★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wolf River III

Lily to Hollister:
This beautiful boulder-clad section of the rowdy Wolf River makes for a great introductory warm-up to the more rambunctious sections downstream. Featuring countless riffles, lots of Class I rapids and the splashy drops of a Class I-II double feature in a mostly wild, undeveloped corridor, this trip combines relaxation and exhilaration, and is sure to inspire smiles from ear-to-ear.

Wolf River

By Scotty Wertel
Driftless Kayaker/Y-er Inventor/AV Club Member/Miles Paddler since 2018

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 25, 2020

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I-II

Gradient:
12′ per mile

Gauge:
Langlade: ht/ft: 8.43 | cfs: 560

Recommended Levels:
We strongly recommend this level. 250 cfs is the too-low cut-off point. Double that is an awesome level.

Put-In:
Highway 52, Lily, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
West Hollister Road, Hollister, Wisconsin (aka “Wolf River Township”)

Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 6.5

Wildlife:
Mergansers, wood ducks, geese, bald eagles and frogs.

Shuttle Information:
6.6 miles by vehicle along Highway 55 which is very scenic and a little hilly. It’s 6.8 miles by bike along the convenient Wolf River State Trail. Do note that while you don’t need the State Pass to ride the trail, you’ll want an appropriate bike to handle the crushed stone/loose rock of which it’s composed.


Background:
Heading into this trip, I anticipated a blend of quietwater paddling mixed with a few longer sprints of rapids, having done a reasonable amount of research using Google Maps/Google Earth. Also, Wisconsin Trail Guide provided great detail to each portion of this trip along with a detailed map of the seven rapids, so I knew that we were in for some pretty impressive boulder gardens and fun sections of rapids.

Though Miles Paddled has covered this section twice before, this was my first visit which far exceeded my expectations in nearly every aspect. While some paddlers begin at Lily and paddle down to Langlade for a solid day-paddle (14.75 miles) or Military Park Landing off of Highway 55 north of Lily for a 10.5-mile trip, we decided to keep it simple by just doing Lily to Hollister since we were starting late in the day and still had to find camp afterwards. Also, since we were paddling in sequence from Lily down to Markton, it made sense to follow the lead of WTG in which this trip is set as Wolf River 2.

Overview:
The put-in at Lily is fantastic, with a dedicated parking lot, a well worn path to the river and multiple grassy launch points to get you off and running onto moving current. From the put-in just downstream from the bridge, you’re immediately greeted with a visual of large boulders dotting the river as it meanders gently back and forth.

The trip starts off with a modest current and the speckling of boulders. We could clearly see that at lower water levels many more rocks would be exposed and hence would need to be navigated around or in-between. The width of the river almost always allowed us to paddle side by side, converse in a mix of talking shop, while sharing comments of river amazement and appreciation. Even though this section starts out calm, there’s an abundance of eye candy to keep you intimately connected to the river.

The early sections of the river are easy to navigate with discernible rocks and fun ribs of waves to ride and splash past. As you approach the first rapids, you can truly feel the building of energy and momentum as the pace picks up and you find yourself looking ahead in anticipation. Even without the defined rapids sections, the Wolf would still be a four- or five-star paddle due to the fun navigation, beautiful surroundings and rootbeer hue of the water.

The first long stretch of rapids is St. Claire Rapids and is defined as a Class I. It’s a modest Class I that will bring an immediate smile to your face as it’s just plain enjoyable to navigate through some good clean boat splashin’ fun. The river then moves into some slower moving water and you think that St. Claire Rapids is over; however, St. Claire has more to offer. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself picking lines between rocks, rolling waves all around you, and weaving across the river to find your next line.

Between each section of rapids are some relaxing quietwater paddling stretches where you’re simply surrounded by the beauty of the Wolf River basin. The added bonus of boulders the size of a Lazy Boy, Davenport, or Volkswagen is never far from sight. (Timothy obliges to tell me to tell you that these behemoths are composed of granite and igneous rocks. And where not boulder-strewn, the river bottom comprises shallow sand and gravel beds.) As you paddle through each boulder garden, it’s thought provoking to observe the high water lines and contemplate what the experience would be like 1′ or higher; it would be rockin’ for sure.

Another welcome attribute on this section of the Wolf is the number of convenient grassy islands and low shorelines to get out and stretch your legs, pee, picnic, or just pitstop. On other rivers, steep and mud-laden banks can make stopping more effort than it may be worth, but the Wolf offers a plethora of natural “waysides”.

Next on tap are Big Slough Gundy and Little Slough Gundy rapids, chiming in at Class I-II and II, respectively, both nearly on top of one another. For me, Class II rapids are pushing the envelope of my comfort level in my kayak’s monster-sized cockpit and overall recreational hull design. For these rapids, a smart person would put on a spray skirt to prevent gallons of water from spilling inside the boat (and potentially swamping). However, I ran them without a skirt because it was a warm day and I was too lazy. (Editor’s note: Timothy would say that by “too lazy” Scotty means too enchanted by the surrounding beauty and so excited to be on the water this glorious autumn day as to toss caution to the wind. But, yes, you would do wise to don your skirt for Little Slough at least.)

When the Miles Paddled crew last paddled this stretch in 2015 (read below) the river was 9″ shallower and ran at nearly 300 cfs less. Then, Timothy described Little Sheen as “a solid Class II that is rocky and composed of a couple different-angled ledges” and recommended scouting or portaging on river-right. What a difference higher water makes. We were on the lookout for what sounded and seemed like a set of rapids to scout before just casually (but carefully) running – Timothy swearing that there was a place on river-right to do so – but we neither saw such a place to get out at nor a real reason to do so. Higher water meant less boulder exposure, which in turn meant more cush in these rapids with greater access to paddle more broadly and not fine-tune a narrow line through obstacles.

Anyhow, the “Slough Gundy Brothers” of rapids are both incredibly fun sequences. Each offers a discernible elevation drop that in turn produces standing waves ranging from 18″to 2′-tall and numerous boulders to navigate around, through, or over. Big Slough is about 180 yards long (nearly two football fields), while Little Slough clocks in at only 110 yards. These two rapids are probably the highlights of this short trip, but I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that there are countless sections of fun riffles not on the map. In many ways, these swiftwater sections make a paddling trip as memorable and fun as the “big stuff.” These were all super nice surprises and complemented the quietwater and named rapids portions.

Big Sheen Rapids sets you onto the longest conveyor of soft Class I rapids and will put a shiny smile on your face. (It ain’t called “sheen” for nothing). Somewhere amidst Big Sheen Rapids is the Wolf River Landing Road (on river-left), but we never noticed it since it wasn’t our take-out and we were just having too much fun focusing on the rapids. Big Sheen is dotted with VW Bug-sized boulders, tiny micro breaks of quietwater, easy navigation and enjoyable lines of splashy standing waves. Its diminutive sibling, “Little Sheen Rapids,” continues a similar Class I experience while still presenting a few opportunities to mind the occasional “spill” of water coming over the bow and onto your lap.

It’s a good 2.5 miles of quietwater until the next notable rapids. Here, where the rapids subside, the river splits in various side channels around islands ranging from skimpy to stately, but always allowing for a bit more intimacy and closer proximity to the banks and overhanging trees. In addition to these islands are swaths of green river grasses striating the shallows. Many of these feature odd little cross currents that throw you a little curveball and catch the unsuspecting paddler with a tipsy sway. I don’t know if this is scientifically true, but the grasses make me think that the river bottom is healthy and provides needed fish habitat. The Wolf is a very popular trout stream (brown, brook, rainbow), with various rules and regulations on catching and releasing depending on where in the fishing corridor you’re paddling through.

To wind out the trip, the Hollister Landing on Hollister Road is at the beginning of Burnt Point Rapids. This point of demarcation is very helpful in making you aware of the take-out point which otherwise would be difficult to identify along the shoreline since it’s not a typical bridge access point and it’s a bit camouflaged by tree branches and brush. The Hollister Landing has two solid take-out options along the rocklined shore on river-left. The first (technically north), is near a park bench and quaintly mowed area that is highly visible; the parking lot loops around this area. The second is at the very end of Hollister Road itself and has a rocky path to the roadside. Hollister Landing has a nice parking loop near the waterfront and is great for loading and unloading gear. If parking at this landing, be sure to park way up the roadside toward the crest of the hill since the fire department uses the area to fill water trucks. The area is signed “No Parking,” but the signs appeared to be pointed in the wrong direction, so it’s easy to mistakenly park too close to the river.

What we liked:
This was my first trip on the Wolf but it surely won’t be my last. The list of likes is long and almost overwhelming. The access points were great, the water levels were perfect, and the fun playful rapids, riffles, and swift currents through the many boulder gardens of various shapes and sizes were awesome. The Class I and II were ideal for this intermediate paddler, and there was no deadfall, serious obstructions or portaging. I loved how this wide river feels intimate with little development in a natural setting with no notable unsightly erosion from human impact. Best yet, the fall leaves were in full force adding to that special feeling of being secluded in the northwoods.

There were a few things that took me by surprise (well, five actually). For one, the water level. It seemed to be at the perfect sweet spot: a wonderful blend of plentiful water depth to cushion and isolate us from a large number of rocky obstacles, yet at the same time not too high to take away from the experience that comes along with navigating rapids and boulders.

Second, how lengthy the rapids were. The Wisconsin Trail Guide map was extremely helpful providing the location and classification of each rapid section, but they were much longer than I’d anticipated (often seeming never-ending) because more often than not, you can’t see the end of them. The sheer fun of the rapids just kept going and going, forcing me to stay alert and observing the skills and experience of my fellow paddler, Timothy Bauer, who chose this trip for a never-paddled-before solo canoe, which kind of evened the playing field for me in my Wilderness Aspire kayak.

Third, until you’re nestled in your kayak (or canoe) you won’t really appreciate the size of the boulders and the number of rocks dotting the landscape, while also thinking about what lies below the water as you catch glimpses of what is above. In addition, I was surprised at just how darn abrasive the granite rocks are. They are very easy to get hung up on since they dig into plastic boats quite easily and/or scrape the bottom pretty significantly. For this reason, keep in mind that you’ll probably add some new “blemishes” to your ride.

Fourth, being a lifelong Wisconsinite, I should have anticipated the beautiful fall foliage during a paddling trip near the end of September, especially up north. For me, I guess we were a little more focused on the less-than-ideal weather forecast that we’d have for this long weekend of paddling and camping. The thought of mostly cloudy, cool weather with moderate chances for precipitation had my eyes off the foliage ball. So, I was pleasantly surprised at how intensely beautiful the fall leaves were as I drove from southwestern Wisconsin toward the northeast. Once on the river, the rainbow of fall colors continued to deliver a wonderful contrast to the river itself – the true to its name evergreen of coniferous trees, the pops of white from the birch, and all those exquisite deciduous of maples, ash, poplar, and oaks. The kaleidoscope of Mother Nature’s full color palette was on full display, and we got really, really lucky with our timing.

Fifth, over our few days on the Wolf, the water level continued to rise as it had been ahead of our trip. Being from southwestern Wisconsin, rising levels usually means that the quality/clarity of the water will decrease since more runoff is occurring and the rivers change from “clear” to “chocolate milk.” It was wonderful to see that the Wolf was rising but the water quality was not compromised.

Lastly, some reflections on being a newbie to Wolf River whitewater paddling. I really enjoyed the convenience of being in a kayak which offered the maneuverabilty to easily run below the arches of trees, narrow side channels and between boulders. Also, the Wolf gives plenty of opportunity to simply mess around in your boat in the calm water sections for those of us who find messing around so much fun.

From start to finish, the banks and adjacent hillsides provide an astonishing blend of pines, white birch, an amazing blend of deciduous trees, and simply a wonderful blend of foreground and background imagery. Since it was fall, we were frequented by flocks of resting Canadian geese, wood ducks and other feathered creatures which took off on cue. The cumulative result is a great feeling of the wild wilderness on the wild and free Wolf. For me, this was a great day one trip to get my paddling legs under me and comfortably run lengthy sections of rapids in some pretty forceful water. After doing this run I felt more confident and comfortable going into two lower sections of the Wolf the following days.

What we didn’t like:
We truly loved this experience, so any criticism is bound to sound like nitpicking quibbles. But we were surprised (and a little disappointed) by how little wildlife we saw throughout. There wasn’t anything in the area of mammals or reptiles, and even the feathered creatures seemed more there for migration and a pit-stop along the way than permanent residents.

Also, unfortunately my GoPro didn’t capture Big Slough Gundy. I swear I pushed the button, but obviously there was some sort of operator error. (And Timothy – always preset with some sort of operator error when it comes to cameras – forgot to insert an SD card in his camera, meaning he couldn’t take any footage of this trip from the canoe’s perspective.) The upside is that I did get GoPro footage of Little Slough Gundy rapids and some extra stationary footage of getting hung up on a rock in some fast-moving water. The big whitewater waves were to the left so I opted to play it safe and run toward the right which was not a great idea and instead of running the current, I hit a granite rock that just grabbed the bottom of my kayak and brought me to a dead stop. Fortunately, I was able to jump to the right and off of the rock and sailed smoothly to the bottom of the rapids. There was more than a fleeting moment while hanging there that I thought I was going for a rocky swim. In this case, it was better to be lucky than good.

Adding another 2-3 miles to this trip would have also been nice because another hour or so on the river on a beautiful fall day like this would’ve been perfect. That said, adding this short(er) trip to either the section upstream of Lily or downstream of Hollister would make for a long day on the river (although people do it regularly), so the 6+ miles here felt just right.

If we did this trip again:
We’ll absolutely do this trip again. I can easily see this becoming an annual paddling pilgrimage, especially in autumn. When we do revisit, we’ll most definitely ensure the water level is in the vicinity of 600 cfs. Granted, I’ve never run the river at the low end level of 250 cfs, but after running it at these levels, it’d be hard to settle for anything significantly lower. It cushioned us from exposed rocks which are present at lower levels, yet it wasn’t too much water that it took away from the need for solid boat control and continual river-reading. And when we do return, we’ll definitely do it like we just did with a few back-to-back-to-back days for an extended stay.

***************
Related Information:
Wolf River I: Lily to Langlade
Wolf River II: County Road A to Lily
Wolf River IV: Hollister to Langlade
Wolf River V:
Langlade to Markton
Article: Whitewater 101
Camp: Boulder Lake Campground
General:
American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Outfitter: Bear Paw Resort
Wikipedia: Wolf River

Miles Paddled Video:


Photo Gallery:

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Previous Trip Report:
September 6, 2015
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A magnificent trip that offers the best of northwoods paddling: virtually zero development, pristine water, lots of pines, a rugged landscape and lots of rapids. This is the beginning of the Wolf River’s best.

Gauge: Langlade: ht/ft: 7.78 | cfs: 280
Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 3h 35m

Wildlife:
Great blue herons, bald eagles, plovers and a pileated woodpecker.

Background:
After a bit of a grumpy paddle the day before on the preceeding stretch of the Wolf due to frustratingly low levels that required walking and created tip-overs, our otherwise intrepid group was apprehensive of an even longer day of lackluster kayaking. Our hope was to go all the way down to Langlade for a total of 14.7 miles but we hedged our bets by leaving a car at the Hollister access point (6.5 miles) just in case the paddling was more frustrating than fun due to scraping or capsizing (as mentioned above, there was minimal scraping and no one capsized this time around).

The paddling did take forever, however. How it took us 3.5 hours to paddle only 6.5 miles is still beyond my understanding. True, we did have 9 total paddlers and paddling in a group does always take longer than when paddling alone, particularly when portaging three kayaks around one complicated series of ledges (and of course, someone always breaks out the Frisbee). Still though, this was a long time to go a short distance. But the point wasn’t the quantity of miles paddled but rather its quality… (see how I just did that?!)

On this section, the boulders seemed bigger and thus easier to discern before running into them, plus the water was less shallow. This stretch is also is prettier than upstream. Even though this isn’t within the 24-mile section designated in the register of National Wild and Scenic Rivers, it’s awfully easy on the eyes all the same. Hills appear in the backdrop here and there, rising above swaths of lush forest together with clusters of boulders as big as VW-bugs, occasional grassy banks and attractive islands that split the river into various channels to make the overall experience even more intimate.

The only technically challenging whitewater comes about three miles below the put-in, at the Little Slough Gundy Rapids, a solid Class II that is rocky and composed of a couple different-angled ledges (about half a mile before this is Big Slough Gundy Rapids, also rated Class II but not as dramatic or difficult).

The impressively meticulous Wisconsin Trail Guide describes this trip as “a fun and scenic run for novice whitewater paddlers with enough rapids to keep it interesting.” I pretty much agree with this, although Little Slough Gundy Rapids is a little on the frisky side for novice level. What is “novice” anyway? Class I? Class II-curious? All the other rapids on this trip can be handled by just about anybody, at least at these water levels. Two paddlers in our group had never encountered rapids before this weekend, while a third has been getting into light whitewater only in the last couple months. All three portaged Little Slough Gundy (love that name, by the way!) but paddled the rest with panache and aplomb. Either way, you’ll definitely want to get out and scout Little Slough Gundy and decide for yourself.

Otherwise, the rapids are all Class I and just good, clean fun. That said, at the Hollister take-out is the beginning of a different rapids called Burnt Point. You can definitely run the upper portion of the rapids, which require some adequate reading and maneuvering and then take-out river-left where a short trail through some pines leads back to the parking area. Or you can just take-out river-left above the rapids and enjoy the view.

What we liked:
The lack of development, the layout of the landscape, the smoother paddling and more challenging rapids – in every sense this trip was more enjoyed by all in the group than the upstream trip the day before.

What we didn’t like:
River-wise, there was nothing whatsoever to dislike about this trip! The only complaint (and I say this very lightly) is how long it took to cover a short distance. I was hoping to make it all the way down to Langlade but that’ll have to wait for another time (for more on the Hollister-to-Langlade section, see our former report).

Of course, Mother Nature also had a say in how our day on the Wolf ended. When we reached the Hollister take-out to take inventory of who was moving on and who was taking-out from our wolf pack, the clouds grew instantly dark. Luckily, one of us had a bar of smartphone access to check the weather radar, and lo and behold, we were at the edge of a large storm. Almost instantly, it started raining, putting an end to any further discussion of moving downstream. In fact, from that point on, it didn’t let up until the following morning. We spent the rest of the evening holed-up in a bar near our campsite at Ada Lake in the Nicolet Forest but despite the name of said tavern, we hit a Windfall of anything but hospitality. But that’s a whole other story…

Lastly, there was an unexpected lack of mentionable wildlife but that probably had to do with the size of our (animated) group.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again! Next time we’ll just start earlier and lollygag less to make it down to Langlade.

Miles Paddled Video:


Photo Gallery:

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