Wolf River – Hollister
Date Paddled: July 30th, 2015
Put-in: W. Hollister Road Landing
Take-out: Hwy 64 DNR Landing
Distance: 8.5 Miles
Time: 5 hours 50 minutes (4 hours might be more typical)
Gradient: 12.8' per mile
Water Level: Wolf River @ Langlade 210 CFS or 7.57'
The Wolf River is a fantastic wilderness paddle in northeastern Wisconsin known for its fun rapids, clean water, terrific boulder gardens and lack of shoreline development. One of only two rivers in Wisconsin that is able to obtain the coveted “National Wild and Scenic River” designation, this should be on the to-do list for most paddlers.
The trick with the Wolf is to choose the correct section corresponding with your whitewater skill level and appropriate water levels. Beginners should travel in groups and choose a section between Pearson to Hollister at maybe 200-400 CFS. (A rough rule of thumb is the further north you go, the easier the Wolf is to paddle.)
Intermediate paddlers can/should do this section (Hollister to Langlade) at 200-500 CFS, which is the most popular section and has an excellent rapids to flatwater ratio. This section is also a favorite of the local liveries and where they do most of their training.
After Langlade, only advanced paddlers should take on the river (more on this below).
After putting in at Hollister the trip will start on a fast note with the Burnt Point Rapids which can be class 2, but were only class 1 for this trip due to the low water levels. Very scenic though!
Your first impression of the Wolf will be how clean it is. Fantastic water clarity and bank quality. There really wasn’t that much mud, if any. The substrate was mostly rocks (some huge!) with a little bit of sand. Much of this section runs through a protected natural area and you will hardly see any houses. The banks are filled with thick hardwoods and conifers, which makes for a scenic trip from start to end.
Given how famous this river is, I was surprised we didn’t come across any other kayakers (although we did go on a weekday). Maybe 3 miles prior to Langlade there is a DNR landing/access called Irrigation Ditch. Here it is quite popular for tubers to put in and float down to Langlade (which is unfortunate as tubers tend to be noisy). I suspect this is a busy river on a summer weekend and would recommend going on a weekday to properly take in the wilderness experience.
After the rapids, the highlight was the massive and frequent boulder gardens, which were fun to paddle through like proverbial mazes (maze deadends = getting stuck in the shallows).
As for the rapids, I actually didn’t think they were too difficult despite there being 6 class 2’s and numerous class 1’s. I don’t want to understate the danger though as we went at low flow rates, I have a lot of experience with rapids and many others have gotten QUITE wet running this very section.
It really helps to be able to read the river. Avoid hitting rocks at all cost as they stick your boat and can turn it sideways. Then the boat acts like a dam, the dam “bursts” and you tip over. In our case we would intentionally beach ourselves on rocks in the middle of rapids to get nice videos and pictures which is when things got precarious (but we have a lot of experience with this). If your boat ever turns to the side, always tilt the upstream side up so the water flows under the boat (NEVER over). It can be very easy to get into a lot of trouble if you don’t thread some of the gaps between the rocks very carefully.
Roughly speaking, the major rapids appear in three main clusters: start of the trip, half way into the trip and near the end at Langlade. On top of this, you’ll have numerous class 1’s and a decent amount of flatwater paddling which, despite its lack of rapids, was still very scenic.
All that said, the rapids were a lot of fun and are the primary reason you want to do this trip.
Good scenic public launch off W. Hollister Road which marks the start of Burnt Point Rapids. On the downside, there is no outhouse, the launch is a bit rocky and you can’t park next to the launch. Just park a bit to the east of the turn-around loop and you should be fine.
Top-notch public take-out by the Hwy 64 bridge. Plenty of parking, outhouses and a good launch bank. Only downside is you have to drag your boat 340′ from the water to the parking lot (minor because this is over a nicely mowed path).
A bike shuttle would be 6.6 miles, so a bit longer than average, but plenty manageable as it is all paved and relatively flat. While there is a state trail nearby, it isn’t meant for bikes (yet).
There are numerous livery and rental options nearby (all marked on the map):
- Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort: (715) 882-3502 – N3494 Hwy 55, White Lake, WI 54491
- Bob and Joni’s: (715) 882-8304 – N4495 State Highway 55, White Lake, WI 54491
- Herb’s Wolf River Rafting: (715) 882-8612 – W2024 Buettner Ln, White Lake, WI 54491
- River Forest Rafting: (715) 882-3025 – N2765 Sunny Waters Lane, White Lake, WI 54491
- Shotgun Eddy Rafting Rentals: (920) 494-3782 or (715) 882-4461 – N2765 Hwy 55 & Cty M Rd., White Lake, WI 54491
- Wolf River Paddle Sports: (920) 538-5198 – 320 E. North Water St., New London, WI 54961
Hazards and Log Jams:
There are no log jams whatsoever. There are numerous class 1 rapids and class 2 rapids which are detailed in the main write-up below.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
Our group went when the river was at 210 CFS, which is considered low (200 CFS might be a low water cut-off point). I hit my share of rocks, but this didn’t phase me and the river was plenty deeper than many others I’ve done (like say the Fever River). I actually prefer whitewater to be a bit on the shallow side as it will be less pushy and more forgiving of mistakes. It also gives the river a lot of character as it exposes the scenic boulder gardens and creates fun constrictions to run through the boulders (as opposed to everything going over the rocks like a monolithic conveyor belt).
I ran this trip in a rec boat, which is doable at low flow rates for intermediate paddlers with whitewater experience, but do be careful and consider a skirt and helmet. Also consider traveling with a group so somebody can rescue runaway paddles (and kayaks). This might have happened twice on this trip… Nice thing about rec boats is that they draft much shallower than whitewater boats (basic physics…less length = deeper boat). Our companion using his whitewater boat was constantly hitting rocks which I glided over no problem.
300-400 CFS is what more serious whitewater paddlers prefer but this would be pushier and more obnoxious for amateur paddlers. I suspect at 500 CFS and up you only want to be on the river with complete whitewater gear and proper training.
The current was pretty good, with a large number of rapids. While some sections of the Wolf have a bad ratio of flatwater to rapids, this section has a good balance.
Surprisingly little. Some deer, dragonflies, ducks, geese, a great blue heron, and fish. Highlight was a basking snapping turtle that let us get close for pictures.
Other Wolf River Trail Guides:
- Wisconsintrailguide.com – Probably the best guide to the Wolf River out there with a ton of practical information and maps.
- Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin – A classic canoe book that contains a lot of good info about the Wolf.
- Americanwhitewater.org – Lot of good information, but much it is written by and intended for hardcore whitewater paddlers and is not as considerate of intermediate/rec paddlers as the above two sources are.
Alternative Paddle Trips:
- Upstream of Pearson: I don’t know much about.
- Pearson to Lily: 12.8 miles. Mostly flatwater, but with some rapids including one class 2. Multiple access points allow you to subdivide the trip.
- Lily to Hollister: 6.4 miles. A good section with multiple Class 1’s and 2’s.
- Hollister to Langlade: 8.5 miles. A great section with many Class 1 & 2 rapids (reviewed here).
- Langlade to Markton: 9.5 miles. And here the rapids get more serious. The whitewater ratings are not consistent, but some sources have Gilmore’s Mistake at class 3, Hanson’s Rapids as a strong class 2+ and the Boy Scout Rapids at class 2-3 depending on water levels. There have been deaths at the Boy Scout Rapids. Mostly due to people getting their feet trapped in the rocks. If you get dumped NEVER try to stand up in strong water, because if your foot gets wedged into a rock, you won’t be able to back out. Instead keep your feet up and float to a safe spot. You can scout the Boyscout Rapids from the boy scout camp (there are two pedestrian bridges that cross the rapids for an excellent view). However, you do have to check in with the local scout office and get bracelets and fill out paperwork (I was really surprised how bureaucratic the boy scouts are!). Gilmore’s Mistake is easy to scout but Hanson’s is more difficult (but there should be a trail leading to it).
- Markton/Gilmore’s Mistake to Big Smoky Falls: 12 miles. This trips runs through Menominee County. This county is considered a separate nation and does not allow unauthorized paddling inside of its county/nation’s borders. You have to purchase an access bracelet from an authorized livery (like Shotgun Eddy’s) to run the Wolf down here. I don’t suggest trespassing as Menominee trespassing fees are quite severe. This is a difficult section with many class 3+ rapids and a class 4 at Big Smoky Falls. Only pro whitewater paddlers with training and gear should run this. Parking can be tricky as some areas (like Big Smoky Falls) I believe don’t allow public parking. If nothing else, I do recommend scouting “The Dells” by foot which is absolutely gorgeous (I’ve marked this on the map and show it off in the pictures/video).
- Big Smoky Falls to Shawano County Border: The river is completely off limits to paddlers (there are remaining waterfalls and rapids in this section).
- Shawano County Border to Mouth: The Wolf suffers from many flowages and is generally bigger, slower and more boring. There are some odd sections you can do with some ok boulder gardens…but none of this compares to the upstream sections.
MapNote, Google already lists most rapids if you zoom in. I've marked every landing and livery I can find. The teal boat represents the start and end of the trip.