A group of paddling enthusiasts, brought together by the magic of an internet forum, took my suggestions and joined me to paddle the outflow of the Essex Chain Lakes, or more simply, the Chain Drain.
We booked campsites at nearby Lake Harris for the sake of convenience and the size of our group. Groups of us began trickling in to the campsite on a Friday, the first day of the 2016 camping season at Lake Harris campground. All were greeted by warm, sunny skies and a multitude of black flies.
Everyone had their own canoe preferences. There were packboats, solo canoes and tandem canoes. The main difference between the packboats and the solo canoes is the seating position and the paddle used. In a packboat the paddler uses a double-ended paddle and sits on the bottom, or nearly so. The solo canoes are paddled with a single blade, and the seat is elevated. The elevated seating raises the paddler’s center of gravity, but sacrifices some stability. The lower seating in the packboats feels more stable, but climbing in and out can be tricky. That tricky ingress and egress would turn out to be entertaining, more about that later.
Later that evening, we noticed a strange cloud formation in the night sky. After watching it for but a few minutes, we realized that it was an aurora! We gathered as a group and watched the thin wispy band of white light sweep across the sky. In 20 minutes it was gone, existing now only in our memories.
The next morning brought excitement and anticipation, and the weather was ideal, warm, no wind and slightly overcast. Ten paddlers and one canine guest caravanned down the rugged dirt roads leading to the parking lot for Deer Pond access to the Essex Chain Lakes.
At the trailhead, there was a choice. Some decided to use wheels and tote their boats 1.2 miles to Third Lake, mostly along the old dirt roads. Some chose to carry their boats directly to Third Lake. Others decided to carry their boats a quarter-mile to Deer Pond, paddle 200 yards across Deer, and then make the half-mile carry to Third Lake. It was a tie as to which route was quicker, but the wheels made for an easy trip. In any case, the carries were well marked and the put-ins clearly designated.
Starting out on Third Lake, some of the group decided to stay back and try their hand at fishing. The rest of us paddled south from Third to the connected Second Lake. There remained seven of us, five solo paddlers and pair in a tandem canoe. Interestingly, when I was last here in 2013, there was a double-net fish barrier between Second and Third Lakes, no doubt to retain the Gooley Club’s private stock. This day there were no fish nets.
From Second Lake we paddled to the end of the lake, as signified by a three-foot-high beaver dam. There is a marked and maintained canoe carry to First Lake on the left. We quickly made the 0.1-mile carry around the beaver dam and the small rock garden just below it.
Putting in on First Lake, we paddled casually southwest towards the Chain Drain. As the banks closed in, so did the black flies. Time for the head nets, everyone!! After a ten-minute paddle, we came upon the first beaver dam, the start of the Chain Drain. And then at the very next bend, another beaver dam!
As we continued, it was clear that these waters were rarely traveled. At one bend, there was a deadfall stretching from bank to bank. This was also one of the few spots that had solid footing along the otherwise marshy shore.
I had described the cascades between sheer rock walls at the end of the Chain Drain, and all were anxious to see them. However, with beaver dam after beaver dam, some were questioning if the destination would be worthy of the effort to get there. Then, with but one beaver dam left to traverse, just like the Hunger Games, I heard the cannon signifying the first loss of a tribute. Those tricky packboats dumped one of our intrepid crew into the 50-degree water. Wisely, she and her hubby decided to quickly retreat back to the parking lot. Sadly, I would hear the cannon two more times today, once for my poor darling bride.
After two miles of meandering, crossing beaver dams and deadfalls, we reached the end of the navigable drainage. Beaching our boats, we noticed the nice views looking back towards Dun Brook Mountain.
We bushwhacked around the chasm, looping to the right and then returning to the cascades. Here the water tumbles over rock ledges in a series of large steps, the first few between sheer rock walls. The total drop is 40 to 60 feet before the Chain Drain meets the Rock River.
When polled, all agreed that the cascades were very attractive, and were made even more so by the effort it took to reach them.
By now, we had dawdled our way for over four hours. We decided to beat feet, or paddles, and quickly retrace our route to have plenty of time for dinner, a campfire and conversations back at the campsite. Two more beaver-dam mishaps and we were back at the cars, just as it began to rain. It should be noted that other than at the parking area, we saw no other paddlers. We had the Chain Drain all to ourselves.
All in all, this was an enjoyable day trip, albeit a bit strenuous for some. The many beaver dams made for an effective system of locks. There was plenty of water to float all of our boats.
Should you decide to go, plan on a full day to allow plenty of time to enjoy the paddling and the cascades. A portage cart will work just fine on the carries. A trip down the Chain Drain, combined with camping on the Chain Lakes would make for an enjoyable weekend trip.
Three weeks later, I and two friends returned and went even farther down the Drain. This time, the three of us quickly paddled through the Chain Drain. We then shouldered our solo canoes and carried around the cascades. As I was putting my canoe back in the water below the cascades, I noticed a very preoccupied six-point buck along the shore. We then paddled into the Rock River and attempted some upstream travel. Within 0.1 mile, there were rapids that stretched out of sight. If we could have continued, it would have been two miles upstream to Dun Brook and the trail that passes Rock Lake. Turning downstream, we were swept along by a surprisingly strong current. The banks were crowded by old-growth hardwoods, and the sandy river bottom was covered with moose tracks. There was one set of riffles and a few beaver dams before the confluence with the Cedar River.
As we approached the confluence, we could hear the sloshing at Square Rock Rapids, a class III drop on the Cedar. Right at the confluence is a large, sandy island, just the right spot to eat lunch! Next is over 1.5 miles of flatwater on the Cedar, but exploration of that section would have to wait for another day, we had already reached our turnaround time. Total mileage for the day was about 14 miles, and we spent about 8.5 hours on the day trip.
This route beyond the Chain Drain has the potential for an adventurous through trip, with an exit via Pine Lake, or maybe from the Cedar, near the site of the proposed multi-use bridge.
Photos and map submitted by Mike Tomaszewski.