Located in a park just a couple blocks from the downtown mall, this site allows easy access for boaters and spectators, and acts as a point of pride for the community.
Back in the 1970's, some area boaters recognized the potential for a whitewater course in what was a 'bypass channel' at a dam in downtown Wausau. Working with city and state authorities, permissions were granted to clear years of accumulated brush and debris and to make enhancements to the channel. Using stone, gravel, and dirt, a berm was created to narrow the channel. To supplement the natural bedrock ledges in the river, huge granite boulders were trucked in to create (or enhance) waves, holes, pourovers, and strategic eddies.
Releases are via an accordion-hinged 'scissors-gate' which allows water (and boaters!) to go over the gate. Flows reportedly may be varied from 125 to 2000 cubic feet per second, though the standard release is 650 cfs.
Paddlers must have proper equipment, sign a waiver, and pay a usage fee: $15/day, $25/weekend, (plus either ACA membership or a payment in lieu for insurance coverage), though 'special events' may have different fee structures.NOTE: The gradient figure of 125 feet per mile cited above is technically not correct, since the course is only around 1/3 of a mile in length. I've seen conflicting information about the length and amount of drop. One site lists length as "600 meters with a drop of 15 meters" ( or 49' in 0.37 mi.), while other info suggests 39' in 1/3 mile. Either way, it works out to an equivalent of over 100 feet per mile, so it does tend to be a bit 'pushy'. While no part of the course exceeds a II-III rating, novice boaters may find the course a bit punishing if they don't have a solid roll.
Initially designed primarily as a 'slalom course', the relative decline of slalom boating combined with the increased popularity of freestyle or 'playboating' has lead to significant changes to the course, so a good number of spots allow for various 'play' maneuvers. Modification of various parts of the course is somewhat ongoing, as funding and approvals for design and modification allow.
The course relies heavily on volunteers to maintain the course and provide trained safety personnel for all releases. Interested parties are encouraged to contact Wausau Whitewater to ensure the continued operation of this excellent facility.
There is a large island in the backwater of the dam just upstream of the course. Quite interestingly, a railroad line makes use of this island to cross the river.
There is a pedestrian bridge giving access to Barker-Stewart Island Park, where there is a marker for the historic site of the Barker & Stewart Sawmill. This pedestrian bridge is part of approximately a mile of multi-use (walking/biking) trail along the river-left shore, giving access to this island and Isle of Ferns (downriver).
Another foot/bike bridge connects Barker's Island to Big Bull Falls Park, on the next island (which lies at river-left of the entire whitewater course), allowing a fine loop-trail.
For confident padlers, the run begins in the 'pool' above the dam, where folks often practice their braces, their rolls, and various flatwater tricks.
Heading to the dam (which lies directly beneath the elevated bridge of Scott Street), a 'scissors gate' creates a smooth sliding drop (of ~5') into a chaotic jumble of waves. Strong current heads toward a vertical wall on river-left, so it is best to either run river-right, or with a strong left-to-right angle.
The first feature is a wave/hole which generally does not get much attention/play.
NOTE: While this lies upstream of the access point used by those not wishing to run the dam/gate, it is easy to paddle upstream from that put-in to play this spot before heading downriver.
For those intimidated by running the dam/gate (or otherwise not wishing to carry further to put-in on the flatwater area above the dam), a cement walkway and staging pad has been created here. At normal release flows, you slide very easily from cement to the water.
As is the case with the majority of features on this course, trucked-in granite boulders have been emplaced to create a pourover/hole. Decent eddies exist to each shore. Immediately after this drop, the channel takes a bend to the left, meaning current heads toward (and is deflected by) the river-right shoreline. Boaters coming off/out-of the feature in control should have no problem breaking out into an eddy (river-left or river-right) for repeat play. Those failing a roll attempt or two will most likely be flushed past a minor wave/drop downstream and will be unable to regain this feature.
Immediately coming out from under the Washington Street Bridge, another line of rocks trips the flow into a fine retentive wave/hole. Again, good eddies (right and left) allow repeat play. Spectators can easily gather along the river-left fence or the sidewalk on the bridge to catch an overhead view of those plying the waters here.
While it may not look all that gnarly, this is probably the meanest feature on the course. It is usually run at river-right, where there is no backroller (wave/hole). The entire left (maybe 2/3rds or 3/4ths) of the channel drops into a 'crease' which is very prone to catching and holding boats. Even folks in whitewater canoes (with full floatation) have had trouble escaping the grip of this hole! (Want to practice hole-escape techniques? This could be a 'safe'/controlled place to do that, with plenty of folks around to watch and set rescue! However, be aware its a good place for windowshading and getting your bell rung.)
A fine bedrock slide exists here. The shores have been narrowed (by large granite boulders) to funnel the water to the center of the channel down this drop. A rise of bedrock at the head of the drop creates a center-stream eddy (for those confident enough to try for it!). At the base of the drop is a hole which is quite turbulent, and the current rips through the pool below. Good eddies exist to both left and right, but you have to charge hard to break out of the current taking you quickly over the next boulder-choke/drop.
This is the biggest natural drop on the run (the other big drop being the dam/gate), and (many years back) used to be the primary hole for competitions. Various 'tweaks' to the channel/course have had this feature fall out of favor (too turbulent and uncontrolled), as others have been manufactured with the addition of boulders. However, it is still a fine rush for beginner/intermediate boaters to run this drop!
This boulder-choke/pourover has become the main feature for whitewater 'freestyle' boaters (I.E., the best 'play' feature) and is where most of the freestyle competition events take place. Very significant shoreline improvements allow spectators a place to watch the action here.
Interestingly, the rest of the course has drops somewhat unimaginatively named by numbering them from downriver-to-upriver! Thus, boaters encounter them in 'countdown' fashion: #4, #3, #2, #1.
Beginners and less aggressive paddlers may forego the upper part of the course and just play this and the following features, which are all more 'beginner friendly', while still allowing a good variety of playboating maneuvers: surfs, spins, and even elevated moves (enders, cartwheels, etc) are possible in pretty much each of these final wave/holes.
(NOTE: the photo we are using above was not labeled as to at which drop it was taken. It is fairly representative of each of the bottom four drops.)
Downstream of the course lies Isle of Ferns (aka 'Fern Island'). A footbridge connects to the river-left multi-use path, giving pedestrians and bikers access to this island, which has a bit of a loop-trail.
Each August (generally the third weekend, which corresponds to the annual Midwest Freestyle Championships), the Big Bull Falls Blues Fest is held on this island, making that a grand weekend to be in Wausau! (We should note that the blues fest is Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening, while the freestyle event is morning/afternoon Saturday and Sunday, with 'practice water' time also on Thursday and Friday.)
Scheduled releases for slalom practice, rodeo practice, and 'open' sessions.
Standard release levels are 650 cfs.
See the wausauwhitewater.org website for release and event dates, and special fees which may apply.
Permits are not required for this reach.
Since this lies entirely within a riverside city park, 'shuttle' is via carrying up. We therefore have defaulted the directions below to give you generic drive time, distance, and directions from your home zipcode. Use the text entry box below to fill in your actual home or other starting address for more specific drive time, distance, and directions to this park.
Running Big Drop
Pros at Wausau
Wausau Whitewater Dam 08'
2nd play hole under road bridge
New Rodeo Hole '05
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