Ness Road to Big Falls:
A return trip to one of our favorite paddles, this time with a twist – adding a previously unknown segment to the popular route – the upper Little Wolf River simply is a must for any whitewater-curious paddler, as it offers miles of riffles and Class I-II rapids in an almost entirely undeveloped corridor.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 6, 2016
11′ per mile
Royalton: ht/ft: 1.5 | cfs: 250
Gauge Note: There is a visual gauge at the Wolf River Road bridge you can consider: On the upstream side of the bridge in the middle of the river is a large rock. See photos below to correlate what’s high, low, or just right.
We recommend this level, but an ideal cushion would be 300-400 cfs. Avoid paddling this trip if the gauge is at 500 cfs or higher, as it will become a bit unruly. If the river has been recently high, be careful of new tree debris you won’t want to encounter in swift current.
Ness Road, Waupaca County, Wisconsin
Big Falls Boat Launch, Wall Street/County Road G, Big Falls, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 10.25
A gazillion bald eagles, frogs, turtles, geese, wood ducks, owl, sandhill cranes, crawfish, green and great blue herons, kingfishers, and either a fisher, a weasel, or a pine martin.
10 miles. Very scenic and definitely doable by bicycle, though not ideal given the speed of vehicles along County Road C. As of 2017, there is now an outfitter – Big Falls Kayak Rental – who not only rents kayaks but also offers a shuttle service from Ness Road to Big Falls (and a couple options in between).
We first did this trip back in August 2012 and have been eager to re-experience it since. For a relatively short run (7.5 miles) that’s 2.5 hours away from Madison, it’s taken us awhile to make this happen. Catching it with more water than the first time also was a priority. This time around, we wanted not only to re-do the trip proper, together with friends, but also to add to the established trip (featured in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin).
When we first posted this trip we stated that upstream of the Wolf River Road bridge the river looked like “a lot of deadfall and strainer debris.” But that was before we began clearing out such obstructions (to the best of our humble bodies’ abilities). Furthermore, we learned of a State Natural Area along the upper Little Wolf River recently that looks positively enchanting, so we thought we’d scout things out.
There are several bridges upstream of the official DNR canoe access at Wolf River Road, but we kept it simple by checking out the first two: Ness Road and Wolf River Road (technically the same road as the official DNR site, but 4.5 miles northwest). After seeing no notable deadfall or strainers from the official Wolf River Road bridge, we scouted Ness Road first and liked what we saw. While there’s no official access here for paddlers, it’s plenty doable without being commando-dodgy. The water is crystal clear, sandy, and rocky. Riffles and small ledges were everywhere.
Then we drove to the upstream version of Wolf River Road. There too the river looks alluring and beckoning, but there were a few problems with this option: the public access easement may well be for fishing only; there’s nowhere to park a car; and the river was really shallow and rocky here. Plus there’s a house right next to the bridge, and at the time there was a bunch of folks in the driveway. It seemed imprudent to chance it by starting here or getting barked at. So instead we opted for Ness Road.
What we liked:
To begin with (literally), the entire stretch between Ness Road and Wolf River Road was open. Not only open, but there are multiple signs of clearing out and chainsawing, both recent and older. Adding this segment was a total gamble about which we had zero information (because there isn’t any – until now). It could have been just awful. Instead, it was a surprise of unending delight! Clearly, we were not alone or the first ones to desire paddling upstream of the popular Wolf River Road to Big Falls trip.
Crystal clear water lined either by luscious sand, sizeable boulders, or attractive gravel bars; swift current with seemingly endless riffles and rapids (Class I and II); outstanding wildlife displays; and hardly any development – these are the main reasons why the upper Little Wolf is so compelling. It’s gorgeous and fun as hell!
Up until a mile or so upstream of Big Falls (population: 61!) you’re surrounded by forest on both sides of the river for this entire trip. There’s more development (modest houses here and there) from Ness Road to Wolf River Road, but after that there’s hardly anything until Big Falls. The forest setting is incredible; you really feel like you’re in a wild place somewhere up in the northwoods, even though it’s central Wisconsin. The color of the water will retain that tannin-tinged, root beer hue the whole time and it’s just gorgeous. It’s one of those streams that takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust to – at first, you keep thinking it’s too shallow and that you’ll bottom out. Nope, it’s just that clear! (Well, you will bottom out if the water levels are too low, but that’s true of any river.)
Weaving around one boulder garden after another or shooting down a ledge of pillowy water funneled by boulder-lined banks constricting the water, with nothing more than pine trees towering above you – it’s simply fantastic. The Little Wolf is an excellent environment to hone in water-reading skills without really being dangerous. Bear in mind that it’s usually very shallow, so even if you do tip, the water will rarely be higher than your thighs.
There are two sections of exhilarating rapids: the first is a 2-mile-long continuous stretch about a mile downstream from Wolf River Road; the other is further downstream, in a brief but breathtaking stretch leading to and following after the McNinch Road bridge, where another boulder garden and fun ledge or two eventually culminate in the magnificent Dells, a mini-canyon of granite walls where the river tapers to maybe 15’ wide and produces rollicking Class II waves for about 150’. We don’t know which is more fun: a 2-mile continuous run of rapids or the ride ‘em bronco micro blast of the Dells! Both are awesome, and to experience each in one trip is sublime.
Between McNinch Road and the Dells lies a 39-acre public access reserve called “Reeve Reserve”, part of the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust. You’ll pass a sign indicating it. The sign does state that there’s “Canoe Access for Picnics and Walking,” but we didn’t see where that would feasibly be located. We didn’t research this til after we came home from the trip, but if there were a good-to-decent access to the river after the Dells, this would be a great nugget of knowledge to share, as it would cut the unmentionable and somewhat tedious flatwater lake paddling at the very end. Regardless, it’s very commendable that the land was preserved as such, and we’re all supremely grateful for the generosity and forward thinking of such families and individuals.
Even though there were three of us paddling, we saw a very impressive array of wildlife, the highlight of which was seeing two… brown-haired, skinny mammals with tiny pointed ears in a cleft between two boulders stacked atop one another. The encounter was so brief, and the critters were too skittish to know for sure what they were precisely, but they had to have been fishers, pine martens, or weasels. Whichever they were, seeing them was a first for us, which simply added a cherry to the top of this incredible trip.
What we didn’t like:
The only things we didn’t like about this trip are the slow flatwater in the final mile of the trip (created by the dam in Big Falls), and the occasional scraping we endured in some of the shallows. Fortunately, the dam impoundment is short and it offers some cool rock outcrops. As for the shallow water, when we first did this trip, the gauge was at 170 cfs, which is way too low even to consider. Here, it was at 250 cfs, which was a marked improvement but still on the low side. The river definitely can be run at 250 cfs (and should!) but expect to scrape here and there.
To be sure, there are some stretches of quietwater between the sets of rapids. It feels greedy and privileged to see that we “didn’t like” these stretches. Seriously, they’re totally fine. But once you’ve had a taste of the ridiculous candy factory that long segments of continuous rapids are, the slower portions seem a little lackluster – or just lacking. But whatever the current, the scenery is gorgeous.
The novelty segment from Ness Road to Wolf River Road was more developed than we’d have guessed (or preferred), but it wasn’t really a big deal.
OK, one last thing. While we were unloading our boats at Ness Road another vehicle on the road slowed down to talk to us. Turns out they were the same folks we saw in the driveway minutes earlier, when we scouted the upstream Wolf River Road bridge. We got to talking about paddling. They told us how only a few weeks earlier they’d cleared out the whole stretch of the river from their property to the Ness Road bridge. This was pretty surprising, but totally serendipitous news!
The natural question came next: what did they know about the section from Ness Road to the downstream Wolf River bridge? “Millions of trees” was the answer. My friends looked at me with that “what have you gotten us into?!?” expression. But by then we were already committed to doing this. So I proposed that if it were too miserable and too much work in the first 15 minutes we could just walk back to the car without much ado. Well, as mentioned above, it was all totally open. Which led us to wondering whether the guy was trying to intimidate us (i.e., disabusing us of trying to paddle it so as to keep it a secret) or simply wasn’t up to date on the present-day status of this segment.
We’d like to believe the latter scenario, not least because it would mean that all the river from the first Wolf River Road bridge to the second Wolf River Road bridge would be open and thus its own viable trip at 5.5 miles or an add-on to the popular 7.5-mile trip for a full day of incredible paddling.
If we did this trip again:
We would definitely do this trip again! In fact, we paddled the Little Wolf twice on this weekend. We had so much fun the first day that we did the better-known Wolf River Road to Big Falls section the following day. To be fair, that trip is a better paddling experience than starting at Ness Road. For one, there’s less development and fewer obstructions to dodge around (even though it was all open when we ran it; but conditions change all the time). For another, the access to the river is better at Wolf River Road.
But for those paddlers who are curious about what else can be paddled on the upper Little Wolf or simply want to make a longer day trip than 7.5 miles, we definitely recommend this trip!
Little Wolf River I: Manawa to County Road X
Little Wolf River II: Wolf River Road to Big Falls
Little Wolf River IV: Big Falls to Highway 110
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Big Falls Kayak Rentals
Wikipedia: Little Wolf River