I am by no means an expert paddler. Set me atop or within a fiberglass craft, and it usually takes me few minutes to figure out how to propel myself forward, let alone steer in the direction I want. My water-borne experiences are relatively limited, but a sojourn last fall with my workmates down the often-forgotten Eau Claire River made me feel like a paddling pro. Among all my outdoor experiences in the Chippewa Valley, the journey down the leaf-lined, bridge-bedecked Eau Claire River stands out as particularly enchanting.
Why? For one thing, the Eau Claire River is practically the definition of a hidden gem. It is overshadowed, recreationally and otherwise, by the much larger Chippewa River, even though the Eau Claire and its clear water give the city its name. (According to an oft-told tale, an early French visitor exclaimed “Voici l’eau claire!” – “Here is clear water!” – upon seeing the pristine Eau Clare flow into the muddy Chippewa.) And, given the natural loveliness of the Eau Claire River, that’s a downright shame.
If you drop into the river just west of the dam that forms Lake Altoona, like we did, you’ll find yourself in a broad, serene, rock-lined stream, shaded on either side by thick autumn foliage. While you do have to clamber down a steep bank to get to the water, reaching the river is worth the slippery trip. Once in the river, even an inexpert paddler (that’s me!) will have an easy time navigating downstream, at least when the water level is normal. You’re more likely to run aground on a rock than to encounter rapids – an important consideration for the novice.
But easy doesn’t equal boring. The approximately four-mile trip between the dam and downtown Eau Claire is both relaxing and thrilling. The fall colors certainly help, as do the picturesque views of river-carved bluffs you’ll float alongside and the many bridges you’ll drift under. Considering the scenery, you’ll probably want to paddle as slowly as possible to soak it all in. (Or at least that’s what you can tell your companions if you need to give your arms a rest.)
For me, the most amazing part of the trip was the realization that we were paddling through the heart of a sizable metropolitan area – including passing under a major U.S. highway – and for the most part, we couldn’t tell. Until you approach downtown Eau Claire and landmarks such as Banbury Place (the former Uniroyal-Goodrich tire plant) begin to appear, you might very well be in the middle of the wilderness. As long as you avoid tipping your kayak in 12 inches of water (that was me again), you should arrive safe, dry, and happy in Phoenix Park at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. In the space of a few paddles, you’ve gone from wood-framed wilderness to bustling urban center, having experienced the unsung beauty of the Eau Claire River.