Token Creek is a chamber music festival, a county park, a hot-air balloon business, a disc golf course and a small unincorporated community flanking Highway 19 west of Sun Prairie. But first, it was a creek - a spring-fed meander through a wild and tangled watershed that drains 27 square miles and delivers its waters to the upper Yahara River above Cherokee Marsh.
And now, thanks to volunteers from the Mad City Paddlers and Capitol Water Trails, Token Creek is a navigable gem for canoes and kayaks. Jim Neefe, the Paddlers' loquacious co-president and one of the driving forces behind the effort, says workers have logged more than 500 hours on the project. Most of this time has been devoted to toil, but much has been spent in careful consideration.
"We don't clear the whole creek," Neefe explains during a recent tour of the waterway on a hot Wednesday evening. "We just clear spots. Just enough so you can get through. So you can enjoy yourself and maybe see some wildlife."
This minimalist approach leaves lots of lumber along the course of the creek - coarse woody habitat for fish and waterfowl. Tree limbs and, in many cases, entire trees have fallen across the current. Yet there is now a route through the strainers that is sometimes narrow but always obvious, if you are alert to the clean cuts left by chainsaws.
Token Creek is "one of the best paddles in Dane County," Neefe contends. "The currents are not that strong, so it's a nice, leisurely paddle."
Its current can be pushy, however, and the water trail demands a modicum of ducking and weaving. It's a good stream for employing fundamental boat-control skills. And it's a fine stretch of water for shorter recreational kayaks and sit-on-tops.
Before volunteers set about to create the route, Token Creek was, for the most part, rendered impassable by fallen tree limbs, and by entire trees that had collapsed across the stream bed.
But its potential as a water trail was as clear as its headwaters at the northwest fringes of Sun Prairie. From there, Token Creek gathers more springs as it wanders like a befuddled tourist under County C and Highway 19. Then it flows through the county park that bears its name, under U.S. 51 and the Interstate and an old Soo Line span before feeding into the Yahara River.
Where to put in? One option is the pond in Token Creek County Park near the towering Shell truck-stop sign. This requires portaging over a small rock dam once you've crossed the pond, though. Then the route takes you through passages under the U.S. 51 and Interstate bridges - a novelty experience involving long dark tunnels and a loud traffic roar that follows you down the creek for perhaps a mile.
Neefe prefers to put in at the Daentl Road bridge, about 200 feet downstream from the Interstate. This affords more of a buffer from the roaring Interstate, which is still audible here but less intrusive. This access point also starts you right out on the most attractive stretch of Token Creek, as it coils and sidewinds its way west through acres upon acres of roadless landscape.
After the Daentl Road bridge and the handful of houses clustered nearby along the north bank, Token Creek flows through wild wooded wetlands with little evidence of civilization beyond the fading sound of Interstate traffic and the quaint Soo Line bridge.
Neefe says it takes about four hours to paddle from the Daentl Road bridge to the creek's entry into Cherokee Marsh. It's difficult to imagine a twistier, turnier four hours.
On this hot Wednesday evening, the small party of Mad City Paddlers do not go that full distance. Instead, we turn around after 80 or 90 minutes and paddle back upstream to our put-in. The pace is relaxed. The creek is for the most part between knee- and waist-deep, clear despite the silt it carries, its bed soft and loose underfoot. The deepest spot he has found in the creek, Neefe says, is about eight feet.
He considers the creek's qualities, and what it is about the creek he finds so appealing. "I don't know," he hesitates, splashing his hands in the creek as if plunging them into reverie. "The water is just so wonderfully cool."