Popple River - Wisconsin

Date: July 8, 2020; Length: 11 miles; Duration: 4 hours 30 min

Put In: Forest Rd 2398 Bridge

Side of the road parking with a grassy walk down to a manageable put in by the bridge.

Takeout: Morgan Lake Rd Bridge

Small side of the road parking area. Not a designated landing but before the bridge on river left is a good takeout spot.

Paddling Experience = 3/5

This 11-mile section of the Popple had that perfect combination of rapids and calm stretches, so why the three star rating? It's only because the water level was lower than recommended and made for so much scooting and scraping and the slowest rapid runs. At higher waters it has the potential to be a five star paddling experience.

Natural Scenery = 5/5

This section had both banks of deciduous trees and grassy marsh. Combine that with very little sign of people in the beautiful northern Wisconsin scenery and it truly gives the wild river feel that the Popple is labeled here.

Wildlife = 5/5

There were the typical birds of eagles, hawks, and ducks, along with a big snapping turtle. But best of all was the two deer that I saw and two that I heard run off, a personal record number of deer on a river trip.

Gradient & Water Level

Gradient: ~6 feet per mile. Not much of a current, but some riffles and rapids.
Experience Paddling at this Water Level: Paddling at this water level was not great. The 140 CFS was just under the suggested minimum for paddling and rightly so. There wasn't much of a current at this water while the bigger issues was scraping on countless boulders just below the surface. This even made the intermittent riffles and rapids very slow runs more often than not. One class II rapid was portaged due to low water levels but at higher levels could have been very doable.

Gauge Information

Here is information on stream gauge readings around the date of this paddle (Note: FR 2159 Bridge gauge, located 6 miles into paddling this section):

  • USGS Number = 04063700
  • Discharge Rate = 140 CFS
  • Gauge Height = 2.74 ft

Overall Experience

I was looking to paddle a river while up in northeastern Wisconsin and chose the Popple. It has about 22 miles of mapped out wild river to paddle on, with two distinct sections at about 11 miles each. I got this information from Mike Svob’s book Paddling Northern Wisconsin and from the website called Wisconsin Trail Guide. I chose the first section, from Forest Road 2398 to Forest Road 2159, for its mix of calm water and manageable rapids (class I’s and II’s only). The next 11-12 mile section, ending at Hwy 101, steps up to class III rapids. With my route decided, I parked at my intended takeout of Forest Road 2159 bridge, which is also named Morgan Lake road. There is a small area close to the bridge to pull off and park at. From here, I packed my packraft and started hiking towards my put in. About three hours and ten miles later I got to Forest Road 2398 bridge, where there is just side of the road parking and carry in access.
Still morning and I was now on the river. I knew some class I-II rapids came in the first half mile, so was gearing up for those, but quickly realized they would be more frustrating than intense. Thanks to lower than recommended water levels, which I forgot to check beforehand, rapids slowed and boulders became more exposed, making for a maze of finding the path leaving me with the least amount of stopping and scraping or scooting over rocks. Burnt Dam Rapids was the next named rapid after about five more miles. This was a class II, with two short sections to it. At this water level it felt like more of a class I, but I was just happy to have better flow and less stopping and scooting over boulders. About two miles later and around the 8-mile mark came the last rapids of a class I followed by a class II, both unnamed. After some more scooting over boulders in the class I, the class II rapid came and with it a sign on the right side of shore to portage. At the time I wasn’t sure if this was necessary or just an option for those not up for running the rapid. With water levels already low and an issue, I decided to follow the portage sign, taking a path through the woods maybe a hundred yards, coming out just beyond the bottom of the rapid. Getting back on the river and with the downriver view back of the rapid, I think I could have ran it even at this water level, with just a few moments of scooting over rocks to hold up my momentum. It was a collection of boulders with good water flow and a few feet of a drop at one point, a fun and challenging run at higher water levels.
Beyond the rapids, the Popple lacked much of a current, but this could improve at higher water levels as well. Otherwise it was a beautiful river with its dark brown, but clear water offering a great reflection of the surrounding scenery. It is a narrow wild river with a minimal amount of human development (only a handful of houses) and impact on it, where instead you are surrounded by mostly forest and some open marsh. Bridges are just as scarce, with the only one about 6 miles in, between the ones at the put in and takeout. Even less were other people in general, as I was the only paddler out there or person in sight while on the Popple. Where people lacked, came more wildlife. I spotted two eagles, a hawk, some ducks and ducklings, a big snapping turtle on a boulder, and two deer (hearing another two run off).
My trip ended after four and a half hours (a comparably slow rate for me) and just off the bridge at Forest Road 2159 or Morgan Lake road. It was a doable takeout on river left at some boulders, leading back up to the road and where I parked my car. Looking back on this trip, frustration with paddling at this water level sticks out, but with that I think about all the potential it has at higher runnable levels. Going with that is the beautifully wild surroundings to the Popple river and up there in northeastern Wisconsin, where you can really feel the solitude and like your the only one for miles.