Black River - Wisconsin

Date: August 21, 2020; Length: 11.5 miles; Duration: 4 hours 45 min

Put In: Grand Ave Bridge (Neillsville)

Side of the road parking on the road perpendicular to the bridge. Manageable short walk down and put in off some rocks in calm water.

Takeout: Highway 95 Bridge

No designated landing but options on either side of the bridge off some rocks. Either will lead to a steep climb up boulders back to the bridge and its side of the road parking.

Paddling Experience = 2/5

This section of the Black has potential to be a pleasant paddling experience but it wasn't for me on this occasion. This was primarily due to lower than recommended water levels that left me endlessly getting caught up on boulders just below the water surface. And there was no shortage of boulders. Pair that with a total lack of current and it makes for a frustrating time on the water.

Natural Scenery = 4/5

This section typically had deciduous trees lining its banks. There were a couple stretches of houses and some others scattered. Still, the river and its surroundings provided nice natural scenery.

Wildlife = 3/5

An eagle, hawk, group of geese, and even an osprey were spotted for birds. In the clear water I saw a turtle and several small fish and one good sized (18-24 inch).

Gradient & Water Level

Gradient: ~6 feet per mile. Mostly flatwater due to low water level.
Experience Paddling at this Water Level: Paddling at this water level was rough. I would recommend waiting for higher levels or trying a different section altogether. For starters there was a lack of a current to the point that when I put in it was unclear which way the river was flowing. And then there are endless boulders just below the water surface that are impossible to completely avoid. The river stayed pretty wide, shallow, and slow throughout this section, even where there were supposed to be rapids. These were the slowest runs with quick recurring cycles of paddle, scrape, and scoot over.

Gauge Information

Here is information on stream gauge readings around the date of this paddle (Note: Neillsville gauge, located around the put in of this section):

  • USGS Number = 05381000
  • Discharge Rate = 87 CFS
  • Gauge Height = 3.0 ft

Overall Experience

The Black is a river that starts in northcentral Wisconsin and eventually flows into the Mississippi. I was looking to paddle a section of it, which I found several of in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin book. I ended up choosing the Neillsville to Lake Arbutus section for its stretch of manageable rapids. This intended route was 12.5 miles in river but when the day came I could not spot the takeout off Riviera avenue, so I decided to move my takeout the next possible spot upriver in that of the bridge off Hwy 95. So I parked off the side of the road just past the bridge and started my hike with my packed packraft up to my put in. After just under three hours I arrived at the Grand avenue bridge put in, which had a picnic table and an open area to try and get on the water from.
A little while later I was on the Black River and had a mix of first impressions. The water looked cool and clear with a light brown to orange color for a bottom, with boulders all over the place, but this same water lacked movement. It felt like complete flat water, to the point that when I paddled out to the middle by the bridge, I couldn’t tell which way the river flowed from just looking at the water. This alone would have left me with a struggle of a paddle, but what put things over the top were the all too common maze of endless boulders exposed out of the water surface or just below it. I did not anticipate water level being a concern on this section going in with all the anticipated rapids and it even ending with Lake Arbutus, but it definitely was a problem. I had so much starting, stopping, and scooting over boulders just below the water surface. The mapped out class II rapids were a similar story, without any momentum possible on these runs where so many boulders were exposed with so little water. Otherwise, the Black had some winding to it but in big bends instead of tight turns, while a handful of islands occurred with one side often too shallow to paddle through. And the river stayed wide throughout contributing to the shallow water issues no doubt, yet hazards remained only in form of boulders, as downed trees were not a thing here. As for the surroundings, the banks were typically lined with deciduous trees, but they felt more distant with the wider river width. And there were a couple stretches of houses, with some others scattered in this section of river, but none that felt too out of place or overdeveloped areas for that matter. Access points were also limited, with three bridges between my put in and takeout, two of those occurring in the first two miles. Still, I came across two kayaking fishermen at one point, a family in the water just off their house, and a couple instances of people fishing near bridges in my time out there. Wildlife were more common yet, spotting a turtle, a variety of birds (osprey, bald eagle, hawk, group of geese), and some fish (one nearing two feet in length from my estimates) in the clear water.
So returning to my low water paddling struggles, after nearly five hours, for only 11.5 miles, I finally reached my Hwy 95 bridge takeout. There were plenty of options in rocks to try and take out onto but getting there became the issue still, with my final starting, stopping, and scooting over rocks occurring. Eventually I exited the water just before the bridge on river left and deflated and packed away from packraft from the rocks. This left me with the final steep climb up more rocks to get to the road and then my car, ending my long Black River trip. Looking back I remember the frustrating struggle to paddling on the shallow water with exposed boulders, but I also see a lot of potential to this section at higher water levels. It would just be a matter of timing that out and assuring that is the case beforehand. As for me, I will return to try another section of the Black, likely farther downriver and make sure to take my own advice and stay clear of the much too low water levels.