County Road J to County Road C:
A dynamic trip on a magnificent little river that packs a lot of punch, this section of the Prairie River is indisputably its best, featuring a richly restored marsh which contrasts a wild mile of Class II+ rapids through a gorgeous dells area with towering rock outcrops, followed by peaceful meandering with occasional riffles past pines and cedars.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 19, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈ 3′ per mile in the quiet sections, 18-ish feet in the mile-long Dells, and then about 4-5 feet from the Dells to the take-out.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Merrill: ht/ft: 2.4 | cfs: 155
Merrill: ht/ft: 2.31 | cfs: 128
This is the recommended minimum level. Scraping can be expected in the shallow areas, and the boulder gardens in the mini-gorge will require constant maneuvering and potentially risky hang-ups.
Recreational paddlers should really look for 200 cfs before running the Dells. That said, whitewater paddlers will want significantly higher flows than that. This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes rapids are safer to run at higher levels precisely because you’ll ride over boulders with plush cushion, as opposed to scraping/getting stuck on those barely exposed.
Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 5:05p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 10
Wood ducks, bald eagle, deer, mergansers, green heron, kingfishers, muskrat, box turtle, osprey, trout, songbirds, dragonflies and black flies.
9.25 miles. Doable by bike, but pretty crappy on account of the hills and shared highways (steady volume at a fast pace).
Beginning in a quaint lake in northwestern Langlade County, the Prairie River flows southwest for some 40 miles through a mix of forests and farms, meadows and marsh, and long corridors of tag alders, before emptying into the Wisconsin River in Merrill, seat of Lincoln County. A renowned trout stream today, the Prairie had been impounded by four dams at one point, the last of which was removed in 1999. (For a really interesting article done last year on the 20th anniversary of this last dam removal – and its controversy – see here.) Incidentally, that last dam? That last dam lied at the head of a rollicking Class II+ rapids roughly one mile long called the Prairie Dells, the crown jewel of the river.
This was a return trip from our 2012 debut, but now we added 3 miles both upstream and down- to make it a full day on the river. The trip mirrors the one laid out in the kayaker-canoeist’s vade mecum, Paddling Northern Wisconsin by Mike Svob. The trip we did back in 2012, while awesome, was too short and the water levels too shallow. Ever since then we’ve wanted to add more miles further upstream, where the Prairie is more of a vaunted area for trout fishing, as well as downstream to County C, to better link where a subsequent section of the river is covered on our site. But while the river was a little higher than last time, the effect was literally minimal at best. More on that below.
Along with the Mecan and Mukwonago, this stream makes for yet another excellent case in our ongoing series “What’s the Difference Between a Creek and a River?” (aka “Seemingly Nothing!”) Is it length? Is it width? Is it the number of tributaries? Is it a typo on some historical map? A poor translation from French to English, or transliteration from Algonquin? Is it some passive-aggressive revenge from the original surveyor-voyageur, bitter after a drunken brawl or bad hand at cards, a lost lot over whiskey, to call a river a creek or vice versa with a canny eye cast to fishing rights granted by one but not the other? Who’s to say? We don’t know. Things were different back then…
While we’re splitting hairs here, it seems only fair to point out that the original name for the Prairie River, from the Chippewa, was “Mush-ko-day-yaw Se-be.” Fun fact.
Point is, people can call the Prairie a “river” to their heart’s delight, and that’s all good and well. But it has the quintessential look and feel of a creek – on average only 40′ wide and typically only 1-2′ deep. Leave your long boats at home.
This trip begins at the County J bridge, upstream side on river-left. There’s no real designated access, and you will have to carefully clamber over boulder rubble. It’s not an ideal location, but parking is primo since the area is a designated fishing corridor. (Indeed, just east of the bridge is a dedicated pull-off parking area with good access to the river. But we started at the bridge to parallel Svob’s trip.)
The setting is very pretty right away – the root beer-hued water juxtaposed by the cheery greens of deciduous and conifers alike, with rich tones of brown from 15′-tall banks. Soon the river will slip into thickly wooded escapes with nothing to see but sweet cedars, sand-gravel bottoms, a couple small boulders, and maybe a spotted fawn by the banks or osprey overhead. Back and forth the river width will taper and expand, from shaggy swaths of tag alders and other scrubby brush on both banks to open expanses of tallgrass and marsh.
The half-mile jog from County J to the first bridge (Prairie Drive) is a contrast of thick woodlands on the right and open land on the left. But the landscape is pleasantly wooded til the next bridge, at Heineman Road. After Heineman the environs are wildly wooded and wooly. At times the river will get real skinny with a couple hairy spots to carefully thread through. To this point, there’s a peculiar kink of an old railroad grade that juts out at an odd angle and requires a modicum of boat control. (Alas, I have no photos of this, because… well, see below under “Didn’t Like.”)
It’s not until the marshy area, where the former dam had submerged the landscape for nearly a century, where things flatten out and open up. (To get a better sense of the dam and the sheer ferocity of the river at the Prairie Dells, check out this remarkable archival photo of the dam, circa unknown, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.) By and by, it’s not until this lowland marsh environment where you’ll see any residential development. In quick order Haymeadow Creek will come in on your left just as the Prairie River makes an abrupt bend to the right at a back yard and the base of a now-obsolete deck platform (that used to lead to the pond). The river will bend once more to the left. For a quarter-mile you’re in a kind of limbo. For starters, there’s no current here, and the river is atypically wide. It’s a straight shot to the entrance of the Dells, which by now you’ll be able to hear. A couple random boulders are erratically scattered hither and yon, harbingers of what’s to come. Soon enough you’ll see a pretty formidable horizon line – more like what astrophysicists call an event horizon, that point of no return into which matter gets sucked into a black hole!
Now’s a good time to put on that spray skirt…
Svob refers to an old log dam with “huge horizontal logs under the water [that] create a drop of 4 feet, with a downstream log jutting out from the shoreline and blocking part of the river.” The page on the American Whitewater site more or less corroborates that. If that’s the case, then I’ve missed this twice now, back in 2012 and here again in 2020. Perhaps it’s because once you begin the Dells you are locked in, white-knuckle committed and have no time for such niceties like peripheral vision; just eyes on the prize directly in front of you. It would be an exaggeration to state that the Dells comprise a mile of Class II+ rapids, but it’s certainly a mile of Class I-II+. The river here is very narrow and plummets like a staircase down drops and ledges, with big buxom boulders just everywhere. Tipping in and going for a swim would just outright suck – why mince words? – because there are very few places to catch an eddy, the current is quite forceful, and the setting is essentially a mini-gorge with tall rock walls. It is, however, quite gorgeous, and another testament to the oft-overlooked opportunities in Lincoln County (we’re looking at you Big Rib River!).
The term “dells” (or “dalles”) refers to a narrowing of water, usually created by rock walls, bluffs, or cliffs. (Yup, that’s how Wisconsin Dells got its name.) Here on the Prairie, the rock walls are about 30-60′ tall, one or two of which have viewing platforms for landlubbers and oglers looking down at you (thinking you’re crazy but still wishing they were as cool as you and internally rationalizing that envy by secretly hoping you’ll tip so that they can make a YouTube moment out of it). While taking your time going down these rapids is not the easiest thing to do, it’s certainly worth trying, just to take in the grandeur of the landscape. There should be a couple opportunities to even lodge/tie your boat somewhere, get out, and scramble atop some of the rock outcrops for a picnic or quick break. Svob says you can/should scout the rapids on river-left, but frankly I’ve never seen how or where you’d be able to do that.
Eventually the foamy descent will subside, the river widens, and you can relax some; but you’ll still be treated with intermittent riffles in a beautifully wooded, secluded stretch for a couple miles. Long stretches of quietwater resume in between, sometimes feeling very flat. Indeed, there’s hardly any notable current for the next two miles outside of the intermittent riffles and one minor Class I rapid. You’ll pass a cabin or two on the left – the only development in the second half of this trip. There are two inconspicuous accesses, both on the left and undeveloped. In 2012 we took out at the latter one, at the end of Prairie Road, where there’s a DNR building some 50 yards behind the banks.
There are three more miles from the DNR building to the County C bridge. While the landscape will start looking eerily similar to how this trip began – similar width, flow, trees, banks, etc – the main difference here is twofold: the current overall is brisker, and you’ll paddle through an endless array of small islands with umpteen side channels from which to choose. This section has a distinctly primitive feel to it. Only occasionally will you hear the sounds of a road or farm. There’s not a lot of meandering, but all those islands braiding the mainstream into ribbons of opportunities will add a sense of charm to the straightaways so that they feel less of a chore. Following a gentle bend to the left, the bridge at County C will lie dead ahead. There’s an established access on the downstream side of the bridge on river-left, where there’s a well-worn trail from the river to the road.
What we liked:
It’s easy to singularly dwell on the Dells, since the rapids are pretty bad-ass and set in exquisite scenery (a wild little mini-gorge in the middle of nowhere, otherwise surrounded by forests and farm fields). The Dells deserves all due attention and fanfare, to be sure, but it is essentially the exception to the rule on this trip (or anywhere on the Prairie River). To say that we liked this the most would be similar to saying our favorite part of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is that choral part in the 4th movement. Sure, it’s phenomenal – and one the most memorable melodies in the whole canon of Western music. But there’s so much more to the whole symphony, as there is to this trip on the Prairie River. The Dells are incredible and offer a heady rush of adrenaline and grandeur, but that section comprises a skinny mile of this 10-mile trip (or perhaps 10 minutes of a 3-hour trip).
On a personal level, I really enjoyed returning to the Prairie River but seeing so much more of it this time around, both upstream and down- of the Dells. The Prairie has much in common with the Plover and Eau Claire rivers in neighboring Marathon County: narrow trout streams in their upper reaches with that amber root beer hue over sand-gravel bottoms; endowed with boulders and blessed with a range of rapids, surrounded by forested swaths with little sign of civilization; and oodles of wildlife opportunities – all the hallmarks of a northwoods river. It’s really a great little stream and should be put in your hopper if you haven’t been on it yet.
What we didn’t like:
The low water levels in the Dells. And here’s why…
It’s simply impossible for me to be fully objective about this trip, for it was here, through a terribly unfortunate fluke of bad luck (and maybe judgment), that I lost my GoPro camera – an extraordinarily generous gift from Scotty only three months earlier. Here’s what happened…
The first few miles of this trip were smooth sailing, and I captured some really sweet footage, too. I reasoned that the river upstream of the dells would be pretty slow going, and I remembered that, but for a couple minor Class I’s, the river downstream of the dells also would be pretty tame. Thus, I took my Perception Expression rec kayak for this trip – not a whitewater boat by any means whatsoever, but generally very versatile (and one I have used on Class II rapids before). In other words, it seemed insensible to me to use my crossover kayak on a 10-mile trip when only one mile of it would feature the kind of reputable rapids you’d want such a boat for in the first place.
Turns out that was a poor calculation. And it cost me a $300 camera.
I was anticipating the dells – as always, you can hear the rapids before you see them. The first couple splashy drops were awesome, and I just let the GoPro go, knowing the whole sequence of pitches and whatnot would make for a really cool continuous take. But then it all went to hell – in a single second – on account of two factors that intersected perfectly at the most imperfect moment:
1) I was using the wrong boat at the wrong water level; and
2) a “preexisting condition” in the camera setup itself.
Together, both laid out a textbook one-two punch that literally knocked out my poor GoPro.
The Perception Expression tracks like a champ, with long, clean, straight lines that would make a commercial painter envious. But it doesn’t pivot for a lick of good when you suddenly need to maneuver away from an obstacle. And because the river was pretty low at the time of this trip, there were dozens of exposed boulders to avoid running into or even grazing against sideways in that turbulent current of Class II rapids. Well, as you could likely guess by where this is going, I ended up hitting one of these barely exposed boulders with the bow of my pointy boat. In doing so, the gooseneck mounting bracket that acts as a basic access between the camera and the kayak broke off. Just broke off like a vertebra on your backbone. Like an iceberg off a glacier on a warm spring day. Like a sick flower whose stalk goes limp and plops dead. Crack, kerplunk. Done and gone faster than I had time to react. It all happened in a single second, and after it did I was just stunned. If someone had taken my photo at the moment, I’m sure my mouth was agape in an Edvard Munch-like Scream of raw awe and wrought woe.
Now, before you assume I’m stupider than I actually am, let’s get this one simple thing out of the way before proceeding: Yes, I had attached a tethered string to the gooseneck mounting bracket to my kayak deck. Of course I had. Alas, I’d tied it below the section of the plastic that broke! In other words, I saved the worthless stump of the mount but lost the valuable thing that was mounted in the first place! Right? Picture a tree. Now picture a rope tied around the base of the tree. The trunk broke above the rope, so all that the rope saved was now a stump. Yes, I know now to tether the camera itself, not the bracket. Expensive lesson learned.
But this is only half of the story.
For, as I’m processing what just happened, I no less realize that my kayak now is sideways, thanks to that same boulder, and I’m roughly 6′ upstream from the next 2-3′ drop in the Class II rapids. I couldn’t for the life of me right myself – not in that boat, not in that short distance. But I did at least turn it enough to go backwards down the drop. Let me just rephrase that for clarity: going down a 2-3′ drop in an 11.5′ rec kayak with zero rocker to it backwards. Jesus, take the wheel paddle! Seriously, there was nothing I could do… except try to relax and hope it would work out. Which, mercifully, amazingly, it did. And then did again seconds later during a subsequent 2′ drop. That one was scrappier at the bottom and more touch and go, but it also worked out. I was wearing a spray skirt, or else none of this would’ve happened!
I caught an eddy and got out (after hoisting my boat atop a rock shelf) to see if there was any way – any way at all – of trying to find the camera. But I knew it was foolish and hopeless. After a couple drops, I couldn’t say precisely where I was at the time of the debacle. And the setting here is a mini-gorge, so you can’t very well wade through the water, even if it was at a low level. It was gone, I knew it. And there was just nothing I could do about it. Camera Catastrophe! Part… what? Five? Six? How many cameras have I lost or broken while paddling? The kicker too is it would have looked so cool getting footage of going down those 2-3′ drops backwards. It would’ve been really funny, first off, but also show an awesome perspective. The other thing, too, of course, is I ended up losing all the footage of the trip up to this point, which is why I don’t have as many photos from the put-in to the dells area – and none of the bridges/landmarks – because I lazily reasoned that I could just pull still images from the video. Not so much.
So that’s why I’m simply incapable of separating my own association-experience with this trip for the sake of unbiased objectivity.
If we did this trip again:
The first leg of the trip could be skipped, frankly – from County J to Heineman Road. While pretty, it’s not all that interesting, and the access at the bridge doesn’t inspire much. From Heineman to the beginning of the Dells also is only so-so. It’s mostly marshy – the landscape still recovering from having been submerged for a century thanks to the previous dam. All in all, this stretch is only 3 miles – a perfectly pleasant lead-up to the bronco ride of the Prairie Dells – but I wouldn’t liken it to being essential per se. If beginning this trip via hitting the ground running at the Class II+ rapids sounds like too much, then split the difference and put in at Heineman Road. Either way, do yourself a favor and continue past the poor and inconspicuous accesses at Shady Lane and Prairie Road and instead continue on down to County C. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: both Svob’s book, Google maps, and the atlas/gazetteer label the road east of Prairie Road as “Shady Lane,” but the actual road sign is called something else (which I failed to write down, still licking my wounds from the camera catastrophe).
Prairie River I: Haymeadow Creek to Prairie Road
Prairie River II: County Road C to Stange’s Park
Camp: Council Grounds State Park
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Prairie River