★ ★ ★ ★

Manitowoc River I

County Road JJ to County Road S:
A truly pleasant little jaunt that packs a heckuva lot of punch in only 7 miles, this section of the Manitowoc River begins quietly through tranquil farm country then races along fun riffles and light rapids through secluded woods. Toss in a handful of small boulders and dolomite rock outcrops together with one roaring Class II-III ledge, not to mention astounding wildlife. This trip does require adequate water volume to paddle in the first place, but when the river’s up, you should be down with checking it out.

Manitowoc River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 14, 2018

Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: 
Class II(III)

≈1-2 feet per mile the first half, but ≈7 feet per mile in the moving water portions

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Manitowoc: ht/ft: 4.7 | cfs: 150

Current Levels:
Manitowoc: ht/ft: 4.19 | cfs: 35.4

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. Ideally, look for at least 200 cfs for less scraping.

County Road JJ, West of Valders, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.07534, -87.92523
County Road S, North of Madsen, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.09895, -87.82211

Time: Put in at 4:45p. Out at 7:45p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 7

A gazillion great blue herons, one lone green heron, bald eagles, kingfishers, a sprawl of spawning fish, turtles, and deer.

Shuttle Information:
5.9 miles.


Like its cousins the Sheboygan and Milwaukee Rivers, the Manitowoc River begins quietly in a mix of marsh and gently rolling farm hills in southeastern Wisconsin, then gets a little rough-and-tumbly through dolomite rock formations that are part of the Niagara Escarpment, and finally slows down through an urban landscape before reaching the sky-blue waters of Lake Michigan. There’s something about that journey that we just love in these streams. If nothing else, they’re tell-tale, quintessential Wisconsin rivers; they embrace the state’s agricultural heritage while embodying the rich geological history of the Great Lakes basin and the last Ice Age. Farmers settled in the fecund soil of the lowlands, as cities were built along the lakeshore near the mouths of these rivers. In between the two, mountains of ice eons ago carved the signatures of these streams.

When we think about clear-water rivers in Wisconsin with boulder gardens, rock walls, and rapids, the metropolitan line between Green Bay and Kenosha is hardly the first area that comes to mind, understandably. And while not all of these streams do in fact have what could even be charitably called “clear” water (at least in most segments), they do retain emblems of their wilder nature before European settlement. The fact that they comprise only a nominal few of the streams in Wisconsin that empty into Lake Michigan (as opposed to the Mississippi River, where most of the state’s rivers go) – that alone is salient shout-out.

The Manitowoc has been on our radar for many moons, mainly on account of its whitewater allure (to wit, Lower Cato Falls, a well-known Class II-III ledge). But that spot (which we’ll mention in more detail below) is just a bump in the proverbial road that is this river; there’s plenty of rewarding moving water up- and downstream from there. It’s a really fun bump, however (and one that can be run over and again, as there’s an aesthetically striking and recreationally convenient rock shelf on the right to get out, schlep back above the drop, and then launch only 15′ or so upstream of the ledge. Or, conversely, it makes for a great surfing wave and play spot at the base of the drop).

From the Madison area, Manitowoc is about 2.5 hours of driving – but only 75 minutes due north from Milwaukee. For us, that means making a whole weekend of things, not just a daytrip, given the drive. The only public campground we know of is Point Beach State Forest, which is pretty popular and books regularly. Plus the sites there are all boxed in, and the drive from there to the river itself takes its own sweet time itself. Add to that the persnickety caveat that the river has to have an adequate water level to run in the first place, given its gradient and modest watershed (the Manitowoc River is only some 36 miles long, compared to the Sheboygan and Milwaukee Rivers at 80 and 100 miles, respectively). For all those reasons, it’s taken us this long to get to the mighty Manitowoc.

Well, that and the whole Making a Murderer series that has done little to enamor the public with Manitowoc County in general; but that’s another whole matter all to itself.

We took our cue for this trip from the grand old man of Wisconsin guidebooks, Mike Svob, where he lays out two distinctly different trips both in length and landscape: 1) County Road W, just south of Collins Marsh State Wildlife Area, to the dam in Clarks Mills, a mostly torpidly slow trip at 10.5 miles; and 2) County Road S to the city of Manitowoc itself, at 14 miles. For our druthers, we tailored the first section to cut out most of the flat stuff but then take advantage of the fun rowdy stuff after the dam in Clarks Mills, taking out at the wayside park off County S, where his second trip begins. From County Road W to County Road JJ lie six miles of essentially slow, dull paddling. Svob himself states in his write-up that, after County Road JJ “now begins the prettiest part of this trip.” So why not just start there, portage around the dam, have a helluva huzzah at Lower Cato Falls, and then call it a day at the next available access?

This short but fulfilling daytrip can be conveniently divided into thirds, as the intermittent bridges separate river segments in 2.5, 2, and 2.6-mile-long segments, each with its own character. The first is slow and serene; the second starts swift but then slows to a dead stop; and finally the last is just an adrenaline blast with astounding scenery.

The access to the river via County Road JJ is a little lousy. Svob states that the access is “upstream-right at the bridge,” but we’re here to tell you that’s dead wrong. Maybe there was a time back in the day, when his book was just published, but today doing so would be a fool’s errand. First off, it’s a long, steep schlep from the road to the river, through chest-high grass and weeds, and in muck. Conversely, on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, the schlep is shorter, less steep, and features convenient rock rubble to launch from without getting muddy.

Once on the river, the surroundings are idyllic – and classic southeastern Wisco: a broad, engaging body of water surrounded by soft green hills, some even greener trees for pop, a farm silo pointed heavenward to a palette of puffy white clouds and a great big blue sky. In a word, lovely. Indeed, the first 2.5 miles are blissfully tranquil. The landscape is dotted with farms, but none obtrusive or CAFO-esque. (Like industrial prisons or mining sites, “concentrated animal feeding operations” are rarely seen from conspicuous vantage points, but rather tucked away to best ensure out of sight, out of mind. OK, while we’re at it, what is a CAFO other than an industrial prison anyway?) But then the banks become wooded and wild-feeling, with hardly any discernible sign of development but for a few houses here and there. As elsewhere downstream, the trees here are predominantly pine and cedar. Cedar! We love cedar. When not so arboreally robust, the banks will be brushy and bushy. To describe the Manitowoc River environs as “wilderness” would be as spectacularly fatuous as likening a city arboretum or botanical gardens to a jungle; but wildnessis neither the opposite nor enemy of wilderness. We are supreme champions of the wildness underdog and leave the best-at-show wilderness purebreds to fancy, sanctimonious one-percenters.

Following the aforementioned few houses is the first bridge at Leist Road at the intersection of Upper Falls Road. Right on cue, conditions change – for the better. First, there are some modest rock outcrops (dolomite) along the banks. Secondly, the river itself constricts to a creek-like narrowness and drops several feet, such that riffles and light rapids form here, particularly after a tight left-hand bend. Guidebook guru Svob, in almost Trump-like Twitter drama using all-caps, stipulates that these so-called Class I-II ledges “REQUIRE CAUTION.” Yeah, we don’t know about that. Sorry, but unless you’re paddling this stretch (hyperbolically named “Upper Cato Falls”) at seriously high water levels, there’s nothing unsafe or caution-worthy about these wavelets. And they sure as hell do not constitute “falls,” but we digress. It’s just a good, clean run of fun. (Well, maybe not clean. More on that below under “Didn’t Like.”)

The next two miles are just beautiful. Steeple-tall pines lining the banks, with an intermittent rock outcrop here, together with random riffles and small boulder gardens treat the paddler to a true feeling of being-away. An almost valley-like setting will frame a huge set of audibly crackling power lines, which also will announce the beginning of the end of current. That mile of frisky riffles and little ledges will just crash like an overexcited puppy and take a nap, thanks to the dam at Clarks Mills. The setting itself is still pretty, with only a couple houses coming into view right in the wee hamlet that is Clarks Mills. The dam itself is obvious, and the signage pointing to the portage area is well-marked. Take out on the left, just downstream from the bridge at County Road J. It’s a short, easy schlep to the other side of the dam, where there’s a convenient place to re-launch.

While you’re there, keep an eye out for spawning fish. No kidding! Unlike its southern cousins, the Pigeon, Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Root, and Pike Rivers, the Manitowoc is not known for autumn steelhead runs. But if it’s in Lake Michigan, it’ll likely nose around the Manitowoc. You never know. We watched one hapless carp attempt the impossible at the bottom of the dam.

The dam marks the 2/3 point in this short trip. What lies below is the fun rough-and-tumble stuff. As such, paddlers just looking for whitewater can begin their trips here below the dam. On the other hand, those not interested or intimidated by Lower Cato quote-unquote Falls can simply finish their trip at the dam.

Riffles from a brisk current below the dam sweeps the paddler through thin slips of woods and past additional dolomite rock outcrops. The current will remain riffly, the streambed occasionally dotted with a boulder or two. Following a right-hand bend and then one to the left, a long, broad straightaway will lead to a large island that splits the river in two channels. At the tail end of the island awaits the drop at so-called Lower Cato Falls some 200′ downstream. OK, a word about this. First off, it’s just a sizeable ledge, not a falls. The drop itself is about 3-4′, all on a kind of diagonal slide, not a precipitous edge. To be fair, the force of the river and its hydraulic power is formidable and not to be casually dismissed. But it’s not some kind of Red Bull-chugging, can-crushing, fist-bumping daredevil run for none but dudes, fools, bros, or rogues. It’s just a really fun, slightly nerve-wracking ledge that shouldn’t intimidate paddlers experienced with Class II conditions. For rookie whitewater paddlers it’s best just to portage the shebang via river-right.

While this was our first time paddling here, we essentially knew what to anticipate. We knew too that paddlers generally run the ledge right of center. Given the shallow level of the river for this trip, center-right offered the cleanest line to run. The ledge falls smack dab at a peculiar bend in the river: there’s a subtle swerve to the right leading to the ledge, and then below it the river swerves to the left. You can – and arguably should – scout this ledge before running it. From the water it would be a little tricky due to the infinity of riffles leading to the ledge; but it can be done. More practical is scouting via dry land before you even put in, at Lower Cato Falls County Park. We tried to do this while shuttling but were promptly stumped upon entering the park. At the end of the park access road from County Road JJ you have to go either left or right. If there even is signage, nothing directs you to the “falls.” Both left and right roads just follow the disc golf course. To actually access the Lower Cato Falls you have to “play through” Hole 13 of the course, about a 500′ walk.

Here is a great short video of the ledge and some Mad City Paddlers running it without ado.

Nonetheless, take your time here. As mentioned above, it’s a simple and pretty easy affair to get out on the right and make like What’s Happening!! to re-run the ledge (hey-o!). Or just be glad you did it once and stayed upright. There’s a small dells setting here – meaning rock walls on each side of the river. Svob affectionately refers to the area as a “minicanyon,” which, sigh… is again an exaggeration. I would no more call my backyard in winter a tundra, but, whatever. The main point is, it’s quite beautiful here. The limestone/dolomite dells rise about 8-15′ above the water, flanked by steep wooded banks. On the right side is a cool grotto-like indentation in the rock wall that, given the other exaggerations, you might just as soon call a “cave” (even though it’s most definitely not a cave). But, again, it’s all very cool and really pretty.

Below the ledge/dells area a couple more large islands will split the river into riffle-fueled side channels. The setting here remains wooded and undeveloped (at least relative the river and banks; of course, there are farms on both sides, but they can’t be seen from the water). The river is narrow here, the current swift. On our trip we faced no obstacles; but conditions change all the time, so at least be vigilant here.

Out of nowhere you’ll see a break in the treeline on the left, where there’s a gentle, rolling hill. The river itself widens out at this spot with the entire effect feeling very open, spacious, and relaxing. But then the woods resume and the river will taper. A long graceful arc to the northeast will lead to the take-out. Immediately upstream of the wayside park itself lies one last fun, easy Class I set of rapids where there used to be a dam. There is no designated river access location at the wayside park. But the banks are water-level low and composed of small boulders and grass, making for a pretty easy and clean get-out. There’s no water here, but there is an outhouse.

What we liked:
We really enjoyed the variety of landscapes featured in this short 7-mile trip. To begin in an almost panorama-like openness with soft pastoral hills and quietwater and then end with modest wooded bluffs, occasional boulders and rock outcrops, and zippy current – that’s a whole lot of welcome diversity. The easy riffles and light rapids were every bit as fun as we’d hoped, and the engaging ledge at Lower Cato Falls was a real adrenaline blast! It was goofy fun to run that drop several times. (By sheer happenstance and late-afternoon timing, even though the photos we took here were into the setting sun, the overexposure created an unintentional retro/sepia effect (see below). The small dells area at Lower Cato Falls is really pretty and even more impressive than we’d anticipated.

Also, not to sound redundant, but the cedar trees were a welcome surprise! Down by where we live in Madison, the only cedar we see is in lumberyards and/or backyard patios/decks.

All in all, the Manitowoc River was wilder than we’d expected. Not wilderness and not wild like “buckle up and pray for safety,” but it has great wildlife and a somewhat-intact natural environment (minus the million farms in every direction).

What we didn’t like:
About those farms, now. The cluster of counties that is Kewaunee, Brown, Outagamie, Calumet, and Manitowoc comprise the largest concentration of CAFOs anywhere in Wisconsin. Making matters worse, the bedrock in these counties is shallow and fractured, meaning a whole lotta unmentionable manure seeps into the aquifers. While that may be more of a public policy drinking water matter, arguably separate from the jurisprudence of a paddling blog, here’s what’s not: groundwater runoff after a hard rain combined with that persnickety Catch-22 of needing a recent rain (or spring snowmelt) to paddle the Manitowoc River in the first place.

We got lucky/unlucky in that a random line of thunderstorms rolled in the area mid-afternoon, actually while we were driving to the river. All in all, it lasted for half an hour and rained perhaps half an inch. And yet… By the time we drove to the put-in at County Road JJ, there was a raging rivulet of fetid runoff through a field near the bridge we dubbed “Cowcrap Creek.” Other than trespassing to get to this unnatural stream, you could actually have paddled it into the river! In addition to it, we passed half a dozen other spots of point source pollution just in the first hundred or so yards from the bridge. Take a look at the pictures below. The chocolate milk (how’s that for a how-now-brown-cow euphemism?) discoloration (aka turbidity) from the fields relative the regular river color itself (already brown from sediment and tannins) was like a night-and-day delineation. The only time we’ve ever seen something like that is in winter or early spring, when the ground is still frozen and recent rain has nowhere to go but sheet downward. But this was mid-summer and after only half an inch of moderate rain, not torrential showers. It was breathtaking, but also kind of gross and unnerving.

We don’t mean to tarnish the river’s reputation or necessarily malign the practices of adjacent farmers, but paddlers should definitely keep this in mind. Is there a risk for E. coli bacteria? Probably – but only if you drank the stuff. Did it smell like effluence? No; but you needn’t possess an overactive imagination to know that mud/soil runoff from a farm, where there are lots of cows, is going to contain x-amount of fecal material in it, and that runoff is literally spilling into the river. But still, bear in mind that rivers are natural filtration systems. Plus this section of river features lots or riffles, rapids, a big-ass dam, and a “deep rinse” Class II-III ledge. But if you do take in water and/or get dumped at Lower Cato Falls, you might do well to shower afterwards.

End Miles Paddled public safety announcement.

Otherwise, the only thing we didn’t really like was the flatwater created by the dam. What purpose this dam even serves, who knows? The portage around it is super-simple, but it does make an otherwise zesty river a mile-long slog.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again! For sure, next time we’d put on our spray skirts while portaging around the dam. We’d all packed our skirts for this trip, but never did put them on when running Lower Cato Falls the first time – because we didn’t bother to get out to scout it, but instead just sized it up above the drop and assessed that it looked fine. As such, we all get drenched to the nth degree going down the ledge. Hello, questionable water! So, let that be a lesson for future paddlers. To run Lower Cato Falls you’ll definitely want a spray skirt! But you probably won’t need a skirt up- or downstream of that one notable ledge.

Also, as much as we truly enjoyed the pastoral serenity of our trip’s initial 2.5 miles, next time we’d put in at Leist Road (downstream side of the bridge, river-right) to begin with riffles, rapids, and rock outcrops right off the bat. Since that would be only a 4.5-mile trip to the wayside at County Road S, we’d probably paddle down to the next access, which is Union Road, about 3.5 miles for a neat and tidy (and fun) 8-mile trip.

Related Information:
Manitowoc River II: County Road S to Manitowoc
Camp: Point Beach State Park
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Manitowoc River Watershed
Wikipedia: Manitowoc River

Photo Gallery:

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