Kayaking the Black with family on the hottest weekend of the year
We usually schedule a trip up north around the Fourth of July weekend. It was Fourth of July week six years ago that started this journey for us. Present this year were Lorraine and I, along with Josh, Molly, Nathan and Chelsea.
I don't think I have sweated so much in my life. Lorraine, Molly and I arrived sometime around 2:00 PM on Friday and set up camp. Josh, Chelsea and Nathan showed up around 6:00 PM. Yeah, cooking campfire dinners over a campfire when the heat index is somewhere around 110 degrees is not much fun, and it was a muggy night. Fortunately, I stayed at the hotel with Lorraine, while the others tent camped for the night.
Got out there early on Saturday in order to cook up a campfire breakfast. 7:00 in the morning and it was unbearably hot already. However, after getting through breakfast and cleanup, we were ready to get on the water.
Hall's Creek was low based on our "sandbar gauge" across from us at the confluence of Small Hall's Creek with Hall's Creek. I had a new app on my phone that showed the flow rates of the Black River to be at a decent level of run-ability, so we decided to give that a try. I was really looking forward to scouting this stretch of paddling water.
I had read some of the reviews on this stretch of the Black River, and had personally hiked to see the drops just above Brickhouse Road Landing. You can hike to these granite outcroppings pretty easily just north of the landing. I knew the water below that landing was a bit tamer, so we started at Brickhouse Road Landing and traveled down to the Hall's Creek Canoe Landing.
The flow during the time that we paddled ran anywhere from 220-243 CFS, and it was a good level to make the run with just a few scrapes or hangups occurring, and the rapids and drops were not anything we could not handle. A week earlier and the water would have been too high (340 CFS). A few days later and the water would have been too low (120 CFS). In my opinion, this was an excellent flow rate, and a good benchmark for the future.
Let's talk about this flow rate for a bit. The gauge is located at the powerhouse just off of Powerhouse Road. This gauge is more of a reflection of the flow coming thru the millrace (from Lake Arbutus) to generate power at the powerhouse. However, if you consider this water merging back with the actual Black River, it is a good indication of the water level from Powerhouse Road and points downstream. The data for this gauge is located here.
While this gauge is very helpful in understanding flow rates from the powerhouse and points downstream, it is not a true reflection of much of anything else as they release water at the Hatfield dam based on whether they want to fill up the lake, lower the lake, generate power (via the millrace), or release water for the rapids below the dam (for those extreme kayakers).
Speaking of these water releases for extreme kayakers...... here is a link to the schedule of these releases, which are normally once a month on Saturdays, June through September. Most likely, these releases would cause the water downstream to be too high to run as we did.
In any case, we took off from Brickhouse Road Landing, not to be confused with Paddy's Landing as I later surmised. We had to negotiate some shallow rapids in order to get to the channel on the opposite side of the river, but if you can find the right line it is not bad at this flow rate. A few fun rapids will bring you to the first island. The islands are usually where the rapids are to be found on this stretch of water.
Coming upon the first island, there is a fairly challenging drop where the water diverts to the left to begin its flow on the east side of the island. This was probably a Class III drop at these flow rates, and we chose to head towards the west channel (river-right) which was a fun set of rapids on their own. While I would have liked to take this drop, it is always best to err on the safe side and not do anything that may be beyond your abilities. Sitting here and writing this, though..... I kind of wished I would have taken it! As it was, the west channel was a nice long stretch of rapids that was fun.
Along this entire stretch of the Black River there are some granite outcroppings that could be worthy of exploring, but we continued on through some quiet water with a few minor rapids. We stopped at a nice rock/sand bar at a minor bend in the river to stretch, swim and have a small snack. As I mentioned, it was hot, and a dip in the water is just what we needed to cool down a bit. However, I have to say that there was a nice breeze on the water that certainly helped a bunch during most of this trip.
A short distance after this gravel/sand bar, the river will split, with the left (east channel) continuing towards the bottom of the "backwards-S-Curve" that will take you past the confluence of Morrison Creek. However, most reviewers suggest taking the right (west channel) that cuts across to pick up the main channel again. This section flows fairly quickly, weaving back and forth among downed trees that need some attention. A bald eagle nest could be seen with babies in the nest, while another bald eagle with her juvenile flew intertwining loops above us. After a fun little run on this cut-through section of water, you will head back into the main river channel.
As the Black River headed back north towards the top of the "hump", the air was stagnant and hot, but the bald eagles kept us entertained. Over the hump, down through some shallow rapids, and touchdown at Hall's Creek Canoe Landing. Total paddling time: 1-1/2 hours.
Well, that was fun, but we were not done paddling so after a quick bite to eat, we decided to paddle the leg from Powerhouse Road to Brickhouse Road. For this stretch, knowing it was a bit more technical, we all wore helmets and PFD's. I always where mine, but I can't force others to do what they don't want to do. PFD's are always a must, but the helmets are optional unless the water dictates it, and in this case it did.
In retrospect, I wish we would have started here, but it was also smart to "learn the Black" in the first leg we took, and then take a step up to the more technical section. Now we know what we are dealing with at these flow rates, so we'll make the appropriate decisions next time. Could be the same or could be different; it all depends on the flow rates.
The landing at the powerhouse is very nice. The power company maintains this for paddlers, and I, for one, appreciate that they do this.They even have an outhouse there for paddlers to use. You can see the set of rapids just upstream (called Powerhouse Rapids) that would be fun to run at proper flows, but today they were making power, so the flow was primarily via the millrace and not the main river channel.
After launch at the powerhouse, we head to the channel on the far side (river-left). Upon reaching the first island, half went river-right, and the other half went river-left. River-right is still residential property before entering the Black River State Forest. In higher water levels, either can be run. In lower water, river-right is probably the better line to take. If the left channel is run, be sure to find your way to river-right at the end of the island, because that is where the main channel lies. If you don't take this hard line towards the channel river-right, you will get hung up on the rocks.
Some quiet water after this for a ways, but this allows you to take in the beautiful scenery. A large granite outcropping river-right will indicate you are coming upon Paddy's Landing. There is river access to this off of Brickhouse Road and is a good place to take out if you want to avoid the upcoming drop. Likewise, a person can put in at Paddy's landing if travelling further downstream and desire to run the drop. I guess someone could put-in at Paddy's and take-out at Brickhouse and just run the drop over and over again also.
Paddy's Landing is a nice sand/gravel bar that is a nice place to stop and rest if you are continuing down to Hall's Creek Landing.
Paddy's Drop (this is the name I give it; I am not sure if it has a name) is a 18-24" drop with a standing wave. You will see it and hear it as you come upon it, and you want to line yourself up to enter into it from river-right near the boulder (I know, which boulder?) and shoot yourself towards river-left. If you look at the picture on this blog post, you will see what I am talking about.
Paddy's is a fun little drop, but if you want to avoid it head river-right and portage around it. After the drop, there is a nice quick run of rapids and small standing waves.
Shortly after this island, we reached Brickhouse Road Landing. As I mentioned, we ran the lower leg first, and finished up with the upper leg. This all made for a long day out in the sun, and we were ready to get cleaned up to go out for supper. The forecast was calling for storms that night, so I had reserved a hotel room for the kids, so we all had a place to clean up and change.
While we were at the hotels, the storms hit. These were not small storms; these were severe storms with strong winds that did much damage that I'll mention later. Massive lightning and a ton of rain. As it turned out, we went kayaking on the right day.
Supper at Inwood Supper Club in Hatfield was excellent, and it was a nice time with my family all present.
The next morning, Josh and Chelsea had to head out, leaving me, Lorraine, Molly and Nathan. We went to Castle Mound, where we were able to see how much damage the storms had done the night before. There were massive pine trees probably three to four feet in diameter snapped like twigs strewn across the trails. Still, Castle Mound is a must-see if you are in the area, and just a nice place to take a hike.
We then went out to Lake Wazee, a man-made lake from an old mine. It is the deepest fresh-water lake in the state of Wisconsin at 355 feet deep and a draw for scuba divers. There is a nice beach area that is usually pretty crowded, from what I am told, but today was nice. We hung out on the beach, did a little swimming, and had a nice time there. Nate had to take off after that, leaving me, Lorraine and Molly to stay one more night. Rozario's pizza for supper, a good night of sleep, and we headed out the next morning.
I really enjoyed this time with my family. We were able to try out the Black River for the kayaking segment of our business. We were able to check out Lake Wazee. We were able to get some planning done for the next steps of, well, the stairs. But it was sure a hot one!