The ice is out: Three rivers paddled in two days
April 12-13, 2008
A weekend of kayaking was in store. I decided to do the Little Wolf River near Big Falls, Wisconsin. The temperature was 33 degrees with 2 inches or so of new snow on the ground. The water was running high and fast this early spring day.
Although high, the volume of water was not as great as it would be in a larger river. I had kayaked the Little Wolf in high water many times before, but never quite this high. Still, I decided to take my chances solo. The rapids are rated Class I to II in normal water, so even if a few reached Class III stage, I figured I’d be OK. I’ve done Class III’s before. I also figured I could skirt around or portage anything I didn’t want to attempt.
I needed to be back to town, a 45-minute drive away, to meet a couple friends to kayak another river later in the day. For that reason I decided to leave the last tricky dells section off my Little Wolf itinerary. This was my sensible compromise. You have to let a river win once in a while.
The first mile of this section of the Little Wolf is tame. In lower water there are boulders the size of a VW Beetle. This day I floated over top of them. A number of wood ducks and Canada geese were hanging out. The former are considered by many to be the most colorful of ducks, and many a duck hunter has a stuffed Woody as a salute to their beauty. A few mallard pairs were present as well. Later I noticed a hawk perched in a tree, maybe eyeing a duck for lunch.
The kayak felt stable and maneuverable. Even with rudder up I was able to go anywhere I wanted.
I got to the first of two half-mile stretches of Class II rapids. One could have considered them Class III’s today. As long as I stayed straight and hit the standing waves perpendicular, there wasn’t a problem. A number of chutes farther down are fairly technical in lower water, but again I just flew through. After not being in the “yak” since last fall, it felt great to be on the water. It was an enjoyable whitewater run with some pleasant quiet water mixed in.
A couple locals happened to be standing on the bridge where I took out and they gave me a hand. They had just returned from a walk past the dells, the section of river I decided to avoid. They said a canoe could make it through, but they had too many farm chores to do to make the trip themselves. They offered to shuttle my Jeep for me if I wanted to try it but I declined.
It took exactly an hour to complete the float. As usual, I used my 29er mountain bike as my shuttle.
Further details on the Little Wolf can be found in Mike Svob’s excellent book, Paddling Southern Wisconsin.
From here I motored on over to the west side of Stevens Point to meet two of my friends at our normal put-in at Mill Creek. Mill Creek is normally a very shallow streambed in summer, but in spring and after a good few days of rain it pumps up to a real nice run with Class II to Class III sections.
Tom has my old Yukon Expedition, “the Yellow Submarine,” which he bought from me a few years ago when I upgraded to my current Expedition with the better thigh braces and rudder. Tom has kayaked many lakes and calm rivers with his 17-foot Prijon Kodiak sea kayak, but I think this was his first real run in bigger rapids and he was excited to try out the more whitewater-ready Expedition.
Jeff began kayaking about three years ago and has gotten into play boating with his shorter 8-foot Daggar Nomad. Whereas Tom and I like to go down the river in more of a touring mode in our 14-footers, Jeff prefers to find a good hydraulic and play.
We started out with about a half mile of flatwater that was moving at a good clip. The water again was very high and had pushed well over the banks and into the tree line along shore.
Around a corner, I could see a horizon line – our first drop. I took off and hit the chute with good speed. The last thing I wanted to do was be too tentative and hit the 3-foot roller without enough momentum to get through it, get held back, spin sideways and roll over.
I prefer to keep paddling strong to give my kayak an extra outrigger-type balance effect. Sometimes, in a long run of big water, I’ll take short, somewhat choppy strokes for the same reason while keeping the paddle blades near the surface of the water in case a fast and strong stroke for quick maneuvering is needed. Using the knee braces and foot pegs locks one tight in the cockpit.
After the drop – Tom said I disappeared from view for a second – I eddied river left to watch Tom and Jeff follow. By the time I was able to see upstream, Tom had made his way through the drop and was still in his kayak. I was impressed and relieved that a rescue wasn’t necessary. If Tom could make that one, he’d most probably make them all.
Jeff, benefiting from more whitewater experience, made it over easily with a grin that said, “Bring it on!”
Looking upstream river right, I noticed something red just below the surface of the water caught in a clump of small trees. It was a canoe trapped upside down. When I pointed it out, Jeff suggested we try to free it. But the water was way too fast and the canoe appeared too tightly trapped. We figured the owners would be back when the water level dropped.
Downstream came a few mild rapids through which we skimmed easily. I got a little behind enjoying the day and the ride. When I came around a bend, I saw Jeff on shore with his kayak caught in some trees. Seems he had been playing around some and tipped. He had tried to roll but had to resort to a wet exit.
No big deal. I stroked over and freed his kayak but couldn’t grab anything to help pull it to shore. It was full of water upside down and the handles were under the boat. I was between the yak and shore facing backward as a big set if rapids fast approached. I had to abandon my efforts trying to get the boat ashore and leave Jeff walking until we could get his boat to him.
With that, Tom and I turned around and headed into the Class III rapids. This was much bigger and pushier water than what I encountered earlier in the day on the Little Wolf. We had to concentrate on picking a good line to avoid rolling over. It was a continuous roller coaster with waves breaking over the bow and hitting our chests and faces.
I tried to keep an eye out for a place where Jeff could land his craft, but my attention was divided. If we passed a good take-out, there would be no way back upstream other than by foot.
Well, in my desire to do all this, I got too far to the left. The river split around an island of trees. I took the narrower channel as I didn’t have enough time or room to stay in the main channel. As I looked downstream I noticed a huge hydraulic. There was a narrow path through the trees, maybe 6 feet across, I’d need to hit. I didn’t know what was making the hydraulic – maybe a big rock or a tree downed crossways. In either case it had the potential to be very dangerous if I got trapped in it.
While trying to figure out what was ahead of me, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to more immediate dangers. A few feet from me was a strainer sticking out from the island and I was heading right for it. I made a very quick turn to the left putting me perpendicular to the shore and parallel to the underwater log. There just wasn’t enough room with the fast moving water to get around the end of the tree and I hit it broadside.
I immediately started to roll over to my left and upstream. I threw the paddle out there to try to bring myself back upright, but the bottom of the yak was pressed hard against the tree and I couldn’t roll back over. The force of the water rolled me under the tree.
Once upside down and with no hope of getting upright, I instantly realized this was not the way I wanted to go through the upcoming hydraulic. I pushed myself out of the cockpit, popping the spray skirt seal. I was surprised to find I was only in thigh-high water. I tethered my paddle to my kayak but risked losing one or the other if the tether or the deck straps snapped if I couldn’t stop the boat’s downstream progress. With the cockpit full of water, it was a little tough but not impossible. Problem was I couldn’t hold the weight of the kayak in the rushing water.
I made my way to the clump of trees that had a protective eddy behind them. I looked out into the main channel in time to see Tom fly by, riding the waves like an expert. He turned toward me and all I could see was his huge smile, like the cartoon character on the Life is Good T-shirts. Little did I know later his smile masked no small amount of fear.
Once I emptied the water from my boat, I slipped back into the cockpit. Fortunately I didn’t go anywhere as the eddy held me. I picked my way through a few trees, got below the big hydraulic and to shore to put my spray skirt on. Then I headed back into the main channel.
Around the bend I found Jeff and Tom. Tom had made it through by staying in the main channel and clear of obstacles near the shore. And he managed to retrieve Jeff’s kayak.
Reviewing the previous 30 minutes, we realized the worse thing that happened was Jeff didn’t get to rock the best stretch of the river. Tom was really excited that he made the run.
Then it was time to hit The Wall. The Wall is the last obstacle before the take-out. In normal flow, the creek comes rushing down into The Wall at about a 65-degree angle then is diverted to the left. There is a danger that the standing wave there will slam a paddler slammed into The Wall.
We discovered, however, that the standing wave was not nearly as big as we anticipated. All three of us zipped through easily and quickly paddled to the end. Rusty’s Saloon at the take- out was the reward of beer and hot food.
It is interesting how different a river can be depending on water levels. Sometimes less water makes for more obstacles and trickier maneuvering while higher water requires less maneuvering but better balance and finesse.
I went 100 miles north to my hunting shack to do the South Fork of the Jump River, which borders my land. Ice floes of all sizes accompanied me on a leisurely two-hour float. There are no rapids on this stretch, but the tight bends keep me alert. I watched a few “bergs” slam into corners and work their way over, under, around and through trees, negotiating the tight twisting corners as they made their way steadily and purposely downstream. The size of the ice chunks varied from a few feet to 10 to 20 yards across.
I noticed the carcasses of a deer and a raccoon – animals that probably slipped into the river and couldn’t make it back to shore. Snagged in tree roots, their remains demonstrated how nature responds when mistakes are made. Slaloming around and through such obstacles reminds this paddler of the many dangers out there.