Lower Red Lake Dam to County Road A:
A revisit to the Red River and redux paddle several years after our initial experience, but this time with better water levels, warmer weather, companionship and a successful run of hair-raising and humbling whitewater. This return trip was simply nothing short of outstanding.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 28, 2020
Skill Level: Advanced
Class Difficulty: Class III-IV
10′ per mile
Morgan: ht/ft: 6.7 | cfs: 145
We recommend this level, but an even better read would be around 200 cfs. The best indicator of water levels is looking at the dam at this trip’s put-in. If there is a gap between the powerhouse wall and the river surface, then water levels will be low to medium. If there is no gap, then the river will be higher than normal with outstanding flow. On this trip there was no gap.
Lower Red Lake Dam off Lower Lake Road, Gresham, Wisconsin
County Road A Bridge
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 4.5
Time note: Mind you, it took at least half an hour at each of the big drops to portage one boat, scout the rapids, set up the shots and psych myself into running them in the first place. Plus we ran into a local with whom we talked shop. And then we lost another half-hour standing under trees to wait out a rogue storm.
Wood ducks, bald eagles, great blue herons, frogs, fish and turtles.
3.9 miles. Safe and flat for bicyclists. Very scenic along Cherry Road.
This was a long-awaited return trip to the Red after Timothy first came here in December 2012. (We don’t want to repeat ourselves, so for more info on that post, scroll down below.) Back then, I was *sort of* in the area for a wedding in Appleton and wanted to make the most of the weekend. (Doesn’t everyone take a kayak to a wedding… in December? Incidentally, it would not be the first, or last time I’ve done this, but it might explain why I myself have never been married…) It was a cold day, and it happened to snow during my trip (which was positively lovely, but posed some logistical issues about documenting that experience properly). Also, I got dumped and taken for a ride twice down Monastery Falls, the biggest rapids on this trip, a solid Class III chute with a monster of a hole. So, between wanting to document this trip right, and trying my luck once more (and maybe redeeming my street cred with the hip kids), I’ve wanted to redo the Red for years. Scotty and I were up in the Langlade area for a long camping-paddling weekend and chose to revisit this short paddle (4.5 miles) that was more or less on our way home to make the most our time in that neck of the woods.
The put-in below the dam is a breeze. There’s plenty of room to park and it’s a short schlep to a quaint sandy beach to slip into the river. (There’s also a pavilion and a port-a-potty.) You’ll immediately notice rock outcrops, rock shelves and boulders – they’re ubiquitous and gorgeous. The piney mix of conifers and leafy deciduous also is quite lovely! In a quarter-mile you’ll hear the sound of rapids, preceding a horseshoe-shaped meander in the river. This is colloquially known as First Drop, a reputable Class I-II on account of a large rock ledge jutting out from the right. (There’s a private home on the right bank with a stunning view of the scene.) At high water levels you can run this drop left or right. At medium to low, you can run it only on the right, where there’s a chute with a greedy little curler wave to watch out for. (For the sake of reference, we ran it right,)
A quietwater interlude follows for half a mile where next is a large rock shelf that splits the river in two channels. Second verse same as the first: at higher water levels you can run this on the left, where a chute appears; but in medium-to-low levels only the right side has enough flow. Either way, it’s an easy Class I-II rapid. And again a half-mile or so of quietwater prevails before the next rapids, here called Double Drop, aptly named for two easy but fun Class I-II sets of small rapids. Between the rock shelf and here are beautiful boulder gardens and a rock outcrop wall on the left.
And then things gets real.
You’ll hear the raw maw of Monastery Falls, a Class III-IV rapids, well before you need to look out for them. Plus you’ll see a capital-d Dramatic horizon line. The left side of the river is private property, so get out on the right to scout or portage (or both, as in our case). Monastery is composed of five total drops – the second of which has a notorious, infamous hole that is as sticky as it is tricky. The remaining three drops are reputable in their own rights, but fairly straightforward stuff once/if you get through the hole. It was there that I dumped twice in the 2012 trip and went for a humbling tumble ass-down the three remaining drops before being spat out in the huge pool beneath the falls to collect my boat, paddle, and pride (not necessarily in that order). You just have to punch that monster right back in the face and paddle the hell out of it in order to have enough forward momentum not to get stuck.
Or get really lucky (which is perhaps all that happened this time around).
The scene here is extraordinary. On the one hand, there’s the geology: the river funnels to a skinny width of roughly ten feet through gnarled rock outcrops on both banks. On the other hand, there’s the decrepit but beguiling remains of a monastery mansion off the left bank and up a hill (also the site of an occupation standoff in the mid-1970s, that today is for sale… notwithstanding graffiti, fire, and probably some bad mojo). About a thousand feet downstream lies an easy Class I rapids where there used to be a dam (which remains can be seen on the right). A hair further downstream from that is an attractive eroded clay bank as well as more beautiful boulders and exquisite rock shelves both above and below the crystal-clear water.
Not quite a full mile later is the next big drop on the river, called Zeimer’s Falls (alternatively spelled Ziemer’s depending on the source, also known as “Gilmer Falls” on topo and Google maps, or just “Party Falls” by locals who have a good time on the rocks). As usual, you’ll hear the frothy roar of the rapids well before seeing the horizon line. Get out on the left to scout or portage, where a long rock shelf extends out into the river, either before or after the first drop and waves. Whatever you call the falls, there are four total drops here in a classic S-formation, all ranking a solid Class II-III rapids. The first drop has a curler wave to watch out for on the right, followed by a less “handsy” ledge just below. Then you paddle right-left to the third drop, which is a few feet tall. At the bottom of this you have three choices, depending on both skill and water level:
1: Catch an eddy and then gently drop down the right chute or just hit the bottom and quickly pivot to the right (which is what I did, since I’m as good at catching eddies as I am fish).
2: If neither catching an eddy nor pivoting is in your cards, just blast through the middle with all your might.
3: Thread a (kind of) needle through a narrow slot on the far left (but without running into the rock wall on the left), if the river is high enough for there to be adequate flow to do this in the first place.
Whereas Monastery Falls is just an adrenaline rush down an intimidating chute, Zeimer’s/Ziemer’s is more of a technical run, requiring a thoughtful read of the river beforehand and then executing turns correctly. It’s very fun, but also formidable and demands respect.
The first of two alternative take-outs is found below these rapids, on the left, where a trail leads up a small hill to a parking area off a dirt road off of Butternut Road. For the Wisconsin Trail Guide, this is where the trip ends. For Mike Svob (and us), this is only the halfway point of this short trip.
A third of a mile downriver is an easy but still reputable Class I-II rapid at an abrupt left-right bend in the river (labeled on topo/Google maps as Little Bull Falls). The “falls” are merely an elegant ledge sloped on a diagonal with a fun flume on the left. At the bottom of these rapids, on the left, is a public access that marks the second alternative take-out for this trip. (To get there from Butternut Road, turn south onto Kathryn Road, then west onto Finley Court. Look for big rocks along the parking area.) For dedicated whitewater paddlers, there’s virtually nothing to wet their whistles after this point. After all, nobody runs the Red in the first place who isn’t in it for the rapids. And that pretty much means having a whitewater boat or a “lightwater” boat like mine (a crossover). Considering that the second half of this trip, after the adrenaline rush of the big stuff has waned, is the proverbial whimper following a bang, with a few long straightaways consisting of lazy sandy bottoms and crawling-slow current, then this could be considered a slog. But for those of us who like paddling anywhere pretty, with quiet interludes between frisky riffles and a handful of splashy Class I’s, then there are two more miles worth staying on the water for.
The landscape will subtly change some, the river getting wide (and thus shallow in spots, especially at low-water levels), the surroundings having an occasional bottomland feel. There will be some deadfall to wend around, but we didn’t have to portage. There’s an unusual ‘Z’ meander around an island; go right, even though the short-cut is through the left channel. Several long straightaways resume, but pockets of beautiful boulders return as well, not to mention some modest rock outcrops. The brief floodplain feel reverts to the quintessential Central Wisconsin look of maples, hemlocks, pines and cedar, which in autumn especially, positively blaze with courage and gorgeous colors.
Mike Svob’s narrative rightly mentions a fun Class I-II rapid squeezed between rock outcrops topped with concrete abutments on both banks and flowing waves that follow, less than a mile upstream of the take-out, but there’s one notable moment he omitted. After the river has swung toward the south, there’s a huge slab of attractive bedrock on the left at the base of which lies a delightful (and skirt-worthy) Class I+ rapid. That’s immediately followed by one last ledge, a squirrely, peculiar drop that needs to be run on the far left and on a diagonal in order to do it smoothly and not got ensnared by a sneaky curler wave at the bottom. Look for a small sandy spot on the right bank before the bridge to take out.
What we liked:
The first thing you’ll note of the Red River, despite its name, is its crystal-clear water. It’s almost luxuriously crystalline. And because it’s so clear, you’ll notice hundreds if not thousands of clam shells lining its bottom, a good indicator species of a healthy river. Then there are the thrilling rock shelves that sometimes run along the river bottom, as well as the boulders. Both of these will be submerged and exposed at various times in all but extreme water levels (high or low). It can’t be expressed enough just how cool it is to see these whale-like rock formations underneath the river and then extending above the surface like a granite dorsal fin.
The big hits of course are the two drops. Monastery is the full-throttle slingshot bottle rocket, inarguably one of the best whitewater features in Wisconsin, a veritable rite of passage. But Zeimer’s or Ziemer’s (or Gilmer or Party), is an exhilarating technical challenge in its own right. To be sure, these are the crown jewel twin allures along the Red River. With the right boat and gear (skirt, helmet, rope), skill and luck (and maybe sisu – the Finnish word for tenacious determination and inner resolve), each of these runs offers a profound inner and outer challenge.
There are many little lovely and lively bits in the underscored second half of this trip as well, up to and including a handful of reputable Class I-II rapids for which we were glad to have kept our skirts on! Plus, after all the jacked up adrenaline of the two big drops, some palate-cleansing quiet interludes are most welcome to calm down.
What we didn’t like:
To make a minor complaint, there’s a fair amount of private property along the banks on this trip, especially in the second half. But I sure don’t blame anyone for wanting to live or vacation in such a location. So, really, the only criticism I can offer is the take-out at County A leaves little to be desired. In terms of the take-out itself, we first looked at the spot at the bridge where Svob recommends, which is river-left, upstream side. But it’s pretty crappy for two reasons: there’s a sizeable distance between the river and a concrete abutment on the bank, making it awkward via a kayak; and there’s no parking on that side of the bridge (or shoulder room on the bridge itself for you to walk in, since you’d have to cross it on foot with your boat and gear to get to the other side). Instead, we found a sandy, easy spot to get out on river-right about fifteen yards upstream of the bridge – on which side you may park a vehicle – where there was a feint path likely from other paddlers and/or anglers.
The other quirk about taking out at County A is that odd ledge immediately upstream of the bridge that runs at an oblique angle. I nearly ate it at the curler wave at the bottom, whereas Scotty lined up in anticipation of it (or gleaning from my sloppy run) and slid down it perfectly at the correct angle. To have run the big drops cleanly (or at least well enough) but then get dumped at a dumb nothing at the take-out itself would have been just fatuously preposterous.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again. Indeed, the Red has everything that a reliable go-to river needs. It’s certainly a drive, if you’re not a local or happen to be passing through, but it’s absolutely worth doing at least once. Even if you only look at the big drops and then portage them. But next time we’d probably call it a day after so-called Little Bull Falls and make use of the convenient take-out alternative off Finley Court, courtesy of a local paddler’s club. And leave County A alone.
Miles Paddled Video:
Previous Trip Report:
December 9, 2012
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Some of the best whitewater you’ll find in the state, with at least half a dozen Class I-II drops in just 4 miles, featuring a Class III+ falls, all in a lovely scenery of woods, steep banks and one abandoned monastery that looks like an antebellum mansion full of spooks and Southern Goth.
Gauge: Morgan: ht/ft: 5.74 | cfs: 90
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 3:30p.
Miles Paddled: 4.5
Eagles galore, a blue heron, mergansers, geese and the tapered ruins of bark-chewed trees from beavers gone wild.
Technically the Red River is about 47 miles long and begins up in Langlade County just southeast of Antigo. But no one knows or cares about that. Say the “Red River” and paddlers will know only of the famous two-to-four mile stretch of it near Shawano before it empties into the Wolf River. Still more specifically, say “Red River” and paddlers will reply “Monastery Falls,” for that is the crown jewel of this short trip, a Class III+ series of drops (at least five) through a narrow slot with rather pushy water. But you can tailor-make this very pretty trip and portage around the rougher waters and still have a fabulous time. When the water is calm, it is flat and slow. And oh so crystal clear! All in all, the rapids range from easy Class Is to manageable Class IIs to the attempt-at-your-own-risk Monastery Falls, (aka Novitiate Falls aka Alexian Falls aka Freeborn Falls – why so many names? It’s that impressive!) which makes this a very versatile little river.
What we liked:
This trip, short as it is, balances nicely placid surroundings with adrenaline-driven frenzy. In case you missed the date, I did this on Sunday December 9th, which coincided with a decent snowstorm. I have made my peace with wintertime paddling elsewhere but suffice it to say, it’s so worth doing that it nearly hurts me to know how few people actually do it. More solitude for me I suppose, but trust me, you’re missing out. There is something so indescribably mystical about watching snowfall silently dissolve into a river or dark black water starkly contrasted by canopies of white branches. It really is pretty Zen-like, the landscape a Franz Kline canvas. And no, to answer the obvious, it really isn’t that cold. Unless you capsize (but more on that in a moment). Just layer up and embrace the moment as it is; you will not regret it.
The water was at least as translucent as the Namekagon or Crystal, if not even clearer. I often thought I was in such shallow water that I was going to scratch or plumb run aground; it was that clear. I spotted at least ten bald eagles, one blue heron, lots of mergansers and spooked a gaggle of geese (doing who-knows-what this far north, this late in the year). I didn’t spot any actual beavers but the signs of their hourglass dentistry was present countless trees.
Oh, and because there was already snow on the ground and there is a sloping hill at the put-in, I had the opportunity to enter the water in style: getting all tucked in and situated on dry land, then shooting down the hill into the water like a winter sled or Dukes of Hazard-style all giddy-up and go!
What we didn’t like:
I’ll get to the obvious in a second. The take-out kind of sucks to be honest: it’s difficult to exit without getting wet, you then have to climb a steep bank and there’s next to no room for parking. Plus there’s an awkward 1′ drop right near the end that you have to hit on a diagonal. Also, when the water was slow, it was s-l-o-w. It’s not just because I capsized (twice, thank you very much) that it took 2.5 hours to paddle 4 miles of lots of whitewater.
OK, so yeah, I tanked. Twice. At basically the same section of Monastery Falls. In Paddling Northern Wisconsin Mike Svob writes, “Many a boater is caught in the ‘stopper-hole’ here and experiences a nasty swim.” Yup, sure did. And a nasty swim it was, let me tell you. Let me explain. I am still young enough (35) and new to whitewater (last year). Plus I’m a guy without kids or wife so what inner voice there arguably should have been telling me that this was a dumb, dumb idea was at best a soft murmur. I knew there was a risk, that running Monastery Falls (or whatever name you call it) could be dangerous. I had done my reading and watched lots of videos. I got out of my boat and scouted for the best route before attempting it. Nonetheless, it pretty much kicked my butt. It’s one of those times when your body is at more risk than your sense of pride, for it’s not just capsizing after the first or second drop, which is slightly humiliating in and of itself; no, it’s then being dragged down the next three drops by the awfully forceful river as though you are little more than a rubber ducky in a menacing bathtub, your boat in one direction, you in yet another.
After dumping the water out of my kayak, I clambered up the rocks to the top of the ledge, got back in the boat and tried my luck again. And again capsized, once more helpless as a ragdoll down the small waterfall. I wanted to face my fear (the first experience was not without a bit of trauma) but 0-2 was enough for me. I was decked out in cobbled neoprene layers otherwise I would have been a goner from hypothermia. I concluded that after two swims in 35-degree water and 25-degree air while it was snowing, it was best to pull the plug and just finish the rest of the trip.
So please, if you take nothing else from this trip write-up, heed these words: don’t attempt Monastery Falls alone. All in all, I was lucky to come away from it all with just a busted nose, some scrapes and a couple bruised bones (still sore as I type this); it could have been much worse. And this should never be attempted without the right equipment. You absolutely must wear a helmet and PFD jacket. I can’t recommend enough wearing a wetsuit. If you do tank and are caught up in the current, remember: try as best you can to go down feet first in front of you, sparing your head! At the base of the falls, swim river-right, as there are fewer sharp rocks over there.
That’s enough lecturing. Let me just add this though: Monastery comprises about five drops, the first two of which are the most difficult. Some paddlers put in just below the second drop (not the easiest entrance and it must be done very carefully but it’s definitely doable) and coast down the rest, which in retrospect, seems to be eminently more reasonable.
Whatever your choice in the end, you should check out the ruins of the Alexian Monastery (river-left) at the base of the falls. It’s a gorgeous old building that seems wonderfully-weirdly out of place.
If we did this trip again:
Oh, I will and I will someday run this rapids without capsizing, by God! But I will probably do so in summer and skip the whole potential hypothermia skirmish. And yes, I will do it with another, just to be safe.