Urban Exploration on Starkweather Creek
Paddling with Dan Eckberg –
While the bicycle has been making a comeback across Wisconsin, and especially in Madison with cycle-friendly policies, culture and an abundance of dedicated off-road trails, there is another mode of transportation still largely flying under the radar as a means of exploring the urban environment: paddling.
At first blush it may seem odd to think that water might be overlooked in a region that does so much to embrace its aquatic riches. But while plenty of kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddle-boards (SUP’s) populate the local dominant lakes, there are a wealth of less trafficked creeks and crannies in the midst of our capital from Wingra Creek to Winnequah Point.
The crown jewel of these hidden gems, though, may be Starkweather Creek.
Reflections on the roof of the Fair Oaks Ave. bridge over Madison’s Starkweather Creek. Daniel Eckberg photo
Starkweather Creek enters Lake Monona at Olbrich Park near the Lake’s Northeast corner on Madison’s Eastside. Running upstream it bisects Olbrich Botanical Gardens, then forks between an East and West branch. The East branch crosses Stoughton Road before petering out, while the headwaters of the West branch are found all the way up near the Dane County Airport.
While the more rural East branch is intriguing in its own right, it’s a story for another day. A trip up the West branch, however, makes for an excellent mini-urban excursion.
At Olbrich Park, a large boat launch sits on the Creek near its outlet into Lake Monona. But one sunny Saturday last summer, I put my kayak in at another park and simply paddled into the creek mouth directly from the lake, weaving through a patient line of idling motorboats going the opposite way.
Right after the boat launch, a foot bridge skirts overhead, connecting the two halves of the Botanical Gardens. As I passed under, I was greeted by a chorus of kids waving and pointing from above. Just on the other side, the golden Thai Pavilion appears on the East bank – providing a stellar surprise for anyone new to town, or a refreshing perspective on the landmark to even the most seasoned Wisconsinite.
Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, as seen from Starkweather Creek. Daniel Eckberg photo
Beyond the Capital City Trail, the crowd thins out quickly, with only a handful of fisherman and paddlers sharing the stream. A quarter mile of greenery on either side leads up to the fork, bringing both solitude and a nice afternoon shade, while hiding the old Garver Feed Mill on the Western shore.
At the fork, I passed into the creek’s west branch, and in the 90 minutes I spent there before returning to the fork – spanning over 2 miles round trip – I didn’t encounter another soul on the water, and few on land.
While nearly every inch of shoreline on the City’s lakes is treated as a treasured waterfront view, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Starkweather is how neglected it seems to be by the properties that line its banks.
While some of it is intentionally protected public land, much is privately owned, and most of the structures abutting the Creek – whether residences or businesses – have literally turned their back on the water. Beyond the boat launch at Olbrich there was not a single dock, public or private, providing access to the stream. The whole length of the Creek only one other entry point was visible, a lone stairway made of cinderblocks propping up a few planks of wood.
But their loss is the paddler’s gain. As a result, for long stretches the Creek offers that quality most-valued in nature, the therapeutic feeling of getting away from it all. From the fork up through Milwaukee Street, large trees tower over both banks, obscuring most signs of the City that surrounds on all sides, as birds and crickets chirp among the reeds. Passing beneath the cavernous bridge at Fair Oaks Avenue feels more like passing through a mountain tunnel.
As Milwaukee Street approaches, things become a bit less tranquil, though no less interesting. On the East bank, a small beekeeping operation comes into view; one artificial hive no more than five yards off the Creek was swarming with activity. While the Milwaukee St. Bridge itself features some of the nicest landscaping that few ever see. Visible almost exclusively from the Creek itself, the street’s name is etched into beautiful, high-quality limestone.
Under the bridge there were, curiously, four or five plastic duck decoys bobbing in the water. More pleasantly, on the far side half a dozen turtles – sunning themselves on logs – plopped into the stream like dominos as I closed in.
Beyond the bridge, the Starkweather Creek Bike Path also appears, running parallel to the water all the way up to the Madison (Area Technical) College Truax Campus. My presence prompted a few double takes from bikers surprised at seeing a person on the increasingly narrow channel.
By this point, most motorized watercraft would have a hard time maneuvering. And predictably, the shallower the water became as I traveled further upstream, the more litter became visible as well. This was primarily limited to beer cans, but I was soon confronted with an object so I big I had to paddle around it; a wooden end-table was floating upside down right in the middle of the Creek.
Starkweather Creek Bike Path overpass of E. Washington Ave. Daniel Eckberg photo
Next was East Washington Avenue. The Bike Path swoops into the air above the busy thoroughfare, looking more like a piece of public art than a pathway, while the Creek carries on below. It’s a bit of a rush paddling unseen under such a major road, as semis thunder past a few feet overhead. Finally, shortly before Aberg Avenue, the path was blocked by a downed tree that had fallen across the Creek and I turned back downstream.
While the controversial beer garden planned for Olbrich Park has been garnering far more attention, that same development is also slated to include a canoe and kayak rental shop 100 yards from the Creek’s outlet. This, in tandem with a new public small boat storage rack set to be built by the City Parks Department, with fundraising support from the Friends of Starkweather Creek advocacy group, means accessing the Starkweather should soon be easier than ever.
If considering a trip, earlier in the season may be better than later for a more pristine experience: Though conditions vary day-to-day, in general algae growth becomes more widespread by the end of summer with increased sunlight exposure.
There are miles-upon-miles of waterways to check out around southern Wisconsin. Few however are so close at hand, so sparsely traveled, or so varied in their spectrum of both urban and natural highlights as Starkweather Creek.
Reflections on the roof of the Fair Oaks Ave. bridge over Madison’s Starkweather Creek.
Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, as seen from Starkweather Creek.
Starkweather Creek Bike Path overpass of E. Washington Ave.
Daniel Eckberg photo