Wausau Whitewater Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The premier whitewater park in Wisconsin, (and one of the finest, if not the best, in the Midwest) this place is an absolute pleasure chock full of paddling camaraderie.
July 13, 2014
45′ per (.3) miles (Approx.)
Gauge: There is no gauge per se, since the course lies in a side channel of the Wisconsin River below the dam in downtown Wausau. Recreational releases are held one weekend a month (Saturdays and Sundays). In theory, the course could be run after a hard, long rain but it’s probably best to wait for the scheduled releases.
Just upstream of the RR bridge.
After the last drop, just before the channel joins the main stream of the Wisconsin River.
Miles Paddled: .3 Miles
Time worth driving to: 3-4 hours
This has been on my to-do list for years. I had a wedding to attend (actually, I officiated it) in Wausau and stayed at a hotel literally two blocks from the park (How cool is that? I could walk from the hotel door to my paddling destination… like any good reverend). I’d make the trip from Madison again though, because the park is totally worth the drive.
The history of how the park came to be can (and should) be read on the official website. What’s relevant and historically interesting is that, while now (and likely forever more) dammed, this spot on the Wisconsin River used to be a gnarly whitewater section. Before Wausau was named Wausau (well, by the European settlers’ standpoint at least) it was dubbed Big Bull Falls. The word “bull” is an Anglicization of the French Canadian word bulle, which meant rapids. Wausau became a settlement due to the rapids providing a great place to have a mill for the seemingly endless supply of lumber in the nearby northwoods.
As is true almost everywhere on the Wisconsin River, particularly in the north, the rapids that brought (white) people to settle, led to the poor rapids being hidden and harnessed for mills and then hydroelectric power. The once wild Wisconsin is now tamed but there’s at least a small glimmer of it can be found here and there and Whitewater Park in Wausau gives you a glimpse. Mind you, the park is built upon a narrow side channel, not the mainstream of the river itself but that’s of little matter. The side channel is spectacular and quite adequately conveys the spirit of Big Bull Falls way back when.
The layout of the course is linear and follows a course of drops ranging from the most difficult to the easiest. As such, those (like me) looking to get into rapids without getting in over one’s head (or underneath one’s boat) can spend an hour to an afternoon just on the bottom end of the park, where the ledges are gentle and there are few to zero play boaters seeking holes and waves to squirt, spin and flip. This is a thoughtful feature allowing novices to feel incrementally comfortable at different class levels.
There are essentially two put-in spots. The first, (and significantly less challenging) is just upstream of the attractive iron railroad bridge, where a concrete pad tapers seamlessly into the water. The second lies about 25 yards upstream of the hydroelectric plant gate, where underneath is the park’s most precipitous drop (about 5’ high) and some formidable waves where most paddlers end up going under and rolling out of. Because my roll is, how shall I say, “unbuttered” and unreliable, I deemed it best not to invite disaster on the very first drop in the park, so I put in by the railroad bridge instead.
Two critical questions to ask yourself before trying a run at Whitewater Park are:
1) How good are you at catching an eddy?
2) Can you roll?
If neither skill is good, you risk being a danger not only to yourself but to other paddlers as well. I ran the park once, caught my breath afterward and then humbly but promptly admitted to myself that I was an imposter and had no right to be a yahoo in the rodeo. I am a whitewater amateur. I caught this and that eddy, sure but there were times I just barreled ahead absent of the least grace. I might as well have cried out to the many paddlers immediately downstream of me “look out, no brakes!” That’s not cool. The people who frequent the course and thus are the lifeblood of it deserve more than that. I don’t want to be that guy.
To be fair, the rapids at the park rank Class III at their most difficult and are not crazy technical. These are mostly at the beginning to halfway point in the park and everything downstream from there ranks Class I-II. Realistically speaking, one could probably push an abandoned kayak with no one in it onto the course and the current alone will take it down each ledge without much ado and probably without capsizing (isn’t that the interesting thing about paddling? Left to their own, kayaks and canoes float perfect and plumb. It’s only until there’s a person in it that all bets are off). And there’s always beginner’s luck where by nothing more than happy accident (well, that, good balance and not overreacting) one happens to be in just the right line and runs a drop like it ain’t no thing. But there’s no skill to that. Whitewater paddling itself requires skill and a designated park like this one demands it. Otherwise you’re just that dumb-ass tumbling down to the amusement, maybe, of some in the stands but none on the water.
You can basically take-out anywhere on the left shore, depending on how far down the course you want to paddle. Most skilled whitewater paddlers exit stage-left before the end, since the bottom part of the course is small potatoes. Either way, an established walking path leads back to wherever you choose to re-put in. You can run the course as many times as your heart desires. It doesn’t get old, it just gets better and better.
What we liked:
The action is non-stop and the ledges are no joke. In a certain sense this park was perfect for me, as I have never paddled (and shouldn’t invite injury by trying to paddle) anything more technical than Class III. But for the big drop at the dam gates (which I skipped), there is only one tricky drop (named “Diagonal”) due to its strong currents and waves coming from different directions. I ran this twice, precisely because I got dumped the first time (for the record, I ran the rapid itself just fine but I failed to anticipate a strong circulating current at the bottom of the ledge that spun me upside down).
Other than that one, the other drops (ranging from half a foot to maybe three feet) are pretty straightforward. Everything is well laid out and methodical. The designers of the course knew their stuff and it shows. Running it is exhilarating. It’s a relatively short .3 miles, or the length of five football fields but most paddlers catch an eddy after each drop and seek a spot to play in a hole or surf a wave. If you know how to do either, you might as well, since, unlike downhill skiing, there’s no lift taking you and your boat back to the put-in. Besides, why hurry the experience? One of the main purposes of the park is to be a training ground, a place to learn and hone whitewater skills.
Another thing you gotta like is the permission to camp on an open field at the end of the course and I think even for free (but don’t quote me on that). Camping is allowed for paddlers only during the weekends of recreational release, lest the appearance of “Occupy Wausau” be given on the off-weekends. There’s even a full facilities restrooms with electrical outlets and an outside shower (for rinsing off, not in-the-buff lathering).
Great restaurants and a darling café in downtown Wausau are just a few blocks away. There are at least four fine venues for beer, three of which are actual breweries – the Great Dane, Bull Falls Brewery, and Red Eye Brewing Co. and the super-cool craft beer bar (with good local food) Sconni’s Alehouse & Eatery, a 10-min drive down the road from the park (plus it has a canoe stuck in antler-like branches in a tree outside and boozy dreams like Central Water’s limited bourbon barrel beers inside).
Oh, and as far as I could tell, the park was free to paddle. Donations are welcome and recommended. It’s a lot of love and a whole lotta volunteering that make this park what it is. Just make sure you’re wearing your helmet, spray skirt and know what you’re doing!
What we didn’t like:
Um, nothing. Not a dang thing. Seriously, it’s great. You should go. Period.
If we did this trip again:
I will in a heartbeat but after I have better boat control and more confidence. And ideally not alone. While there is a palpable brother- and sisterhood of paddlers at the park, what’s better than running rapids with your bud?
A 0.3-mile walk!