County Road Q to River Road:
As wild and wooly a ride as I’ve ever had, this stretch of the Middle Branch of the Embarrass River features exhilarating sequences of Class II rapids through obstacle courses of down trees and big boulders but also serene sections of quietwater past hilly meadows and hauntingly pretty woods lined with cedar trees. Catching it with enough water to avoid scraping will be tricky, but when it’s runnable it’s absolutely fabulous – but only for experienced paddlers comfortable handling such whitewater on a narrow stream.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 13, 2021
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class I-II(III)
≈ 16′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Embarrass River: ht/ft: 4.5 | cfs: 900
Embarrass River: ht/ft: 3.11 | cfs: 235
We recommend this level with the following caveat: this is VERY high and should be done only by paddlers with solid boat control, whitewater experience, and rescue skills (in the event that something goes amiss). Goldilocks levels are around 600 cfs, meaning 300-400 cfs is too low for anyone whereas 800-1000 cfs is fit only for dedicated whitewater paddlers.
The problem with this gauge is it’s located considerably downstream from this section of the river, plus it’s after the confluence of all three branches of the Embarrass River, whereas this trip is the Middle Branch. But it is a good indicator of recent rainfall at least.
* Our intended take-out was on County J (and where we left the shuttle car), but prudence compelled us to bail on this trip 2/3 into it, after two swims, a dozen portages, and some genuinely intimidating conditions immediately downstream from our emergency-exit at the River Road bridge.
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 4:50p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 4.75
Wildlife: Great blue herons, very good green herons, bald eagles, turtles, wood ducks and lots of deer.
7.3 miles, almost all of which is highway driving (and yet still longer than the paddling distance… for a non-wilderness trip). Unfortunately, due to the bizarre design of Highway 29, there’s no viable bicycle shuttle option for this trip.
Located smack dab in the center of central waters, the Embarrass River is an interesting case in point about nomenclature – why a stream is called a river instead of a creek, and vice versa, not to mention what’s a branch and what’s a fork. It’s also a bodacious whitewater river in some sections and a beautiful stream in its more tranquil sections. There are no fewer than three separate branches (North, Middle, and South) that eventually converge by the town of Caroline in southwestern Shawano County, at which point, like the Voltron lions, become the Embarrass River.
Of the three branches, the Middle is the longest and begins near Antigo, well north and upstream of this featured trip. This nook of Wisconsin lies along the southern perimeter of Northern Highland geology, meaning there are modest hills galore, a lot of exposed granite bedrock, and a gazillion boulders generously donated by the glaciers of yesteryear, thus making certain sections of the various Embarrass branches a white- or “light”-water paradise for paddlers. While not as notorious as the nearby Little Wolf River, the Embarrass is comparable in many ways: both begin as Class I trout streams in hardwood conifer forests, then tumble down bedrock and past a bevy of VW Bug-sized boulders, are tamed by a couple of annoying dams, and then retire down south through a sprawl of silver maple bottomlands and marsh northwest of Oshkosh. (Fun fact: both the Embarrass and Little Wolf meet the main Wolf River at almost the exact location in New London.) But – and this is an important distinction – because the Embarrass is lesser known, it’s less paddled… and thus less maintained (which is to say possibly not ever maintained).
In other words, expect deadfall.
The inspiration for this trip came from American Whitewater, and I first scouted it three years ago. Then, I loved what I was looking at, but the river was too low to paddle without getting hung up a hundred times. At the time, the gauge was at 400 cfs. Now, normally that’s plenty of flow for reputably sized rivers, and the Embarrass is a narrow, squirrely stream. But as stated above, the actual gauge isn’t the best indicator for this specific section. And so the idea for this trip has been dry-docked in my head til good fortune and dumb luck had me back in this neck of the woods for a three-day whitewater weekend, when the area got schnocked by storms, straight-line winds, a tornado, and 4-5″ of rain only days before. The surge of water from the rain was awesome and most welcome; the arboreal debris and battlefield slaughter of fallen trees was not.
The put-in at County Q is about as perfect as it gets; there’s plenty of room to park a vehicle or few, the access to the water is flat, clean, and easy, and the environment is a dream come true: Class I+ rapids up- and downstream. It’s not really a park and barely a wayside, but it is or at least once was an intentional public access, possibly for fishing. Either way, it makes for a great and convenient place to launch a boat and start this trip.
After that initial flash-in-the-pan beginning, the current will simmer a bit as the tree line thins out to pretty views of meadows and gentle hills in the background. In between will be a mix of pleasantly brushy banks and thickly wooded cedar scenes. This variation will continue for the entire trip. Alas, so too will the persistent din from nearby Highway 29.
A couple straightaways lead to an attractive private bridge, where of course you can expect there to be riffles/ light rapids. Here, as will be encountered again further downstream, the scenery is exquisite on a sunny day: the light filters through thick skeins of deciduous and conifer trees in a thickly wooded area, leaving streaks of golden glints on the ground, the needle-nestled banks the same root beer hue of the river itself. All the world a swirl of copper and green, it’s a where a canoe belongs. Indeed, there are several times the riverine landscape reminded me of the Bois Brule in northwestern Wisconsin.
But this too shall pass, soon superseded by an unmanageably low-clearance farm bridge that is an easy portage – the first of many forced exits/re-entries. Soon, you’ll hear rapids before you see the horizon line. Like in so many sections on this stretch of river, the rapids here (Class I+) will require good boat control around a smorgasbord of tree debris and glacial rubble. It’s a fun challenge with enough adrenaline spike to render a double-shot of espresso like a sedative. The enclosed woods then will recede and open up to magnificent views of the surrounding rolling hills to the north (river-left), and here the river takes its sweet old time, allowing you to take it all in (and catch your breath!).
Then, as before, you’ll head back into the woods, where the current will be steady but not speedy… yet. You can expect to portage around, under, over, or through a couple huge trees here. In a déjà view moment, you’ll come upon yet another low-clearance farm bridge (the last on this trip) that might be passable depending on the river volume at the time (I wasn’t interested in chancing it in a canoe). Back to back rock-rubble ledges lie immediately downstream from the bridge. After this the river makes a beeline for the woods again, at which point it is Game On!
Now, it’s not a non-stop ride. But it is pretty wild – and hairy. Here, the conditions were Class II in some places (at least at our levels), meaning kayaks will need skirts and open canoes can expect occasional claps of water coming over the bow. The river is quite narrow here (20-30′) and the current is fast, so catching eddies and/or avoiding strainers is tricky – and that’s why this trip is not for everybody.
Indeed, it might have been too much even for us. There is one exhilarating stretch of continuous rapids for several hundred yards that eventually led to a nasty bank-to-bank downed tree, a mandatory portage. I was able to catch an eddy and pull the canoe up the bank, but my friend unfortunately passed that “event horizon” and got swept into the tree, immediately capsizing. It was a complicated rescue because the current was so strong – it is both humbling and just astonishing how heavy a boat can weigh with so much water in it, not to mention how hard it is to dump water out of a boat with an endless supply of it rushing back inside it! We lost a couple items that were fastened to the deck of the kayak…but again, the current is really strong.
No matter. We eventually got the boat empty enough to drag it to dry land in order to dump it out proper and for us to collect ourselves. Mercifully, my friend was all smiles and taking it in good stride. That’s a damn good friend!
We got back in and rumbled around some more Class I-II’s. And again had to portage here and there. Just before we got to the next bridge, at River Road, there’s another long, fun sequence of rapids. It cools off for a quick moment leading to the bridge, and then it just plummets like a riot downstream. I turned around before this because it felt like a good check-in point, as I was in the lead. What I saw behind me was first a stray paddle followed by an upside-down kayak with nobody in it. And then I saw my friend feet-up swimming/wading behind it. He’d lightly grazed a stray tree limb, but the current was strong enough for that incidental touch to tip him sideways and over.
And then things get real at and below River Road. Now, let me disclaim right away that we decided to bail on the trip at this point. Why? Three reasons. One, my friend had gone for two swims at this point already. Two, the water looked rough and even wilder downstream (more on this in a moment). And three, we’d already been on the water for nearly three hours, had paddled only five miles and had another two-and-change to our intended take-out, at County J, where we’d left the car. OK, four: it was already 5pm, and we had an hour-ish drive back to our campsite. We had a good talk about the pros and cons about persevering or quitting while we were ahead – or less behind. Unable to make a decision, we bought ourselves some wiggle room and scouted the sequence of rapids downstream from the bridge.
There’s a solid Class II below the bridge. That one is fine and has an obvious tongue/inverted-v to run. It’s the unruly mess 50 yards down from there that gave us pause. At the time of our trip at least, there was a nasty downed tree/strainer from bank to bank with a wild rapid right before it. At our water level, there was no way to run the rapid below the bridge but avoid the tree. And that would have meant forfeiting the fun drop below the bridge, because there just wasn’t anywhere to get out before that tree. Similarly, there just wasn’t anywhere good to launch a boat on the downstream side of the tree; the banks were steep, and rapids were everywhere. (Who knows what this would look like at lower levels?) So, there was that.
Furthermore, thanks to American Whitewater I knew that there were several more sequences of Class II rapids between River Road and the next bridge down, Boldig Road. Not only that, but the remains of some inexplicable, decrepit dam just upstream of the bridge that are purportedly runnable, but likely a cause for caution. Plus who knows how much more deadfall was in store in such already dodgy conditions…?
Ergo, we bailed and walked a couple miles back to the car. Even if we had had more time, I don’t think it would have been safe. For that level of adrenaline and relative danger you need to have you’re A-game on and your head totally into it. If you’re off, it ain’t gonna work out. Accidents can and will happen to the best of us even at our prime. But when we’re already a little compromised and distracted, it’s game over.
What we liked:
This stretch of the Embarrass River is a prime example of what we love about central Wisconsin rivers: it’s narrow and intimate, generously endowed with boulders, and surrounded by soft undulating hills. Plus it’s rich with rapids and set in a mostly undeveloped or under-developed area, leaving the paddler with the impression that it’s a pretty wild stream – and it is. It has hauntingly pretty passes through woods where the whole landscape feels magical.
And those rapids are really fun! Intimidating, for sure, but fun.
What we didn’t like:
Duh, the deadfall. After ten times, I stopped keeping count of how often we got out of our boats to portage. Fortunately, the water was nice enough and the weather warm that we waded into the river and pushed/pulled our boats through, under, and over the many obstinate obstacles, often waist-deep but sometimes up to our chests. Occasionally we got out entirely and onto the banks to schlep through the woods. This came as no surprise, as this trip was totally a gamble with outdated intel. And, to repeat, this part of the state had been ravished by hard rain and strong wind only days before our paddle.
But I can honestly say – and at the risk of being serious enough for a moment to sound a little like a PSA – that of the hundreds of times I have waded through a river (because I or someone else had capsized and gone for a swim, or to saw off some nasty strainer tree limbs, or just to cool off and go for a swim, etc), this was by far the scariest and most precarious, precisely because the current was so strong and formidable, the river bottom so boulder-strewn and uneven. I’m a strong swimmer and a relatively strong guy in general, but it’s not strength that matters in such conditions so much as it is smarts. An environment like this trip – a narrow river at high water levels with Class II rapids and billions of rock rubble – is prime time for foot entrapments.
On top of that, fording the river is no either feat either. After the first rescue, I had to cross the river from the left bank, where we towed the flipped boat to drain it and give ourselves a breather following a fairly arduous ordeal of unpinning the kayak, to the right bank, where I’d moored my canoe. Having never been apt for math, I hadn’t pre-calculated that the current would be so strong as to move me as downstream as it did while I forded from one side to the other. In other words, I shouldn’t have gone from downstream to upstream, but rather entered the river upstream of my canoe, knowing that the current would propel me forward (i.e., downstream). It wasn’t pride goeth before the fall; it was simply innocent ignorance of the current’s terrific force.
But while crossing over, there was a certain moment that I instantly recognized and had to accept that I was no match in strength. So, I could either fight it – and lose (and that would have been pride) – or humbly forebear it and figure out a way to work with it. I chose the latter and let the current take me to the very same downed tree that my friend got swept into in the first place. But I was prepared and seized on the fixed obstacle as soon as I could grab hold of it and used it as leverage to get as much of my own body out of the current (i.e., less surface resistance) and then just pulled myself sideways along the tree trunk towards the bank, where it got shallower and calmer.
It all turned out fine – in fact, it was a good lesson in safety and respect, which in retrospect I’m grateful for – but it was pretty touch-and-go there for awhile.
Unrelated but an unavoidable lament that must be mentioned, the cumulative din from Highway 29 is nearly constant. It’s certainly worth the price of admission, but it’s not a welcome presence.
If we did this trip again:
Despite the debacles and hackle-raising sequences, I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat! But since you can never paddle the same river twice, here are a couple things I’d do differently. First, I’d look at different access points to make this a fuller day, putting in at (the apprehensively named?) Panic Park just off of Hemlock Road, 3.5 miles upstream of County Q, and also checking out the next bridge down from County J, which is Berg Road, which would add another mile and change. County J is pretty crumby for an access. While doable, it would be a muddy, sloggy affair when the river is high (which of course is the only time one can feasibly paddle this trip in the first place).
Alternatively, and at the risk of contradicting myself, I’d paddle this trip as-is but at lower levels, together with a dumb friend I could bribe with beer and dinner, armed to the teeth with chainsaws and come-alongs, and clear out the dangerous debris. This trip is a true gem and deserves a safer, cleaner passage.
If any river angels out there are looking to pay it forward with a new project, this would have a huge reward!