Big Falls to Highway 110:
A lively and lovely trip beginning at the base of a rough-and-tumble Class III-IV falls and featuring an exhilarating Class II rapids shortly afterward, with a bounty of big boulder gardens and innumerable riffles for miles and a mix of environments from rugged hardwood forests, big sky meadows and shady bottomlands, this barely known segment of the otherwise popular Little Wolf River deserves more attention and respect.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 25, 2019
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class I-II
≈8′ per mile (steeper in the rapids, lower in the meadows and bottomlands)
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Royalton: ht/ft: 2.5 | cfs: 1000
Royalton: Gauge discontinued in June of 2020.
Little Wolf River Visual Gauge
The best thing to do is scout the river itself at the County Highway C bridge. There are boulder gardens with riffles up- and downstream. If they look impassably shallow, then the whole trip will be impassably shallow – and not worth it.
We strongly recommend this level… but with the following caveat. The official USGS gauge, in Royalton, is a long way downstream from Big Falls. Furthermore, the gauge is downstream from the dam in Manawa, which will skew flow rates. As such, correlating the actual conditions of the river for this trip with what the gauge indicates in Royalton needs to be taken with a whole shaker of salt. It’s better than no gauge at all, but it could nevertheless present paddlers with a “false positive.”
2.5/1000 cfs is an unusually high level (or, as I can’t resist from saying big flow on the Little Wolf). This obscure trip has a ton of boulder gardens, so anything below 2′ would likely be scrape city and most unadvisable. That said, we’ve run the fun and scenic upper Little Wolf trip several times throughout the years and always at levels significantly lower than these without too much hassle or hang-ups.
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 2:20p.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Great blue herons, deer, mergansers, kingfishers, dragonflies, songbirds, turkey vultures, turtles, wood ducks and muskrats.
7.8 miles, fun and fairly easy (i.e., no serious hills, despite the steep gradient of the river).
A major tributary of the main Wolf River, the Little Wolf doesn’t find its lupine finale until the town of New London (“Werewolves of London,” anyone?), after which the now bigger Wolf – looking nothing like its ferocious self further upstream where it is arguably the best whitewater river in Wisconsin – hobbles along southward, half a howl at best, to drain into Lake Poygan in Winneconne, and then again dribbling to Lake Butte des Morts, where it meets the Fox River in Oshkosh. Beginning humbly in a protected fishing corridor in the quad-corners of Marathon, Portage, Shawano and Waupaca counties, the Little Wolf cuts through the Northern Highlands to the Central Sands, past granite and glacial erratics in a couple notable stretches before “bottoming” out into swampy marshes towards its end.
We’ve been big fans of the Little Wolf for a long while now. Starting in 2011, we’ve come back to this precious stream some four times throughout the years. While Barry put the more established lower Little Wolf trip, in Manawa, on the map, I (Timothy) have been a devotee of the upper segments near Big Falls.
The upper Little Wolf got his first tail-wag in the classic (but out of print) Whitewater; Quietwater, by Bob & Jody Palzer. Mike Svob came next in his seminal guidebook, Paddling Southern Wisconsin, where he lays out the two trips that Barry and I’ve done through the years, upper and lower. In an addendum he alludes to the alluring mid-section of river in between his two write-ups as such: “a tamer but scenic trip – mostly winding through woodland, farmland, and marsh – starts downstream near Little Falls at the Kretchner Road bridge or at the Little Falls Resort alongside County C and ends at Symco or at Bridge Road upstream from Manawa.” Furthermore, in Richard Kark’s opus compendium of Wisconsin rivers and creeks, he adds this postscript to his own writeup of the Little Wolf: “In an August 2003, Silent Sports article, [Mike] Svob wrote about ‘the middle section of the Little Wolf River.’ This is the 13.2 mile section from Little Falls along Highway E to the Highway 22 bridge at Symco. He found this section to be attractive with several Class I+ rapids and one 200 yard Class I-II boulder garden. Towards the end he encountered a wild bottomland area where he had to maneuver among fallen limbs and make two small portages around fallen trees.”
If you’ve ever paddled the upper trip on the Little Wolf, or if you ever do (and we hope you will), the odds are good that you took out (or will take out) at the public boat launch in Big Falls on Wall Street. The reason for this is the big dam immediately downstream that is in turn followed uproariously by the 30′-drop of tumbling rapids that are the falls. What’s long felt a little counterintuitive is why Svob’s trips (and thus most paddler’s experiences) are so spaced out. What I mean is the upper Little Wolf ends in Big Falls, and then the lower begins in Manawa, yet the geographical gap between those two terminuses is about 21 miles. That’s notable for a river that’s about 50 miles long to begin with. In other words, what’s up with the “mid” section between Big Falls and Manawa? We would wonder about this naturally. But when you see the rough-and-tumble rapids at Big Falls, that wonderment is all the more augmented. It would be one hell of a place to begin a trip.
We’re not alone in this wondering/wonderment either. I feel a little remiss about this now, but it honestly wasn’t until after I paddled this trip that I started looking up info online and in-print to see if anyone else had done it. (Well, of course others have done it before us – that always goes without saying. There isn’t a party I haven’t arrived late to yet. I just mean whether it had been documented and/or described.) Turns out, there’s an American Whitewater entry on this very section of the Little Wolf, albeit incomplete – at least at the time of this writing; we’ll contribute to their site to flesh it out after we post the trip here first. But at the time of the paddle, it still felt like an exhilarating unknown of exploring the obscure.
The put-in is below the dam in Big Falls via Anklam Lane, which is a dead-end spur off of Wall Street, on the east bank of the river. The road leads to a nondescript parking area next to a quaint brick powerhouse. You have two choices of where to launch a boat, each by way of a dirt path: 1) to the right of the powerhouse, which leads directly to the falls; or 2) to the left of the powerhouse, which goes down a little way past the falls to a grassy picnic area and cleft spot along the banks to access the now-calm river. I chose the first option in part because I didn’t know that the second one even existed until I paddled past it, but mainly because like a moth to light I’m attracted to rapids – I mean, who isn’t? That said, the falls option is tricky and not for the feint-footed. It’s a shorter schlep to the water itself, but there’s a huge tumble of slick rocks to clamber onto to get to the base of the falls, where even there it’s not the easiest feat to launch a boat.
(One could launch via the rocks about midway in order to run the falls, but that option comes with a precondition of two big caveats: you’d need to know what you’re doing and be comfortable/skilled to run Class III-IV rapids, and there would need to be enough water to try this in the first place, as Big Falls is very “bony” most of the time. I entertained this notion for a moment, but deferred to the more prudent angel whispering upon my shoulder perch, as I was alone (and therefore couldn’t be helped if something went awry – and I really didn’t want to potentially forfeit this whole trip by something going awry before it even began). Running Big Falls is doable, but difficult. And, honestly, it’s only a short thrill of plunges and ledges, arguably not worth the hassle, complications, and risks of bodily injury and/or boat damage. But we can certainly appreciate (and relate to) the desire/need to scratch a curious itch, so if running Big Falls is one of those things, then know that it’s certainly doable with enough water… although a “clean” run would be difficult since it’s kind of a scrap yard of boulders and ledges.)
Below Big Falls the river is burly and broad, averaging some 70′ wide. The current is steady but not necessarily brisk… yet. The environs in this section are a pleasant mix of bog, meadows, and hardwood conifers, while a stray boulder or two dot the riverbed. But like Gremlins, they start multiplying, and before you know it, these boulders (which get bigger and bigger) are suddenly everywhere in a veritable garden to weave through and dodge around. The landscape is quintessential Central Wisconsin, and it’s just gorgeous.
The boulder gardens lead you to the small hamlet of Little Falls. (For the sake of reference, so-called “Big” Falls is an improbably incorporated town with a population of 61. That’s right: sixty-one. So, you can only imagine the rank and file of Little Falls…) That said, there used to be a resort of sorts at Little Falls (and presumably a smaller waterfall?) – mentioned earlier by Mike Svob. Today, a few buildings remain on the right bank adjacent to a quaint suspension footbridge that connects to an even quainter park on the opposite bank. Another pedestrian bridge comes next, this one more of a modern construction. Beneath this bridge is a small but reputable Class I rapid. It’s not a bad idea to scout this prior to paddling, to determine where it’s best to run. There are two pylons, thus creating three “channels” the river runs through. For this trip, the left channel offered the best flow and no obstructive debris. Below this bridge there’s a kind of retaining wall on the right that looks composed of streamside boulders chockablock one after another like a pair of dentures for a giant’s unhinged jaw. Above this bank is a lighthouse embedded into a kind of grotto (not sure what kind of resort used to be here, but it’s… interesting).
What then lies ahead is about as beguiling and beautiful as it gets in this part of the state: humongous boulders blot the river, some as big as a VW bug, others as big as a garage to park a VW bug in! The river makes a bend to the right through this dazzle of endowment to the first road bridge at County Highway C. Riffles from these rocks are on both the up- and downstream side of this bridge, making it a good visual gauge for determining water levels. Below the bridge the river gently bends first to the left, then to the right. And then the excrement gets authenticated. Come again? Shit gets real, baby!
Suddenly, you realize you’re no longer in the Kansas of simple riffles anymore, Toto, but a gradual descent through bedrock that is faster and bubblier, the river narrowing as it does so. You’ll hear rapids, maybe even see a horizon line. I didn’t get out to scout in part because things were moving along so swiftly I just went for the ride (not always the smartest idea, by the way), and partly because there wasn’t anywhere obvious where I could; scrubby trees line the banks along the way. A series of easy Class I rapids whisk you along to a random snowmobile bridge, beneath which the river tumbles in a Class II pitch of two mini ledges. Because scouting these will be difficult and impractical, just be on the look-out for obstructions – and be prepared to get a lap-full of water. Otherwise, there was nothing technically challenging about these rapids. Good, clean fun – and totally unanticipated! At the base of the pitches, on the left, is a sandy spit with some big boulders that makes for a convenient staging area to dump/sponge water out of your boat and better appreciate the scenery. It’s a very lively spot!
It’s about 2.5 miles until the next road bridge, and the river through this section – from County Road C to Kretchner Road – is like a portal between two geographies. On the one hand, things quiet down considerably, as the landscape opens up with occasional meadows, bottomlands, houses, and farms. But on the other hand, there still are boulder gardens here and there, together with attractive rock outcrops embedded in the banks cheek by jowl with cedar trees. There’s one stretch in particular where some awfully good-looking cabins are nestled on a gentle hill on the right whose river bank is lined once more with big boulders/rock outcrops like a retaining wall. This section of the river has some long straightaways, too, which allow for a welcome breather and legs-stretch, not to mention an occasional backdrop view of gentle hills. Other than the occasional house/cabin and farm, there’s just no development at all in this tranquil stretch.
Following that occasional cabin, the river enters the first of a couple bottomlands. As can be expected, trees are numerous – and when there are a lot of trees, some are bound to be dead, alas. This was the one area of the trip where I had to maneuver around deadfall, but it was never so complicated that I had to get out and portage; there always was a way through, under, over, or around. This part of the state had gotten walloped by wild wind storms and nearby tornadoes only a week before, so I was fully expecting a veritable mausoleum of downed trees. There certainly was some evidence of the storms – snapped trees near their bases like toothpicks – but I saw more of that woody carnage via the shuttle than while on the water.
The woolly bottoms will open up soon after this, as the river makes a big old bend to the northeast, passing a couple attractive houses with those wrap-around porches that living out in the country calls for. What’s that, you ask? Are there any more boulders? You bet your boots. You’ll pass another unexpected pocket of modest boulders scattered here and there, all before heading south to the next bridge at Kretchner Road, where there’s a good access to the water for an alternate trip. Kretchner Road marks the halfway point on this trip. There are no bridges or accesses between Kretchner and the take-out at Highway 110, FYI.
While not as lively as the first half, the second half is quite lovely. After rounding a bend or two you’ll be rewarded with more boulder gardens and backdrops of towering pines. There’s nothing challenging about threading your way through and past the big erratics, but the river’s current remains reputable – with intermittent frisky riffles. Together with the woodsy backdrop, the whole experience remains supremely satisfying. And the substrate of the river bottom will often reveal its sandy self shimmering in the sun with that delicious root beer hue effect we just can’t slake our thirst of. When the banks thin out from their dense conifers, you’ll see some lovely soft hills – nothing dramatic, but quietly undulating with a meadowy feel. Chances are good that where there’s such a view, the trees have been cut for agriculture. But typically you’re low enough in a boat that you won’t see any of that. Generally speaking, that’s the summary of the second half of this trip: the river will taper a smidge with occasional boulder gardens, brisk current, and a smattering of pines and cedars, and then it will open up again with pastures and meadows, slow down some, back and forth between the two. In either scenario there’s hardly any development that visible from the water. It’s all really quite pretty.
There is one last huzzah of sorts towards the end, where a couple of small islands create side channels to choose, and with these are additional dollops of boulders dotting the stream – some prominently visible, others sneakily beneath the surface. These precede a low-clearance farm bridge (low, but still plenty of clearance even at this higher-than-usual water level). Riffles and rips pick up pick up the pace again as you past stands of sweet cedar that was honestly reminiscent of Bois Brule stretches. There were no true rapids per se, just a brief but appreciated (and totally unexpected) encore of sorts. Well done, Little Wolf! Well done, indeed.
The final mile of this trip slows down as the river enters a floodplain/bottomlands area that is surrounded by farms. That may not sound terribly appealing to the above segments, but it’s still entirely attractive. Lush, leafy, and even a little spooky. There’s something about floodplains that feels wild and thicketed. Plus it’s pretty cool to see one river in one compact trip go through such a variety of landscapes. The river will make a notable meander in the shape of a backwards ‘S’ just before the bridge – the only such bend on this trip of otherwise broad strokes. The bridge at Highway 110 comes into view, and there’s a fairly convenient access on the upstream side, river-left, where the banks are low and the grass trampled down. It’s a short schlep from river to road, although it is through tall grass and then up an embankment with a culvert. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it does involve a bit more umph than your ordinary roadside access. Careful where you step, and check for ticks.
What we liked:
For starters, I dropped off my bicycle at the take-out, having no clue whatsoever whether the Highway 110 would be even doable. Honestly, I was totally surprised (but delighted) to see a feint path from the road (technically Missal Lane) to the river. I suspect it’s more for folks fishing than paddling, although one never knows. This part of the state is home to such colloquial secrets, where locals ply their paddle blades – canoe and kayak alike – on nearby streams that don’t always have broader recognition. (We’re looking at you, upper Plover!)
Then came the put-in. Whoo-boy, they don’t make them like that anymore! Big Falls is not a single precipice of a dramatic waterfalls, but rather a surging tumbler down a strewn jumble of huge rocks and cantilevered ledges. It’s well worth a look-see in its own right. What it lacks in accessibility it makes up for in its sheer feel of ferocity. Whether you launch off the rocks at the base of the powerhouse or schlep a little further down the small hill to the picnic area, it’s always nice to be able to leave a vehicle off the road; it makes the trip seem a little more special, plus nothing beats the convenience of loading/unloading, changing clothes, applying sunscreen, assembling a cooler, peeing, etc., than a private parking area.
Before gambling on this trip, I had hoped that there would be some boulder gardens here and there. Well, hoped for but also inferred from zooming in on satellite maps. But still, what one sees on a screen never reveals the true reality of conditions than, well, being there actual does in all its three-dimensional glory. This trip exceeded my expectations of boulder gardens by a hundredfold. The whole time I paddled I kept thinking, “OK, OK, this has got to be the end of them…” only to find another stretch just downstream…and yet another after that one further downstream. On and on. Same with the riffles and rips. Every time I thought that the current was going to crawl from such and such a point down to the take-out, suddenly I’d hear riffly whispers and feel myself whisked along. This trip just did not quit.
In terms of beauty, it’s hard to beat all those boulders (aka “erratics” – I know I use the two terms intermittently). They’re one of the signature features of the Central Wisconsin landscape, and they’re simply mesmerizing. I’m not exaggerating one iota when I say that these rocks – ranging from a giant softball to a small garage – are everywhere in this part of the state. Everywhere. You’ll see them in piles picked out of farm fields. You’ll see them as ornaments in lawns or municipal buildings. You’ll see them in forests and along trails. And you’ll see them dotting the streambeds of rivers and creeks. They’re everywhere. It was a different exercise in glaciation in this section of the state, a transitional range between the rugged granite of the Northern Highlands and the wishy-washy Central Sands of ancient oceans. While most of Wisconsin was sheathed in ice some 13,000 years ago, the receding glaciers left their legacies in disparate ways, not all of them aesthetically equal to be brutally honest. There’s Columbia and Dodge Counties, and then there’s Portage and Waupaca Counties. Sorry, but they’re just not on the same footing.
As does Barry, I just love the look and feel of Central Wisconsin. It’s not as hilly as southwestern Wisconsin, but the landscape does undulate. The rivers are not as precipitous as those just a smidge further north, but Class I-III rapids are nothing to take for granted either. Combine those two elements – the gentle hills and swift river flows – with big boulders and swaths of pines and cedars, only a fool couldn’t fall in love with this area.
The single-most exhilarating moment of this trip, of course, is the Class II rapids drop just downstream from County Highway C. It was an unexpected blast that further enhanced what was an already awesome trip. But it’s not the adrenaline-fueled moments that define an experience; it’s the quiet interludes as well. I loved the pastoral segments as well as the dense bottomlands. The overall abundance and diversity of this trip is what defines this section of the Little Wolf, and it’s one that deserves to be as known as the upper and lower trips mentioned earlier.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in is a little confusing and requires a schlep from the parking area to the river. There’s no signage indicating anything for paddlers such as a portage trail around the dam and falls, which there should be technically, but there’s a lot of should in the world – teamed up too with all the best intentions – that still don’t add up to a hill of beans, so… yeah.
The take-out could be less weedy, now that I’m splitting hairs. But, all things considered, it’s totally fine and, frankly, more accessible and paddler-friendly than I’d anticipated.
In all honesty, this trip was awesome. Full stop. There was hardly anything I didn’t like. Every single time I thought I’d enter a monotonous slog once I expected the boulder gardens to peter out, I found myself delightfully surprised by another erratic or two, or a quick wink of additional riffles, or fun wildlife, or a picturesque hill. Every single time. It was fantastic! Even the downed trees – of which there were hardly any, despite A) the bottomlands sections in the second half of the trip where there are hundreds of trees along the banks, B) this being a relatively obscure section of a river that presumably doesn’t have too many paddlers visiting – or maintaining – it, and C) the berserk straight-line wind storm that raked through the area only days before we paddled this trip, that caused so much havoc and down trees pretty much everywhere – yes, even the downed trees on this trip all were negotiable and manageable, without having to portage once.
The only cautionary moral to this story is the unknown variable of water levels. Since we’ve done this trip just once and have no other recorded water levels online or elsewhere to compare and contrast, our frame of reference is limited. I do want to state that the first half of this trip in particular is punctuated with big, buxom boulders, most of which lie un-visibly beneath the surface, with the effect of not seeing them until you feel/hear your boat scrape against or get stuck on them. That was the case for me, and the river was nevertheless high. It made me wonder whether that’s why this section of the Little Wolf is essentially not better known – that it’s just too shallow to paddle most of the time. Or perhaps it’s not better known just because people stick with what they know, and often what we know is what’s been established by others (for better and worse).
If we did this trip again:
The only thing I’d do differently is take a friend along; this trip is too much fun to do alone. OK, that and opt for the more sensible put-in spot a few hundred feet downstream from the powerhouse. Unless you’ve got a gambit to try your luck at running Big Falls, there’s really no reason to launch from the rocks next to the powerhouse.
Little Wolf River I: Manawa to County Road X
Little Wolf River II: Ness Road to Big Falls
General: American Whitewater
Outfitter: Big Falls Kayak Rentals
Wikipedia: Little Wolf River