Oh, the Wolf River! Flowing 225 miles from deep in the heart of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, draining untouched National Forest and tribal reservation lands most of her length, it joins with the Fox River where together they empty into Green Bay of Lake Michigan. The Wolf is the best known of the whitewater stretches of the upper Midwest, drawing generations of paddlers to its clean waters and dependable flow. It typically opens with the snow melts of April, and rarely does it fall below runnable levels after, dropping slowly due to its wide drainage and the nature of its bedrock, running till winter closes in with an icy grip to put the river to rest again.
The Wolf is the best known of the rivers in the entire region. Kayakers and canoeists have been flocking there since the early beginnings of the sport, drawn near and far from the various population centers to hone and master the skills of paddling. It is equally if not more famous, infamous even, for the commercial rafting that has dotted the Langlade region for decades. As a raft guide who worked winter trade shows selling trips to folks for many years, I often heard folks say, “Oh yes! I’ve been whitewater rafting once.” When I’d ask where they had gone, they usually wouldn’t recall at first, and then remember, sometimes with pleasure but many times with disdain, “I believe it was on the Wolf.” It holds its position of infamy in a dubious manner. Rafting the Wolf is synonymous with drunkenness, with no helmets and waivers saying you’ve declined one, with topless debauchery, endless flatwater and no guides in sight. That goes for all sections.
I never made it over to the Wolf River much before this year. That sounds strange, especially because I worked on the Peshtigo River for many years, the next watershed over, only 45 minutes away. I first ran it with Midwest legend Bob Heckler showing my friend Chris Andrews and I down in a rented bucket boat from Big Smokey Falls Rafting. I would make a point to go there once a season, and showed many friends the way over the years, but it was a rare treat because when the Wolf was going strong so was my Pesh, and that was my first love and employer. When I retired to pursue more soulboating “Me” time this year, that all changed, and I spent many days on the Wolf. I’ve learned to love it.
Many folks are familiar with Section 3, which runs through the tiny hamlet of Langlade (although I spent one summer exploring the first two sections, that portion of the river is very widely spread class I and II rapids, and that’s all I have to say on the subject). This section is great for the beginning kayakers and club boating scene, as well as family raft floats. One can break the big stretch into smaller 3 mile segments, as there are many easy access points of Highway 55, which runs the length of the river. I once took Dale #danewho Guarniere down here for his first kayaking experience on a new river, putting in at Class II+ Boyscout Rapid and running on down to the Wild Wolf Inn. This veritable establishment sits on the bank of the river at Gilmore’s Mistake, the only true Class III on Section 3. Made famous by the thousands of beginners who have tasted their first true challenge and made their first “mistake” here, named however for a 19th century logger who mistakenly thought that logs couldn’t be successfully floated through, this rapid has claimed more Wallaces than perhaps any other in the region, including me.
Section 3 flows primarily through Ottawa National Forest, which ends at the property line of Wild Wolf Inn (stop by and grab a beer or two with dinner after you run the Wolf, it’s an age old tradition of regional Paddlers and you’re sure to see a few vehicles with boats on the roof in the parking lot. The Inn is for sale, and I hope it doesn’t get shuttered. Like everything Up North, times are tough these days…). Just up the road there is a National Forest campground, and beyond that is Bearpaw, a local fixture in the Wisconsin kayaking scene. Bearpaw has long been a gear shop and kayaking school in an area of the country that doesn’t have much of either. These friendly folks almost got wiped out by a major tornado that devastated the area in 2006. The buildings and lovely old forest they were set in were completely destroyed, as well as a path of destruction a mile wide and many miles long that clear cut the woods. (In fact, I found bits of price tags from Bearpaw in the trees above 2nd Drop on the Peshtigo that summer!) The paddling community is strong however; two days later Chris Andrews and I took a ride out to Langlade to witness the devastation, and found scores of volunteers parked on the roadside helping to clear Bearpaw and begin the rebuild! There is a large dead tree in the now wide open field surrounding the main building, once encompassed by huge evergreens, that stands testament to that day, decorated with the kayaks that had been for rent or sale that fateful summer day that were blown into the tree. How that tree didn’t get obliterated is anyone’s guess, but like Bearpaw it survives to tell the tale.
South of Wild Wolf Inn the river flows into the Menominee Indian Reservation and becomes Section 4. The Menominee Tribe make their home here. Of Algonquin roots, meaning “people of the wild rice”, they first lived in the area where the Menominee River flows into Lake Michigan, but were forced from the area by whites, moving south to settle in the area now known as the City of Green Bay. When Wisconsin applied for statehood in the 1840’s, the whites again tried to remove the Menominee from lands they considered prime, and offered to relocate the tribe to modern day Minnesota. The Menominee refused, and although they yielded their homes they retreated up to the wilderness along the Wolf River and from this place refused to go any further. Eventually a treaty was struck with the federal government and a permanent reservation created, where they live to this day.
Section 4 is the best section of the Wolf River, but it is restricted. Because it is on the reservation, anyone who is not a member of the tribe must obtain a permit to paddle. These are sold from two outfitters, Shotgun Eddy’s and Big Smokey Falls. Since I met Ralph, owner of Big Smokey, that first trip many years ago, I have always gone there. A person can rent rafts and go on unguided trips, or get a wristband and paddle their own kayaks. The cost for a lap is typically $30, and worth every penny. Ralph has operated from a shack at the base of Big Smokey Falls since the mid-80s when he began to lease the equipment from the tribe, who weren’t doing much with their assets. Ralph and wife Mary, along with their son Anton, have grown the outfitter into one of the biggest operations in the upper Midwest. They treat us like friends and do many small favors for us, and we do the same in return. It is how true dirtbags do it.
I’m good friends with Mr. Rick Klade, a legendary Northwoods kayaker and DBP Admin who has known Ralph for 20+ years. This relationship, along with the friendship I and Dale had forged with Anton over the last few years, as well as coming multiple times with Ralph’s old pal Bob Heckler, scored me an amazing opportunity this Spring, one that I’m sure I’ll be able to repeat for as long as I’d like. I’m well known in these parts as a river manager and expert safety boater at Kosir’s Rapid Rafts, so after coming to the Wolf on opening day, Ralph offered our crew a free season pass in return for working his single biggest trip of the year- one hundred high school seniors from Green Bay making their annual class trip. Of course we jumped at the offer, and this allowed me to become very familiar with this river in a way I might never have been, looking at it through the lens of trip leader as opposed to just being a day tripper, and affording me the means to send it nearly every weekend of the spring and early summer.
Section 4 has some very fun whitewater! The day starts with a long flatwater paddle, and the quiet sections between drops in fact make up most of the 7 mile run. Then the river picks up, and the horizon line ahead signals that you are at Class IV Sullivan Falls! You can send this drop everywhere except far right at all but the lowest levels, but the standard line is the autoboof dead center. It’s an easy drop to run laps on if you’re kayaking, and there’s a far right chute mistakenly called Evergreen that is a tight maneuver when the water is over 500cfs. (Evergreen Rapid is actually a Class II side channel of the Wolf that splits off to river right when the small Rapids signaling Sullivan first appear. If you run Evergreen, you won’t see Sullivan at all unless you paddle back upstream.) This year I sent every line numerous times with Rick.
Following Sullivan’s is another long period of flatwater. It is in these moments that one gets to enjoy the beauty of untouched Wisconsin. The Menominee hold the river in reverence and the forest is in primordial condition. You’ll see eagles, otters, turtles, deer and other creatures of the Northwoods. If you’re in the company of Rick Klade, you’ll also get to hear about the history of paddling and many other entertaining stories of first descents and paddlin’ and partyin’. So the time flies by and suddenly you are at the Duck’s Nests.
There are two rapids that make up Duck’s Nest, Upper and Lower. Both are solid Class III, and I’ve seen them deliver some burly Wallaces. I boater a trip this spring with Rick and Dale and some folks from Chicago Whitewater Association, and boy did some of those fellas get beat! Both rapids are boat scoutable. Upper Duck’s Nest ends with the river smashing into a wall of rock just below a meaty hole on river right, and the action only kind of lets up before you’re in Lower Duck’s Nest, where Wallace awaits you in the pourover at the bottom, again on river right. There’s a fun creek line that kayakers can take at the bottom of Lower on river left, and after that all the bucket boaters get piled up on the shallow rocks.
After a short while you come to Lunchspot. I believe this rapid has another name, but that’s what Rick Klade calls it and that’s good enough for me. It’s really a simple Class II rapid, with a couple small surf holes, but a boof rock on river right that has a tree straining the river in the eddy behind it makes for some carnage if you’re guiding bucket boats full of lazy teens downriver. It’s a famous rapid for swimming the length on your back, or stopping for lunch and a smoke break. One particularly cold day in May, Rick, Mitch Mursau and I lit a small fire to eat sandwiches by in a small snow squall! You never can predict the weather in Wisconsin in spring!
Next up after a long bout of flats is the Dells, split into Upper and Lower sections. The Upper Dells are Class II-III, not very difficult, but they’ll fill your bucket boat, requiring you to empty it before going down to the much harder Lower Dells, which are a solid Class IV. This came into play when all the other guides on the high school trip- Rick, Mitch, Jackie Kertesz, and Mike Keller- got preoccupied with dumping boats, leaving me to guide the trip down to the Lower Dells solo! I made it happen with only one boatload getting Wallaced, and as the last raft passed through, here comes my friends! All’s well that ends well!
The Lower Dells are worth a close look. This is one of the most beautiful rapids in the Midwest, as the river enters a mini canyon with high steep rock walls. There is a footpath running the length which makes scouting easy from river left, but the landing is small and uninviting. There are three main lines at the start of the gorge. Far right has the easiest holes to punch, but requires solid boat skills and advanced CHARC skills. The middle line is a forgiving run over a flat rock shelf, but it’s a shallow go at lower levels, hanging up bucket boats and slowing down any craft before dumping them into one of the more violent holes on the Wolf. I’ve seen many a Wallace occur here because folks think they’re going the easiest way… You can’t cheat the Wallace! River left is the best action line, with a big hole (Frank’s Upper Decker – quick side story: I boated Section 4 with Jason Flannery, Nick Guarniere, and Frank Sade in 2013, the summer we formed Dirt Bag Paddlers. The four of us are scouting the Dells, for those three it was their first time down, when Frank turns to us and says, “I’ll be right back…” After a while, we tore of waiting on him, and head to our boats, thinking we will see him there. No Frank. Finally he emerges from the woods, telling us he just took a crap in the eddy directly beside the top hole- that’s we’re about to run!!! All I could think of was, “Don’t Wallace! Don’t Wallace!” Nick Wallaced.) above yet another channelized hole formed by the shelf in the middle of the river, and the final big hole where all three lines meet. Here the river enters the canyon proper, squeezed between the walls of granite, very picturesque, with swirling eddies and a few minor holes at the bottom. The most recent trip I took was with Rick and Mitch and yet another Admin, Joe Mayer and his son Jake and Jake’s buddy. This was Jake’s buddy’s second day EVER paddling, and we got him sending Class IV in my extra IK. Well, I decide to go run it while everyone else is scouting from the cliff, to show the kids how to go big, because they were all discussing the easier lines. I hit Frank’s Upper Decker, and WALLACE!! flipped my IK straight back, legs in the air like a river rockette. Did I mention that I hadn’t fully secured my Watershed drybag, and with my water bottle hanging even lower off my bag dragging in the water, I couldn’t reflip my rig! I hung on, trying to get that beast righted, until I started getting beatered by those rocks forming the Rapids at the tail end of the gorge. So I let go of my boat, which then hung up while I continued down into the monster eddy below, all the while with my friends high on the cliff above! I swam upstream against very strong yet slow current, treading water for a few minutes, slowly losing ground all the while, until my boat finally surged free from the hold of the Wolf’s rocks and belatedly made its way back to its master. I got my stuff together as quick as I could, unclipping that dastardly baggage and righting ship before hauling myself back aboard and paddling all the way back up into the Dells to play safety for the kids before they had ever even made it down…
Once you’ve run the Dells, you’ve got the longest stretch of flatwater on the trip. It must be well over a mile, and no matter when I go it seems this part of the journey I’m paddling into a headwind. Where earlier in the day, one marvels at the beauty of the Northwoods in these quiet moments, once on this particular stretch that all turns to angst and drudgery. Finally! the sign telling rivergoers to stay right appears, and you’ve arrived at the last and best rapid of the day, Big Smokey Falls.
Big Smokey is actually two drops formed by a big island. The smaller channel is on the left and is Class VI. Once it was virtually sealed off by an old foot bridge that took visitors out to the island to behold the spectacle of whitewater weirdos Wallacing the falls, for $5 a pop. That bridge was removed years ago, and now strangely enough there’s nothing to really stop an unwitting rafter (and trust me, there are scores of them, drunk and topless, every summer weekend!) from descending this side into the chaos of boulders and trapped logs. I’ve heard talk of a hairboater long ago who made regular descents until he pitoned and died here, but that’s never been substantiated so I think it’s a tale tale. (When we first arrived to guide the high school trip, Rick showed Jackie this side first, telling her we’d be running that. “I dunno… How’s bucket boats gonna clean THAT?”)
The main channel of Class IV Big Smokey Falls runs to the right. Here the Wolf narrows to the width of a single lane of a highway, sliding for a hundred yards over shallow bedrock before dropping eight feet off a lip into the inviting pool below. All of this occurs with folks watching from the cliff on the island above, cheering and oohing and ahhing. There’s an easy portage up river right which allows for endless laps. The raft carnage is infamous. Rick Klade tells stories of cracked skulls and lost teeth buried in the scalp of the person paddling up front. There have even been two fatalities here of rafters in the 2012 season. I’ve Wallaced off my IK a few times gunning for the rooster tail on the lip that is every solo boater’s alpha and omega. It’s such an orgasmic blast to perfectly hit it and shoot out into the frothy pool below! This may be my favorite rapid in Wisconsin. From here you cross over to river left and take out.
Below this is the legendary stretch of river known as Section 5, which is off limits to all but members of the Menominee Nation. Rick, Dale, and I had big dreams of running it this year, but in the end it was no dice. We prefer to not spend the night in a jail cell in Keshena and have our gear confiscated, thank you. The dream began when Anton finally made the trip over to the Peshtigo and hung out with Dale early in the Spring before boating had officially begun. “I will take you down Section 5,” he said. On opening day, Rick, Mitch, Dale and I all showed up ready to go. We had read everything we could find on the Internet, and spent hours pouring over images on Google Earth. But it wasn’t to be. Later, we got the go ahead again, and showed up, but Ralph just chuckled and said he couldn’t do more than drop us off. We asked if we’d be arrested if we got caught. “Probably.” So we elected to run good ole Section 4. Then, the day after we guided the school trip, Anton once more offered to drive us into Big Eddy Falls, one of the two main rapids on Section 5. Big Eddy Falls lies well off any of the main roads, and is accessible only by driving dirt roads into a cabin owned by family friends. This rapid looks awesome from space, with a river wide ledge and then solid Class III+ rapids leading to an ever bigger Smokey-esque drop at the bottom. We elected to pass, and wait till the time when, and if, the tribe will grant us an official attempt at the whole 9 miles.
I’ll save the rest of the knowledge Rick and I gathered on the subject of Section 5 until we get that shot. Suffice to say we inspected the put in at Five Islands, located just off Highway 55, and found it to be good to go. We know a bit about Wayka Falls on the West Branch of the Wolf, but seriously doubt we will ever get the nod to paddle upstream to portage and run it. We don’t think we will ever be given the green light to do anything but read and run, no landing on shore to scout.
We also have spent a few hours over multiple visits and water levels to closely inspect Keshena Falls. This rapid is the absolute best on the Wolf River. It is located beside a bridge so it’s easy to scout, but even the act of being white men with boats on top our vehicles draws attention and makes our stops short. I’ve seen a postcard once from the 1930s of a man named Indian Jim running Keshena Falls in a birchbark canoe. Scores of white men are watching from the banks. The caption scrawled in white lettering mentions that he has run the rapid for 40 years. I wish I could find that postcard now…
Keshena is Class IV with multiple channels. There’s an island and another large exposed rock ledge that splits the river up. Under the bridge are two lines, one creeky in nature that hugs the river left shore, and one more to the center where the river pours over a ledge into the biggest hole of the rapid. Then there is a solid Class IV+ drop with a must move at the top that runs on the left flank of the tiny island. It’s impossible to see the landing from a white man’s vantage point, but it looks good to go, and I could easily land on the rock ledge that makes up the left shoulder of this feature and give a quick thumbs up, IF the run was in lower water. The line that skirts the right side of the island is probably the easiest and certainly the best choice if the river is cranking, swinging wide and dropping over a short ledge into a big mostly forgiving looking hole below. I run Keshena in my dreams every time I journey to the Wolf from my home in Illinois. I can only hope to bag her one day…
But I’m doubtful that day will ever dawn. There are many reasons that the Menominee have shut off access downstream of Big Smokey. One is the atrocious way in which they’ve seen the white man enjoy the gift they have given him on Section 4, thanking them with broken beer bottles, lost shoes, busted coolers, cigarette butts and plastic six pack holders littering the river. Keeping us out keeps it pristine. Another is the way which our society has always treated the Menominee, forcing them from their homes and sacred places again and again till this once mighty nation of peaceful hunters and gatherers were reduced to poverty on one last corner of their original vast ancestral territory. Anton has never even paddled the Menominee River of his forefathers. The last is the most important reason, if you were to ask the elders. For you see, between Big Eddy Falls and Keshena Falls lies the most sacred place in the universe to the Menominee Nation: Spirit Rock.
I’ve never seen Spirit Rock, and I never will. But I can tell you a bit about some of the legends surrounding it. Once, three warriors ventured into the woods, where they met Manitou, The Great Spirit. He granted them each one wish. The first wished to become a great hunter, so he could feed his family, and so it was done. The second wished for a wife, that he would have someone to love and share the joys of the world with, and so it was done. The last warrior wished for eternal life, and for his arrogant selfish desire Manitou turned him into a giant rock, thus spending an eternity in that place on the banks of the Wolf River, to forever remind his people to not seek for themselves but to do good for others. It is said the powerful spirits of the woods, the Windango, watch over and protect Spirit Rock, and one can see them in the light of a full moon before they strike that person down with a terrible screech that kills with terror. The most powerful legend may explain why the Menominee, when confronted with exile 175 years ago, chose to retreat to the Wolf River and no further. For it is said that if once the white man possesses or even touches Spirit Rock, it will crumble to dust, and with it the soul and very life of the tribe itself, and vanish from the Earth.
And so we go no further than Big Smokey. Except in our dreams…
For more information on how to go boating on Section 4 visit our friends at Big Smokey Falls Rafting!
Some of the photos in the article are courtesy of Langlade Historical Society. Some are of original artwork for sale at Bear Paw.
KAYAK WALLACE @ BIG SMOKEY!
RAFT WALLACE @ BIG SMOKEY!!
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, A TEENAGE WALLACE ON THE WOLF!!!