★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wolf River V

Langlade to Markton:
An exhilarating trip where the former “teen” Wolf becomes a millennial and starts its sprint. More rambunctious than the segment upstream, but not as volatile as the next segment downriver, this trip is pretty much pitch-perfect for “lightwater” paddlers looking to push the envelope of developed skills and comfort levels with half a dozen solid Class II rapids, one Class II-III, and finally one Class III right at the take-out. Combined with the same public land corridors lining the banks that you’ve come to expect at this point along the Wolf River, as well as glorious boulder gardens galore, this trip simply sizzles with excitement and awe-inspiring beauty.

Editor’s note: This trip is not to be confused with Mike Svob’s “Wolf River 5” in his guidebook, Paddling Northern Wisconsin, or the incredible Wisconsin Trail Guide’s “W5”. Those nearly identical trips refer to the next section downriver from this trip: Gilmore’s Mistake Rapids to Big Smokey Falls. Those who follow us understand that we name our posts based on sequential order of sections of a river we cover and are not meant to co-relate to other guides. Any overlap is purely incidental. Thanks.

Wolf River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 27, 2020

Skill Level: Advanced
Class Difficulty: 
Class II-III

Gradient:
19′ per mile

Gauge:
Langlade: ht/ft: 8.6 | cfs: 680

Recommended Levels:
We strongly recommend this level.

Put-In:
Highway 64 DNR Landing, Langlade, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Gilmoure’s Mistake at Wild Wolf Inn/Crab n Jack’s Landing off Highway 55, Markton, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:20p. Out at 6:10p.
Total Time: 4h 50m*
Miles Paddled: 10.25

*Time note: This is a fairly long time for a 10-mile trip, admittedly. The main reasons for this were getting out a few times to dump/pump water out of our boats, scouting rapids, and trying to help out other paddlers who’d gone for an unwelcome swim and lost some gear.

Wildlife:
Bald eagles, great blue herons, ravens, wood peckers and frogs.

Shuttle Information:
6.8 miles – best done by vehicle, not bicycle, on account of the narrow shoulder, hills, curves and general velocity of passing traffic.


Background:
While we truly do strive to be impartial and circumspect while reviewing rivers, checking our own baggage at the door so to speak, every once in a while we experience something – good and evil – for which there just is no place for modest decorum. Sometimes trips just suck – and even the old adage of a bad day on the water is still better than a good day at work doesn’t ring true (days when I’d definitely have sided with sitting at a desk doing spreadsheets or shoveling manure than driving a couple hours round-trip for a total torpedo that results in mud, blood, cursing, injury, broken/lost cameras, long walks back to a car (especially in the dark in the middle of nowhere with no end in sight or dinner in my belly), etc.) But sometimes trips are just smacked the hell out of the park home runs, like in The Natural. This trip was one of those almighty successes, which honestly had as much to do with circumstances as it did luck.

We had spent the previous days paddling the respective sections of the river upstream, sequentially, which essentially concluded in this trip, which is both longer and technically more challenging than the others. To make a very long story short, we befriended a couple of other paddlers, Allison and Will, at the campground where we were staying (coincidentally, our tents were only half a dozen or so sites away from each other in what is otherwise a ginormous sprawl of a campground) and they ended up paddling this trip together with us – well, up to a point.

There are so many cool things about Allison and Will, it’s hard to know where to begin – or end. Allison is a science teacher who actually knows geology and imparts her smarts on lucky children vs. Timothy who pretends that he does for the sake of a paddling website. They were paddling in a tandem canoe that Allison had borrowed from a different friend – a fine and fit Mad River tandem, but by no means a whitewater-worthy vessel. Will had had little if any paddling experience before, and here he was bow-man in practically endless Class II rapids!

Coincidentally, when looking up info for paddling the Wolf River, Allison had found a certain website called “Miles Paddled” and asked us if we’d heard of it. We gave the gift of paying it forward by sparing Allison and Will from having to bike shuttle by dropping her car off at their intended take-out (Herb’s Landing) and then a ride back to the put-in. While at Herb’s we ended up running into other paddlers, hardcore souls in old-school C-1 whitewater boats, who are inveterate, devoted Wolf River enthusiasts, with whom we cordially talked shop and exchanged Miles Paddled stickers (still hoping to hear from one of them someday…)

Finally, at our take-out (Gilmore’s Mistake/Wild Wolf Inn/Crab n Jack’s) we ran into yet other paddlers, a couple from Milwaukee, who were fixed on paddling the same trip Scotty and I were, and like us, eyeing the Class III run of big waves, sticky holes, and squirrely lines comprising Gilmore’s Mistake Rapids. Honestly, I’d forgotten all about them until later on in the trip when we scouted Boy Scout Rapids during our paddle and happened to see them go down… and then out… and then… But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Overview:
The put-in at the Langlade DNR Landing & Ranger Station offers convenience in spades, with ample parking, facilities, and a convenient path from the lot to the water. Ominously or invitingly, there’s a very weathered sign along the way, torn in half, that reads “CAUTION WILD RAPIDS DOWNSTREAM WEAR YOUR LIFEJACKET”. Wild, as we have discussed elsewhere, is a relative term. The rapids on this trip are good and formidable for “lightwater” paddlers, and yes, one’s PFD ought to be donned during this trip. (Sorry, Will.) But still we’re talking only Class II’s for the most part. That sign ought to belong at this trip’s take-out, but then that wouldn’t have the imprimatur of the DNR, so…

The first-half mile consists of quietwater as you paddle pass the blink-missed hamlet of Langlade and any associated properties grandfathered to the riverbanks. Illustriously named “Rocky Rips” give you a Class I wink and kiss after that. Giant dollops of boulders are strewn in the stream every which way, their stupendous dimensions and sheer numbers just dazzling in unapologetic audacity. It’s as if a magician with a wand went berserk and benighted these enchanting envoys from the last glacier here and there and there and there again – everywhere! A large, scrubby island interrupts Rocky Rips and the next stretch of essentially easy Class I-II, called Crowle Rapids, about 300 yards long. Soon after is an even steeper and longer set of solid Class IIs that on some maps is called “Unnamed Rapids” or simply the second pitch of Crowle. Whatever you call it, it’s a quarter-mile of liquid bliss. Also, if you don’t have your skirt on by now, you’ll wish you’d had put in on beforehand (unless it’s a summer-scorcher and being soaked is welcome).

A short hundred yards of respite precede the galloping hooves of Horserace Rapids, another solid Class II that canters for the frothy length of three football fields. Boulders are ubiquitous, as are reputable standing waves. You’ll likely need to sponge or bilge-pump your boat by now, unless you’re wearing a skirt or have floatation bags (for an open canoe).

After Horserace the river calms down for two full miles and casually flows south, east, and then southwest to the next run at the 3.5-ish-mile mark, called Twenty Day Rapids. (In between is nothing but boulders, small islands, and a beautiful landscape of unspoiled nature.) Twenty Day comprises at least three pitches, the first being short but fairly fast and steep. Catch your breath, for then comes the second pitch, loaded with boulders and ledges up the wazoo. At the end of these rapids is a prominent rock ledge on the left that makes for a cool hangout space.

Once more, the river calms down for 3.5 miles until the next rapids. Here, large islands interrupt the Wolf’s flow. It’s a pretty landscape, but if you’re on the lookout for the inconspicuous access at Herb’s Landing (on the right bank), you’ll be constantly wondering/worrying “is this it?” or “did we miss it?”

After about a mile past Herb’s you’ll soon come upon the first of two footbridges signaling Boy Scout Rapids, a long exhilarating run of Class II-III rapids. If in doubt, get out and scout on the right (or portage, although keep in mind it’s a long schlep over uneven terrain with hills and rocks and trippy tree roots – and not the psychedelic kind). The bridges also signal the 8-mile mark in this 10-mile journey. We got out to scout along the feint but fairly established path on river-right. From what we’d read, we were prepared for these rapids to be pretty intense. At half a mile-long, Boy Scout provides a pretty wild ride. There are a couple of eddies to catch – and catch your breath – but not many. In the event that something goes awry, well, it’s an unfortunate place to go for a swim. Indeed, to quote from the classic Whitewater, Quietwater, “It is a long rapids with no special visibility problems, but because of its length, rescue can be difficult following an upset.” But don’t just take the Palzers’ word on that…

On our way back from portaging one of our kayaks past all the hairy stuff, we saw two paddlers come down – the same couple we’d seen scouting Gilmore’s Mistake earlier in the day. The woman, who had the same model, even color, as Timothy’s Dagger Katana, rode down the rapids just fine. Smart girl, she was wearing a spray skirt. Her male companion behind her was not, and we watched him pitilessly take on more and more water until his boat sunk further and further down, too heavy and unwieldy to steer anymore – with nothing but additional Class II rapids downstream. So he capsized and lost both the boat and paddle. We scampered downriver hoping to snag one if not both, but each time we clambered to the outer banks to assess the situation, everything remained stubbornly midstream. This went on for minutes: everything would float on by, then we’d book it into the woods up and down like leaping deer, past trees and over rocks, then find an opening on the bank only to see that nothing was nearby without venturing into the rapids ourselves (which we actually did, but still to no avail). Over and over. Finally, his boat got pinned against a boulder and stayed in place, and the dude swam over to it and was able to dump out the water. Better still, his female companion had admirably grabbed his paddle while still managing the rapids on her own. Also, to the guy’s credit, he floated downriver on his back, feet up and forward. We share this tale solely for the sake of caution. If you too flip and go for a swim, don’t try standing up, as the river here is notorious for foot-pins that will ensnare you.

There are two footbridges across the river about a quarter-mile from one another, part of the Boy Scout Camp located here. We took our time at these rapids, in part to savor the experience, in part because it was intimidating, and in part to capture it from two different camera angles: from the bow of a boat looking out and from the bridges above looking down. One of the reasons why our video for this trip is longer than our normal format is to convey the unique experience of such continuous rapids action, and “Boy Scout” is a case in point.

Things will slow down for about half a mile before and following an abrupt right-bend in the river with some of the biggest boulders yet. Then Hanson’s Rapids come roaring in, another set of robust Class II+ whitewater in two pitches comprising a third of a mile full of splashy waves and surf spots. We learned from the seasoned folks we’d met while leaving a vehicle at Herb’s Landing that Hanson’s Rapids is the site of an annual slalom course competition called Buttercup that’s been going on for more than fifty years. I may not have the full quote right, but we learned something along the lines of, “The river teaches you how to float in a boat, but slalom teaches you how to paddle.”

Once more, and for the last time, the river will quell after Hanson’s for nearly a full mile to the next rapid – the biggest on this trip (and foreshadowing what lies further downstream in the rowdiest segment of the Wolf). But before that you’ll pass the bridge at County Road M, where there’s a dedicated DNR landing on the downstream side, river-right. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that this is the first and only bridge in this 10-mile trip.) Lax quietwater, a couple riverside houses, and some scrubby islands, prevail until the fulsome roar of Gilmore’s Mistake Rapids, a no-joke Class III with huge waves and weird holes to watch out for. It’s easy to get out or scout, as an unusual but quite beautiful rock shelf extends from the left bank (behind which is an equally aesthetic amphitheatre setting below the supper club (forever memorialized as Wild Wolf Inn… but rebranded as Crab n Jack’s. Gilmore’s features easy-to-read chutes and lines along with impossible-to-anticipate humongous waves that were truly in both the literal and figurative sense awesome: intimidating as hell but also fun as all get-out.

The landing is on river-left around a small left-bend after the big waves, to a sandy beach that’s down a road down a small hill from the supper club. You’re not supposed to have your own vehicle down there, as it’s a popular place for outfitters. Instead, you’re to schlep your gear up the hill to the parking area above – a small token to pay for the price of admission.

What we liked:
We loved everything about this trip. The rapids are the showstopper, to be sure, but it’s the cumulative experience – quietwater pools along with the hair-raising and harrying waves; scrubby islands along with buxom boulders; wide, slow swaths along with tapered flumes running breakneck over bedrock.

Also, but for maybe half a dozen buildings total, there is no discernible signs of development along the banks in all of this trip (and as mentioned above, but one bridge).

This was our third consecutive day running the Wolf River, and on all three occasions we never saw anyone else on the water (true, the weather was somewhat crappy, but the river was on the rise and the air temps were at least 50 degrees). This is quite rare, finding such sumptuous solitude on a river as vaunted and venerable as the Wolf. But at the same time we loved the companionship of having Allison and Will for most of our trip, as well as the forged camaraderie of the other paddlers we’d met while leaving Allison’s car at Herb’s Landing.

There are few things in life that thrill me as much as paddling rapids (says Timothy). As a white, straight male living in a liberal small city in the American Midwest, I’m really never concerned about my safety or feel threatened. Whitewater (or “lightwater”) humbles me to my core. It is a sought after exercise in getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Or, to borrow from Brené Brown, “to lean into the discomfort.” It scares me shitless, frankly, but I feel like a million bucks afterwards. I even feel good about it in the event that I’m really humbled and capsize, for at least I faced an anxiety. This is not an endorsement for risky behavior, but more of a risk management of challenges we set for ourselves. (It also probably helps that I don’t have a wife or children, and that I know that someone will take care of my dog in case something goes really south.)

Also, we have to mention that our campsite at Boulder Lake was no more than ten minutes away from Gilmore’s Mistake. The shuttling was some of the easiest we’ve ever been indulged by. We can’t recommend this enough. It was fabulous.

What we didn’t like:
Logistically, Herb’s Landing is a pain to find from both the road – there is no sign indicating it – as well as the river – where, again, there is no sign. Why it’s so inconspicuous beats me.

Emotionally, I’m sorry (re: not really sorry), but it’s a damn shame that the new ownership of the Wild Wolf Inn changed its landmark name to Crab n Jack’s. Furthermore, after we got off the river and loaded up the car, we walked into the restaurant and asked the bartender when the kitchen would close. (It was a Sunday night in late-September, but the Packers were playing the Sunday night slot.) She told us 9pm. We went back to our campsite, changed our clothes, had a post-paddle/pre-game beer, and returned before kickoff around 7:45, whereupon she told us that the cook had called it a day and was gone. What?!? Even though she knew we were returning? Even though it was a Packers’ game Sunday night?

If we did this trip again:
Essentially, we wouldn’t do anything different – that’s how much we enjoyed this trip. You could shorten it by taking out at Herb’s Landing – or putting in there – but only if you didn’t have enough time to paddle ten miles. (Also, the downside to Herb’s Landing is it’s hard to find from the road as well as the river, plus it forfeits the exhilarating run of Boy Scout Rapids, Hansen’s Rapids and Gilmore’s Mistake.) It would be interesting to paddle this trip at different levels (lower and higher) to have a better baseline, but we feel ridiculously lucky to have caught it when we did.

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

Miles Paddled Video:


Photo Gallery:

 

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