Difficulty II(III) at this flow (I-II(III) normally)
Length 4.5 Miles
Flow Range 600 - 3000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 2 hours ago ~ 1010 [CFS] ℹ️
Reach Info Last Updated 04/01/2019 9:55 pm

River Description

Quick Facts:

Location: Clarks Mills, approximately 10 miles due west from Manitowoc.
Shuttle Length: 4.2 miles. (See details in "Directions" Tab.)
Character: Two bedrock ledges, a few areas of compression waves, and a few random boulder-bed rapids.
Drainage area at listed put-in: ~390 sq.mi.

Put-in is approximately 795' elevation.
Take-out is approximately 650' elevation.
Thus total elevation change is approximately 145'.

General Overview

Putting in at Leist Road one quickly encounters (upper) Cato Falls. To call this a falls is a misnomer, since there is not really even a ledge/drop at good boatable flows. You will find sweet waves and holes which will allow repeat play. At flows of 1000-2000 cfs, action here can get quite interesting! Above that there may be some play, but only the top one will allow repeat play via a river-right eddy. There is a 'sportsmen's club' this spot which makes 'park-and-play' feasible. (Each time I have encountered anyone here, they have been very friendly and allowed parking and river access with no problem. If/when folks are present, you can use restrooms and it wouldn't hurt to buy a beverage and chat a bit!)

Downstream, it will seem a lengthy bit of paddling (due to flatwater) to get to the Clarks Mills Dam, which should be portaged (river-left). The dam is about 7-8' down to a 'splash pan' (cement slab) which then spills out through random large rocks (placed in the riverbed to prevent or reduce scouring of the riverbed). Do not even think about running this dam!

From below the dam in Clarks Mills, less than a mile of paddling brings you to Lower Cato Falls. A few warm-up waves lead to a short ledge combination (a couple feet total drop . . . again, southern Wisconsin is generous in what is described as a 'falls'). At higher water levels (above 600 cfs), some really sweet playable waves form here. As flows push higher, this becomes (by some reports) one of the best big wave features in SouthEastern Wisconsin! A wonderful county park (with a Frisbee-golf course) allows convenient parking and pit-toilets. There is about a 180 yard carry (including a flight of wood steps) to get down to the river, where the banks are somewhat steep bedrock. Play boaters have been doing 'park-and-play' here, though inexperienced or less aggressive paddlers will find the current awfully strong, especially at higher flows when it pushes back into a bit of a grotto. (Swim left to stay in current going downstream to an eddy behind the wall to avoid being trapped!) At high flows, the pool is filled with swirls and boils which surge and pulse, but eddies either side allow repeat play.

Less experienced boaters may wish to use this park as an alternate put-in to avoid having to portage Clarks Mills Dam and the 'falls', putting in below the falls to run some length of river downstream. About two miles more brings you to Oslo Dam. While the dam has long ago been removed, a bit of a constriction forms a minor wave train leading into a large pool below. Paddlers most interested in maximizing whitewater (and minimizing flatwater) will prefer to end their trip at this point (if they haven't just opted for park-and-play at either/each of the Cato Falls sites), since the next stretch of river contains only much lower grade rapids until the lower Manitowoc section.

While a few folks have argued to the contrary, I have found the water quality on this stretch can be a bit 'iffy'. The drainage is dominated by cattle farms (I believe a number of 'industrial farms', packing unusually large numbers of cattle in inordinately small space), and virtually every field in the area is spread with manure all winter. It stands to reason that the runoff (especially in early spring) will contain significant amounts of fecal matter. Recent changes in DNR rules regarding farm practices should help, but I wouldn't expect miracles. Note: this is not intended as a criticism of agricultural practices or the farmers in the area. It is just an advisory for those who pursue recreation on this river. Again, other boaters report having boated MANY days on this river with no problem. When the river flows high for days on end, it is likely to flush the worst of the problem out in the early going, thus may run quite respectably 'clean' (as these boaters assert). I would still strongly advise you do your best to keep your mouth closed if you flip or get some significant splash and make sure to shower and thoroughly rinse all gear (ASAP) after being in/on this river to avoid some major river-funk.

Rapid Descriptions

USGS sampling site

Class - N/A Mile - -2.3
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

USGS lists a sampling site about 2.3 miles upstream of our listed put-in, listing drainage area of 383 square miles.

(Upper) Cato Falls

Class - II Mile - 0.22
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

This feature lies just downstream of the listed put-in. The river takes a bend to the right and you'll encounter a few mild waves. As it bends back to the left the real action begins. Do not expect a 'falls' here. For that matter, there is not really even that much of a ledge. However, there is a fine series of bedrock intrusions, creating a short series of sweet waves at good boatable flow -- probably best from maybe 800 to 1200 cfs, possibly worthwhile down to 500-600 cfs and up to 1500-2000 cfs. (Ranges are somewhat uncertain, as I have only been here at 1000 and 1500 cfs.)

At 1500 cfs, there is a very retentive looking hole center stream. It is easily avoided by heading far right, catching the eddy below it to either stage for it (if you want to give it a play) or to stage for the other waves which follow. At 1500 cfs, you can paddle up between trees river-left to get repeat play. Flows much higher than 1500 cfs are likely to make this whole area too much of a wash to offer much reasonable play (but, to each his own -- that theory is as yet untested).

If permission for access can be obtained from the sportsmen's club (river-left) this could be done as a park-and-play. In fairness to anyone who may travel a bit to get here, I would repeat the warning that you are in the heart of dairy country. A farm with a large herd lies adjacent to this playspot (just off the right/south banks). As a result, both air and water here will most of the time reek with the odor of manure. This very considerably diminishes the advisability of doing any 'full out' play here, as rolling, swimming, or even getting too many face splashes seems a very bad idea.

Enjoy the following YouTube video of a run in a tandem open canoe. (Notice that they do have proper whitewater floatation, helmets, and PFDs!)

Clarks Mills Dam

Class - N/A Mile - 2
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

There is parking and access here. Even though (upper) Cato Falls offers a sweet series of waves and holes to run or play, some paddlers may wish to skip the long lake/backwater paddle (which starts not far downstream of those waves) and may opt to use this location as a put-in instead.

The dam should NOT be run, as flow drops hard onto a concrete 'splash block' with large rocks immediately backing it up in the outflow (to reduce or eliminate hydraulic scouring of the riverbed). Put-in as far from the dam as possible and paddle strongly, as there may be a persistent eddy trying to pull you upstream toward the dam.

USGS lists a sampling site just upstream of the dam and shows drainage at this point as 399 square miles.

Lower Cato Falls

Class - III Mile - 3.15

OK, for South Eastern Wisconsin, this is a 'falls'. There is a ledge/drop here, but it is hardly a 'falls'. It will be exciting/challenging for novice (non-whitewater) paddlers. For reasonably experienced whitewater paddlers, at low-to-moderate water levels, it will not provide any real difficulty. At higher flows (800-1500 cfs, give or take), there will be decent play here. Those with adequate skills may find some of the lead-in waves to allow surfs and spins, before dropping through the larger ledge and the couple of waves below it. At flows above 2000, the full-out freestyle crowd has been loving this spot! 

Note: This is a popular spot for fishing, as fish often aggregate in the pools to the sides of the main flow here. Expect to contend with fishermen at certain times of year.

Enjoy the following video of this spot at 2750 cfs:

Cato Falls Playing from Philllll on Vimeo.
Lower Cato Falls of the Manitowoc River at 2750cfs.
April 6, 2013

Former Oslo Dam site

Class - II Mile - 4.5

Site of a former dam, the river constricts here, then hits a broad pond. As a result, this area is prone to some decent compression waves.


default user thumbnail
10 years ago

Access for PnP at 'upper' Cato Falls is very handy from the Sportsman's Club. I have used that a couple times, finding no one there to ask nor to take issue with our presence. At least a couple times I have found folks in the clubhouse/bar, and they were absolutely fine with me parking there and accessing the river. Generally I have found many private property owners (or in this case, groups) in Wisconsin to be quite amenable to allowing such access (and 'short term' parking), as long as one is as courteous and 'up front' as possible when explaining what you wish to do and asking for their permission. Of course, I have usually done so for pretty-much 'one time' (or once in a blue moon) access. It could be a different story if you plan on doing so a number of days in a row, or every time the river is at a playable flow. And, there is always the possibility that some individual associated with the Sportsman's Club, at some time, could be less amenable to allowing this access (especially at times when there may be club activities on the grounds) in which case one should be prepared to politely excuse one's self and move on.

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bryan foster
10 years ago

Has anyone contacted the sportsman's club at upper cato to ask if PnP is ok via their land? As far as playable...there are some side surfs and couple of small waves at 800 cfs (I uploaded a short video of one of the waves, didn't get any footage of the side surfer.). Of course at 800cfs the lower cato has a bigger wave with easy eddy access. This was our first time to the river, and it was pretty sweet considering not much else was running.

default user thumbnail
12 years ago

I float this strech alot with my friends in early spring, always do-able at 4'11" or higher E-mail for conditions valgon01@yahoo.com

Gage Descriptions

Gauge is well downstream, at take-out for lower reach.
'Minimum Recommended Flow' is for reasonable whitewater play at Lower Cato Falls. Most of the river is boatable lower than this, but whitewater areas will become 'grungy'.
'Maximum Recommended Flow' is a level at which the river will become 'pushy' and Lower Cato Falls will be significantly more troublesome to less-experienced paddlers. For confident, experienced whitewater paddlers, the whole run (or eac individual area) may be paddled much higher.

Drainage area at gauge: 526 sq.mi.
Gauge/flow analysis (based on data from 1972.07.26 through 2008.09.26)
Minimum mean daily flow during gauge period (1989.10.04): 7 cfs
90% of time flow exceeds: 30 cfs
10% of time flow exceeds: 800 cfs
Maximum mean daily flow during gauge period (1979.03.31): 8,000 cfs
10/90 ratio ('flashy-ness'): 27 (under 3 is fairly steady, over 10 is quite 'flashy')

Offseason ("Ice") stage/gauge correlation:
8.48' ===> 2200 cfs
8.24' ===> 2000 cfs
7.92' ===> 1750 cfs
7.58' ===> 1500 cfs
7.00' ===> 980 cfs
6.50' ===> 736 cfs
6.00' ===> 538 cfs
5.50' ===> 352 cfs

Directions Description

Serious whitewater playboaters are more likely to pursue park-and-play at (upper) Cato Falls (with access through the Sportsman's Club), and/or at Lower Cato Falls (via the county park which it lies within).

No Accident Reports







Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1202041 05/05/13 Rob Minor edits
1201950 04/08/13 Rob Redo access info
1208701 01/08/18 Rob remove table from gauge description, putting info into simple statement/paragraph form.
1211610 04/01/19 Rob updated image position
1207018 11/29/16 Rob minor edit
1193260 05/05/09 Rob n/a
1195491 06/18/09 Rob
1195492 06/18/09 Rob
1195540 06/23/09 Rob
1197840 06/17/10 Rob Minor description revision; add Clarks Mills dam info.
1195955 09/08/09 Rob Supply 'lost' length value.
1197977 07/24/10 Rob Updates after run at 1500 cfs.