Pine River III (Florence County): “The Oxbow”
County Road N to Oxbow Take Out
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
One of the most popular, albeit short, trips on the Pine River on account of its peculiar meandering and supreme ease of shuttle logistics, “the Oxbow” provides an ideal moving water-experience for paddling with canines or kids, heck, even SUP boards, or just learning how to paddle in general, all while still in a wooded and wonderfully beautiful landscape that feels both wild and scenic.
July 6, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles and one minor Class I
≈ 3′ per mile
Pine River: ht/ft: 2.57 | cfs: 370
We recommend this level. Given the popularity of this trip, its relative slowness, and location on the downstream side of a dam, water levels should be reliable most of the time.
County Road N Landing, Florence, Wisconsin
County Road N “Oxbow Take Out” (a half-mile north of the put-in)
Time: Put in at 1:20p. Out at 2:25p.
Total Time: 1h 5m
Miles Paddled: 3.5
Deer, mergansers and tubers.
We’ve got three words for you: Best. Shuttle. Ever. Or if that’s too cliché, how about easiest shuttle ever? Other than a mythic river that literally comes round full-circle, thereby obviating the need to shuttle, the course of the Pine in the Oxbow has got to be the closest runner-up. The walk back to the put-in from the take-out is less than a half-mile – or just a hair over 2000′. Take your boat, leave your boat. Walk, jog, skip, pogo-stick, skateboard – whatever you like. You’ll spend more time fussing with a bicycle out or off of your car and locking it up than you would riding it the whole two minutes it would take to get back to your car.
We’ve known of the oft-touted “Oxbow” section on the Pine for a long time now and have been curious to check it out for ourselves. If for nothing else, it is the only portion of the Pine illustrated and plugged on the Wisconsin Trail Guide (which is a little strange, frankly, considering how thoroughly it otherwise covers other rivers and their various segments – including the Popple, which is shorter and a tributary of the Pine).
While we’re generally pretty wary of rivers (or sections of river) that are associated with inflatable tubes (aka party barges) and certainly apprehensive of areas where there’s a likelihood of crowd congestion in the age of Covid (i.e., landings on popular rivers where rental liveries are in full-swing), I still wanted to check out the Oxbow – it’s no less a part of the Pine than any of the other, more rugged segments upstream. Plus I had borrowed a 12′ solo canoe from a friend that I was eager to test-paddle but was in no way whatsoever going to debut in any of the rough stuff (Class II-III) upriver. I may be from the East Coast and all, but I don’t want to drop my ‘r’ and go from friend to fiend by damaging a borrowed boat.
Ordinarily, we’d have made this a longer trip both for our curiosity’s sake as well as to provide a fuller experience on the site. However, to do so presupposes a number of logistical conundrums. For instance, the next access on the Pine is only 2.6 miles downriver, at the end of Johnson Creek Road, but that would add a staggering 5 miles to the shuttle – predominantly on a long, very steep dirt-gravel road. Furthermore (indeed), the next access after that – and the last on the Pine River itself, before the confluence at the Menominee River – is at the end of “DD” Road, which adds 3.3 miles of paddling but a mind-numbing 12+ miles of windshield shuttle time. The reason for these exceptionally long shuttles is there simply are very few roads in the area. So, to arrive at any of these accesses means taking a broad roundabout way, as that’s the only option – short of using an ATV with a sled in tow to strap your boat onto.
So, to recap: 3.5 miles paddling for a 10-minute walk to do the Oxbow; 6 miles of paddling to Johnson Creek Road for a difficult 5.5 mile shuttle; or 9.3 miles of paddling to NN, a mile upstream of the Menominee, for a 12+-mile shuttle marathon. Hence, I kept it simple, silly, and made most of the remarkably convenient Oxbow section and walked back to my car since this was a solo trip anyway. There is something irresistible about making the most of the unique opportunity of the Oxbow’s simplicity and taking advantage of its crazy-easy “shuttle.” And let’s face it: most paddlers likewise will be drawn to this 3.5-mile novelty.
The landing at County N for the put-in – where the river flows under the bridge (as opposed to the landing also on County N half a mile up the road for the take-out (where the river flows near the road but not under it again) – is downright pampered with convenience and ease: a ridiculous amount of parking, porta-potties and even a landscaped, scalloped staircase leading to the water. The river environs are beautiful as well: root beer-hued water flanked on both sides by a corridor of gleaning-green pines giving the illusion of a river of eternity. At the risk of being laconic (something I’m rarely ever accused of!), that’s generally the gist of this brief trip. This segment of the Pine has none of the notable rapids or waterfalls upstream. After the WE Energies dam (two miles upriver from County N) the Pine is pretty smooth sailing all the way down to the Menominee. Fun fact: whereas upriver from this trip the Pine tumbles with froth and fisticuffs in a scuffle with igneous and basalt rocks that are two billion years old, here it slowly flows over soft “metasedimentary” bedrock called Michigamme Slate. The result is a deeper river with a low gradient. But this denouement segment of the Pine is plenty pretty in its own right, albeit more lackadaisical.
You won’t pass a single building, at least during the Oxbow section. The banks are wonderfully wooded and occasionally fairly steep at 50′. Natural springs also appear here and there from left and right. There are a couple intermittent riffles and one brief Class I rapids that is perfectly safe and easy located about 1.5 miles downstream from the put-in. By and by, the river flows south, then east, then north, and finally meanders a time or two west. Picture a basic mushroom. Now turn it sideways to the right 90-degrees. That’s more or less the course that the Pine takes here in the Oxbow – the skinny stem being the two accesses on County N.
Considering the lack of development, this segment offers a sense of calm solitude. However, depending on when you paddle it, the experience may be anything but – given the popularity of and propensity for tubing. But as a simple trip and opportunity to be on the water without hassles or headaches, whether that’s by yourself or introducing paddling to someone new (canines or kids or young-at-heart grownups), the Oxbow is a lovely treat and with a lot of reward.
What we liked:
It’s the economy. And by that I mean the crazy-easy point-to-point logistics of this trip. One of my favorite lines from T.S. Eliiot is “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” That’s all but literally how this trip feels, since you put in at County N and take out also at County N – after having paddled 3.5 miles on the water, but the distance between the two spots on County N is less than half a mile. The carefree novelty of finishing a short trip and then walking for ten minutes down an off-road trail back to my car at the put-in is just too cool. We’ve done hundreds of solo-paddling trips, which requires leaving a bike at one end and pedaling back to a car. Walking back – and not out of implied failure the likes of a flat tire or broken chain or a too-steep hill, or forgetting one’s keys (gah!) – and for that to take only ten minutes is an unheard of anomaly whose opportunity is too great to resist!
There’s also something enlivening about this calm, tranquil section of the Pine, downriver from its most righteous and riotous pitches. Before paddling this trip we trekked nearby to check out Breakwater Falls, the sixth tallest waterfall in Wisconsin only recently “discovered” by none other than water hero John Roberts. Breakwater is on the downstream side of the dam. Upriver of the Pine Flowage is La Salle Falls and its rambunctious gorge half a mile long. I’m not saying that tumultuous whitewater makes a river wilder or more scenic – it doesn’t; it’s simply the yang to the quietwater yin. Each complements the other; together, they make a river whole.
What we didn’t like:
In a word, tubers. To put this in context, I paddled this trip on a Monday that began in the sultry 90s with an awful forecast (unbeknownst to me) of imminent storms. And yet, still, both landings felt like truck stops off the interstate with throngs of families with inflatable rafts and a higher per capita cooler-to-person ratio than anywhere else on the planet at that moment. While on the water it’s not a big deal since they’re all adrift and at the mercy of current and wind, while you’re in an actual boat with a paddle. But it’s still something to reconcile.
In retrospect, I pitied these parties in their tubes during the squalls, thunder, and rainfall. In a 12′ canoe I was having a heck of a time not getting blown backwards by the wind, and of course there was nothing to do but get wet in the rain. But at least I had a paddle and the basic means of accelerating myself forward, downstream. (I hadn’t even thought of checking the weather beforehand… I was still in vacation-mode, first of all. Secondly, it hadn’t rained in a week at least, and that morning started off as hot and sunny as every other up to that point.)
If we did this trip again:
Sure will! It’s too easy and fun not to. Like I said, it’s a perfect environment to introduce river-paddling to canines or kids or anyone new to being on moving water. But I wouldn’t do it in summer again; just way too many people to contend with. This would be positively lovely in autumn.
But at some point, when there are two vehicles, we’ll do the whole stretch of this last leg of the Pine – from the powerhouse down to the Menominee. I really want to paddle through that wild kingdom of abandonment and seeming no-man’s-land.
Pine River I: Highway 139 to Chipmunk Rapids Campground
Pine River II: Chipmunk Rapids Campground to Goodman Grade Road
Brochure: Pine and Popple Wild Rivers
Camp: Pine and Popple Wild Rivers
General: Florence County
Guide: American Whitewater
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Wikipedia: Pine River
Miles Paddled Video: