Floating the Apple River Canyon

The final stretch before the Apple River joins the St. Croix offers a short, sweet and wild adventure.

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Apple River canyon, photo by John Schletty
Apple River canyon, photo by John Schletty

The pool in the Apple River below the dam ends where a prow of yellow sandstone constricts the river’s width. I squeeze into my kayak and paddle through the still water. Near the rock prow, the current grabs hold. I quit paddling and drift. The surface of the rain-swollen river swells as though it is about to boil (a couple more minutes and I’ll throw in the linguini). Wolfman is ahead in his green canoe, stabbing the water with his paddle. He appears eager to leave the dam road behind, the one we’d portaged in on, to flee into the unknown of the canyon.

I head into the froth of a standing wave at the first bend past the rock prow. The kayak rises, dips and a burst of river water smacks against my chest. I’m glad I brought the spray-skirt.

The river banks are close-set walls of green interrupted by an occasional glimpse of sandstone cliff, sometimes 100 feet overhead. Summer is finally on. For the moment this place seems apart from time. One second ago, or five hundred years ago, besides the composites the boats are made of, the former is no more likely than the latter. Upon closer look, however, and this is difficult with the current bustling along, large buckthorn trees thrive on the banks. Still, especially on a river with so many dams, reservoirs and drunken tubers, this is awesome.

While driving around during the winter, I’d noticed a portage sign on County Road I, northwest of Somerset, where the road dips to pass over the dry Apple River bed, the river having been channeled underground as part of the 2.9 megawatt Xcel dam. I was excited to see the sign because the portage led toward the head of the Apple River Canyon, which was something I’d wanted to paddle for years. I’d thought the private Xcel Energy property would prevent access. In February, I scouted the portage, which led less than one-half mile, mostly along a gated access road, to the dam outflow.

The canyon is rugged and trail-less. Much of it is managed by the Wisconsin DNR. In summer, three-foot-high thickets of poison ivy grow on steep, crumbling slopes between two layers of cliffs. It’s a place to visit when nights are longer than days. Late one winter I was walking the base of the upper cliff-line and came across a cave. I donned the headlamp I keep in my camera bag and ducked into the cave. Ten feet ahead, a pair of large eyes glowed. The eyes seemed to be about eight feet off the ground. I turned and ran, perhaps I screamed. It was probably a raccoon, though I like to think it was a bear. When I returned a few weeks later, the cave was empty. Nearby, I saw a coyote pup sitting outside a den dug into the base of the same cliff-line.

Beyond the rapids, with the road behind and the illusion of wilderness mostly intact, Wolfman slows and I catch up. Thick white pines are plentiful. Columbine hang from the banks. On a moss-covered wedge of stone, rising from the current as a tiny island, grows a spruce, or fir, I can never tell.

The canyon opens slightly. On the shore are a few small cabins. A man swings on a rope over the river. Behind him, in a meadow-like yard, children play. I’m a little jealous of their property. Only a mile and a half long, the canyon soon ends. The Apple splits into channels and meets the Saint Croix in the expanse of bottomlands called Saint Croix Islands State Wildlife Area.

Wolfman and I paddle north for two miles across what now resembles a sizable lake, but once the river level drops will be a series of channels through sedges and reeds. We reach the public access point on the upriver shore of the backwater lake and portage the boats a short ways to a gate off of Rice Lake Road, where my car awaits.

That night I dream of a canyon like the Apple that stretches on forever.

Leaving the Apple, entering the St. Croix, photo by John Schletty
Leaving the Apple, entering the St. Croix, photo by John Schletty

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Floating the Apple River Canyon