White River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

White River (Bayfield)

By on September 3, 2014

Maple Ridge Road to Highway 112
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A swift moving and narrow stream in northern Wisconsin whose energy is as relentless as its surrounding beauty of tall clay banks, light rapids, utter solitude from the human world but chance companionship with the natural one.

August 16, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class II

2.4′ per mile

Ashland: ht/ft: 1.47 | cfs: 200

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level.

Maple Ridge Road, Mason, Wisconsin
Highway 112 Dam, White River flowage

Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 3h 25m
Miles Paddled: 15

Wildlife: Deer, osprey, eagle, fish, green heron and mergansers.
Time worth driving to: Whatever you got, seriously.

On the Saturday following a Friday paddle around and about the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, it was time to move towards the mainland (I say that with great ambivalence because I could easily and gladly live the rest of my days on the Bayfield peninsula – “the Maine Coast of the Midwest”. OK, I just made that up but I stand by it and I’ve been missing it since leaving but such is life: more regrets than egrets, alas…).

After breaking fast scrumptiously at the Black Cat Café in downtown Ashland, my belly was full with bacon, pastries and coffee while my brain was full of curiosity about the White River, a ridiculously close 15-min drive from where I was. Why the White? Take one part Class I-II rapids and cook to boil on the stove, then add a dozen plus 50’-100’ clay banks, dash with wildlife and then reduce this to a simmer of virtually zero development. Garnish with boreal forests. This is the White River in Bayfield-Ashland counties, an unforgettable paddling experience that definitely ranks as one of the best in the state.

What we liked:
My silly cooking allusion aside, this trip on the White River can be distilled to three essentials: low-grade but constant rapids, tall clay banks and a very real sense of near wilderness. There are a number of elements that make this trip seem too good to be true. 1) While most of this trip comprises rapids, none is all that technically challenging (making this trip suitable for beginners). 2) This section of river has reliable water levels throughout the entire paddling season. 3) Only a 15 minute drive from downtown Ashland and Lake Superior, you see almost no development for 15 unspoiled miles. Too good to be true, right? But it’s true and it’s pretty incredible!

This trip begins in moving current but no rapids per se. Half a mile or so later the first riffles appear, graduating into light Class I’s. It just gets better. And then better again. The only signs of civilization after the put-in are 3-4 cabins in the first two miles, then not a damn thing until the dam at the take-out. That’s it. In terms of the essentially constant moving water and lack of development, this trip reminded me of the Kinnickinnic River.

There is one quiet, flat section of 2-3 miles beginning where Schramm Creek enters on the left. While slower, this section is no less beautiful. The variety of trees is quite impressive: alder, ash, balsam fir, birch, cedar, maple, mixed pine, spruce – just to name a few. The rapids resume, this time accompanied by boulder gardens. This second half (or maybe final third) of the trip is more challenging than the previous section of rapids but again, it’s nothing crazy.

When you live in southern Wisconsin, the idea of a long river trip (15 miles) with nearly non-stop rapids (but not white-knuckled whitewater) is a dream come true. Consider this: not only is this trip 15 miles long, the river here is quite crooked, yet I paddled this in 3.5 hours, or 4 ¼ miles per hour, which is more common with huge rivers like the Wisconsin or Chippewa.

The other principle characteristic of this trip are the tall clay banks. Brick-red, they come out of nowhere around a bend and tower above you. The erosion of the clay banks creates a grayish, cloudy color of the water so don’t expect a clear stream. But who cares?! Some of these clay banks are as high as 100’! Their sheer size, together with the absence of civilization, creates a thrilling sense of solitude and being away from it all. About a mile into the trip I saw three deer cross the river from one side to the other neck-deep in the water, something you’d expect to see on some National Geographic documentary of gazelles perilously fording a river away from lions hot on the chase. I’d never seen anything like that with my own two eyes.

Additionally, there are some solid Class II-III rapids that lie below the dam at the take-out. Put in below the dam on the river-left. There’s a trail there that leads to the water. There are several drops in the next couple hundred yards. You can take out by the powerhouse, also on the left, and walk back to the put-in to repeat or back to the car. Even this section almost always has enough water to run. Obviously, it will be wilder and woollier in early spring or after a torrential downpour. Also, be mindful of the scheduled releases at the dam. For more information on this run, see here.

What we didn’t like:
There really isn’t anything. True, once you commit to this there’s no going back until the take-out, as there are no roads and thus no bridges along the way. The very end of the trip slows down to a crawl where the flowage begins, created by the dam at the take-out. This section is pretty by itself but the paddling is sluggish, especially in my 9’ crossover kayak. But the flowage itself is not that long, so it’s a short paddle through the lake-like area.

If we did this trip again:
I absolutely will! Next time I will clip on the added couple hundred yards below the dam. Alternatively, I am interested in what lies even further downstream. I suspect the gradient slackens, as with the clay banks but the river bisects the White River Boreal Forest State Natural Area, which looks positively dreamy. If anyone has info on that, please share it with us!

Related Information:
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Video: Kayaking Wisconsin’s White River


Shuttle Information:

A long-ish and steep 12.8 miles that’s better by car than bike. I pedaled it and it was fine but it was a good workout and added another 50 minutes or so to my trip time.

Photo Gallery:

  • Rob Eckert

    Paddled this recently at about 180 CFS. The river was distinctly bony at this level. At best we were doing a lot of picking our way in between rocks with lots of bumping and scraping. At worst, if we didn’t pick the exact correct portion of the river, we would end up having to get out. We could see how this stretch would be a rollicking good time with just a little more water than we had… it just was a lot of work at the level we paddled it at.


Miles Paddled documents canoe and kayak trips on rivers and creeks throughout Wisconsin.

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