Wolf River IV
Hollister to Langlade
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A spectacular stretch of a spectacular river, it’s here where the former Wolf pup enters its teen years, transitioning in earnest from its quiet flatwater and wild rice beds upstream to its tumultuous spill down riotous whitewater down-. More frisky than Lily yet less frothy than Langlade, this interval section in Hollister is perfect for “lightwater” enthusiasts thirsty for Class II rapids but apprehensive of anything higher than that. Surrounded by public land with virtually no development together with excellent accesses, and studded with what seems like a billion boulders, this trip is a must-do experience for paddlers with the right skills, gear and gumption.
Editor’s note: As noted by many on social media, Wolf River IV is well known as Otter Falls to Big Smokey Falls by American Whitewater, and a book by Bob and Jody Palzer called “Whitewater; Quietwater”. That section is not this section. It’s not to be confused with the lower section south of the county line, designated 4 or IV in some guidebooks. Our naming convention is completely unrelated to theirs, as well as Mike Svob’s amazing paddling guide (WO-5 in Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin) or the incredible Wisconsin Trail Guide. Those who follow us understand that we post name our posts based in sequential order and they are not meant to relate to other’s guides. Our reports are completely about the specific sections we paddle, cover and share with you. Any overlap is completely – and most preferably, unintentional. Thanks.
September 26, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I-II
13′ per mile
Langlade: ht/ft: 8.55 | cfs: 625
We strongly recommend this level. For frame of reference, 1000 cfs (and above) is exceptionally high. 500 cfs is a solid “base” level – meaning more would be welcome and fun, but not critical. 250 cfs is the bare-bones minimum.
West Hollister Road, Hollister, Wisconsin (aka “Wolf River Township”)
Highway 64 DNR Landing, Langlade, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.25
Mergansers, wood ducks, geese, bald eagles and frogs.
6.75 miles road and 7.3 by bike via the Wolf River State Trail (note: this is not ideal for road bike tires).
With our lupine primer made the day before on the Lily-to-Hollister segment, today was all about truly orienting ourselves to the Wolf in the subsequent section downriver: Hollister to Langlade. You know that line about turning the volume up to 11? Well, that’s the final section of the Wolf’s whitewater, where the many Class IIIs and couple Class IVs are all “packed” together. Comparatively, I’d say that Langlade down to Markton (at least the final four miles) is in the neighborhood of 9 (I understand that this is entirely relative). This trip, Hollister to Langlade, is a solid 8. With no fewer than seven formidable (but still low-hazard) Class II rapids punctuating an 8.25-mile stretch, this trip is nothing to sneeze at. And whether you just run those rapids without so much as looking back, as we typically do, or hone in your paddling skills with eddy peels, ferrying, surfing waves, catching chutes, watching out for holes, etc., this trip is robust and buxom in beauty, too.
The put-in at the end of Hollister Road is about as inviting as it gets: there’s ample room for parking, a turnaround for trailers, easy access to the river – oh yeah, and a hundred yards of Class I-II rapids in a classic boulder garden right off the bat. How nice and inviting is this view? Don’t just take our word for it, but instead consider this: the day before, when we met at Hollister Road to use it as our take-out for the segment upstream, we had a warm exchange with an elderly woman who shared with us that each year in autumn she comes to this very spot, from more than an hour’s drive away to see the river and changing leaves. It’s something she and her husband had done, and she still continues the tradition, probably with even more emphasis, ever since he passed. How sweet is that?
You hit the groundwater running, so to speak, on account of the light rapids at the put-in. Named Burnt Point Rapids, they’re essentially low-hazard, but since this trip begins roughly at the mid-point of these, you’ll still need to respect them. The same should be applied to the various boulder-bed rapids ahead, chockablock with scruffy islands both small and large. A sharpish bend to the left through a cluster of islands leads to modest Nine Mile Rapids (Class I) and the tall Wolf River State Trail bridge.* The river will soon bend notably to the right, after which a long stretch of quietwater in general straightaways follows, dotted here and there by more islands, riffles, and occasional boulders. But don’t get lulled; the fun’s about to kick into high gear. Indeed, if you haven’t already, put your spray-skirt on.
* Incidentally, you do not need a state trail permit to ride the Wolf River State Trail. However, you will need a bike ideally with some suspension and definitely knobby, gnarly tires that can handle the loose rock. It makes for an outstanding bike shuttle for this paddling trip, but you can expect to “share” it with ATVs and the like, who’ll generously offer you the dust in their wake.
A sharp left bend, together with the rushing roar of whitewater, announces Oxbow Rapids (Class II). True to its name, the river makes a second sharp left, and then a more gradual right-hand bend around some small islands and modest boulder gardens. There are three separate pitches comprising Oxbow. The action continues with hardly any breathers in between at Cedar Rapids, a solid Class II stretch with boulders galore and little ledges for a third of a mile long! A medium-sized island splits the stream in two, downriver from which is Hemlock Rapids, a short simple affair (but also Class II). That’s a lot of Class II action punch after punch.
For the next two miles you can relax – and, if you’re like us, crack open a can of Three Sheeps’ The Wolf, one of the finest bourbon barrel-aged stouts that’s around – and now available in cans (if you’re lucky to find it in stock). No, we’re not advocating irresponsible behavior on the water (especially to the tune of a 12% beer). But this was too serendipitous to pass up. Either way, enjoy the easy loafing around one long elegant bend, then a straightaway, followed by another long elegant bend, etc.
An abundance of boulders lined up almost like linebackers announces the next phalanx of rapids. Named Sherry Rapids, these are a reputable Class II – arguably the most complicated set on this section of the Wolf. Technically, there is an Upper and Lower Sherry Rapids. The first is to the right of a huge island with a couple squirrely curves. A brief stretch of boulder-strewn quietwater leads to the second blast of Sherry, at the base of which is a huge pool before another large island. Big waves form here when the river is at least 500 cfs and higher. It’s an exhilarating run of rapids, 0.75-mile (minus the quietwater interlude between the upper and lower pitches), but not one to take for granted (or perhaps in a solo canoe with a keel and no discernible rocker).
Either channel around the aforementioned island at the base of Lower Sherry Rapids is open, each with scrubby islands and boulders. Shortly after the two channels converge comes the last splash for this trip, at equally hard to spell as it is to pronounce, Larzelere Rapids, another Class II but less hackles-raising than upstream. After this lie a few sets of unmentionable riffles, more big islands, and quietwater straightaways all the way to a slight right-hand bend after which the bridge at Highway 64 appears. The take-out is on the downstream side of the bridge, river-right, at the designated DNR ranger station in Langlade.
What we liked:
It’s hard to be modest and not gush on a trip like this. It’s beautiful, feels wild, and the rapids are fantastic. The soft but occasionally steep hills, the huge boulders calved off from a time before space and time, even the many side channels that dotted islands provided – we loved all the river had to offer us. Go here, do this. It’s one of the best low-hazard “lightwater” streams we’ve ever done.
What we didn’t like:
Seriously, nothing. Well, I suppose we could have done without lots of the boulders being just demolished by goose shit, but whatever. And the rain was a nuisance, but that’s weather, not water.
If we did this trip again:
We would, and in a heartbeat at that. We loved every single thing about this trip. For us individually, it was perfect. It gave Scotty an ideal setting and current conditions to grow increasingly comfortable with and confident in paddling Class IIs. For Timothy, well, I might have been a little too eager to try out my new solo canoe (and by “new” I mean 30 years old). At 12′, the Old Town Discovery is the right length for Class II rapids, but the presence of a keel and the absence of any real rocker does not an ideal whitewater canoe make. But it was still an absolute blast, and I’d do it all over again in that very boat.
Honestly, the only thing I can think of that we’d consider doing differently is just adding a few miles by putting in upstream off of Wolf River Road.
The essential dual-natured blessing and curse of high or low water levels correlates exactingly with the exposure of boulders. At lower water levels, the boulders will look bigger, of course – behemoths, to be matter of fact about it. But you’ll be scraping a lot, and the rapids will be arguably less fun/more complicated to run cleanly. At higher levels the rapids are a spectacular thrill of soft pillowy froth, but the boulders will be more iceberg tips. I think it’s basically axiomatic that you come to the Wolf River to paddle the rapids first and foremost; the bare-shouldered boulders are cherries on top of that delicious dessert.
We know more about paddling than we did even five years ago – the last time we were in the Wolf’s neck of the woods. I don’t think we’d venture to the Wolf if it were even at 250 cfs, let alone below that. The experience would be too compromised, and the Wolf is far too magnificent a river to experience under such circumstances. This isn’t a case of perfection being the enemy of good enough. We met a couple of old-school paddlers the day after this trip who were running Herb’s Landing to Gilmore’s Mistake downstream, and one of them confessed to being a little bit elitist by not bothering to paddle the Wolf unless it was at least 750 cfs. To each her own; but that’s not what we’re saying now. But do yourself a favor and wait til it’s at least 300 cfs – ideally much more than that – since the Wolf deserves that kind of reverence.
Wolf River I: Lily to Langlade
Wolf River II: County Road A to Lily
Wolf River III: Lily to Hollister
Wolf River V: Langlade to Markton
Miles Paddled Video: Lily to Hollister (2015)
Miles Paddled Video: Lily to Hollister (2020)
Miles Paddled Video: Langlade to Markton
Article: Whitewater 101
Camp: Boulder Lake Campground
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Outfitter: Bear Paw Resort
Wikipedia: Wolf River
Miles Paddled Video: