Pine River II (Florence County)
Chipmunk Rapids Campground to Goodman Grade Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The next sequence on the spectacular Pine, here the winding river takes on its Wild and Scenic attributes in true colors, featuring two difficult pitches of whitewater ranging in Class II-III rapids while surrounded by a wondrously wooded setting that is as remote and unspoiled as anywhere in Wisconsin.
July 5, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Stretches of quietwater regularly punctuated by lots of riffles and minor Class I’s throughout the whole trips, with two reputable sets of Class II-III rapids (depending on water levels) near the beginning and end.
≈ 9′ per mile average
These are the recommended minimum levels. We’re offering the Popple gauge as well since the Pine gauge will be affected by the dam. Scraping can be expected in the shallow areas, and the rapids/falls will require a lot of boulder-dodging, river-reading and technical skill. Look for at least 200 cfs on the Popple gauge for a smoother ride for recreational paddling. Whitewater enthusiasts will want a minimum of 400 cfs.
Chipmunk Rapids Campground, off Forest Road 2156/Lost Lake Road, Long Lake, Wisconsin
Goodman Grade Road landing off Highway 70
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 4h 45m (Taking into account two notable scoutings and/or portages around the big drops, not to mention a break to fix a broken paddle)
Miles Paddled: 9.5
Deer, mergansers galore, crawfish, frogs and a painted turtle.
14 miles comprising a mix of paved highway and unpaved dirt-gravel forest roads. Certainly doable by bike, but it’s grueling and better left to vehicles. Be mindful of Goodman Grade after sustained rains or early-spring snowmelt, as this road can get impassable.
In 1965, the Pine River was designated a Wild & Scenic stream by the State of Wisconsin under the Wild Rivers Act (along with its neighbor to the south, the Popple, and Pike to the southeast). While essentially similar to, and actually providing a model for, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed by Congress in 1968, Wisconsin’s system is a little different than the federal classification. Wisconsin’s law designated certain areas as to “afford the citizens of this state an opportunity to enjoy natural streams, to attract out-of-state visitors, and to assure the well-being of our tourist industry.” Not exactly a tree-hugger’s or paddler’s manifesto, but this was half a century ago – things were different back then. The fact of this act recognizing natural resources as opportunities for public pleasure and not mere commodities to be cut down or extract for private profit is plenty remarkable in its own right. That said, whatever pre-dates 1965, such as cabins, private property, and yes, one big mother of a dam on the Pine River, is grandfathered in.
Moreover, not all of the Pine River (or Popple or Pike for that matter) is protected under the Wild Rivers Act. Indeed, the designated area of Wild & Scenic Rivers only begins on this trip one-third of the way downstream from the put-in. (Upstream from there the land is still public (for the most part), in the Nicolet National Forest). It’s right around the last pitch of Snaketail Rapids on this trip where the western boundary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers designation begins (and continues virtually all the way down to the Menominee River confluence to the east). To quote from the venerable John Roberts, champion of the Pine, “at a minimum this means that there is no vegetative control within 150′ from the bank on either side of the river, walk-in access only, no motorized vehicles, no stream alterations, no maintained trails, no camping and few developed parking lots or canoe put-ins. It is managed to provide paddlers with the experience of paddling through wildness.” Amen.
The result is an absolutely admirable nook that nearly has the look and feel of a national park located entirely in one county in northeastern Wisconsin, Florence County. There are designated Wild & Scenic Rivers signs all over the 100 miles of adjacent roads with corresponding places of touring interest, whether that’s a hiking trail to a waterfall or access to a river, not to mention the dozens of National Forest signs for various campgrounds and lakes.
There are several paddle trips on the Pine River – more so than the neighboring Popple – depending on trip length preferences and general comfort with rapids. Generally speaking, they are as follows:
Upstream 1: Haystack Road to Highway 55
Upstream 2: Highway 55 to Highway 139
Midstream 1: Highway 139 to Goodman Grade
Midstream 2: Goodman Grade to Highway 101
Downstream 1: Highway 101 to the WE Energies dam
Downstream 2: WE Energies dam to Johnson Creek Road or the Menominee River confluence
With those six trips comes a cornucopia of food for thought. For starters, Upstream 1 is fit only for the arduous and adventurous on account of a long distance through shallow water, beaver dams, downed trees and alder thickets. Speaking of long distances, Upstream 2 is 15.5 miles and Midstream 1 is 17 miles. Those make for long day trips – especially when considering the slow pools of quietwater and the time taken to scout or portage the bigger rapids. And it would be remiss of us to neglect mentioning that Downstream 1 is fraught with caveats aplenty, ranging from lousy, unreliable road access, a Class IV+ 20′-tall waterfalls (!) followed by a Class II-III gorge, and then a long slog of flatwater “lake” paddling in the Pine River flowage created by the dam.
But these trips are the broad parameters; within each are alternative access points (not many, but they do exist) to more practically accommodate individual preferences in features and length. For example, we divided “Midstream 1” in two separate trips, although the intrepid Mike Svob features that entire section, all 17 miles, as the second of his three total trips for the Pine River in Paddling Northern Wisconsin. For the first “half” of that trip – Highway 139 to Chipmunk Rapids Campground – read more here. Since we were camping at Chipmunk Rapids Campground, it made sense and was delightfully simple to begin anew here and take out at Goodman Grade.
Access to the water at Chipmunk Rapids Campground is easy and simple – especially for us, as we just sauntered over gear from our sites where we were camping. If you drive there, the parking area is before the small campground itself (six sites total), by the artesian well. Depending on timing, you may be sharing the short trail from the parking area to the river with folks coming to collect the delicious spring-fed water in jug after jug. (Note: the access for paddlers is immediately downstream from the bridge at FR 2156/Lost Lake Road and a quarter-mile or so from the namesake rapids.)
For the first 3+ miles the Pine is quiet and quite tranquil, winding around wooded stretch after stretch in a setting that is as wild and scenic as a paddler could ever hope for. Occasional boulder gardens do dot the stream, creating a flourish of little riffles here and there. This will come to an abrupt holt at the head of Snaketail Rapids. (Think of it like waiting in line for an amusement park ride, moving slowly bit by bit, until you get to the entrance, buckle in, and get wooshed in an adrenaline-addled spree!) Snaketail is approximately half a mile long and segmented in three pitches. Per usual, you’ll hear the roar of the rapids first, signaling you to start looking for the portage/scout trail on the left near a beautiful cabin decorously named “Shanty of the Pines.” (Note: we scouted along the trail on the left, as recommended by Mike Svob. The description on American Whitewater, provided by none other than legendary John Roberts, advises scouting on the right, following a Portage sign. We missed that, quite frankly. Apparently, the land along the rapids on the left bank, including the cabin, is private property. We saw no signs indicating that, but now that we know we urge fellow paddlers to be respectful.)
Snaketail Rapids ranks as a Class II-III, depending on water volume. As such, it is not to be taken for granted and should be considered by paddlers only with the right gear and skills. Please, portage if there’s any doubt. It’s a series of ‘s’ curves with a lot of boulders to dodge and be mindful of. At our lower water level the runs were hardly the most elegant, but they were eminently doable (and the source of both confidence-building and hilarity – the latter on account of Mitch running it with a broken paddle (more on that below under What We Liked).
The river holds steady for the next 4+ miles, although intermittent Class I’s will be found here and there in occasional boulder gardens. (For what it’s worth, the segment between Snaketail and the next notable rapids (Meyers Falls) is definitely livelier than the put-in to Snaketail.) At this point you’ve entered the jurisprudence of Wild & Scenic, although the effect from the paddler’s perspective is much the same, of course. Long straightaways here will lull you to saunter and soak in the gorgeous landscape. Soon, a right-hand bend is followed by a left-hand bend, up to and including a ginormous boulder on river-right. By this time you will surely hear the roar of Meyers Falls – a solid Class III series of pitches down three individual ledges for a total drop of 13′ in only twenty yards. Scout or portage on the right bank, where the access is easy, safe, and short. Even at our low water levels, there was plenty of flow to run the rapids. Meyers is less technical than Snaketail, because it’s mainly a straight shot that involves only a few zigzags to be in the flow. It is steeper and splashier than Snaketail, however. Whether you run Meyers or merely portage it, do check out the beautiful rock formations on the downstream side of the “falls” on river right. These are Pre-Cambrian igneous rock outcrops; at 2 billion years old, they’re some of the oldest bedrock in North America.
There’s one more mile before the take-out at Goodman Grade. Here the river comprises several islands, and the current is all quietwater. The actual access at Goodman Grade is inconspicuous and nondescript. As a heads-up, start scanning the left bank after a sharp right-hand bend and look for a pocket of small boulders near the bank. Unfortunately, the access here, unlike at the put-in, is pretty lousy: the boulders here all but intentionally block what would otherwise be a straight shot to paddle directly onto the bank and get out. With the boulders obstructing that, you have two choices: 1) get out then and there while standing in lord-knows-how-deep silt/mud or 2) carefully getting out onto the boulder nearest the bank (in order to stay clean and dry), pulling your boat to terra firma, and then lurching onto the grassy but tree branch-strewn banks. It’s a short schlep from there to the parking area.
What we liked:
For me personally (Timothy), this was my first taste of the famous Pine River, and it did not disappoint. For my three friends (who’d driven up to the area earlier), this was the next installation of their previous trip from Highway 139 to the campground. There is so much to love about the Pine River in general, this segment in particular. The clarity of the water is incredible together with the utterly undeveloped surroundings is practically unsurpassed. I don’t mean to belabor this point, but it truly lives up to its designation of Wild and Scenic. Even at low water levels, we had a wonderful time.
True, for a trip just under 10 miles long, there are only two rapids to write home about. Meaning, the majority of this trip is quietwater with only occasional riffles or even Class I’s to shimmer what otherwise is a glass-flat pane upon the river’s surface. But, really, that’s only looking at things from the perspective of whitewater enthusiasts. For us “lightwater” folks, who just adulate over the mix of quiet and raucous, this trip is perfect. Snaketail Rapids and definitely Meyers Falls are thrilling descents.
For at least one of the paddlers in our foursome, Snaketail was an intimidating challenge that mustered her courage and fortitude. She ran it with perfect aplomb (after which she laughed and asked aloud, “What was I so worried about?”). Those moments are always awesome and stay with me forever. As will the image of Mitch, who was behind me running Snaketail, coming down the final drop with his paddle snapped in half at the shaft, effectively using it like a single-bladed canoe paddle! (There’s a longer story about this, but I won’t bore you.) Point is, he absolutely killed it with calm suave despite the serious handicap he endured. (The cheap-aluminum shaft cracked in half right at the beginning of the half-mile Class II rapids!)
There’s an island at the base of Snaketail where we got out and MacGyver’d a splint out of sticks and duct tape which, I have to say, pretty well worked for the remainder of the trip (although he soundly skipped Meyers Falls).
What we didn’t like:
The only real thing we disliked was the crap access at Goodman Grade. As I mentioned, it really appeared that the boulders were intentionally obstructing the access. Maybe not… Maybe it’s a geological fluke, and following the golden rule of wild and scenic meant not improving upon it. Who knows…? Is it worth the price of admission? You bet! Is it annoying? Sure is.
The other point I think worth mentioning is the shuttle logistics. Just like on the Popple and the Brule earlier this year, the access roads to and from these gorgeous rivers in our treasured national forests are truly few and far between. As such, the shuttling will presuppose more windshield miles than the paddling itself. Not really a big deal except if someone is waiting at the put-in while you’re driving to/fro the take-out to leave another vehicle or bicycle. It’ll be a long wait, FYI.
If we did this trip again:
Because river access is so sparse, you can either do this trip as-is, which we strongly recommend; or begin at Highway 139 for a 17-mile-long trip; or take out at Highway 101 for an even longer 18.6-mile trip. Those make for very long days, and the shuttle-time would be rather ridiculous. We entertained the idea of taking out after Bull Falls, a Class II-III drop only 0.75-mile downriver from Goodman Grade, but vetoed it on account of it being too much a pain in the tuchus (hard to find/access landing, steep hike up, long walk back to the parking area, etc.).
Ergo, we’d do this trip again exactly as we did, just with more water next time.
Pine River I: Highway 139 to Chipmunk Rapids Campground
Pine River III: County Road N to Oxbow Take Out
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
Miles Paddled Video: