Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Robinsons


Kelly Road Drop
“No, you need to do this.” Dan insisted glancing my direction. ”I know I should have decided this a long time ago.” He added. “I'll feel worse if I don't run this than if I wreck my boat.” I shook my helmeted head. “I don't need to make up my mind. “ I answered. “You can make this!” He urged again. “I know, but I'm just not ready.” I shrugged. With a back bladed stroke, I let the current swing me around and then paddled toward shore. The roar of the 4 foot drop was just downstream at the Kelly Road bridge and drowned out any other remaining discussion (as far as I was concerned). I know Dan well and he would have to run this pitch, a noisy full cross channel drop adjacent to remnants of an old grist mill. Scouting it before we started the days paddle, I knew it wasn't for me at this point.

The conversation started as we rounded the final bend in Robinson Creek before the take out just south of Paquette and Dodge road in Jackson County. Since I'm fairly new to kayaking whitewater and still getting a feel for the new boat, doing just the upper section of Robinsons with numerous riffles and class I rapids, was fine for me. Dan, an experienced whitewater paddler, would have loved to continue to the lower part, with class II and III rapids, some 4-5' ledges (including “Polly Falls”) and plenty of pushy water. I'll get there, but for now, a less challenging route was good enough.

Jackson County, in south central Wisconsin, is home to some of the most underrated rivers and creeks for boaters in the state. Most are unknown. Except for a few in paddlers (and trout fishermen), they go unnoticed, as folks make bigger bodies of water, like Lake Wazee, Arbutus and the Black River, their destinations. The Morrison and Robinson, along with Halls and Wedges in Clark County to the north, were familiar with me, but I'd not slipped a boat into them before this cold spring. I'd missed a lot by not doing so sooner.

It would be hard to pick any one of these as the best-they all have some unique facet to them as far as the water and surrounding terrain. Robinson Creek, which feeds into the Black River 8 miles below Black River Falls, piqued my interest earlier this winter while crossing it several times during wolf tracking surveys. From the limited vantage point of the remote township roads, it appeared to be a gem-to say this is a beautiful body of water, would be an understatement.

Dan had paddled it a couple times already this “spring” in his ongoing quest to wet his kayak and homemade cedar strip canoe as many dozen times as possible before his work season kicks in. “I'm never concerned about weather,” he'd say. Rain, snow, ice (which has been more than common) didn't phase him, nor me as I'l learning. The only reason to look at the forecast was to see if water would be up or down on rivers and creeks. I even remarked to him while paddling last week-”I'm in a dilemma now.” “Oh no, why?” he asked. “Because I don't know if I want it to rain now or not-it kinda stinks for mountain biking, but makes it so much better for kayaking!” I answered. “That's why I'm just prepared for all of it.” he snarkily replied. And he is right, his Dodge pickup racks are loaded for bear with every outdoor toy you could imagine...at all times. People literally take photos of the black truck with bikes, canoes, kayaks and skis all somehow finding a place attached to his rig.

We generally change into paddling gear at the take out spot before shuttling to the put in. With temps in the low 30's and snow and rain spitting, dry suits were the dress of the day. I purchased one days after bringing my new crossover boat home, knowing if I wanted to paddle now (which I did) it would be required. Neoprene boots and gloves (and insulating layers under everything) along with a helmet, would make this a comfortable outing.

Robinson starts near Millston Wisconsin and the very upper part, is within the Robinson Creek Pines state natural area. The creek is narrow here (but scenic) but most paddlers opt to begin at Old Cty. I. There is a steep embankment down to the water and a good starting point for our 6+ mile trip. We'd been told the creek is runnable most of the year, but was down some from Dan's previous jaunts. We bumped a couple rocks directly under the bridge, but soon had smooth sailing with what seemed like endless riffles and good water flow. In exactly zero seconds, we were transported into an almost magical place. The remnants of fog hanging between the towering white pine canopy and high carved sandstone banks, reminded me of some kind fairytale illustration. It's hard to believe the scenery down in the creek bed we paddled for it's so different from the dry sandy jack pine and oak terrain of the surrounding county forest. Dan just chuckled-he knew I'd love this place.

With only a few cabins along the way, Robinsons feels remote and other worldly. No thought was put into paddling-it seemed to happen by itself, I was too busy taking it all in. Dans well used cedar whitewater canoe lapped riffles noisily at times behind-a good sign to know his whereabouts when waves and current increased. Sections of the creek are constant class I, one after another and you can't help but smile the whole time. Deep outside corner pools counter small sand bars inside, which the creek builds and erodes away constantly. One is always maneuvering the boat to set up for the next bend (and there are a lot!).

A few miles in, the flow slowed and we made our way through log jams which the local “Friends of the Black River” judiciously cut through each year. A roar from angry water was ahead and I asked Dan if there was a beaver dam- “No, man made dam.” he replied. Hmmm, unexpected as there is so little development here. A large concrete structure loomed ahead and we made for the right shore. Apparently, Robinsons is dammed here to divert water for the adjacent cranberry marsh. We portaged around and slid back into the water below the frothing spillway. Overflow water snuck past the dam through the woods to rejoin a short distance downstream. From this point on the water slowed, was bendier and we met jams more frequently, a change from upstream. Another mile or so and the flavor of Robinsons returned-speedier flow and taller forest on both sides.

Keeping a small creek free flowing is a constant job. Dan had lashed a small stihl beneath a cane seat in his boat to address a couple white pines that had dropped into the water making passage impossible. In shallower places, he could wade out in his drysuit and cut his way through, while others, the work had to be done while balancing inside the canoe and being showered with water and wood chips. It was good work and paddlers who follow, will appreciate it.

This section finishes with a couple moderate (okay, easy) drops and rapids and the banks increasing in height. It's as if the creek is preparing the paddler for the bigger water (class II and III) below Kelly to Fall Hall Road.

Dan decided (as I knew he would) to run the drop beneath the bridge. It was his way of properly putting the river section to bed. I'd watch from downstream. The pitch is the base for an old dam which powered the Dodge gris mill built by Daniel Mills in the 1800s. All that remains is crumbling concrete and field stone foundations high along the south bank. Taking a position with camera in hand below the drop, I watched Dan set up and bring the canoe around for the line he wanted to take. The shutter snapped a few photos off as the boat nosed over the ledge in a nonchalant manner, barely splashing water inside. I was impressed. “You made it look easy” I shouted. “Well, I don't have to fix my boat at least” he casually replied. I doubted the canoe would come to harm-Dan remarked how well the design handles and he's skilled at paddling it.

After loading boats and stowing gear, we visited the drops near Fall Hall Glen. The cascading ledges here looked intimidating to me, but I was assured by Dan they were not that bad and are straightforward to get through-the weekend before he and others had made multiple runs here. I'll work up to that test at some point I guess. As it was, Robinsons couldn't have been a better trip for a cold spring day and I can't wait to slip a boat in here again. The seasons will surely flavor the trip differently, but I know it'll be a great experience. I can't wait to return paddle in hand.

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