Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Willow Flowage
Located between Tomahawk and Minocqua, Willow Flowage offers a “getting away from it all” kind of feel all set in classic Wisconsin wilderness. Described as “Almost Canada”, the 4,217-acre lake is isolated from roads and development and offers acres upon acres of marsh, bogs and backwaters to explore. The lake is popular for fishermen and -women who are drawn to the abundant muskie, walleye, pike, bass and of course, panfish. It’s also a sanctuary for native Wisconsin wildlife like deer, bear, eagles, loons and birds galore. Best yet, there’s free, first-come first served camping at designated sites across the entire acreage.
Paddling Style: Flatwater Paddling + River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
There are 37 sites throughout the flowage, seven of those are group camps. All are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis with no registration required. Single-party sites have a fire ring, picnic table and box latrine. Group sites have double of each and allow up to 15 people. Two notes. One, there’s no access to drinking water and two, some campsites close at times for maintenance or to protect wildlife habitat. Also, there is a 10-day limit on camping at a singular site. There are, however, numerous boat landings spread across the flowage which makes for easy access to your particular camping destination.
Paddling Willow Flowage and the Tomahawk River:
Along with the acres of lake, bog and backwaters to explore, there are also 117 islands that make for added exploration and daytrip picnic opportunities. While mostly flatwater, do note that there can be a lot of boat traffic in peak season which can make for a rather bouncy trip (and especially if there are strong winds).
Don’t let the term “flowage” suggest that this is exclusively flatwater paddling, because there are also some excellent options for moving water on the nearby Tomahawk River that are worthy of consideration if you’re looking to take a break from lake paddling. The Tomahawk flows through the flowage from the northeast and continues on towards the southeast, offering some wonderful daytrip diversions from camping on the flowage.
The northern section starts at Camp 9 Road. This 6.5 mile section is quite marsh-like and the gradient is minimal but the scenery is largely unspoiled as it courses its way through the Tomahawk River Pines State Natural Area. There is, however, a series of four foot falls just before the take-out at Cedar Falls Campground that must be portaged by inexperienced paddlers.
There are two day-trip segments at the southern end of the flowage. They are both attractive options where wildlife is abundant with little development along the mostly tree-lined banks. Deadfall is often present but the river is usually wide enough to navigate around them instead of portaging over. The accesses are also excellent for either section.
Both sections are calm and easy paddling but they each have a Class II rapid that should be scouted and only run by expert paddlers, and portaged by others. The first section starts at Willow Dam Road and is just over 12 miles. Halfbreed Rapids, which is a solid class II (s-curve that splits around islands) is about six miles into the trip and can be portaged. The second section is a shorter 8.5 mile run that starts at Swamp Lake Road. The Class II, Prairie Rapids, comes just before the takeout and is a very similar tricky s-curve that’s best left for experienced paddlers.