Date: May 7, 2022; Length: 5 miles; Duration: 2 hours
Planning: The Popple River is a wild and scenic river in northeastern Wisconsin and flows east until merging with its mirror twin just north of it in that of the Pine River. Mike Svob has two trips of the Popple totaling 22 miles in his book Paddling Northern Wisconsin. A couple years ago I paddled his first trip 11 mile Popple trip and had some major water level issues. So this time around, I kept a watch out on the Popple’s water gauge information and much better timed my shortened 5-mile rapids-filled trip from Morgan Lake road to highway 101.
Shuttle: Mike Svob’s whole second trip to the Popple is 12.2 miles with a similar length shuttle, which I typically do on foot, so I cut this trip in half, with the 5-mile section requiring a 6.3 mile hike instead. This started at Popple River Park, just off the highway 101 bridge and went south on 101 for a couple miles before turning off into backroads, which is typically where I run into much less traffic, but not this time, as a biking race was taking place. After a whole lot of waves and heys, I got to the bridge to the Popple and found the pull out area and trail leading down to the water just downstream of it.
Paddling: The rapids steal the show on this short 5-mile section of the Popple, but even between them, the paddling was excellent. Calm stretches had a nice current and plenty of water, while remaining clear of blockages. The river was also narrow and winding, making it hard to feel much monotony in paddling.
Rapids: Riffles, class I’s and easy class II rapids were well distributed in this 5-mile section of river and fun to float through and hit some waves. The two big class III drops on the other hand were quite the real deal experience. Little Bull Falls came first and just about half a mile into paddling. As recommended, I got out on the left side of the river to scout it and found it fairly clear where I needed to be positioned to have a clean run on the two main drops. I was able to do so thanks to plenty of water flow and my wide and sturdy packraft, but also still had more class II rapids immediately to follow for a couple minutes of paddling. A similar situation occurred with Big Bull Falls, with a stop to scout and plan out where I should be positioned heading into the drops. When the time came, I had pretty clean runs on the two significant drops, which still couldn’t keep me dry but at least still upright and on top of the water. From here once again followed a solid class II rapid to end the strong rapids to this trip.
Observations: My main observations were of the water and its challenging rapids, but in the lull moments I spotted some ducks and an osprey for wildlife, along with four different small groups of people fishing, with two of them being at the put in and take out bridges. Otherwise, the water was pretty clear and dark brown, with banks of grass and forest and a lack of human development in general.
Reflections: This trip on the Popple River was worth the wait in timing the higher than normal water levels. It was quick but full of a mix of calm stretches with the natural surroundings the main attraction to all there is to experience in whitewater rapids. I’m looking forward to finishing out the last handful of miles to this river in a future year and expect to find a similar experience.