South Fork Flambeau

USMidwestern region
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Karl Smithback
Trip Date : 
June 1, 2017
Additional Route Information
118 km
5 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
250 m
Longest Portage: 
250 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Not applicable
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 
Technical Guide: 

73 miles, 5 days, Class I-III. Put in: Round Lake Logging Dam, Take-out Beaver Dam Landing. 

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

The South Fork Flambeau, is seldom paddled from the headwaters at Round Lake past the confluence with the North Fork and onto the flowages above Ladysmith. Places to camp are also very sparse and takes a fair bit of planning to understand where the state/national forests start and end, as they are largely fragmented. There is such a lack of information on paddling its length, I would in fact venture to guess we were one of maybe 2-3 groups to have ever paddled the entire length in a single trip in the last 50 years. Mike Svob even warns, "there is no camping along the South Fork Flambeau". Not a true statement. The locals seemed to further confirm this presumption with their surprise that we were planning to descend the entire river. 

There are no dams on the South Fork Flambeau, which is one of the reasons I was so eager to paddle it--Okay there is one dam. Out of Round Lake at the put-in is a restored wooden logging dam, which does not regulate flow and provides for an interesting historical put in. 

There is also no gauge on the South Fork, which makes guessing runnable rates pretty difficult from the couch. Local whitewater paddlers use the stairs at a put-in at highway M to estimate runnable levels. Well, this doesn't help with guessing levels on the upper reaches, and as I learned, isn't a good reference for fully laden open-boaters. Having all of last winter to daydream and put-together data driven spreadsheets correlating google images marked with known dates with area gauges, I managed to beat the system and discovered an incredibly reliable USGS gauge for the South Fork. 

The Bear River gauge, located near the Lac du Flambeau reservation drains a similar area (albeit less water), and drains from a meteoroligically proximite location. SO--when the bear is up, the South Fork is up. Specifically, when the bear is at or above 150 cfs, the South Fork is eminently runnable--notwithstanding the stair gauge indicating otherwise. 

We in fact left when the Bear River gauge was approaching 200 cfs. 210-220, I believe, is an optimum level for a tripping boat and gear, with 250-300 cfs being some significant swamping in Slough Gundy, and as low as 100-120 cfs for boulder dodging and maybe some butt scooting here and there but otherwise enjoyable.

So after a high water spring, we departed for the put-in at Round Lake Logging Dam on June 1. There is a trail from the parking area that leads down to the river about 100 yards below the dam. We had left a car at the Beaver Dam Landing above Ladysmith, and were on the water at 1:00pm. I was concerned some of the rapids in the upper reaches would be drags, but with the water levels they were all fun splashy Class Is. The Smith Rapids campground comes fairly quickly in the trip, and apparently is closed for an undetermined amount of time. The local wardens explained we would be free to camp in the grassy overflow parking area to the east of the road....We were not about to camp in an overflow parking lot, and intended to go further until a suitable campsite revealed itself. We did stop, however, to admire the covered bridge.

We ended up stopping at a site dubbed "Treasure Point" at mile 9.5. An easy 1st day. The promontory consists of a ridge of woods that approaches very near the river and is topped with Norway Pines. It is fairly obvious amongst the tag alder swamp, and marsh grasses. You'll know you are there if you happen to find the geodesic survey marker in the ground, and a hollow sound beneath your feet when unloading--hence "Treasure Point" since it obviously isn't a hollowed rotted root, but must be a buried chest of treasure....A couple scotches and you'll be convinced of this anyway. 

The campsite is quite beautiful and has the feeling of a more remote site. We retired after steaks, corn on the cob, and some trivial pursuit played on the underside of my wannigan lid where I've painted a playing board. 

After a quick and cold dip in the morning we continued on, planning to make it to Fifield to eat at the supper club there--I know, really wild country. Despite the scattering of vacation cabins in the first part of the river, it really does have the feel of a more remote river, and compares with the perceived remoteness of the more frequented North Fork. The Sugar Bush area in particular where the river ponds up amongst the alders and muskeg was a scenic change of pace. We also noted for future trips, that at Mile 17 a stairway leads up from the river to the Sportsmans Lounge, almost in the perfect spot for an early lunch and brewskies. We did not stop however, and continued onto Blockhouse Dam to eat. Blockhouse dam, is not a true dam. In fact, there are many dams along the length that are remnants of rock dams used during the logging era, and are easily run. There is a very interesting academic article written by someone at the UW on the logging history of the area. Apparently many of these dams were built by a man known only as "The Beaver". Dam building at that time was more folk art than engineering. 

Anyway, Blockhouse dam (not really a dam) looked a tad daunting after the 2' drops and riffles that had preceeded, but anyone with fair boat-handling skills would barely sneeze at this. In lower water, it's probably a drag. Worth noting further down, is Boar's Rapids. Not by any means big, but one of my favorites--A fun Class II, that surprises you around a corner and with the pool at the top, and sharp gradient feels a bit like a log flume. 

We continued on to Fifield and pulled off in the park there. Two of us ran up to the supper club to get fish fry and old fashions to go in styrofoam cups, while the rest watched the boats. We ate in the park, swam in the rapids there and continued on later that evening. By the time we reached camp we traveled 24.3 miles and averaged a little over 4 mph--a pace which we kept or surpassed for the remainder of the trip. 

Finding a campsite this night is a tad more difficult. There are a few isolated tracts of public land that should be lawful to camp on, but the first few we came across were overgrown and/or partially flooded. We passed a wayside park at Highway 13 with grills, a pit privy, picnic tables and potable water. Not ideal, but we were spent and camped along the trees as far from the road as possible. We later discovered the no overnight camping signs facing away from the river....We figured nobody would kick canoeists off back into the river in the middle of the night. Ultimately, I would camp here again if I had to. It was nice to have potable water and a clean throne. That being said, downriver there was a suitable crash-site on public land. Much beyond the wayside, you're stuck with wooded private property, and logging tracts for another 20-some miles.  

The third day on the water we planned to make the 23+ mile trip to the State Forest where we knew we would find camping again. This beautiful stretch was punctuated by plenty of fun easy rapids. No surprises, nothing above a class II. (I should qualify--novices would have a bit of a tough time navigating boats through some of the narrow rapids and boulder gardens, I could see a lot of low-consequence carnage with inexperienced boaters. But with intermediate handling skills, you should be fine). 

I won't share the campsite this night, because it was too good to be true and among the best I've seen elsewhere in Canada, the Rockies, Arctic or elsewhere--just uniquely Northwoods Wisconsin and well-situated. If you're looking around the 54-59 mile mark, you'll probably happen across it.

Day 4 was the first day of serious rapids. Mostly class II-III and portage around little falls, which was running a strong III+, and unrunnable for open 17' boats loaded down with wannigans, etc.--(or runnable if you're okay with swamping and losing much of your gear). All were run without consequence, with the exception of some swamping on the crux of slough gundy. A very beautiful stretch of water with rapids, falls, granite cliffs, and some great wave trains. We all had whitewater helmets, throw bags, appropriate gear for this. I would not advise doing days three and four without a helmet, and whitewater skills. In lower water this section becomes benign to downright boney. I later looked, and the gauge on the bear river this day was 185ish, and I could have stood for another 4-6" of water. (For the whitewater boaters: the water was 3/4 of the way to the top of the bottom stair). 

We ate lunch at the forks, and camped that night at Cedar Rapids on the North Fork of the Flambeau.

The following day we paddled the North Fork to Beaver Dam Landing where we took out and drove the 5 hours home. We arrived at the landing at about 10:30am after a 9:00am start. 

This trip report might lead one to believe the river is in a fairly developed area, but for the upper midwest it has the feel of being no more populated than most of the North Fork, and is a far more varied and scenic river. Plus, given there are no impediments on the way down, it has the feel of a much wilder river. Of all the trips I've done, the South Fork Flambeau rates very high for being a remaining vestige of Wisconsin's wild past. I would even say this is the best 5 day run in the upper midwest if one excludes BWCA. If planning to run the length, go early in the season with appropriate boats, gear, and whitewater abilities--or of course, portage. Make sure the Bear River gauge is 200-300 cfs, and no lower than 150 the day you put in. County web maps are invaluable for identifying public land. My group plans to alternate doing this "home river" on odd number years, and doing more adventurous 8-14 day trips in the James and Hudson Bay basin even numbered years. At least that's our plan until the next big idea. 

Maps Required
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Post date: Thu, 08/31/2017 - 20:51


Fantastic Trip!