Pine River (Florence County)
Highway 139 to Chipmunk Rapids Campground
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
One of several Pine Rivers in Wisconsin, this Pine River in Florence County is notable as it’s one of the five Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state, and for paddlers, it does not disappoint. This is a short but fun 7.5-mile section of the 80-mile-long river flowing through the beautiful Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The route offers solitude surrounded by white, red and jack pines as well as spruce, aspen, balsam and white birch, with only a few private homes along the way. Access is easy and there’s ample parking at both the put-in and take-out. The Pine offers a bit of everything from steep banks with rocky riffles to fun Class I-II rapids, and there are several shifts between swift water with visible gradient changes to quietwater that winds through lowland forests.
By Rachel Friedman
Our Biggest Fan/Chief Miles Paddled Marketing Evangelist/Miles Paddler since 2013
July 3, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I-II
≈ 3.8′ per mile
Popple River: ht/ft: 2.93 | cfs: 165
Gauge note: This gauge is actually on the nearby Popple River, but we feel that it provides a better real-time correlation to this trip on the Pine River. While there is a USGS gauge on the Pine River, it’s well downstream from this trip and affected by a dam to boot. Call the Wild Rivers Interpretive Center in Florence for current water levels: 1-888-889-0049.
This is the recommended minimum level. While totally doable, we did scrape and bottom out quite a bit. Having even 2″ more water would have made this more fun.
Chipmunk Rapids Campground, off Forest Road 2156/Lost Lake Road, Long Lake, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 6:30p.
Total Time: 5h (with a lot of goofing around! This is a typically 3-4 hour paddle)
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Deer, duck, merganser, eagle, hawk, kingfisher, crayfish, woodpeckers (assorted) and we saw both a fox and a black bear on the car shuttle.
7.8 miles comprising a mix of paved road and unpaved dirt-gravel. Certainly doable by bicycle – and actually done by bicycle the day before by one of our pals, who did this very trip by himself – but it’s grueling and better left to vehicles.
Along with the Pike and Popple Rivers in northeastern Wisconsin, the Pine River was one of the first three to be designated as “Wild and Scenic” and protected under state law, in 1965. But there’s nuance to that. Even though the Pine is safeguarded as a Wild and Scenic River, this trip doesn’t actually fall into that jurisdiction. It is, however, surrounded by public land and managed under the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, except for private property along the river (of which there is some on this trip). In fact, more than half of the total Pine River footprint is federally owned, with most of the rest falling under the DNR. Small, individual parcels of land lie within private ownership, including sections owned by WE Energies (mostly around/near the huge hydroelectric plant dam south of Florence). There are multiple groups and many vested interests surrounding the Pine River. As rivers shift, so does the human political landscape and the fate of our natural resources.
We were pretty excited to be in Wild and Scenic River Country as a way to enjoy some socially-distant recreational activities such as camping and paddling. The weirdness of Covid-Spring has continued well in to summer. Paddling has been a refuge, and this trip, along with several other segments of the Pine as well as the neighboring Popple, will definitely be a highlight of 2020.
Per usual, Timothy organized the weekend, although he did not make it up in time to join us for this paddle. We did, however, meet up with our friend, Henry, who’d arrived earlier and was camping one site over from us at the Chipmunk Rapids Campground (which happens also to be the take-out for this trip). Chipmunk Rapids is a National Forest campground, considered “primitive” with only six sites (all of which are first-come, first-served, non-reservable) and one vault toilet, but each site has a picnic table and fire ring – and mosquitoes. There’s also one super-awesome, unique novelty: an artesian spring. The spring runs constantly 24/7 with clarity and pure taste only the Northwoods can offer. People from all around the area come with pick-up trucks and mini-vans to fill 5-gallon jugs or individual water bottles. All day, every day. That said, the campground isn’t noisy. It’s an ideal spot for paddlers who may want to end or begin trips there as we did. The thrill of the simple shuttle where the take-out is your campsite never gets old! Just one mile down the road is Lost Lake Campground, a more family-oriented and “modern” area with a beach and swimming. It has 27 sites that are also “rustic” with vault toilets and well water. Anglers can try their luck for rainbow, brown and brook trout as well as channel catfish, perch, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and panfish.
So, we kept it simple and waited for more elaborate expeditions once Bauer arrived. Since we knew where we’d be taking out – it doesn’t really get more convenient than your own campground! – the only question was where to begin. The big poppy of guidebooks, Mike Svob, begins the second of his three total trips for the Pine River in Paddling Northern Wisconsin at Highway 139. That seemed like a good starting point for us, too. There’s a lot more river upstream of Highway 139 to paddle, but that’ll have to wait for another time.
Also, the nearest town is Florence, but it’s still about twenty miles away. For basic necessities like ice and firewood, etc, the township of Long Lake has a quaint general store, plus there’s a filling station called the Whitetail Inn a mile up the hill north of the Highway 139/70 intersection.
The trip begins at the Highway 139 bridge, downstream river-left. There’s a nice parking area and an easy drag to the water and clear put-in. Throughout this trip there is swift-water and riffles that, after a bit of downhill, become quietwater. This repeats a number of times with one longer stretch of quietwater finally leading to the fun friskiness of Chipmunk Rapids, a Class I-II (depending on water levels). At this level, paddlers need to be alert for rocks hiding just beneath the surface. Some skill in making quick adjustments was beneficial.
The first mile kicks off with swift riffles and an easy Class I rapids. You’ll pass under a railroad bridge and then note Johnson Creek entering on the left side shortly afterward. Half a mile later you’ll pass beneath Fay Lake Road (aka Forest Road 2133). This bridge makes for an alternate put-in, which would shorten the trip to five miles.
As the river narrows, you’ll note the steeper banks, faster current, rocky bottom and forested surroundings. In contrast, as things flatten out, the rocky bottoms and pines are replaced with alder thickets and tall grasses. There are a couple stretches where you’ll see private homes (especially near Fay Lake Road), but generally, you’re surrounded by the peacefulness of the forest.
At roughly four miles in (and well after the Fay Lake bridge) you’ll pass the outlet from Fay Lake itself on river-right which is immediately followed by a cabin on the right bank. And here begins a curious kink on the river, where it begins meandering right and left, almost doubling back on itself. Here you’ll pass under several stretches of powerlines – watch out for those wires! But first you’ll pass an unnamed stream entering from the left.
The river will meander northeast through a beautiful and quiet landscape that feels like wilderness even if it’s not designated as quote-unquote wild. In less than two miles you’ll hear the sound of rapids. As you are approaching Chipmunk Rapids you’ll see a small house with solar panels on the left (this house is also visible from Forest Road 2156). You’ll round a bend and turn right to come upon the best part of this trip: Chipmunk Rapids, a half-mile-long, downhill boulder garden with the best rapids at the very end. American Whitewater says Chipmunk Rapids includes two sets of Class II rapids (but that higher water may decrease the need for maneuvering and lower the rapids to a fast Class I). At the lower water levels on our trip, there was definitely a need for some decent technical skills to maneuver through them. So, we’ll split the difference and call them Class I+.
Half a mile after the rapids you’ll pass under the beautiful bridge at Lost Lake Road/Forest Road 2156. The take-out is about fifty yards downstream from the bridge, on the right bank. After an exhilarating ending, you’re greeted with a convenient landing and the artesian spring. It’s an easy 100′ walk up from the landing to a good-sized parking lot. (The final obstacle is dodging people who are getting water at the spring!) Or, if you’re lucky like us, you’ll be greeted by Timothy himself at the landing, who’ll pull you to shore.
That’s the bridge report!
What we liked:
The swift-water, downhill waves, riffles and especially Chipmunk Rapids. We loved the ease and simplicity of ending at the artesian spring and right at our campground.
What we didn’t like:
This paddle would have been even better at a little higher level. We were lucky to hit it at the right time and some locals commented it isn’t usually runnable in July. Some of the quietwater stretches got a little long and had a strong biting-fly presence, but it was July after all.
We also didn’t know this until later, but we just missed local hero John Roberts when we pulled into Chipmunk Rapids. He went out that way to meet Timothy – which I’m sure he’ll talk about on forthcoming reports. But it would’ve been nice to have met him. Another time…
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again! Preferably, in higher water. We’d also consider some reconnaissance to see if there’s access where Forest Road 2156 kisses the Pine, just before Chipmunk Rapids, in order to run it repeatedly.
Brochure: Pine and Popple Wild Rivers
Camp: Chipmunk Rapids Campground
Camp: Pine and Popple Wild Rivers
General: Florence County
Guide: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Pine River