Friday, April 22, 2016

The Halls

Paddlers call it an otter slide. It's a cool (I must admit) showy entrance into the water. Tuck yourself into the kayak on dry land, get situated and rock back and forth nudging the boat forward until sliding off a bank and burying the nose underwater and popping up. Mine may have been called a Muskrat slip-about a 1' drop, kerploosh, into the drink. It's as cool as I can get right now.

The put in is just below the Trow Lake hydro dam south east of Merrillan Wisconsin. Halls Creek, which runs through the upstream town, dumps into two small flowages, Oakwood Lake, alongside State hiways 12/27 and 95, and Trow Lake a few miles downstream. Halls is another one of the small creek gems within the Black River basin. It shares some similarities with Wedges Creek to the north and Robinsons and Morrison further south. Of all of these, Halls maybe is the showiest-not so much in water, but in the grandeur of some of the high sandstone walls, which creates an almost canyon like feel in places.

Dan, my paddling partner, jokes about locals having nothing to do in this part of the state-they are clueless about these rivers right in their backyard. I admit, though I spend every second I can outdoors, I had no idea how great the waterways are nearby. Once one drops a boat into these rivers and creeks, it's like another world from the surrounding countryside. Halls, keeps that tradition just like the other bodies we've paddled lately.

Water levels are crucial on Halls Creek (also known as Stockwell, upstream from Merrillian) if one is to avoid a scrapy trip. The nearby Black River sometimes is a poor indicator of water levels for these smaller creeks. A visual cue is a large rock upstream from the hi-way E bridge, if it's half exposed, water is too low. Our tour down the Halls saw enough water-with some scrapes and bumps, but passible. You could body english yourself across the drops and most of the riffles had enough flow.

This would be my first run down the creek, while Dan had paddled it several times. Again, he kept his opinion of the Halls to himself, and let me enthusiastically discover it's beauty- “I knew you'd like this one.” he later commented.

Indeed, Halls brings a scenic richness that I hadn't expected. Much of it flows through county forest, and what is private, has limited development, with few structures. The first section to Garage Road is a bit more understated, much like Wedges Creek, with mostly easy riffles, good water flow and a subtle shoreline. This four mile stretch would be easy for novice paddlers.

From Garage Road to the confluence with the Black River, the creek (to me anyway) changes character. Water generally flows faster, with more rapids (class I & II) to interrupt the serpentine path of the creek and shorelines reach higher and higher with sandstone walls. In a word, more dramatic in complexion.

There are drops along the way to the Black, 2-5 footers, that I, as a rookie, managed to slide and scrape my way across. At higher levels, the water may very well increase the pucker level. An old dam near an abandoned YMCA camp really starts things off after a few minor rapids upstream. Dan had told me about this and I wasn't sure, but wanted to give it a go.

Delapidated Camp Bradfield lies overhead and as far as anyone knows, the cement dam blocking Halls Creek here was constructed to provide a swimming hole for visitors. Perhaps it's older-maybe a remnant form the logging era, when logs cut in the pinery to the north were held in Trow lake, then floated down Halls to the Black during springtime flooding. Hard to imagine the difficulty in that process now days. A small chute, cut or worn in the dam at river left, provides the only safe passage through the obstacle. Cement and iron pilings protrude across the rest of the dam and are potential for serious injury. I hope at some point, this eye sore is removed to provide a free flow through to the rest of the creek.

Riffles and class I rapids lie downstream from the old dam, and the before mentioned drops. With Dan leading over the river features, I just avoided places he'd get stuck-that, and hit the drops with speed to hopefully slide through the rocks. They were fun and a little sense of accomplishment for myself as I (hopefully) continue to improve my paddling.

What really stands out (literally) are the high layered sandstone walls on almost every outside corner of this pretty little creek. As we travel downstream, they seem to get higher and higher (they actually do) and more impressive. Some appear to be squishing the layers of rock below after thousands of years of pressure. Different gradients of color, from gold to blue and green and every shade of ochre in between. Tiny plant life, mosses, miniature ferns and lichens, cling to any fissure the stone allows. Water seeps from the rock, and in places ice walls still clung to shady faces. (Ice climbing next winter?)

The last couple big bends before county hi-way E are awe-inspiring. We lingered a while, taking some photos and drifting beneath the rock outcroppings-almost baby sea caves in a way. Current is fairly strong here, so the boats still need to be tended to even while we admired the scenery.

Drifting below the high bridge, a few rock gardens greet us, but current slows considerably-it's a pick-your-way-through kinda section. Some scrapy bottoms and a couple twists of the creek push us toward the much larger Black River ahead. A few remaining walls line the shallow sandy terminus of the Halls with a high tiny waterfall on river right as the last sensatory treat before we hit the DNR landing around the corner. The swift strong current of the Black, a stark contrast to the last mile we'd paddled, swirls around the canoe launch, making one last challenge for a “dry exit” from the kayak.

Like many of the smaller creeks and rivers in the Black River country, the characteristic of the water can change dramatically throughout the year-hit the level just right, and they can provide a whitewater delight, at lower levels, a tamer cruise. I appreciate that these different watercourses also provide such a variety of visual experiences for the paddler. Each has a distinct flavor, and Halls Creek is one essence I'll have to try again.

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