High Water Kayaking On The Wolf River

Aug 18, 2020

Credit Jim Skibo

When the Wolf River reached record levels late in July, the raft and tube rental concessions closed because of concerns for rider safety. But for experienced canoe and kayak paddlers, like Brian Heikenen and Martin Dawson, this was, perhaps, a once in a lifetime experience. Heikenen checks the USGS gauge in Langlade almost daily.

“Early on Monday morning this was the highest flow that gauge had ever recorded. It topped out at about 2950 CFS.”

Heikenen lives in Madison but spends much of his time in and around the Wolf River. He, along with Dawson of Langlade, and two other paddlers went down the river three times during the historic high water. They each have over 40 years of whitewater paddling experience on the Wolf, but they have never seen anything like this. River speed is measured by cubic feet per second, or CFS. The normal average for the month of July is 333 CFS. Because of the heavy rainfall in the region, the river for much of July was between 1000 and 2000 CFS. Then much of the Wolf River watershed got several more inches of rain.  

On July 27, it was the highest CFS ever recorded since the gauge was installed in 1966. The Wolf River is known regionally for its boulder-bed bottom. According to Dawson, part of the challenge of going down the river during normal flows is maneuvering around the rocks and the eddies they produce. For the first time ever, there were virtually no rocks visible in the river.

“In all the rapids there are almost no rocks sticking out of the river the entire way. The few rocks in the flatter wider stretches that stick up are enormous pyramid type rocks that never got drilled and shot by the loggers. So, you basically go right down the middle and the waves are real big.”

And according to Heikenen, bigger than they have ever seen on the Wolf River. 

“It is a rare experience on a river that normally we are dealing with waves that are one foot, two feet high. When you are in, honest to God, six to eight-foot waves that is a big roller coaster ride. That is a lot of fun.”

Not only were the waves big but, according to Dawson, the water was flowing extremely fast, which he gauged by the time for the runs.

“We floated from Langlade to the top of Gilmore’s. It only took two hours. Normally that would be a three to three-and-a-half-hour float at lesser, normal levels.”

Credit Martin Dawson

Although Heikenen has been on the Wolf many times and other rivers in North America as well, this was a trip that he will never forget.

“The exhilaration of the big roller coaster waves, running really high velocity conditions. There were times when a paddler in front of you would crest a wave and then completely disappear. At one point in Hansen’s I was paddling right behind Steve and he actually disappeared into a trough for a full three count. And I remember actually saying out loud, ‘WOW.’”

There is, of course, some danger in this sport. Both Heikenen and Dawson expressed the importance of going on these trips with experienced paddlers, knowing your limitations, and respecting the river. Heikenen describes some of the hazards of going down the river in high conditions.

“We had a good idea as to what to expect. But in situations where the water is particularly high, you have to watch out for things like logs. In particular, logs and root wads. They can be very hazardous. You need to be aware of that and scout ahead.”

Credit Jamee Peters

And, of course, safe kayaking requires having proper training. Jamee Peters, who was born and still lives on the river, has been teaching whitewater kayaking since she was a teenager.

“For whitewater paddling, canoeing and kayaking, I would definitely recommend taking a class. Anywhere from one day to three days. From my experience in teaching it takes a couple days to get the hang of it so you can do it safely and manage your boat.”

Peters would start students out on a lake and as their boat handling skills progressed, they would try moving water. To navigate moving water, you also must understand the river.

“One thing you learn as you go along, is how to read the river. You learn how to avoid things that are too challenging for an entry level boater. Reading the river is a big part of learning how to use it.”

Once you get to that level, according to Peters, you get hooked, as she did over 40 years ago when she took her first lesson.

She also notes that if you are lucky enough to live up here, you are near three of the best whitewater rivers in the Midwest: the Wolf River in Langlade County, the Peshtigo River in southern Forest County, and the Menominee River outside Niagara. There are outfitters and clubs near each of these rivers that can provide lessons and get you started.