★ ★ ★

Yahara River V

Stoughton to Stebbensville Road:
Half boring and slow, half gorgeous and swift, here the Yahara River feels like it faces a personality crisis – with the latter part of the paddle winning the day in a most glorious manner. Not unlike appreciating a sunny day after weeks of rain, the free-flowing Yahara after the final dam, runs like rivers should and the contrastive experience is thrilling.

Yahara River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: December 14, 2014

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles

Above Dunkirk Dam, negligible. Below: 6.4′ per mile.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Stoughton: ht/ft: 6.30 | cfs: 336

Current Levels:
Stoughton: ht/ft: 6.53 | cfs: 28.5

Recommended Levels:
This trip lies between two gages on the Yahara, one upstream in Stoughton, the other along this trip near Fulton. The former was thoroughly sufficient, while the latter was ice affected. Ideal levels should be found at 330-400 cfs.

Mandt Park, Stoughton dam, Stoughton, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.91326, -89.21767
West Stebbensville Road, Stebbensville, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.84357, -89.17267

Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 2:40p.
Total Time: 2h 40m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Mergansers, wild geese, great blue herons and bald eagles.

Shuttle Information:
6.8 miles, mostly flat and totally suitable for bicycles.


The “official” trip of the Yahara River is from Stebbensville Road to Murwin Park in Fulton or to the confluence at the Rock River. That’s what esteemed writer and paddler Mike Svob covers in Paddling Southern Wisconsin and what our and other websites have dully emulated. But that trip is the last bit of the Yahara River. There’s a whole lotta Yahara upstream not getting any love, which makes you wonder, “what gives?” So I decided to find out for myself (for the whole Yahara breakdown, see below or read more on the Lake Kegonsa to Stoughton segment here).

What I “discovered” was one river with two very different characteristic feels. From Stoughton to Dunkirk, the Yahara begins and ends at a dam. As such, there is no real current and the river is ridiculously wide, especially approaching Dunkirk. Add in a lot of private residences on both banks and you have a fairly boring corridor. But after the Dunkirk dam, the Yahara is really quite exquisite: swift riffles one after another, crystal clear water, a couple boulders for good measure, tall attractive banks and a sense of isolation. My friend and I joked that here is where the Yahara River becomes a river again – which is not entirely off the mark considering that up to this last dam the river is more a conduit connecting many lakes, ponds and marshes and it has been already dammed at four other points. Drainage for Dane County’s four biggest lakes plus hydroelectric power for two towns? That’s asking a lot of a stream that’s only 60 miles long. Geesh, give a river a break already!

What we liked:
While the Stoughton to Dunkirk section is dull and sluggish, there are a few mentionable aspects.

One, the actual Stoughton dam is pretty impressive. You just don’t see huge waves of frothy water like that down here. Furthermore, directly below the dam at the 4th Avenue bridge are some rather strange looking rapids. There are two sets of pilings in the river creating three shoots through which the water flows underneath the bridge. Each shoot provides a rare Class I-II rapid opportunity with formidable standing waves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – there seems to be a drop and maybe a submerged lip or abutment that causes the standing waves. It looks passable (based on my “scientific” experiments of dropping chunks of ice and large branches on the upstream side and “monitoring” the results on the downstream side) but risky. The current is very strong, obstructions would be essentially impossible to see until the last second (if at all) and then you’ll be enclosed within concrete pilings (not fit for the claustrophobic). All this said, it could be fun – if you’re careful. I’ll wait until warmer weather to try this. Since the dam is on site, water levels should always be sufficient to run these rapids.

Two, there are some nice riffles below the 4th Avenue bridge (the only real current until below the Dunkirk dam) that take you past some cool old factory buildings and a sawmill in downtown Stoughton that looks straight out of the set for Twin Peaks. “Laura!”

There are some pleasant and undeveloped stretches between Stoughton and Dunkirk, though frankly, in the thick fog it was hard to tell what anything looked like! The Dunkirk dam is rather impressive in its own right, not least since it seems so incongruously situated. On the upstream side of the dam you can see houses on both shores. Below the dam, however, you feel like you’re in another world altogether. Riffles abound while open woods beckon. Even the powerhouse itself is a cool old brick building.

Continuing downstream, the Yahara feels and even looks like a wider Badfish Creek – its main tributary just to the west a few miles. There are innumerable riffles – some blurring that nebulous line between rifle and rapid – from here to Stebbinsville and the banks are steeper, more intimate and enclosed (many with gnarled old oaks) and the river simply feels wild. It may simply be the night-and-day contrast from Lake Kegonsa to Stoughton and then Stoughton to Dunkirk but it’s a well-earned and very welcome contrast.

Lastly, and this has less to do with this specific trip on this specific river and everything to do with weather oddities in general, but paddling in the dense fog really is an awesome experience in every sense of the word. The atmosphere is beautifully spooky. With enough imagination, any river or lake could be the backwater to some underworld – a Stygian fog in Stoughton indeed. Such conditions are random and thus are hard to catch but it’s really quite worth it.

What we didn’t like:
The Stoughton to Dunkirk section. There’s really no point in paddling it in my opinion. It’s all impounded between the two dams so there’s no current and the river is very wide. Also, you pass the Stoughton wastewater treatment facility shortly after the put-in.

Lastly, (and completely unrelated to actual paddling) I feel obliged to right a historical wrong. In one of our earliest Yahara trips, we mentioned finding an abundance of litter up to and including a CD of Beck’s Midnight Vultures. While we never condone littering, (ever!) we alluded to kind of understanding why someone, say a Beck fan, might want to get rid of this ultrafunk dance-disco-R&B breakout album. I’m sorry, but I (Timothy) cannot abide! “Peaches & Cream” is a sweaty swagger of an anthem all on its own and if the dissonance section in “Nicotine & Gravy” doesn’t freak you out in a way second only to “A Day in the Life,” then I feel sorry for you. Plus the album’s funny – it’s just funny! Sure, Midnight Vultures is totally unlike Odelay and if one hoped for a follow-up (Barry was happy with Guero), then that’s as much a set-up for disappointment as throwing away Radiohead’s Kid A just because it wasn’t another OK Computer. Just don’t throw your CDs in rivers, man!

If we did this trip again:
I’d put-in at the Dunkirk dam and paddle only the section to Stebbinsville, or take out at Highway 59 just past the Badfish Creek confluence or continue down to Murwin Park in Fulton.

Related Information:
Yahara River Overview: Yahara River Paddle Guide
Yahara River I: Veterans Memorial Park to Windsor Road
Yahara River II: Windsor Road to Yahara Heights County Park
Yahara River III: Mud Lake to Lake Kegonsa
Yahara River IV: Lake Kegonsa to Stoughton
Yahara River VI: Stebbensville Road to Murwin County Park
Good People: Friends of the Yahara River
Guide: Yahara Waterways Trail Guide
Wikipedia: Yahara River

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Emily Baker
    April 10, 2023 at 9:43 am

    Any idea how long a paddle from Dunkirk dam to Murwin park would take? We experienced the angry homeowner last time on Stebbensville Road and are looking for an alternative place to put in. Looking to go this Friday assuming the weather is as nice as it sounds like it will be! Thanks!

    • Reply
      April 10, 2023 at 6:02 pm

      That’s 14.25-ish miles which would be 4.75-5.5 hours depending on flow/how fast you’re paddling. It would be a long day trip but certainly doable. I’ve heard there was progress with the landowner but can’t confirm whether that’s true or whether you can really use the former Stebbensville Road access point without hassle once again.

      • Reply
        Emily Baker
        April 11, 2023 at 10:56 am

        Sounds like a lovely paddle, but way too long with childcare obligations that day! If you have any other alternative routes you suggest (different start or earlier end) I would appreciate it. We might also just go for the Stebbensville Rd start – this is such a beautiful stretch of the river. Happy to report back on how it goes with the landowner if so.

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