County Road S to Manitowoc:
A really fun daytrip along the meat-and-marrow of the Manitowoc River, with small boulders, continuous stretches of Class I-II rapids, a mix of bottomlands and steep wooded banks, and very little development for miles on end. Plan your paddle when the river’s high enough to avoid scraping, and you’ll have a blast!
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 15, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈11 feet per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Manitowoc: ht/ft: 5.2 | cfs: 300
Manitowoc: ht/ft: 4.37 | cfs: 67.3
Manitowoc River Visual Gauge
There’s a small island adjacent to the wayside put-in that makes for a convenient visual gauge. If you see only the grassy island itself, with no discernible shallow gravel portion, you should be OK. If you do see rocks or shoals around the island like a receding hairline, then the river is low. If those rocks/shoals are totally exposed, then the river is too low.
We recommended this level. Ideally, look for 5.5′ to avoid occasional scraping through the boulder gardens. For those looking only for whitewater paddling, this level is way too low. Look for a minimum of 500 cfs for adequate rapids, ideally between 1000-1700 cfs.
Wayside park at County Road S, east of Clarks Mills, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.09895, -87.82211
Manitowoc River Public Access park, Mill Road, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.09673, -87.70258
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 13.75
Great blue herons, kingfishers, dragon- and damselflies, schools of fish, tiny toads, deer, crawfish, mussels and many butterflies.
8.5 miles. Not terribly hilly, given the gradient of the river itself. But those bicycle shuttling might well choose a less direct route so as to stay away from Highway 10.
For the back story to the Manitowoc River environs as well as a description of the upstream portion of the river, check out our previous experience. This trip marked day two of our Manitowoc junket, and clocking in at 14 miles, this section of the river makes for a long day. At least on paper. On the water, those 14 miles fly, thanks to the steep gradient of the river and its nearly nonstop riffles/rapids. Paddlers do have an option of shaving off 3.5 miles by putting in at North Union Road. Conversely, one could add another mile and take out at Manitou Park or add four miles and head out onto Lake Michigan. We had time enough just to hit the 14 miles of swift river before driving back home to Madison.
As with the previous segment of the river, we took our cue for this trip from the grand old man of Wisconsin paddling, Mike Svob. In his writeup for this trip on the Manitowoc River he describes it in his cautionary fashion for “EXPERIENCED WHITEWATER PADDLERS” (all-caps, his). Respectfully, we reserve some hesitancy with that warning. At the very least, since we have more space in a blog to provide context than he did in a printed book, give us a moment to shed a little light. The only time dedicated whitewater paddlers would even bother with this section of the Manitowoc is when it’s abnormally high. How high is that? Good question. We’d say above 1000 cfs. It is rarely even at 500 cfs, let alone twice or thrice as high. So, for ordinary paddlers – or “lightwater” paddlers, as we’ve likened ourselves – the issue with the Manitowoc will be whether it has enough water just to stay afloat without bottoming out and scraping half the time. Meister Svob specifies that the river will have sufficient volume at a minimum of 200 cfs. Frankly, we’d contend that at 200 cfs the river is simply too shallow. We did this at 300 cfs, which was sufficient – but not without some grumbling bumps and groundouts. The Manitowoc River never runs clean or clear, so this is not a case of lower water levels allowing for a prettier looking stream. So why not wait to do it when it’s higher than normal?
To be sure, this is a zippy trip. There are several continuous stretches of fast water – the funnest being a mile-long boulder garden with little ledges. But at such modest water levels below 500 cfs there’s really nothing dangerous about this trip. We wouldn’t recommend it for a newbie who’s never been inside a kayak or canoe before, but most paddlers with a modicum of experience in their boats should do just fine on this section of the river between 250-500 cfs. But of course, the bottom line is A) doing only what you’re comfortable with and B) being prepared – both mentally and physically with the right gear. All moving current needs to be respected for its awesome power. Sometimes even the most skilled whitewater paddlers experience their worst scenarios in the most innocuous conditions.
There is no official launch area at the wayside park off County Road S, but the banks here are water-level low and composed of small boulders and grass, making for a pretty easy and clean put-in. At the put-in itself and then past the bridge at County S, this trip begins with swift riffles immediately. While you’re never far from development, you hardly see any of it from the river’s perspective. This trip is predominantly wooded, alternating between low-lying floodplains and modestly steep banks. As we mentioned in our previous report, some of the trees here are cedar – a rare treat for us down in Madison. By and by, the river width will range from 50- 80′; at times it’ll feel intimate and cozy, but it still accommodates a flotilla of friends. And while it certainly meanders in these 14 miles, it does so subtly in broad bends. Generally, the river flows in corridor-like straightaways. Bring your Frisbee or cast a line for whatever fish might be swimming upstream from Lake Michigan.
It’s about 2 miles from the put-in to the first bridge, at Old County H. It’s all easy riffles and wooded banks. Here as elsewhere, boulders of various proportions will dot the streambed, often camouflaged by the turbid water. Often you won’t even see one until the last second, in which case you’ll either bump, scrape, yelp, or try to dodge. It’s wise to be mindful of this predicament and try to keep an eye out for them, training your sights for ripple patterns on the surface or letter V’s, but sometimes a big ‘ole rock will be cleverly an inch or two below the surface – low enough to leave no trace atop the current, but still close enough to the surface that your boat and body weight will scrape against it while going over it. See before and after photos of my own kayak…
Even funner riffles begin at Old County H. Meister Svob alludes to cedar-covered bluffs in the next mile. Unless he meant bluffin the vernacular of make-believe or pretend, we’re not entirely sure what – or where – he’s referring to. Generally speaking, we liken bluffs to rock formations or at least steep hills/cliffs or ridges. Think Driftless Area – Grant, Platte, Kickapoo, Lower Wisconsin, Upper Iowa, etc. That’s simply not the case here on the Manitowoc (or anywhere in southeastern Wisco). Tall cedar-covered banks, sure. Bluffs? Not so much. But maybe one man’s bluff is another’s… whatever. Regardless, this is a fun riffly section of the river.
The next bridge is N. Union Road, which is the last access point on/off the river until you’re in the City of Manitowoc itself and this trip’s take-out. (Well, last reasonable access. You could take out at the Michigan Ave bridge further downstream, where the official USGS gauge is located. See below.) With the lack of bridges comes a pleasant feel of remoteness. The current slows down for the next few miles, but the landscape itself is particularly pretty here. Svob aptly notes there are “plenty of low, grassy banks where you can get out to relax or have lunch.” He’s spot-on with that one. We found an attractive gravel bar with umpteen tiny frogs, dragonflies, and crawfish, and feasted on saltine sardine sandwiches – and Pringles, of course, any self-respecting paddler’s go-to comfort snack. Around the time the Branch River* enters the Manitowoc on the left – the only notable tributary in this 14-mile section – the banks do rise to an appreciable scale. Alright, Svob – we’ll give you bluffs here. More or less. We’re neither geologists nor splitters of hair, so call them what you will. Here at least, the tallest of these looked to be about 50′ above the waterline, often sand or clay consisted, composed of birch, cedar, and pine.
* Incidentally, the Branch River itself looks like it has paddling potential. Narrower of course than the Manitowoc, it nonetheless courses through the same landscape and appears rather inviting via the satellite view. If anyone out there has any personal experience on the Branch, we’d love to hear it.
After seeing no signs of civilization for awhile, you’ll pass by a clearing of trees on the left where there’s a private dock, a collection of kayaks and canoes, and a driveway up a small hill to a house. It’s hard to miss. We mention it because it’s the de facto cue for the river itself to wake up from its nap – doing so the way we all have when we realized we’d slept through the alarm, are running late, and need to dart out of bed and get going. For, suddenly there’s a boulder garden and riffles/light rapids galore, just everywhere. It is the very beginning to the downright giddy-fun that shall continue, really without break, for a full mile. Along the left bank in a right-hand bend are pockets of modest rock outcrops and boulders, heron-gray in color. More riffles line you up in a long straightaway facing the tall twin chalk-white bridges at I-43. The best splashing of this trip – or anywhere on the Manitowoc River, with the notable exception of Lower Cato Falls – comes on the downstream side of the bridges. The boulders are bigger and there are small(ish) standing waves here and there. On a hot, humid day, this section is just bliss. Svob describes it as “interminable,” which isn’t quite le mot juste (Editor’s note: Umm… nevermind…) we’d use, as that word typically connotes anguish. Then again, if you’re paddling through this boulder garden in low water, it would feel interminable.
What was that about splitting hairs?
For the next three miles the river begins to meander a little more abruptly (in an exciting, fun way) downstream from the interstate bridges. The rapids do not quiet either. A small smattering of large houses will come into view now and again during these bends in the river, but they’re brief and you’ll be otherwise pleasantly distracted with not running aground into boulders. Otherwise, the environment is wooded and isolated. A large island will split the river in two channels in a hairpin bend to the right. The twin bridges at Highway 10/County Road JJ come next, less stately than the interstate, but similar in size and scale. These are immediately followed by a downright humble bridge at Michigan Ave. Technically speaking, you could take out here on river-left, either upstream or -down of the bridge, and shave 2.5 miles off this trip. The bank is rocky and level with the water, and it’s a fairly short, not terribly steep schlep from the river to the road. Moreover, on the upstream side of the bridge there’s even a remnant of some concrete platform or another, almost like an intentional dock. However, there’s no good place to leave a vehicle here. Instead, you’d have to leave your vehicle about 200′ away, off Broadway (no pun intended; that’s the name of the street). As mentioned above, the one and only USGS gauge for the Manitowoc is located at the bridge here, so its readings should correlate precisely with conditions for this trip.
The next 2.5 miles are scenic and fun. The banks here are thickly wooded, the feeling pretty wild, and the riffles are as frisky here as anywhere else. There are even a few more bluff-like tall banks. You’ll pass under two sets of power lines. Shortly after the second you’ll see a 30′-tall eroded bank with a house at its top directly downstream of you. Here the river makes a tight horseshoe-shaped bend to the left. Svob cautions the reader to BE CAREFUL here, as the turn is VERY DANGEROUS (again, his caps). To be fair, he stipulates that the danger lies “if the water is swift and deadfall is located here.” Given the sharp turn, one can easily see how tree debris could pile up here, and the current is indeed riffly. It’s something to be mindful of. Does it require ALL CAPS? Probably not.
There’s not much left in this trip after that tight bend. An eroded sand/clay bank here, a quaint house there. And then you’ll see the 19th Century-era rusty iron truss bridge downstream (closed to traffic today) that’s part of the Manitowoc River Public Access park. Despite the park’s name, there’s no designated access per se for taking out. Look for an inconspicuous sandy area and a bench along the right bank where there’s a break from the grass and breach your boat there. From there it’s 350′-ish schlep across the lawn to the parking area. Why the lot is so far from the river is anybody’s guess, but it’s a pleasant little park all the same, with picnic tables and outhouses.
What we liked:
This is just a fun ride! While 4.5 hours might sound like a long time, that’s relatively swift for a 14-mile trip while paddling in a group and taking a lunch break. To be sure, there are downtimes when the current is slack and you simply leisurely float. But for this section of the Manitowoc River, the slack is the exception to the otherwise brisk rule. Particularly in the area around the interstate bridges, the boulders and rapids are totally reputable, while other sections are easy-peasy fun.
As we mentioned in our previous trip, the Manitowoc River is 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 many farms and proximity to urban Manitowoc itself). Whether you call them bluffs or small hills, they’re numerous in their wooded and woolly look, adding a tremendous bounty of beauty to the much-overlooked river.
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, there really isn’t anything of substance to dislike on this trip. Sure, catching it when it’s not too shallow will be tricky, but that’s true of any river with a reputable, respectable gradient. And, yes, the schlep from the make-do take-out at the Manitowoc River Public Access park is hardly ideal, but at least it’s a public park.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again, but at a notably higher water level. Also, we’d like to continue all the way out to Lake Michigan, because, well, it’s Lake Michigan! Plus it would be fun to paddle down the industrial/urban corridor of the city and its ship-building history, even if the current all but disappears. From Mill Road to Lake Michigan and the nearest public beach (at the YMCA) is about 4 miles, which would be 18 miles from County Road S – a long day, in other words. One could shave off 3 miles by putting in at Union Road instead, which would be more reasonable. Regardless, we’d make more time to explore this little industrial burg on the lake, especially after reading this fun article from Isthmusabout Manitowoc.
Manitowoc River I: County Road JJ to County Road S
Camp: Point Beach State Park
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Manitowoc River Watershed
Wikipedia: Manitowoc River