Red River
★ ★ ★ ★

Red River

By on December 26, 2012

Gresham to County Road A
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Some of the best whitewater you’ll find in the state, with at least half a dozen Class I-II drops in just 4 miles, featuring a Class III+ falls, all in a lovely scenery of woods, steep banks and one abandoned monastery that looks like an antebellum mansion full of spooks and Southern Goth.

December 9, 2012

Class Difficulty:
Class II-III

Morgan: ht/ft: 5.74 | cfs: 90

Recommended Levels:
We personally recommend this level (90 cfs), though the Wisconsin Trail Guide states that 150 cfs is the minimum level. That may be a distinction between “try-curious” whitewater paddlers and true whitewater paddlers.

Powerhouse at Lower Lake Road, Gresham, Wisconsin
County Road A Bridge, Red River, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4.5

Wildlife: Eagles galore, a blue heron, mergansers, geese and the tapered ruins of bark-chewed trees from beavers gone wild.
Time worth driving to: 2-4 hours

Technically the Red River is about 47 miles long and begins up in Langlade County just southeast of Antigo. But no one knows or cares about that. Say the “Red River” and paddlers will know only of the famous two-to-four mile stretch of it near Shawano before it empties into the Wolf River. Still more specifically, say “Red River” and paddlers will reply “Monastery Falls,” for that is the crown jewel of this short trip, a Class III+ series of drops (at least five) through a narrow slot with rather pushy water. But you can tailor-make this very pretty trip and portage around the rougher waters and still have a fabulous time. When the water is calm, it is flat and slow. And oh so crystal clear! All in all, the rapids range from easy Class Is to manageable Class IIs to the attempt-at-your-own-risk Monastery Falls, (aka Novitiate Falls aka Alexian Falls aka Freeborn Falls – why so many names? It’s that impressive!) which makes this a very versatile little river.

What we liked:
This trip, short as it is, balances nicely placid surroundings with adrenaline-driven frenzy. In case you missed the date, I did this on Sunday December 9th, which coincided with a decent snowstorm. I have made my peace with wintertime paddling elsewhere but suffice it to say, it’s so worth doing that it nearly hurts me to know how few people actually do it. More solitude for me I suppose, but trust me, you’re missing out. There is something so indescribably mystical about watching snowfall silently dissolve into a river or dark black water starkly contrasted by canopies of white branches. It really is pretty Zen-like, the landscape a Franz Kline canvas. And no, to answer the obvious, it really isn’t that cold. Unless you capsize (but more on that in a moment). Just layer up and embrace the moment as it is; you will not regret it.

The water was at least as translucent as the Namekagon or Crystal, if not even clearer. I often thought I was in such shallow water that I was going to scratch or plumb run aground; it was that clear. I spotted at least ten bald eagles, one blue heron, lots of mergansers and spooked a gaggle of geese (doing who-knows-what this far north, this late in the year). I didn’t spot any actual beavers but the signs of their hourglass dentistry was present countless trees.

Oh, and because there was already snow on the ground and there is a sloping hill at the put-in, I had the opportunity to enter the water in style: getting all tucked in and situated on dry land, then shooting down the hill into the water like a winter sled or Dukes of Hazard-style all giddy-up and go!

What we didn’t like:
I’ll get to the obvious in a second. The take-out kind of sucks to be honest: it’s difficult to exit without getting wet, you then have to climb a steep bank and there’s next to no room for parking. Plus there’s an awkward 1′ drop right near the end that you have to hit on a diagonal. Also, when the water was slow, it was s-l-o-w. It’s not just because I capsized (twice, thank you very much) that it took 2.5 hours to paddle 4 miles of lots of whitewater.

OK, so yeah, I tanked. Twice. At basically the same section of Monastery Falls. In Paddling Northern Wisconsin Mike Svob writes, “Many a boater is caught in the ‘stopper-hole’ here and experiences a nasty swim.” Yup, sure did. And a nasty swim it was, let me tell you. Let me explain. I am still young enough (35) and new to whitewater (last year). Plus I’m a guy without kids or wife so what inner voice there arguably should have been telling me that this was a dumb, dumb idea was at best a soft murmur. I knew there was a risk, that running Monastery Falls (or whatever name you call it) could be dangerous. I had done my reading and watched lots of videos. I got out of my boat and scouted for the best route before attempting it. Nonetheless, it pretty much kicked my butt. It’s one of those times when your body is at more risk than your sense of pride, for it’s not just capsizing after the first or second drop, which is slightly humiliating in and of itself; no, it’s then being dragged down the next three drops by the awfully forceful river as though you are little more than a rubber ducky in a menacing bathtub, your boat in one direction, you in yet another.

After dumping the water out of my kayak, I clambered up the rocks to the top of the ledge, got back in the boat and tried my luck again. And again capsized, once more helpless as a ragdoll down the small waterfall. I wanted to face my fear (the first experience was not without a bit of trauma) but 0-2 was enough for me. I was decked out in cobbled neoprene layers otherwise I would have been a goner from hypothermia. I concluded that after two swims in 35-degree water and 25-degree air while it was snowing, it was best to pull the plug and just finish the rest of the trip.

So please, if you take nothing else from this trip write-up, heed these words: don’t attempt Monastery Falls alone. All in all, I was lucky to come away from it all with just a busted nose, some scrapes and a couple bruised bones (still sore as I type this); it could have been much worse. And this should never be attempted without the right equipment. You absolutely must wear a helmet and PFD jacket. I can’t recommend enough wearing a wetsuit. If you do tank and are caught up in the current, remember: try as best you can to go down feet first in front of you, sparing your head! At the base of the falls, swim river-right, as there are fewer sharp rocks over there.

That’s enough lecturing. Let me just add this though: Monastery comprises about five drops, the first two of which are the most difficult. Some paddlers put in just below the second drop (not the easiest entrance and it must be done very carefully but it’s definitely doable) and coast down the rest, which in retrospect, seems to be eminently more reasonable.

Whatever your choice in the end, you should check out the ruins of the Alexian Monastery (river-left) at the base of the falls. It’s a gorgeous old building that seems wonderfully-weirdly out of place.

If we did this trip again:
Oh, I will and I will someday run this rapids without capsizing, by God! But I will probably do so in summer and skip the whole potential hypothermia skirmish. And yes, I will do it with another, just to be safe.

Related Information:
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Video: RedfshX
Video: circuitmonkey1
Wikipedia: Red River

Shuttle Information:

Only 4 miles and it’s pretty flat.

Photo Gallery:

  • Good to see you made it through okay. Always like to read about your paddles. It always makes me want to get back out on the water.

    Glad you are getting some snow over there. We are just getting our first real snow of the year here in southern Michigan. I plan on going out on New Year's Day so hopefully it will stay.

    See you on the water.

  • Thanks Rob! Yeah, Timothy has made it out quite a few times. The rest of us, not so much.

    So happy to see the snow too. Hopefully we get more so we don't have to go through another year like the last one. It was hard to find water high enough to paddle in lower Wisco.

    I hope you are able to make it out on New Year's and I hope the new year treats you well! Thanks!


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