Yellow River (Taylor)
Miller Dam to County Road H
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
An absolutely wonderful trip that begins in a beautiful and secluded section of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, below its namesake flowage, with nothing but miles of undeveloped scenery and forests that lead to a thrilling eight-mile section of unending riffles and Class I-II rapids with boulders and exposed rock outcroppings from the halfway point all the way down to the take-out. This trip should be on anybody’s to-do list!
August 31, 2014
6.2′ per mile (Dam to Gilman) | 10.5′ per mile (Gilman to County Road H)
There is no gauge but a good visual gauge are the riffles at the park’s put-in/take-out in Gilman. If that’s runnable without much scraping, the whole trip will be totally fine. You can try your luck calling 715-748-0913, the Northwoods Guide Service in Medford but I doubt they’d be able to provide precise, specific info for the river conditions (this is not a dis to the good folks who work there. I’m just saying that Medford’s a good 20-30 miles east of the Yellow River).
Miller Dam, Memorial Drive Boat Launch, Taylor County, Wisconsin
County Road H bridge
Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 6h
Miles Paddled: 16.75
Wildlife: Blue-winged teal and frogs (we weren’t exactly a quiet bunch, so we probably spooked the wildlife).
Time worth driving to: 3-4 hours
Before I get started, I should explain that this is the Yellow River up in Taylor County and the tributary of the Chippewa River. There are three other Yellow Rivers in Wisconsin (I know nothing about two of these – the two northern-most are tributaries of the St. Croix and Red Cedar rivers up in Washburn and Barron counties, respectively – and I only a little bit about the other better-known one that is a tributary of the Wisconsin River that flows south of Marshfield, then through Babcock and Necedah and finally down to Castle Rock Lake at Buckthorn State Park.) OK, are we now all on the same page?
I can’t contain my enthusiasm for this river! If you live nearby or are visiting/vacationing in the area, you should definitely make the time to paddle at least half, if not all of this trip. You won’t be disappointed – you couldn’t be (provided that the water levels are adequate but that’s a given). We selected this trip because we were camping at the nearby Mondeaux Flowage and no one in our large flotilla contingent (six adults and two 13-year-old girls) had been on this river.
We followed Mike Svob’s lead by paddling the Chequamegon Flowage/Gilman-area segment of the Yellow, though one can paddle upstream of the humongous flowage as well as downstream from our take-out. But there’s a reason why Svob chose this stretch of the river. It has just about everything you’d want in a daytrip: scenic beauty, a sense of seclusion, moving water with a couple spots of pay-attention light rapids but nothing so crazy or hackle-raising as to be distracted by worrying the whole time. There are also several options for putting-in and taking-out to tailor the length of the trip to personal preference. This was the first time either of the girls had been on moving water, much less an occasionally tricky boulder garden or two (or three…) with solid Class I rapids (some even Class I-II). Still upping the ante, two of our party were in a 17’ canoe and are veteran flatwater paddlers. Not only did everyone do perfectly well in the rapids (zero accidents!) but by the end the girls were dismissing my recommendations of the easiest, safest lines to run in favor of the more fun and difficult sections! Attagirls!
In a few senses, this long trip feels like two separate segments and the park in Gilman makes for an easy, convenient place to put-in or take-out allowing one to paddle the river as such. Three of our friends took out at this park and headed back to the campground. The rest of us pressed on since we were having so much fun and had the rest of the day to continue having fun. The real rapids on this trip begin a mile downstream from the park in Gilman and we were eager beavers to have at them. To avoid confusion, I will break down the two sections separately, even though we did the whole 16.75 miles continuously (well, we had to do a second car shuttle, so there was an hour of downtime for lunch and fishing).
Basically, the first section is more secluded (since it courses through the protected national forest) but not necessarily more scenic (it’s just a less-developed kind of scenic). This section is wonderfully riffly and totally suitable for beginners. There’s a small, slightly tricky, rapid immediately below the put-in but the rest of the trip is straightforward riffles and small ledges. The deep woods for the first couple miles are the prettiest. While still pleasant after the national forest periphery, it’s mostly agricultural plus a few houses towards town. One of the highlights here is the handsome iron train trestle bridge just before the park in Gilman. The park itself is quite pleasant and a nice picnic spot.
The second section begins in the town of Gilman where first you paddle some awfully fun riffles/light Class I rapids (a good visual gauge for water levels) and then you pass three picturesque footbridges, one of which is the “famous” Swinging Bridge, a century-old landmark of the community (it’s not for nothing that Gilman bills itself as “Home of the Swinging Bridge”). Shortly after this is a mile of Class I-II rapids and boulder gardens begin. These were that perfect combination of not-crazy-difficult or frightening but just enough to spike up the adrenaline and make you whoop and holler. Again, two teenage girls whose first time in kayaks plus a 17’ canoe paddled by flatwater folks, all of whom were inexperienced in rapids, did beautifully well and had a thrilling time! After that, the river only slightly calms down. Riffles and innumerable Class I rapids continue all the way down to the take-out past islands, attractive rock outcrops and large stones. While slightly more developed, this section is not lacking in natural beauty whatsoever. Indeed, the cool rock formations are found in this section and occasional 10’-high wooded banks keep this section feeling remote and secluded.
What we liked:
This trip is prime-time fun right off the bat. First, there’s a great riffle and short boulder garden immediately below the put-in. Second, the surrounding scenery is unspoiled north woods national forest! Heck, even the dam and humongous flowage at the put-in are cool. While relatively flatter than the second half, the gradient for this first half still is 6 feet per mile, which is nothing to sneeze at; there are lots of riffles and the current is consistently swift. The first few miles are just as lovely as can be, thick and deep in the forest.
After the park in Gilman things pick up in earnest and are just so much stinking fun! Svob warns that this section can be dangerous when the river is high, which I suspect is true. But you probably shouldn’t be paddling this – or most rivers – when it’s high. For us, the levels were fantastic and as I’ve mentioned, formidable enough to have to pay attention to what you’re doing and respect the river but not really dangerous. The average gradient from Gilman to the take-out is an impressive 10.5 per mile, higher in the oxbow rapids section a mile downstream from the park. Occasional rock outcrops and shoreline stone formations keep the spirit continually curious and in awe of this treasure of a river.
As for other opportunities on this river? Above the flowage, the Yellow River looks potentially doable but it would be rather narrow and I suspect deadfall would be an issue. There’d be a mile or two of lake paddling until the nearest boat launch. Downstream from the take-out there’s a whole lotta river before the Yellow finally empties into Lake Wissota, an impoundment of the Chippewa River on the shores of Chippewa Falls. Svob doesn’t mention anything about the downstream portions of the Yellow River, which I find puzzling, since there’s so much of it.
One particular section looks very intriguing via satellite maps. In the tiny town of Cadott, there’s a dam on the Yellow River immediately below which look like some quite reputable rapids. Houses line the shore for a half-mile or so, then disappear. A few miles further downstream the river braids into various channels around a series of large islands where riffles lead your way. The first available take-out would be at the County Road XX bridge four miles down from the dam. An additional 4.6 miles through more enormous islands takes you to the beginning of what will eventually widen to huge Lake Wissota. An attractive steel bridge at County Road K looks like a make-do take-out, otherwise a mile or two of lake paddling gives you more options. This is the last leg of the Yellow River and it looks lovely! But if anyone has done a portion of this or any section upstream or downstream of the trip written about here, we’d thankfully love to learn about it!
What we didn’t like:
Really, there are only two things to note, literally at the very beginning and then again at the very end. There are technically two put-in options. In Svob’s book he recommends using the official Miller Dam Recreation Area, which is all fine and good but it costs a fee to use (it’s administered by the United States Forest Service). Or you can take a whole five extra minutes to drive slightly out of the way to the other side of the river directly below the dam at Memorial boat launch off of Memorial Drive (itself off of Beaver Creek Road). There’s less space for parking than at Miller but it’s a much shorter schlep to the river. So it’s your call whether you want to spend money and walk farther to put in or drive around to Memorial Drive.
Svob recommends taking out at the County Road H bridge, which let me declare as clearly and unequivocally as possible is a terrible, nasty, annoying and unnecessarily difficult option. He’s usually spot-on about these things. But this take-out is truly one of the worst I’ve ever endured and that’s saying something considering some of the dumb-ass, ninja-style landings I’ve made do with.
What’s so awful about it? Well, it’s extremely steep for one and the ground consists of large loose rocks so it’s positively unstable. Unless you’re looking to twist your ankle or slip and fall flat on your face and dropping your boat, this is a terrible nuisance. Exacerbating that, the tall grass and weeds are thick and impenetrable. Any exposed limbs will be scratched mercilessly. The only less-steep (but still steep) path takes you slogging through water-sogged marsh. Seriously, I just cannot imagine what possessed Svob to recommend this. Stranger still, he tells you in his trip writeup not to use the bridge at Polley Lane because it has “no good access.”
Not only is this untrue but if by contrast County H were considered “good,” one would be left to assume that Polley Lane must have assassins, spiders, snakes and portals to hell itself. Thankfully, this is not the case. There’s a conspicuously well-trodden footpath through the grass from the road to the river itself at the Polley Lane bridge, located on the river-right upstream side. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a 5-star landing but it’s a hell of a lot better than the preposterous obstacle course at County H!
If we did this trip again:
Absolutely I will and just as absolute I will be putting in at Memorial Drive and taking out at Polley Lane. From the park at Gilman to Polley Lane is a four-mile trip that features the “best hits” of this section: the Class I-II rapids and the rock formations. Plus a 12-mile trip (from the dam) is a lot more kosher to folks than a 16.75-mile trip!
This would make for one of the best 12-mile trips you can find in Wisconsin. Seriously.
Essentially 16 miles, suitable for bicycles or cars.