island
Camp: Lake Emily County Park
Camp: Jordan County Park
General: Stevens Point Convention & Visitors Bureau
Map: Stevens Point Flowage
Outfitter: Divepoint Scuba Paddle & Adventure Center
Outfitter: Nature Treks
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River

Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:


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