Wisconsin River XI
Grandfather Dam to Lokemoen Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A short trip alternating between flatwater and Class I-II rapids that begins at the end of the Wisconsin River’s single steepest section and quite possibly, where the coolest hydroelectric dam in the state is located.
May 11, 2014
NOAA: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 1304.7
We strongly recommend this level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin.
Powerhouse at Grandfather Dam
Lokemoen Road boat launch to Lake Alexander, West of Merrill
Time: Put in at 10:45a. Out at 12:00p.
Total Time: 1h 15m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Common mergansers, turtles and killdeer.
Only 5.7 miles but essentially all of it is on Highway 107 which has no shoulder for bicycles and where a few vehicles speed along awfully fast.
Have you been to this spot before? If not, you should. You must, actually… especially if you live nearby. It’s just so friggin’ interesting! Set in an area where hundreds of millions of years ago this part of Wisconsin was a volcanic mountain range rivaling the Alps, today it’s a rough-and-tumble spot of huge boulders tossed about like building blocks in an “up north” woodsy backdrop.
In less than one mile the Wisconsin River plummets some 90’, the steepest gradient anywhere in its 430 miles, called “Grandfather Falls.” In its original state it was a wild and wooly Class IV whitewater stretch that sent many lumbermen to early graves. But it’s a combination of natural landscape and human engineering that make this spot so cool. A truly fascinating engineering project, Grandfather Dam harnesses the frothing river, diverting some of it into a pool for paddlers to portage these crazy-ass falls, while sending most of the rest of the water through two humongous half-mile long cylinders called “stockpens” down a hill to the turbines below to an old brick powerhouse that generates the hydrojuice for 30,000 folks (and second only to the dam in Prairie du Sac in generating power of all the 26 dams on the Wisconsin River).
Below this report you will find a smorgasbord of fun facts and ad hoc history about the Wisconsin River itself and its many dams, so I won’t delve too deeply into it now. Suffice it to say that this is one of those exception-to-the-rule paddles in that the river experience is possibly enhanced by the presence of a dam, not hindered (well, at least figuratively speaking). Sometimes, especially in spring when the power grid isn’t being strained like it is in summer, the dam will release the raging river with the effect of it resembling what it used to be like, giving you a glimpse of its past and if you’re skilled and brave enough to paddle it, a spectacular whitewater experience comparable to the Wolf River or the burly rapids in the U.P.. Here’s a video of the falls at lower levels and here’s one taken at high levels (cue it to 2:15).
For my own sake, I’d been to this spot before years ago, (in that unmentionable twilight of my life pre-kayak) both in summer. Then, the river was both naturally and artificially lower. The hydroelectric dam is a state of Wisconsin held property, so the public can and is actually encouraged to access it. Two paths of the Ice Age Trail run parallel on both sides of the river but the one on river-left is the more interesting of the two. You can walk a mile along the river or a combination of river-and-dam landscape (“damscape”?). In shallower water, the huge rocks are exposed and make for some fun, if tricky, walking out onto (though in the unlikely event that the siren goes off signaling a release of water, it’s best not to be out on the rocks!) At this stage the river can still be paddled, though it would rank Class I-II. Too low and it would be too “bony,” as the whitewater kids say.
But that’s summer. I was here in early May, Mother’s Day to be precise, and Merrill was still reeling from the combination of heavy rains the week before and the effect of snowmelt. I knew from Mike Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin that there was a good put-in at Camp New Wood County Park, a mile below the dam but I wondered how far upstream I could try to put-in. The full Grandfather Dam comprises three sections: the top, where the conventional dam holding back the river is, a middle section by the pool and stockpens (where the official canoe portage trail is located), and then the powerhouse at the bottom of the hill. I decided to try the middle section first because I remembered it the best.
From the small parking area to the river, it’s probably a short 5-10 minute walk down a hill. You can’t see the river from there but I could hear its roar the second I opened the car door. Holy smokes, I thought! The closer I approached, the louder the thunderous clamor rose. I clambered atop a big boulder with a good view at the river level and my jaw just dropped. Here was a glimpse into the past of the Wisconsin River as close to its natural state one can ever hope to see. It was spectacular, cataclysmic! I won’t exaggerate and say it was like the Colorado River but that’s the only thing I could think of while watching these 6’ waves, haystacks and explosions of frothy water pirouetting high in the air in every direction, crashing onto and over rocks, tumbling ever down with reckless abandon. It’s a jarring view in its own right, made all the more intriguing to think that this is the same river that in another couple hundred miles will be the lazy sandbar and Driftless bluff bliss of summertime revelry here in southern Wisconsin.
Mesmerized as I was and still riding a kind of whitewater high from successfully paddling the Dells of the Big Rib River the day before, I sure as hell wasn’t going to willfully throw myself into the lion’s jaws of Class IV rapids, especially on Mother’s Day. So instead, I opted to put-in just below the powerhouse, which ended up being a great compromise as it provided an additional ¾-mile of paddling set in a cool landscape while offering the wavy wake of the last tumbles of Grandfather Falls on which motion you can coast for a good half-mile of continuous Class I’s and if you turn your boat around upstream you get a last glimpse of the tumultuous falls itself.
That’s the backdrop to this short trip. What follows is a cycle of light-medium rapids, flatwater, medium rapids, then flatwater to the point of zero current as you approach the head of Lake Alexander (well, so-called Lake that is, as it’s really an impoundment created by the next of the Wisconsin River’s many dams, Alexander Dam, by Council Grounds State Park.
What we liked:
Obviously, I’m enamored with this location. The Grandfather Dam itself and the engineering know-how behind it is pretty fascinating but it’s the legacy of this once (and still occasionally) tumultuous stretch of Wisconsin River at Grandfather Falls that raises hackles and inspires awe. Putting-in below the powerhouse, as opposed to Camp New Wood County Park, allows for extra fun paddling (like finding four more quarters at the arcade). Depending on your skill level and all that, there are a number of surfing and play spots here.
The river will begin to settle down shortly after the county park on the left but only half-mile later you’ll encounter the first of two more rapids in this six-mile trip, called Posey Rapids. In normal conditions, this would be a pretty simple Class I rapid but it was a solid Class II when I ran it. In fact, I underestimated it and got pretty splashed as a result (which was fine since it was muggy and warm outside, though my beer may have been a bit adulterated). It’s easy to read from the water itself but better still is scoping it out from Highway 107 before you even put in (there’s an overlook on the road with a bench right at Posey Rapids giving a great view of where best to run).
After Posey Rapids the river settles back down again, with occasional spirited riffles and weird eddies. The current is constant. Two miles downstream from Posey Rapids are the more complicated Bill Cross Rapids, a Class I-II in normal conditions but solid Class II in higher water. I misread the rapids here. I chose to go toward the left rather than the right because the right looked choppier and nearer to some strainers. What I hadn’t noticed ’til it was too late was that there’s a 2’ ledge on the left with some brawny waves at the bottom. It was fine and worked out well, it just defied my expectation. The river is very wide here, so if you can scout the rapids from the bank upstream, you should try to do so. Neither Posey nor Bill Cross Rapids is anything to write home about for serious whitewater paddlers but for the rest of us they require some caution and consideration. I definitely recommend running both, as they’re fun and relatively safe.
(Incidentally, both rapids are named after fur traders. Not a whole lot is known about Julius Posey but Bill Cross was originally from Milwaukee, who became a proficient linguist and co-authored an English-Ojibwe dictionary, owned and operated a trading post near the eponymous rapids and lived among the Ojibwe in his later years after city life in Wausau.)
Frankly, moving water is the main reason one would want to paddle this otherwise short clip of the Wisconsin River. This area of the river is mercilessly dammed and thus otherwise undesirable for paddling due to slow, lake-like conditions and the need to portage regularly (and often with notable difficulty). From Tomahawk to Merrill alone there are six dams within a 34-mile segment of the river. Above Grandfather Dam is a six-mile impoundment before Grandmother Dam. Ten miles downstream from Grandfather Dam is Alexander Dam and Merrill Dam is only four miles after Alexander, etc. But the scenery for this trip is quite pleasant. Rolling hills on both banks, isolation for the first half of the trip and a woodsy up-north feel. Plus, all of the accesses are excellent and easy.
What we didn’t like:
Bellyaching about all the dams is pointless because they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. If not for the sake of generating hydroelectric power, there’s too much real estate/lakeshore property clout. It does at least chip away at the edges of (if not outright break) one’s heart to think about how this once wild country must have looked even a century ago, compared with today’s subdivisions, jackass motorboats and cans of Coors Lite and Red Dog littering the banks. If that’s progress, then gladly drag me back into the dark ages, please.
Almost immediately after Bill Cross Rapids you’ll begin seeing signs of development and once you do, it’s all over. For it will be house after house after house, backyards full of neglect or ridiculous wealth, kids with squirt guns, dogs chasing balls and plastic lawn ornaments of fake animals instead of real ones. There are no public take-out options until Lokemoen Road, about 2.5 miles downstream from the last rapids. The one good thing I can say about this is the take-out (on river-left) begins almost exactly when the impoundment widens out and the river truly takes on lake-like girth.
If we did this trip again:
In the distant future I would love to be good enough to try to paddle the Grandfather Falls section itself when it’s at Class IV. In the far more realistic near future, I’d like to paddle said section in summer when it’s more Class II.
More Dam Facts about the Wisconsin River:
Its headwaters are located at a little lake named Lac Vieux Desert that straddles the Wisconsin-U.P. border just east of the town Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. From there, it flows 430 miles south then west to the Mississippi River below the city of Prairie du Chien. Along its way it drops a total of 1,050 feet and is impounded 26 times by dams (or 1 dam per 16.5 miles – though it never quite works out that way), thus earning it the moniker of the “hardest working river in America.” Back in its prime, from Eagle to Wisconsin Dells the river was wild with whitewater. Today, 62 percent of this drop, or 650’, is tamed behind or below these dams.
Here’s an interesting summary of all the (former) rapids of the Wisconsin River. The most “cursed” section lies in between Stevens Point and Nekoosa, where seven dams are found in 27 miles (or nearly 1 dam per 8 miles). Interestingly, the dam at Nekoosa is the 22nd of the 26, even though Nekoosa is in the center of the state. In other words, from the beginning to the middle point, (the Nekoosa Dam is at mile marker 231) there are 22 dams, yet from Nekoosa to the end at the Mississippi River there are only 4 dams! Also interesting, this poor hardworking river is dammed before it even has a chance to get things going, right at its outlet at Lac Vieux Desert!
After searching online and finding nothing, I made my own crude map of the Wisconsin River and all its dams.
Editor’s note: Thought it was a good time to dig up this gem of a video, Wisconsin River Top to Bottom. It’s worth noting that there are technically 29 dams on the river according to the video. Why the difference? Well, if you’re going to get all technical on us, it’s all on how you count them. For example, the video counts all dams – three in Whiting specifically, whereas, we count one. The distance between the dams in negligible and two of the dams are directly across from each other with an island in between (basically, one interrupted dam). Take a closer look here. Anyway, we’re not here to argue about dam numbers but it is interesting.
Wisconsin River IX: Pine River to Texas
General: Grandfather Falls: City of Merrill
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
Map: County E to Merrill Dam
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River