Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Nancy Lietzau and Bonnie Jolly in a Kayak. © Roger Jolly

Bonnie Jolly and Nancy Lietzau are friends and kayak companions.
© Roger Jolly

February 2015

A river, a kayak, a friend

Adventures on the Willow Flowage and Tomahawk River are better together.

Bonnie Jolly

Kayaking the Willow Flowage and Tomahawk River in north central Wisconsin brings new friendship and many photo ops, while allowing us to discover nature at its best.

My husband and I love being outdoors and purchased kayaks as another way to explore the Willow Flowage/Tomahawk River area. He lost interest after a few trips, so I ventured out by myself. I loaded the kayak on a cart and headed off to the river. My neighbor, Nancy, expressed an interest in joining me. We have been kayaking for eight years and still get excited when the ice goes out. Last year, however, we just couldn't wait — and so we put up with a little ice and it was well worth it.

Our first trip was the most memorable and the start of a very special friendship. We put in at Kaubushine Creek, off of Cedar Falls Drive, with hopes of getting to the Tomahawk River.

As we rounded a bend, it seemed as though the creek vanished, only to discover a 3–foot–high beaver dam. Since turning around wasn't an option, we decided to lower the kayaks to the water below by standing on the dam. Nancy went first and stood in the water while I lowered my kayak. She promised to hold it as I got back in. Well, trying to get into a kayak in waist–deep water doesn't work, as I found out.

I came up sputtering, "Get the camera!"

Nancy still loves to tell that story.

Each new trip led to the planning of another and before we knew it, we had kayaked the Tomahawk River from Minocqua to Tomahawk. Not all at one time, and over the course of three years, but we did it.

On some trips not a word was uttered, as we were simply lost in the gentle flow of the river and in awe of what each new bend revealed. As we approached each bend, paddles went down and cameras came up.

Wildlife watching is one of the best parts of the adventures. © Bonnie Jolly
Wildlife watching is one of the best parts of the adventures.
© Bonnie Jolly

We were greeted by turtles sunning, a young buck munching, ducks swimming along our kayaks, herons fishing, eagles drying their wings and loons feeding their babies.

There was often an adventure just in finding the put–in and take–out spots. We also saw porcupines, raccoons, grouse, sandhill cranes and turkeys along the way.

On the longer trips, we would say, "Take out is just around the bend!" Only to discover — another bend.

We kept journals of the trips including times, weather, highlights and dozens of pictures. Each trip had its own unique qualities and if we didn't see wildlife, we still saw wildflowers.

We took lots of pictures and anxiously waited to use them to identify the plants when we got home. We saw turtlehead, broadleaf arrowhead, water smartweed, fragrant water lily, marsh marigold and Joe–Pye weed.

We would be on a "kayak high" when we got home and then to come down from it, we would sit on the porch with glasses of wine and recount the day's highlights. Documenting the trip was just as rewarding as the actual trip. We shared our stories and pictures with friends and family, who now look forward to kayaking when they visit.

Our shared love of nature and photography has given us a deep appreciation of our natural resources and all that this area has to offer.

Bonnie Jolly writes from Minocqua, Wis.

Tackling the Tomahawk River from Minocqua to Tomahawk section–by–section

Kawaguesaga Dam to Mercer Lake Road:
Put in at the dam boat landing in Minocqua and take out at Highway 70 and Mercer Lake Road. There is plenty of room for parking at both sites. In the beginning of the trip, the river flows north under Highway 70 and through the wildlife park where you can hear tropical birds reminiscent of a rain forest. There also is a large marshy area with many duck blinds. Just before the river turns to the south, there is an area on the right to take out and stretch. Here, the river flows south with sections of large pines and marshy areas. The take out is on the right just after the Highway 70 bridge. Itís about a 3–hour trip.

Mercer Lake Road to Blue Lake Road:
Put in at Mercer Lake Road and Highway 70 (parking available) and take out at Blue Lake Road (parking on road). This is one of the most scenic and photographic sections of the river. There are lots of tall pines and a rock garden near the end of the trip. We went over a small beaver dam using paddles. The highlight was seeing a spike buck munching on weeds in the shallow section of the river. The take out is on the right just after the Blue Lake Road bridge. Itís about a 2 Ĺ–hour trip.

Blue Lake Road to Camp Nine:
Put in at Blue Lake Road (parking on road) and take out at Camp Nine (parking on road). We were able to take one vehicle and walk back to Blue Lake Road about 2Ĺ miles. The start of the trip takes you through a farm where you can hear piglets in the spring. Watch out for wires going across the river. This also is a very curvy and narrow section of river with lots of fallen trees and debris. The section might not be accessible in low water years. The take out is on the right just after the Camp Nine bridge. Itís about a 1–hour trip.

Camp Nine to Cedar Falls Road:
Put in at Camp Nine (parking on road) and take out near the Cedar Falls Rapids at Cedar Falls Road (parking on road). During the first hour of paddling expect low, marshy areas. There are eagle nests and we saw a green heron, eagles, ducks and turtles. Watch closely for the take out, which is on the left by Cedar Falls Road with the Cedar Falls Rapids just ahead. Itís about a 2 Ĺ–hour trip.

Willow Flowage–Cedar Falls Campground to the beach boat landing:
Put in at the private campground on Cedar Falls Road (north end of Willow Flowage). There is a $2 boat launch fee. Take out at the Willow Flowage beach landing on Willow Dam Road (northwest of boat landing). Parking is available at both sites. The first section is narrow but opens up to the flowage about 30 minutes into the trip. Watch for brown signs indicating campsites. Grills, picnic tables and primitive toilets are available. We had to portage around the Four Islands area because the water was low. Bring a map of the flowage and stay to the left so that you can find the beach boat launch (if lost you can always ask fishermen). Itís about a 3–hour trip.

Willow Dam to Highway Y:
Put in below the dam (parking in boat launch lot). There is a short portage through the woods to get there. The take out is at Highway Y. This is one of our favorite trips. You might have to walk out to the river if the dam is closed. Beware of fast moving water around the first bend. Youíll come to a campground shortly after; stay to the right when you see rocks because itís very shallow to the left. There are lots of eagles. The take out is on the right after the Highway Y bridge. Go past rocks. There is an inlet for take out. Half Breed Rapids is just ahead. Itís about a 1 Ĺ–hour trip.

Rocky Run Road to Swamp Lake Road:
Put in on Rocky Run Road by Swan Creek where there is low water and a beaver dam could be possible. An alternate route is to put in at the Tomahawk River access on Rock Acres Drive; however, it is a long drop to the water (parking on road). Take out is at Swamp Lake Road (before the bridge) on the right (parking on road). During the first hour of the trip youíll encounter tall pines, riffles and islands. Itís very pretty. After the islands, there is a spot on the right to take out and stretch. There is an eagle nest just past this spot. For the next hour youíll experience low and marshy areas and paddle through a private hunting area. Itís here we saw eagles, deer, ducks and turtles. There are tall pines and bluffs before the take out on the right and it will be marked by a brown sign. Itís about a 2–hour trip.

Swamp Lake Road to Prairie Rapids:
Put in on Swamp Lake Road at the river access sign (parking on road) and take out above Prairie Rapids (parking on fire lane). During the first part of the trip youíll find grassy shoreline and then tall pines and bluffs. The take out is at the trail leading to the fire lane off Peaceful Lane. Avoid the Prairie Rapids. Itís about a 2 Ĺ–hour trip.

Prairie Rapids Road to the Point of Pines Landing at Lake Nokomis:
Put in downstream of the rapids on Prairie Rapids Road (parking on road) and take out at the boat landing on Point of Pines Road (parking available). We were able to take one vehicle and walk back to put in on Prairie Rapids Road (about 2 Ĺ miles). We put pink ribbons in the trees at the destination boat landing so we could find it from Lake Nokomis. We were unable to see them from the water and wound up asking fishermen to point us in the right direction. There is fast moving water and riffles at the start of the trip. Along the way, we saw eagles, loons, ducks, geese and sandhill cranes. Itís about a 1 Ĺ–hour trip.

Note: Bring a map of the area. Itís a good idea to look at take–out sites before the trip. Beware of fast water under bridges and stay to the right or left for take out before you go under a bridge. The times provided here are approximate as we stopped for pictures, lunch and stretching whenever possible. There are three rapids we avoided: Cedar Falls, Half Breed Rapids and Prairie Rapids.