Wisconsin River – Biron to Wisconsin Rapids
Date Paddled: October 4th, 2020
Put-in: Biron Dam by Hwy 66
Take-out: Veterans Memorial Park
Distance: 4.4 miles (with side trips 6.4 miles)
Time: Expect 2 hours
Gradient: Slow current except for areas below the dams
Water Level: Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Rapids 4300 CFS or 3.13'
I started the trip at the Biron Dam (North Gate). I wasn’t 100% sure about the area being public but was pleasantly surprised to discover public parking and access. From the parking lot I crossed a narrow pedestrian bridge and followed the base of the dam until I got to the Wisconsin River. There I was greeted by a large granite boulder field, which was really cool. It had a similar vibe to the granite boulder field below the Hatfield dam (although not as big).
I was able to use the exposed bedrock as a makeshift launch. The bay below the gates is surrounded by a labyrinth of boulders. I explored this and determined I would actually have to portage some of the boulders to join with the main river, but that wasn’t so difficult.
The Biron Dam is split north/south by a large island filled with large granite boulders. While I could have continued on downstream, I decided to wrap around this island to check out the south side. Here I was greeted by more rugged geology…but also some surprise rapids and standing waves just downstream of the south gates (which I stayed well clear of). On the south shore was a powerhouse and the Biron Paper Mill which produces glossy coated paper.
Following the Biron Dam, the Wisconsin River is split in two by another island…this one a half-mile long. The south channel is kind of big and boring…so I headed down the north/right channel which was a wise choice. While perhaps only the size of a creek, this side channel was the most scenic part of the trip. Highlights included incredible fall color, perfect reflections, leaves on the water, scenic boulder gardens, and more exposed bedrock.
At the base of “island #2”, Mosquito Creek emptied into the Wisconsin. I headed about 1000′ upstream through scenic woods before turning back. I suspect logjams might have been an issue had a I tried to go much further upstream. I would be curious to know though how viable the rest of the creek is for paddling.
After the second island, the Wisconsin is split again by a third and largest island at over 1.5 miles long called Big Island. I had a decision to make… The east channel was a bit bigger and had homes along the bank, but also had several intriguing smaller islands composed of granite. Ultimitely I decided to the do the smaller west channel because I believed it would have the better fall color.
By this time the effects of the downstream dam kicked in and I lost any helping current. Along both banks of the west channel the color was indeed phenomenal…with the best being along the mouth of Cranberry Creek. There’s actually a nice public landing here and this would have been a viable take-out. Just above the banks of Cranberry Creek loomed a huge paper mill and large piles of logs that trains had unloaded.
At the base of “Big Island” the two channels rejoined and I came into full view of the famous Verso paper mill. For a long time it was the largest paper mill in the world. Recently it (or rather its parent corporation) have fallen into financial difficulty and the mill is no longer active. The sheer scale and immensity of the plant is tough to convey. It’s a mile long! …and that doesn’t even include its wastewater plant or monster-sized log field.
Downstream from the paper mill I encountered a ridiculously low railroad bridge. I’m not sure how this isn’t frequently over-topped by flood waters. Thankfully I was able to duck under ok. There is a marked take-out/portage area upstream of the railroad for those that don’t like to limbo.
The railroad bridge is an important demarcation as it means you’re getting close to the Verso dam. In fact signs warn not to go past the railroad when warning lights show the gates are open. They were closed for my trip, so it wasn’t a big deal to paddle past the bridge.
I finally came to the Verso dam (aka the Wisconsin Rapids dam)…which is known as one of the most difficult portages on the entire Wisconsin River. I’ve heard stories that some paddlers will portage a mile to go around it…and that Verso if called will have somebody pick you up to assist with the shuttle. That all sounded too difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to pester anybody on a Sunday…and assumed with Verso being 99% shut down, they were no longer shuttling paddlers past the dam. Instead I opted for a much shorter 680′ portage through nearby Legion Park.
I took out at the junction of the dam and First Street, which wasn’t bad. Street parking is available here and it wouldn’t have been a difficult take-out had I wanted to end my trip here. Sadly, a large chain-link fence separates the park from the shoreline below the dam. I appreciate the sentiment for safety…but really…it’s a river not a prison. So not being able to get over this very tall fence, I followed it south along the park. Thankfully the fence was replaced with a much shorter stone wall, and at a low point, I was able to hoist my boat over and get back onto the river.
Here I was greeted by a huge boulder field. This was fun to paddle through and scenic…but proved shallow. In fact, if I were to do this trip again, I would avoid this boulder field by taking out at the north end of Legion Park, or doing a much longer portage to Veteran’s Memorial Park. The up side was that I was able to paddle and experience a unique part of the Wisconsin River that few kayakers see. Above the boulder fields, a pair of dams are positioned at right angles to each other which I found unique. You can’t really see the dams unless you climb over a number of boulders though.
Finally by Mead Rapids View Park, I was clear of the boulder field (which was doing a number on my kayak repair patch job). In the open bay was the Verso powerhouse, which was making a terrible racket with its industrial fans. The powerhouse was part of a contiguous building complex which was huge. Part of it overhung the Wisconsin River and was supported by large concrete columns. I had fun paddling through this (although not all kayakers should do this as the current here is strong). During the 2010 floods, these huge concrete pillars and part of the powerhouse were submerged by flood waters that caused havoc with Wisconsin Rapids (video). At one point in time this was home to Grand Rapids, which was among the most fierce rapids on the entire river. Sadly the rapids have been submerged by the Verso dam (more on this later)
The take-out options below the dam aren’t great. The western shore isn’t viable as it’s practically all part of the paper mill complex. The eastern shore, by Mead Rapids View Park, had a steep retaining wall so it too wasn’t an option. Instead I had to continue floating downstream until I came to Veteran’s Memorial Park which had a public access. But it wasn’t great, as steep stairs with a sharp 90 degree turn made carrying my boat up somewhat tricky (I’m appreciative to the local who helped me lift my boat over the hand railing).
I didn’t see much…highlights included a black squirrel, a great blue heron, and two eagles.
Wisconsin River Papermaking Museum: This museum features exhibits and a pictorial history of the local paper industry and local dams. It’s free of charge to visit, but be warned their hours are really bad…Tuesday and Thursday 1-4. I wasn’t able to visit but the reviews on TripAdvisor sounded very positive. I suspect they have information on the original Grand Rapids. They can be reached at: (715) 424-3037 – 730 1st Ave South, Wisconsin Rapids, WI 54495.
Biron Dam – North Gate: North of the dam is a public access and parking lot. From the parking lot, you can cross a walk bridge and follow the base of the dam 300′ until you reach the water. Here there is a scenic collection of granite boulders and a number of launch spots to choose from. Note, the boulder fields can get a bit shallow when the gates are closed. When this happens you may need to portage some of the rocks (not too difficult) or simply launch below the main boulder field (eg here). Obviously you want to be careful before launching below a dam in case of a release. The Biron Dam will sound a warning alarm every 30 seconds for five minutes prior to a release.
- Biron Landing (0.9 miles downstream from the Biron Dam): This is a good public access…but if you launch here you miss out on one of the most scenic parts of the trip (the boulder fields below the Biron dam).
- Reddin Road Access (1.8 miles downstream from the Biron Dam): This is another good access. The location isn’t great though because it’s halfway into the trip. The current here is somewhat slow so round trip paddles from this launch might be viable.
Veteran’s Memorial Park: This is one of the few areas below the Verso dam where you can take out. While the park is bordered by a steep retaining wall, stairs do lead down to a small granite island where it’s possible to put in or take out. Be mindful the channel is deep by this island…so you’ll need to do a “pier exit” which for some can be tricky. Also of concern…the stairs have a sharp 90 degree turn which will force you to lift your entire boat above the railing.
- Cranberry Creek Landing: This is a good public access and a scenic landing.
- Legion Park: This is located at the base of the Verso Dam – East Gate. Street parking is available and the shoreline is acceptably shallow for taking out. Note, if the gates are open, you shouldn’t be this close to the dam and instead should take out upstream of the railroad bridge. I believe there will be warning lights that will flash when the gates are open. Otherwise if the gates are closed it’s very safe to use this as a take-out. The advantage of taking out here is that you avoid a tricky portage to access the water below the dam.
- Demitz Park: (0.8 miles downstream from Veteran’s Memorial Park) This would be an ok access. This longer trip would go by scenic Belle Island.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Bike Shuttle: 5.2 miles with 36′ of ascent. This was a really nice bike shuttle. It starts in downtown Wisconsin Rapids and goes by the massive Verso Paper Mill. After that it goes through an attractive wooded stretch by Reddin Road. You can stay clear of most major traffic by using the bike trails/sidewalks/side roads.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Low Railroad Bridge: Just upstream of the Verso Dam is a very low railroad bridge. I was able to duck under by lowering my seat…but others may find this more difficult, especially if the current is flowing fast. There is a marked portage take-out upstream of the bridge if you’re not in a limboing mood.
Biron Dam – North Gates: If these are closed (like they were for my trip) then the subsequent bay will be pretty tame. Tricky rapids and currents can develop when they’re open though. A warning horn will sound every 30 seconds for five minutes prior to a release.
Biron Dam – South Gates: During my trip, two of the south gates were open. This resulted in strong rapids and reverse current. This area should be avoided by inexperienced paddlers.
Biron and Verso Powerhouses: In theory a paddler could venture into the discharge chutes during low flows. This is not advisable as the currents here are strong and releases at the powerhouses (unlike the dams) can happen with little to no warning. Below the Verso Powerhouse a large building juts out over the river and is supported by massive concrete piers. I did paddle by these piers but paddlers should be careful around them because of the strong current.
- Biron Dam – North Gate: There are no rapids when the gates are closed. When the gates are open, I suspect this area sees some interesting whitewater (because of the downstream boulders).
- Biron Dam – South Gate: The rapids below the south gate were Class 2/3 and consisted of standing waves. This could be a fun play spot for experienced whitewater paddlers and the huge eddy would allow kayakers to head upstream to surf them again. Rec paddlers should stay clear of these rapids.
- Wisconsin Rapids/Verso Dam – East Gate: There were no rapids during my trip and the boulder fields were shallow. At high flows though I suspect serious rapids can develop here. Part of the boulder field can be scouted from the adjacent park or the downstream bridge.
River Depth and Navigability:
Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Rapids: 4300 CFS or 3.13′
- 0-3000 CFS: A rare low depth. The river will be fine for paddling, but the areas below the dam will be shallow.
- 3001-5000 CFS: An average depth and a good target range.
- 5001-7000 CFS: A higher depth. The current could be a bit tricky below the Biron Dam.
- 7001-9000 CFS: A very high depth. Paddlers should stay clear of the dams at these times unless they really know what they are doing.
- 9001+ CFS: Perhaps too high for enjoyable paddling.
Note also…there is a gauge below the Biron dam that is more accurate than the Wisconsin Rapids gauge, but it lacks historical data for context. The readings for my trip were 1011.42′ and 4130 CFS.
Verso Paper Mill: Located in the heart of Wisconsin Rapids is a mile long paper mill, once the largest in the world. This mill has faced a lot of economic hardships following multiple corporate mergers and reduced demand for magazines. The latest nail in the coffin was Covid-19. Demand for glossy advertisements (aka junk mail) fell dramatically and corporate headquarters in Ohio decided to shut down this plant on July 31st, 2020.
In some ways this was tragic, as ~900 workers lost their jobs. The effect on the Wisconsin Rapids economy will definitely be severe.
In some ways though it wasn’t so tragic… 25% of ALL timber harvested in Wisconsin went to feed this mill’s monstrous appetite. The plant’s closure will dramatically reduce deforestation in Wisconsin and the UP. Fewer papers mills are also good news for landfills (as a quarter of their contents are paper-based). Then there is the air pollution. Paper mills produce an assortment of nasty fumes including some heavy metals. The most noticeable is sulfur which made Wisconsin Rapids stink. I don’t understand how the locals endured it. But after the mill closed, the air quality has improved dramatically. Lastly paper mills such as Verso are infamous for their water pollution. Some of this is nutrient-based which interferes with aquatic ecosystems. But it also includes heavy metals which leach into the groundwater and the Wisconsin River itself.
The politics surrounding this are quite crazy. Wisconsin has a unique “Managed Forest Tax Program”. In exchange for tax benefits, a landowner yields forestry management decisions to the DNR. In some ways this is a good thing as it has reduced logging in select sensitive areas and provided public access to Northern Wisconsin woods. But this program will sometimes MANDATE that owners log their woods…even to the point of clearcutting. Some landowners thinking they signed up for this program to protect their woods for tax breaks are quite upset to discover this clause. Much of this DNR mandated logging on Managed Forest Lands is used to supply Wisconsin paper mills with pulpwood. The Verso closing will have a big impact on this program…owners will be forced by the DNR to chop down their woods but won’t have a customer to sell to. Here’s a ridiculous quote from the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune about this situation and how it’s so “bad” for our forests:
A mill shutdown also impacts forest management and the overall health of forest lands in Wisconsin. Landowners in the Managed Forest Land program would still be required to cut timber, but without a mill, there is nowhere to harvest it, Schienebeck said. Wisconsin has great forests because of sustainable management, he said, with certification systems that are checked regularly. With less management, the forests would suffer, and it would also have an impact on tourism in the area, as well, Schienebeck said.
“Who wants to come see a dead forest?” Schienebeck said.
Grand Rapids: The Wisconsin River in its original state used to have a large number of rapids, many of which were significant. The two greatest rapids were Grandfather Bull Falls and Grand Rapids. All of these rapids are now tragically buried by dams, including the heart of Grand Rapids (courtesy of the Verso Power Plant). Here is an interesting historical excerpt from Richard D. Durbin’s book: “The Wisconsin River: An Odyssey Through Time and Space“.
Grand Rapids was at Wisconsin Rapids. Its Ojibwa name, Ah-dah-wa-gam, means “two-sided rapids.” It was the first in an almost unbroken, ten-mile-long series of rapids with a sixty-foot drop that extended to Pointe Basse. Grand Rapids itself, a mile long, ended above the Grand Ave. bridge; it had a twenty-seven-foot drop. A section by the old railroad bridge as sometimes called Lyon’s Rapids, in reference to Lyons’ sawmill situated nearby. Downstream by Witter’s Island was another set of bad rapids. There was a bad stretch at Hurleytown, too. Some sources speak of White Bull Falls and Barker Rapids, which were purported to be located by Port Edwards, but no details are known about them.
Here is a fascinating PDF excerpt from the book which details the stories of 29 historical rapids on the Wisconsin River.
The rapids before the dam weren’t properly photographed…but I did find these two photos that showed at least what a small portion of Grand Rapids would have looked like.
Alternate Wisconsin Rapids Area Trips:
- Biron Dam North Gate to Veteran’s Memorial Park: 4.5 miles.
- Biron Dam North Gate to Biron Landing: 1.0 miles. Super scenic stretch by two islands with many granite boulders.
- Biron Landing to Legion Park: 3.0 miles. A nice stretch by Big Island. The west channel is more undeveloped…but the east channel has several scenic granite islands.
- Portage through Legion Park: 680′. A steep wall separates the park from the river but in two locations the wall is short enough to get over (see map). Paddlers may want to consider a longer portage to bypass some of the shallow rocky stretches by Legion Park.
- Legion Park to Veteran’s Memorial Park: 0.4 miles. A scenic stretch that features a large boulder field and the powerhouse of a large paper mill.
- Veteran’s Memorial Park to Demitz Park: 0.8 miles. A pleasant stretch that includes Belle Island.
- Demitz Park to Ben Hansen Park: 1.2 miles. This leg goes by Garrison Island and Edwards Island.