Three Great Days of Boating in Mid-December

Editor’s note: Rob Smage is an accomplished Midwest whitewater paddler and author of many river reports on the American Whitewater website. He was also one of my mentors during my early ventures into whitewater kayaking. The following guest blog post came my way today via Tony Cantania, a fellow protégé of Rob’s. This account of winter whitewater fun is filled with local references and plenty of kayak jargon but it’s good reading for those interested in kayaking southeast Wisconsin. In December. First, the note Tony sent to me:

Hey Ken, not being able to take advantage of this week’s rain, I emailed Rob to see what he’d been up to. In typical fashion, Rob responded with a lengthy description. After I read the email it occurred to me that his description of his SE Wisconsin experience might be of interest to others. I thought your blog might be the perfect place! I asked if he’d mind if I submit his words to your blog and he said sure. So, if you think you’d like to share on your blog go for it, otherwise, if not, enjoy the read! – Tony

3 Great Days of Boating in Mid-December

Guest blog by “Root River” Rob Smage

I started off Monday (Dec. 14) knowing I had to go somewhere to take advantage of all the water S.E.Wisconsin had gotten, but I wasn’t really certain when I left home whether I was headed to catch Uwd/MenTosa, or Sauk, or just what. As I headed north from Racine at sun-up, deliberations with myself were resolved by saying “Hey, I’ve done the Mke/Oz (Milwaukee and Ozaukee Counties) stuff a few times this year, but I haven’t done a field trip up to Green Bay area in a good while.” So, with no more planning than that, I was off to points further north.

Still not sure what I would head to first, as I neared the freeway exit for Devil’s River, I decided to take a look. Flow at CTH.R looked good, so I drove to take-out to stash my bike under the bridge, then drove up to the put-in. The “gauge rock” was nowhere in sight. (Second good sign!) I suited up, put in and poked down with paddle to measure depth to the top of the rock. Very nearly 18 inches (“a full cubit” depth for all biblical scholars). PRIMO! Early going (as usual) had numerous deadfalls to thread through, which I managed with not a single portage. Passing under the freeway, running the minor approach rapids, anticipation built. Approaching the falls carefully to exit the river and look at the drop… yup, it’s big! Juicy!! And more than I wanted to tackle, being solo, and in my playboat. (Really needed to have packed my creeker! But, then, when I left home, I didn’t know this was where I was headed.) So… a portage of that, but put-in at the bottom ledge, and the run down to the confluence with the West Twin did not disappoint – 1/3rd of a mile of constant action. Paddled across West Twin, carried up, and ran “Devil’s Meet Ledges” which were stout and sweet (my favorite beers, and favorite rapids!).

The second interest in doing this run was to check on the condition of West Twin downstream, since there had been reports of massive problems with wood after a tornado two years back. Happy to find no problem. (Very glad to be able to remove that caution from W.Twin and Devil’s runs.)

After stashing boat, biking up, driving back down, and retrieving boat, I continued north. I had planned to check Bower next, but missed the necessary exit due to being distracted by a phone call (from a long-time friend, retired, and living in Florida). No problem. Plan B: check out Baird (which otherwise would have been third on my list for this area). This is another short section of narrow but fast-action creek (much like MenFalls) which (for any sane and safety-minded individual) must be walked in full before putting on. It was running sweet and stout (Yeah, baby! More sweet stouts!), but there was a shore-to-shore log lodged at water level in a most unfortunate spot. I tried (from one shore, then walking upstream to a bridge to cross over, tried from the other) to dislodge it, but alas, to no success. (DARN!!!) Scratch that run.

Back into the van to head back to check Bower. Quickest route took me right past its take-out. I thought about stashing the bike to save time but somehow a little voice said not to until I checked the gauge. Good thing. Arriving at Fonferek Falls area, checking bridge staff gauge, it was at 10.2’ — as I have written on American Whitewater: 10’+ Crazy High. There are often overhanging trees or deadfalls which would be unavoidable, and there will be very few (virtually no) eddies at this flow. Nonetheless, I drove in, parked and hiked the entire stretch in the county park just for a good look. Yup… crazy, wild, fast, awesome, scary, insane! (Shoot!) Oh, well. Where to head next? Thought a bit about heading to School (Creek), but the day was getting on. I knew a group was to gather at Cato Falls (on the Manitowoc River) at 3:30 (or before?), so I headed that direction. My route took me right past the upper falls, so I drove into the Sportsmen’s Club to have a look. Knowing the (wayyyyyyyyy downstream) gauge was in the 2000 cfs vicinity, I was surprised to see this area looking nothing like I knew it “normally” does at that gauge reading – hardly worth gearing up and carrying on and off. With disappointment, I headed to lower falls to see how it looked. Upon arrival, largely as expected, I found two early birds already on the wave at 2:30. And yes, it was also much more lame than it should be at 2000 cfs. However, I was able to surmise the reason why. Downstream of Cato (but upstream of the gauge at the end of the lower section of this river), the Branch River enters the Manitowoc. I had crossed over it at least 2-3 times on my drive down, and it was well out of its banks. Obviously, it was contributing an abnormally large percentage of the Manitowoc gauge reading, meaning that relatively less flow was actually in river at Upper and Lower Cato Falls than would normally be at this gauge reading. Oh, well, Lower was disappointing, but looked surfable/playable, so I suited up and joined the two on river. Soon we were joined by a few more, until we were six. A few of us were able to get lefty-spins, but no one was able to go righty. I was REAL close twice, as was Val Jean. I also managed a few side-surf/grinds on the wave. It had been very lightly showering (on and off), but as sunset approached, the clouds actually broke just enough on the horizon to give a wonderful glow and light up a HUGE rainbow arching high over the sandstone grotto downstream from the falls. (Another amazing image to add only to the mental scrapbook; a beautiful moment experienced almost exclusively because of being out and about, in a boat, on a river!)

For Tuesday, I had gotten a contact from Ken (a Serbian, living in Chicago now) who has kayaked before, and was very excited at the prospect of getting reacquainted with the sport. I had supplied him with my spare boating gear (and appropriate cold-weather river clothes) and treated him to a run on the Root River in Racine a week ago. He was off work Tuesday and wanted another dose of local whitewater. His prior experience in Serbia is mostly downriver boating, not playboating. So looking at gauges and options, I decided to show him down some of the Milwaukee and Ozaukee County stuff for more river mileage, rather than the Root’s short-but-sweet park-and-play-your-brains-out.

We arranged to meet at MenTosa take-out at 7 AM to get an early start and avoid morning rush-hour traffic. We suited up, left his vehicle at take-out and drove to the put-in. We enjoyed our run at 820 cfs at time of our put-in, dropping to 795 cfs by take-out. On river, I found that the MMSD project to remove four “transects” (cement culverts, which happened to form four areas of potential whitewater interest early in this run) is well underway. At least 2-3 are removed (leaving NOTHING of interest in place), and the fourth appears perhaps still in-progress. As it was, it had (at the flow we had) a smooth tongue down the middle, a surfable wave to the right, and a nasty pourover to the left. I had a few nice surfs while Ken looked on. Most of the rest of the run we just boogied/bobbled down, enjoying the roller-coaster-wave rapids and boating companionship. His vehicle did not have provision to transport our (my) two boats, so our shuttle involved driving up to retrieve my van and then driving both vehicles back down to retrieve boats.

That accomplished, it was on to run number two: up to Milwaukee River in Grafton. We dropped/locked boats up under Bridge Street bridge, drove both vehicles to the take-out to drop the van, and then (in car) back up to the put-in. We scouted Falls Road ledge on the way up so Ken had a good “visual” on the “crux” of the run. Everything went fine and fast on this short run. I caught a fine brief surf at my usual upper-wave catch, and upon rejoining Ken, he confessed he had felt a bit shaky, almost flipped but managed to stay up on his line down a more center-river route.

At Lime Kiln Park, I had a couple sweet surfs in the wave, which was pretty nicely formed at about 1300 cfs in this reach, before finishing the run to my van. Stashing all gear in the van, driving up to retrieve Ken’s car, we headed “next door” to drop his vehicle at the Cedar Creek take-out. Driving to put-in, we scouted the ledges and with Cedar Creek at 520 cfs, Ken was a bit intimidated and opted not to run, but put in down the steps below. I had my usual, though shortened, surfs in the put-in waves above, before dropping down the ledges. I didn’t opt to carry-up and re-run different routes in deference to Ken, who was sitting, watching and waiting.

We paddled the first flowage, portaged first dam on the run, and ran Bank Waves. Ken just cruised through to the pool below while I caught upper and lower (missed middle) wave for fine surfs and spins in lower. We paddled the next flowage, portaged Nail Factory Dam, pausing to look at boil (ugly!), and carefully returning to the creek below. Again, we mostly just cruised with no stops down Estate Bridge through Railroad Ledges, and the last hurrah.

Ken did quite well for a relative novice, though in the twists and turns of the right-channel around the big island downstream he gave me a few panic moments as he got scary-close to a few over-hanging trees in outsides of bends. BIG sigh of relief each time he escaped potential disaster (i.e., likely knock-down and ensuing swim).

As we got to our take-out, stashed boats under bridge, drove his car up to retrieve my van, return to pick up boats, he reiterated that he was getting pretty tired and was ready to call it a day. I had thoughts of picking another run to go for the four-banger but was plenty content to stop at the triple. We drove back to Grafton’s Lime Kiln Park to use the restroom to change into dry clothes. Ken then followed me to the freeway as we headed our respective distances south to home.

Which brings us to today, Wednesday, Dec. 16. My neighbor John had messaged me about a possible drive up to Kaukauna and had also inquired about Cato Falls but subsequently had contact from Bruce and Youssef (sp?). Youssef had broken a boat on Section 3 of the Wolf River during Halloween weekend and was interested in trying John’s Jackson boat so they were hitting the Root at 1 PM. Having been chasing various places near and far afield the prior two days, I was quite content to hit my “backyard run”, flowing at 946 cfs. We did two carry-ups of the lower (short-run) section. Bruce and Youssef mostly missed Upper Pipeline. John and I surfed UPR (river-right wave). I got spins, but as John went for one, he caught a tail-edge, flipped, and swam (finding the river still shallow behind the wave, messing with set-up and roll). He managed to hold onto his boat and paddle as he flushed down through Lower Pipeline and was able to stop and stand in slack water below. Seeing he was okay, I dropped into Lower Pipeline for surfs and spins, then down to Hanging Willows for surfs and spins in the right-pocket wave there. John bailed his boat midriver, inadvertently let loose his paddle, which Bruce chased and recovered downstream. John got ashore, pulled his hand paddles from the boat, and carefully (in slack water against the river-right near-vertical rock-wall bank) made his way into the boat and along right shore to where Bruce had his paddle.

We then all gathered at the Evils to play on Lesser Evil. While it seemed to change over the time we were there, the gauge reading does not support that impression. It must have just been pool-height adjusting and stabilizing which changed the character of the wave. After our second run and more continued play our arms grew tired and the sun dropped lower in the sky. We wrapped things up, headed to vehicles to toast what has been (for me at least) a great three days of boating in mid-December!

Tony and Rob scout the dells section of the Menomonee in Menomonee Falls, Wis. May 2012.

Tony and Rob scout the dells section of the Menomonee River in Menomonee Falls, Wis. May 2012.

Rob leads the way down the Menomonee River. May 2012.

Rob leads the way down the Menomonee River. May 2012.

Rob and Tony offer me words of encouragement after my swim. May 2012.

Rob and Tony offer me words of encouragement after my swim. May 2012.

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