Wolf River – Hollister
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(I believe they are out of business)
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.
- Upstream of Pearson: I don't know much about.
- Pearson to Hwy A Landing: 2.0 miles. Mostly flatwater. Class 2 rapids directly at take-out.
- Hwy A to River Road Landing: 2.1 miles. Starts with a stretch of Class 2 rapids. Flatwater after that.
- River Road Landing to Military Park: 4.8 miles. Mostly flatwater, but there are class 1 rapids before and also at the take-out.
- Military Park to Lily/Hwy 52: 4.3 miles. Includes several longer stretches of Class 1 rapids and a boulder garden at the take-out.
- Lily to Wolf River Landing Road: 3.4 miles. Good stretch with multiple Class 1 rapids and two sets of Class 2's.
- Wolf River Landing to Hollister: 3.1 miles. Maybe 4-5 sets of Class 1 rapids. Also some longer stretches of flatwater.
- Hollister to Langlade: 8.7 miles.
- Hollister to Irrigation Ditch Landing: 5.9 miles. Fantastic stretch and popular. Five sets of Class 2 rapids and multiple Class 1 rapids.
- Irrigation Ditch Landing to Langlade Landing: 2.8 miles. Great stretch and popular with tubers. 3 sets of Class 2 rapids.
- Langlade to Wild Wolf Inn Landing: 10.6 miles.
- Langlade to Herb's Landing: 6.5 miles. Good rapids density in the first few miles. Rapids are starting to get stronger. Two sets of Class 2's and multiple Class 1's.
- Herb's Landing to Hwy M/Markton: 3.2 miles. One set of strong Class 2 rapids and the first Class 3 on the river in the Boy Scout Rapids. 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 Boy Scout 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!).
- Hwy M to Wild Wolf Inn Landing: 0.7 miles. Mostly uneventful except for Class 3 rapids at the end (Gilmore's Mistake). You can take out before the rapids and/or scout them easily enough from shore. Many paddlers take out at the Wild Wolf Inn Landing, but it is technically private. You may want to ask permission before using.
- Wild Wolf Inn Landing to Otter Slide Landing: 6.3 miles. This is the start of Menominee County which is an indian reservation that does not allow public access to the river. You have to purchase an access bracelet from an authorized livery (Shotgun Eddy's or Big Smoky Falls Rafting). I don't suggest trespassing as Menominee trespassing fees are quite severe. Parking may be tricky...call one of the liveries to ensure availability. This stretch has several strong Class 2's and a dangerous Class 3 in Pismire Falls. Scout this before running. Shotgun Eddy Rapids are among the longest on the entire river.
- Otter Slide Landing to Big Smoky Falls: 6.0 miles. This is a difficult section with many class 3+ rapids and two class 4's including Big Smoky Falls. Only pro whitewater paddlers with training and gear should run this. Parking can be restricted and tricky in some areas. If nothing else, I do recommend hiking "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.