The Wetter You Get, the Summer You'll Feel

Wild, Wild Midwest

May 30, 2001
Outside Magazine

This just in: You can say Wisconsin and wilderness in the same breath.
The kayak is often associated with rugged terrain, where rivers rise and fall with the melting of mountain snows. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is canoe country, which is to say it's mostly flat, pressed smooth by the weight of long winters and the Ice Age, the longest winter of all. Topographic relief appears not on land but in the bouldery staircases and slick-water chutes of the rivers that drain it. Midwesterners feeling hard-put to explain why they even own a kayak need only run the Flambeau, a splash-and-dazzle river that barrels out of the North Woods as if from a glacier.
The Flambeau cuts across north-central Wisconsin in two branches. The North Fork has more quiet water, the South Fork more rapids. Between the forks lies some of the wildest country anywhere: pine forests banded in autumn with sugar maple, yellow birch, and hemlocks; trackless alder marshes like the Million Acre Swamp; and black bears, otters, eagles, ospreys, and at least two packs of timber wolves. Not to mention the isolated tavern, all knotty pine and smoke, with more antlers than bottles above the bar.

"It's a gem of a river," David Kelly says of the South Fork. "No dams. No towns to speak of. And it doesn't get the traffic of better-known rivers like the Brule or Wolf. Already today I've seen a bald eagle and a coyote just out my front window."

Kelly owns the general store in Lugarville—in fact, the only store in Lugarville ten miles northwest of Phillips and overlooking the South Fork. He also runs a shuttle service and canoe rental. Put in at Lugarville and you can cover the 20 miles to Little Falls in a day of hard paddling or two days at a leisurely pace, allowing time to play in the rapids.

The first half of the trip is easy, Class I rock gardens and a couple of Class II rapids. (Water levels fluctuate according to weather; September usually beats out the dog days.) On the second stretch, the rapids are more concentrated and evocatively named: Cornsheller, Big Bull, Prison Camp Rapids. The last is just upriver from the State Prison Forestry Camp, where trustees in green dungarees and white T-shirts, many of them former urbanites, stand around and perfect the long stare.

The best whitewater comes at the finale at Slough Gundy, where the river accelerates as it enters a narrow cleft between a cedar island and a high granite ledge, dropping in three separate pitches over a half-mile. The first pitch is a straight shot down a center chute; the second is complicated by a crosscurrent that sweeps you toward the rock ledge.

On my initial trip, this current caught my paddle and neatly rolled me, so I rode the third set of rapids hanging upside-down, submerged rocks whizzing past my head. I managed to tow the kayak to shore before it went over Little Falls and, after sun-drying on the rocks, lugged it up the footpath to run Slough Gundy again.