Flow along with river rat Laura DeGolier, of Fond du Lac, as she describes a recent run down the obscure West Branch of the Fond du Lac River, with fellow rats Lindsay Wood Davis, Amanda Davis, and Denny Caneff.
Quiet, secluded, available only by water, sliding a kayak or canoe into the West Branch of the Fond du Lac River from the dike road in the Eldorado Marsh, a few miles west of the city of Fond du Lac, is a real pleasure. The current has carved a path through the cattails and allows easy passage through this watery space inhabited only by wildlife.
When gliding through the marsh birds, ducks, herons and coots are easily disturbed by rare human intruders. Sandhill cranes leave their feeding for a quick flight around before settling down again. Blue winged teal and mallards respond with noisy takeoffs as the intruders move along the river.
Passing under the abandoned railway that marks the south boundary of the Eldorado Marsh is the first sign of civilization (other than distant traffic noise). It is another ½ mile before you cruise under the Hwy. 23 bridge, and the tale of the second river begins.
The stream narrows here, forcing the water to crowd into a smaller area and the speed of flowing water picks up. By the time the canoes and kayaks reach Town Line Road all eyes are on the river and there is less time to gawk at the wildlife along the stream bank.
Ahead the river is tumbling downhill – so surprising for this flat landscape. You can see the downhill tilt of the racing water as it flows over hidden boulders creating small whitecaps on the water’s surface. All hands are on the paddles and ready to pull harder on this side or rudder on that side to overcome the pull of the current as it crashes into the bank and then moves back into midstream.
Hawks fly overhead; an owl is moved from its resting place, and warblers hurry to keep up with the speeding canoes and kayaks. And the water keeps tumbling downhill around bends in the river, past farm houses and new developments high on the hill above the river. The ride down the river is quite like sliding down a bannister. Scenes of the wooded lands with standing water, open farm fields and marshy areas catching the overflow flash past as the captains of their vessels keep focused on the speeding river ahead.
The water is cold on this April day and no one has a desire to take a bath in the churning, rushing flow. The pace is exhilarating; there can be few thoughts of anything other than navigating the swirling water ahead.
The pace stays very fast until the Forest Ave. bridge, where it slows slightly. Still, at this time of the year with the water level high, the pace is lively on into Fond du Lac where the West Branch eventually meets with the East Branch and its heavy burden of eroded soils, and then the merged branches wind another couple of miles through the city to the Lake.
The West Branch tells two tales -- quiet and secluded at its origin, then falling with the natural drop of the land from the high point in its watershed to the level of the city.
Grab a kayak and a friend or two, especially on a spring day, to explore this obscure and quiet river, which becomes a thrilling raceway to Lake Winnebago – a riverine gem to experience and treasure.