County Highway E to Tesch Road:
A short northcentral Wisconsin lightwater trip, (made even shorter due to the closure of the once popular put-in just upstream from this ad hoc access point) the New Wood River is wildly appealing for its constant riffles and occasional Class I waves, but is best considered a companion run to others in the area when the water is up due to its abbreviated length.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 24, 2021
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈ 18′ per mile
Prairie River (Merrill): ht/ft: 2.7 | cfs: 202
These are the bare-minimum levels. I never got hung up (other than when I trophied myself on a boulder by misreading it) but it was certainly scrape-y at points. Check out our visual gauge above. If this specific boulder looks identical, your paddle will be similar to this one. Ideally, it’s just underwater which should be perfect. If you don’t see it at all, you could be in for a wild ride.
Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 1:00p.
Total Time: 1h 15m
Miles Paddled: 3
Wildlife: Cranes, ducks, a muskrat and chipmunks.
There’s nothing difficult about this short 3-mile/15-minute bike shuttle. From the takeout, you’ll travel north on Tesch which like many roads in this area alternate from paved to dirt, but these were compacted and easy enough to make hay. County Road E is remarkably quiet for a County Highway. I didn’t have one car pass me the entire ride.
Located just northwest of Merrill, New Wood River has been on my to-do list ever since I first came across the American Whitewater site. It’s where I get a lot of inspiration for chasing the kind of water I like to run. Many of course, are nowhere near Madison, but I set these ideas aside for whenever I’m ever in a particular area of Wisconsin. The main reason this hasn’t been a destination-paddle, so to speak, is that it’s 4.5 miles which is a pretty short trip for a river that requires the right amount of water – and that required level would make for a swift and quick paddle on its own account. As American Whitewater suggests “This is likely to be done as a ‘companion’ run along with other short runs in the area, such as the Copper, Pine Dells, Prairie Dells, Trappe, and so on.” Basically, it’s great, but may not be the reason to seek it out on its own accord.
Now, this wasn’t my intended target on this day but as is usually the case, when the weather looks ideal 24 hours earlier, it’s still never best to count on it or any plans I may have made. Sure enough, suddenly the weather changed and I was in short supply of options in this area. (In fact, my next day paddle was also supposed to be clear but it stormed all day. Such is the life of river chasers).
Anyway, I had a window before storms were due to hit so I figured I could knock off this short section. Much to my dismay, after unloading my bike at Tesch Road I headed to the put-in, only to find it gated and posted. The sign basically said I was SOL when it came to using this access point as the trail had been closed to the public. So I took out my atlas and drove further upstream trying to find some other access point to lengthen the trip, but the New Wood Splits off and there was nothing publicly accessible, and anything desperately accessible is probably more trouble than it’s worth.
While this was not my intended river to paddle this day, it was also not my intention to paddle only three miles of it but I decided to stay the course because I wanted to paddle. I was disappointed that I just cut an already short paddle down to its nub but I figured I’d beat the impending storm and it’s better to paddle than not, right? The bridge further south on County E looked easily accommodating, so I went for it. And I’m glad I did, because there’s a lot to like about this riffly and swift stream which was completely free from obstructions.
Now, the correlative USGS gauge on the Prairie River (as suggested by American Whitewater) didn’t quite give me a confident thumbs up. I knew it was getting low, but it looked floatable. And it turned out, it was. At these low levels, it was a mildly wild ride. Still fun and the kind of paddle I’m always looking for. What it lacks for scenery, it makes up for in delightfully fun paddling.
I just wish the sun would’ve made an appearance while I was paddling. It did afterwards, of course, and those storms didn’t materialize until MUCH later in the day. Damn weather.
So why report on a three-mile section of the New Wood? Well, because nobody has and despite how short it is, it’s still a nice little run.
The put-in at County E is the better of the two access points. The shoulder is wide enough for a few vehicles and the access on the upstream left side is easy, gradual and generally brush (er, poison ivy) free. Right away, the frisky current grabbed my boat and I was off and onto the lovely-looking straightaway I had just viewed from the bridge above.
Soon, you’ll be greeted by riffles and light waves alongside grassy banks which become the M.O. of the entire section. After a boulder here, a boulder there, you’ll come upon a stretch of almost incessent boulder gardens. They are the small timid-kind with larger ones sticking up now and again just to remind you they’re there. They were fun, splashy, and of course, a little scrape-y at these levels.
Midway through a series of boulders, you’ll encounter a rope strung across the water between a short break within the lengthy garden (it was bright yellow – but I’m sure that will fade in due time). I’m not sure the purpose of it but someone mentioned a wire on Riverfacts.com. It might indeed be the same one based on the description of the tag in the middle. At one time it may have been a wire, but now it’s definitely a rope. This rope could be run over the middle, but I went beneath it on river-left. I’ll admit, this one snuck up on me. If the water were higher, you’d probably run over it without even noticing.
For most of the trip, the banks are classic woodsy Central Wisconsin. Not quite piney like up north but mostly scraggly and sometimes dense, with ferns strewn about the banks in some bends. The exception is a brief moment when the surroundings open up to pastureland before Burma Road. This is the only time the landscape changes dramatically, and may very well be the reason for the ropes (as if to mark the land because this basic rope isn’t keeping livestock from going anywhere). There were a couple hunting shacks to note this section. On a related note, there was very little in the way of wildlife to be seen on this overcast day. Maybe the impending (then retreating) storm had scared my fellow friends away?
In general, the New Wood River was much wider than I anticipated, but when the landscape returned to its “usual look” after the brief pasture opening, the river constricts to its narrowest when it splits around an island and the channels become incredibly narrow. The low bank brush were reaching out to tickle my cheeks from both sides – and I took the wider channel.
Before Burma Road, you’ll come across another rope sagging from both banks at the top of yet another run of riffles. This rope could be run over the middle just like the last one and again, you might miss it if the water were higher.
After Burma comes one remarkable sandcut bank on river-right which leads to more gentle sweeps and bends alternating between riffly stretches. Not long before the take-out at Tesch Road comes the only considerable rock-cut/strewn bank on river-right. It’s small but charming and feels so “of this place” that I kind of expected more of them.
The take-out is not as easy as the put-in. It’s a run-of-the-mill bridge in the middle of nowhere which requires some cautious stepping/fancy footwork along the embankment. It was here that I’ve started questioning the grip of my Chacos for the first time as I slipped almost immediately while trying to get out and was awarded a nasty contusion on the backside of my leg.
What we liked:
I really enjoyed this paddle, despite how short it was. Bouncy, splashy, sustained riffles, light Class Is (II in higher water) for the majority of a paddle is a rare and wonderful thing – and the kind of paddle I love most. Its quiet moments are hardly sustained for a few hundred yards before another run of small boulder gardens which do require attention to keep you floating straight away. I’d do this all day.
Plus, it was completely obstruction free (No old wood, nor new wood to climb over or under, so to speak.) which is always a good thing when you’re paddling solo somewhere you’ve never been before.
What we didn’t like:
Of course, I wish the recommended put-in was accessible, or that there were other obvious access points because now I’m really curious about the upper mile-and-a-half I couldn’t paddle. If any of you out there have some information, let me know because I’ll surely return. I mean, downstream from Tesch also looked inviting but I know that it soon slackens on its way to the Wisconsin, so working upstream is the only appealing option for me.
Unrelated to the paddle, there’s a couple camping options in the area. I chose Council Grounds State Park over New Wood County Park due to proximity and had my pick of the campground litter (and I kind of mean that literally). The park is interesting, located at the Alexander flowage, where many great streams converge (Prairie, I’m looking at you) and the Wisconsin River grandly and scenically winds itself up, into, and around the city. But, just like most Wisconsin State Parks since Covid, it felt rundown and shabby. They’ve become so abused, it’s like camping at a music festival amongst tossed water bottles and watermelon rinds. Tent pads don’t even exist anymore, so your best bet is to bring your own grass. It really is a sad thing to see happen to what was once a proud State Park System.
Also, that storm eventually showed up – and by storm, I’m underselling it here. It felt like a hurricane and I watched it out the back of my Sube as it doused my fire which had been doing a damn good job of keeping the terrible mosquitos away. It was unrelenting and the next day every gauge in the surrounding area had shot up at least double, one three-fold, by the amount of rain that night. Needless to say, my plans for the next day’s paddle were shot.
If we did this trip again:
New Wood is a solid four-star paddle on what I experienced but it was far too short to really reco it for three miles on its own merit at these levels. It’s remarkably unremarkable but I don’t mean that in a negative way. Its constant riffles and little ledges had me wondering what it was like in higher water which would (wood?) be the reason to return. It leaves a lot to be desired in the sense that you’ll desire more of this.
It’s exactly the kind of stream I love (not too technically difficult, no obstructions – just good clean fun) but without additional access upstream, I, too, would only recommend this as a diversion to complement other nearby trips as American Whitewater suggests. But it’s a perfectly enjoyable à la carte option to put on your “in the area” to-do list.