I grew up only a couple miles from the Manitowoc River in east Central Wisconsin, but only canoed a short, quiet stretch one time before.
The river begins east of Lake Winnebago in calm fashion and flows through miles of marshland and farmland before picking up speed near the village of Valders on it's final leg to Lake Michigan.
I put in with my 3 kids west of Valders on Quarry Road bridge. The trip here begins with a wide section of river that is still calm. A picturesque horse farm is down river on the left bank. We were surprised by a bald eagle sighting and soon came upon it's nest sitting atop a railroad bridge that spans the river a couple miles west of Valders.
The river narrows considerably after about an hour of paddling and the pace is noticeably quicker. Paddlers are rewarded with a section of class I rapids known as Upper Cato Falls. Riffles and small rapids continue for a short while before you begin another stretch of calm water that passes a cemetery in Clarks Mills. We had a second bald eagle sighting near a large island across from the cemetery. You will soon paddle under the Hwy J bridge in Clarks Mills and immediately exit at a nice landing on the left bank. CAUTION - passing this landing will send you over a dam!
An easy portage around the dam sends you on another fast flowing stretch of riffles down to Lower Cato Falls. This is a more challenging rapid rated Class II or better and we chose to portage on the right bank right before the falls.
We put in again below the falls and completed the 10 mile, 3 hour trip by paddling to County Hwy S bridge and taking out at the landing there on the left bank. This landing is nicely maintained by the local Fish and Game Association with a picnic area and restroom. The river pace is quick as it passes under the Hwy S bridge and would provide another 3 mile stretch of riffles and small rapids to the next take out at Union Road. The landing is also on the left and easily accessible.
More experienced paddlers can continue all the way to Manitowoc and Lake Michigan, but there are more challenging class II-III rapids along the way.
This stretch of river is best to do early in the season since the river is generally shallow with rocky bottom from Upper Cato Falls into Manitowoc. We were fortunate to have a good rain storm several days before the trip, so flow and river depth were good. The flow is monitored by a USGS gage near Manitowoc and river level and flow can be checked at the USGS website. The river level can drop considerably if summer months are dry, making this trip difficult to impossible.
Gas, groceries and restaurants are located in Valders. Clarks Mills has a local tavern a few blocks south of the river on Hwy J. They serve food and beverages.
The city of Manitowoc offers more substantial facilities, including hotel accommodations. There are campgrounds, both private and State Parks nearby.
Quarry Road is located about 3 miles west of Valders off of Hwy 151. Turn right off of the Hwy and the bridge is a 1/2 mile north.
Hwy S is located east of Valders and is again accessed by Hwy 151. Turn Left on Hwy S, cross over Hwy JJ and the river access is a 1/2 mile on the left.