County Road C to Stange’s Park:
The Prairie begins as a swift, narrow trout stream that flows through rolling hills as its gradient decreases through lowland prairie. There is plenty of quiet water to catch one’s breath in between Class I riffles and rock dodging. This section starts out fairly wild and intimate but eventually meets civilization as one paddles past private property within the city limits of Merrill.
By Jared Wold
A Miles Paddled contributor
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 27, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈ 2′ per mile
Merrill: ht/ft: 3.10 | cfs: 325
This was a perfect level. I would not recommend running this section below 200cfs or much above 400cfs.
County Road C, Merrill, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:00a. Out at 3:15p. (1-hour lunch stop)
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 9.25
A few kingfishers and the occasional brook or brown trout jumping or taking insects on the surface film.
This section of the Prairie has something for just about everyone. There are just enough Class I riffles and mini rapids to keep things interesting, especially in a winding section near some bluffs about 30 minutes into the paddle. There are occasionally some tricky S curves with strainers and other obstacles that do require some boat handling skill. Quieter water separates these sections, with plenty of flatwater to chat with your fellow paddlers. You merely have to watch out for the rocks and boulders that will appear from time to time. Our group even found a big rubber ball on the water and played water polo with it the rest of the way down the river (as evidenced by the pictures).
The lunch stop at Prairie Trails Park (about 7 miles into the paddle) has a great canoe landing on river left after the County K bridge, and it is close to a couple bars and restaurants. Most of our group ate their packed lunches, but a couple were drawn to the smell of onion rings and chicken wings at the bar across the street. The park has a large shelter and facilities.
The remaining two miles of the paddle within the Merrill city limits are remarkably scenic, with numerous arches and canopies of tilting and falling trees, fun side channels to explore, and even a couple charming railroad trestles. Once you reach Stange’s Park (a basketball court on river right is your cue), the take-out is in slack current on the right along a grassy bank.
For those looking for one last taste of whitewater, there’s a nice drop just upstream from the picturesque stone foot bridge within the park (100 feet downstream from the previously mentioned take-out). At low levels this is probably not runnable, but at 325cfs, it was perfect. A few in our group ran it more than once. After running the drop, you can take-out at the end of a peninsula on river right that separates the main river from some lagoons in the park. Water levels for this paddle were truly perfect on this day. I would imagine there would be a lot of scraping and occasional duck walking through shallow spots below 200cfs.
What we liked:
The variety of scenery and current offered on this section of the Prairie will appeal to paddlers of all types. It’s just a really fun way to spend an afternoon.
While you’re in Merrill, stop in at Chip’s, a charming, old-fashioned burger joint on County K in Merrill. If you need to cool down with some ice cream, check out a cute little ice cream shop called Briq’s on the west side of town. If you happen to need some ice, they sell 10lb bags for $1.25! Sawmill Brewing Company is a unique spot to grab a few brews after your paddle. It’s actually within walking distance of where we stopped for lunch. They don’t serve food, but most weekend nights they have food trucks that park in their lot to serve all the patrons enjoying live music and beer.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in at County C is not great, but as long as you have someone willing to get knee-deep in the water to help other paddlers launch, it’s actually a decent spot. I believe some of the numerous ticks our group had on us (and our gear) that weekend probably hitched a ride in the tall grass at the put-in. Note that the only parking at the put in is along County Road C. There are only a couple other sources of information about this paddle (including the sentence Svob has about it in his guidebook Paddling Northern Wisconsin), and they all incorrectly list the put-in location as upstream left of the County C bridge. The correct location is downstream left – this may have changed due to some rip rap the DNR put in upstream left of the bridge. One would break some bones putting-in there.
If we did this trip again:
In slightly lower water levels (especially lower water levels on the Wisconsin), I would like to add the additional 4 miles we had originally planned – 1 mile on the Prairie to its mouth and 3 miles upstream in slack current in the impoundment on the Wisconsin to Council Grounds State Park. The day we did this trip, there was a lot of water released at the next dam upstream. Current on the Wisconsin would have been prohibitive for an upstream paddle, and we would have needed to portage around the bike path bridge at the Prairie mouth. One could further extend this trip upstream by putting-in at Prairie Road, the traditional take-out for running the Prairie Dells.