★ ★ ★ ★

Prairie River I

Haymeadow Creek to Prairie Road:
A truly beautiful little river that runs through the rolling hills of Lincoln County, alternating between wooded bluffs and low banks with plenty of pine trees (to make you feel you’re really up north), small islands, fun riffles and an exhilarating mile-long section of Class II rapids through a gorge.

Prairie RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 17, 2012

Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class I

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Merrill: ht/ft: 2.20 | cfs: 110

Current Levels:
Merrill: ht/ft: 2.34 | cfs: 133

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. Ideally, you’d want something in the 200 cfs range.

Old 17, Haymeadow Creek County Park, Merrill, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.26549, -89.54747
Prairie Road, DNR Parking Area
GPS: 45.24854, -89.61278

Time: Put in at 2:45p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 1h
Miles Paddled: 4.25

A couple of kingfishers and one startled deer with a heart beating a thousand pumps a minute from pure fear and shotgun-richochet (it was opening day of the deer hunt).

Shuttle Information:
Only 5 miles but County Road C is a long uphill course and then there’s 3 miles along Highway 17 which gets a bit of traffic. There’s plenty of room in the shoulder but cars and trucks will whiz past you.


I was in the area anyway and have been curious about the Prairie for awhile, so with a smattering of 50-odd degrees and cool sunshine, the conditions were great for a late-autumn paddle in the afternoon. Admittedly, this is a very short trip, just over four miles. Part of that was due to the late start and I didn’t want to be on a river I didn’t know in the dark (been there and slogged through that a couple times but always in the summer, when an accidental splash of water is refreshing and welcome, not a panicky dread of potential frostbite!). All the same, I am confident that I paddled the best the Prairie has to offer. Indeed, I would even recommend an earlier take-out than the one I used (more below).

What we liked:
The whitewater is just wonderful! Enough to get your blood flowing, hackles raised, knuckles whitened and rewarding a big’ ole Yawp! When successfully threading your way through the right channels and wave trains but not so intimidating as to scare the bejesus outta ya. From where I put in, the rapids begin almost immediately, no more than half a mile downstream. And it’s a solid Class II for a whole mile as the already narrow river gets tapered through a very pretty Dells. For a brief dress rehearsal of much pushier whitewater further north and east, the Prairie Dells is ideal. That said, if you encounter this in high water it is reputed to be fierce and ferocious with no shore access until after the Dells, which could make for a nasty, dangerous swim, so use your judgment.

What we didn’t like:
The access at the Old 17 bridge is not a site for sore eyes (or knees) but once you get past that you have to slog through half a mile of Haymeadow Creek, a shallow, scraping, downed-tree-laden stream. My 9’ crossover fared well enough but a boat much longer would get tangled up pretty quick. You’re fine once you reach the confluence with the Prairie and the rapids begin almost immediately but in low water this access may well be impossible. (Try this for fun: Look at the map of this trip in the “Map” mode. You will see a little blue blob called “Prairie Dell Pond.” Now look at this same area in the “Satellite” mode. No blue blob. Abacadabra! What’s Google doing? Basically showing before and after shots without intending to. There used to be a dam that created the backwater but since its removal, the pond has drained.)

There is a second, shorter and much less dramatic whitewater section at the end of the trip called Yankee Rapids. It’s rather uneventful and I would just as soon skip it. After the Dells you will encounter two miles of flat water. The scenery is pretty enough but if you are all about the thrilling rapids, then do yourself a favor by taking out at the Shady Lane landing. This will give you 1¼ miles of flat water to relax after the Dells and catch your breath. Besides, the access is better at Shady Lane than at Prairie Road. In fact, the takeout at Prairie Road is quite easy to miss. It’s inconspicuous and nondescript and is river-left just where the river bends to the right with a pretty strong current. I hung a fluorescent bag on a branch at the takeout to better mark it from the river. Also if you are doing a bicycle shuttle, Shady Lane cuts out a long uphill climb up County Road C that you will have to contend with if you opt for the Prairie Road takeout.

Lastly, and this was my fault, today was day one of the annual deer hunt. A word to the wise: no matter how chilly it is, leave your antler hat and bunny tail-pompom knit cap at home, lest you be mistaken for one of those kayaking caribou! Just saying…

If we did this trip again:
I am certain I will but I will access the river at Heineman Road, 1½ miles upstream from the Dells. If I were to have willing companionship (and two cars), I’d run the Heinerman Road to Shady Lane section twice in a row for a total of 9 miles and two great Dells experiences.

Related Information:
Prairie River II: County Road C to Stange’s Park
Prairie River III: County Road J to County Road C
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Prairie River

Photo Gallery:

Postscript: May 11, 2014

I returned to the Prairie River Dells to scout it in higher water than when I first ran it back in November of 2012. This weekend it was running at 350 cfs, compared to 110 cfs when I ran it and it was visibly more exciting at three times the amount! Moments after I climbed up a rock overhang for a great view, I saw a whitewater paddler effortlessly make his way down the dells, sometimes backward, sometimes sideways to catch an eddy in order to re-enter and surf (I ran back to the car to fetch my camera, back to the rock overhang only to see him begin paddling away…of course!).

Toward the left bank there was an abandoned canoe that had been pinned against a rock and cracked through the middle, doubtfully that same day but certainly recently. Something up to then I had only seen in photos in old books, never in real time with my own eyes, it was pretty ominous but a good lesson in reminding me that this stuff still happens – and can always happen. Only a week before the river had been running at 700+ cfs due to heavy rainfall and snowmelt. Only serious and seriously skilled whitewater paddlers should attempt the Prairie at such levels. At 350 cfs the river looked about perfect for an amateur like me. Happy paddling!

Photo Gallery:

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