Nelsonville to Amherst:
This short but popular section of the Tomorrow-Waupaca River located in Central Wisconsin is an easy-going paddle that begins as a charming and woodsy small-stream paddle at the put-in, and then transitions to wide marsh-like environs towards the takeout.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 29, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
2.5′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Tomorrow River: ht/ft: 8.67 | cfs: 33.5
Tomorrow River: ht/ft: 8.48 | cfs: 23.7
Levels are often reliable. On this visit, there had just been some substantial rain the previous week which kept the current steady without disturbing the clarity of the water all that much.
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 1h 25m
Miles Paddled: 4.25
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Rolling Hills Road to Amherst (6.5 Miles)
Heron, ducks, trout, two turtles and lots of frogs.
The short 4-mile, 20-minute shuttle, is real easy. It’s a short jaunt through Amherst to some less-traveled county roads. There’s not much/no shoulder at times, so off-roading was minimal with any fast-passing traffic.
The Waupaca River has long been one of my favorites and I’ve probably paddled it more than any other river. Despite that, I haven’t yet personally explored all of it, including this uppermost section where it’s called the Tomorrow River. (Sidenote: There’s some discussion as to whether the Tomorrow River officially becomes the “Waupaca River” by name when Bear Creek enters it south of Amherst or when the river crosses the Waupaca county line. In my opinion, the natural Bear Creek angle makes way more sense than the imaginary county line, but maybe that’s just me…)
I think the only reason I haven’t visited it myself is because Timothy Bauer covered this stretch and about 2.25 more miles upstream about eight years ago so I already “felt” like I paddled it. But tucked away in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin is a long-time dog-eared page (138 in my edition) on this short four-mileish section, a constant reminder that I had to check it off of my own to-do list. So instead of following-up with a rehash of that extended section (which also had the same takeout), I was intrigued to see for myself why these four miles were chosen to be featured in Svob’s guide. Plus, I’m always excited to take a literal page out of Svob’s book.
Mike captured it as a mill-to-mill (aka: a between two ferns kinda) paddle which I thought was kind of cool, clean, and I’m all about landmark-to-landmark paddles, even if it shortens it to a questionably short 4.25 miles. But then again, there are paddles worth their weight clocking in at around 4 miles (for instance, just nearby there’s the incredible Crystal River) so there had to be something special about this one I figured.
Out of curiosity, I scouted two other access points upstream from Nelsonville to assess conditions for potential consideration despite wanting to follow Svob’s steps, but they lacked signs of recent paddler-life. I know the Friends of the Tomorrow-Waupaca River have traditionally maintained this section with seasonal cleanups (for which we are forever grateful) but to what extent and to what recent frequency was unclear.
As Timothy stated in his previous trip report that began at Rolling Hills Road: “Other than the intimacy and water clarity, there is nothing particularly spectacular about this river. There are no rapids, no rock outcrops, etc. The water’s shallow, there are lots of boulders and logs to dodge and a few notable low-clearance bridges.” That all turned out to be true, but that’s also the exact description of small-stream paddling that I find incredibly appealing.
The varied style and aesthetics of this trip can be explained by its three distinct sections which conveniently and coincidentally align with the bridges you’ll pass beneath. Nelsonville to Lake Meyers Road is narrow, woodsy, creek-like paddling. From Lake Meyers to the Tomorrow River State Trail, the river widens with a mix of woods but mostly-sparse landscape. From the Tomorrow River State Trail, the river continues to widen all the way to- and then through- the Amherst Millpond for some shallow lake-like paddling.
The put-in is located behind the historic Rising Star (flour) Mill in Nelsonville. This wasn’t completely obvious to me since it looked like private property, but luckily, there happened to be someone inside the mill and the door was open so I yelled in to inquire whether I could put-in there. The person greeted me and said he was a volunteer doing some basic clean up after a wedding that was held there the previous weekend. He then graciously showed me around back to where the launch was located. (Turns out, it was Jim Walker, President of the Rising Star Mill Committee whom I spoke to, but I only realized this after the fact while doing some research on the mill and came across this video about an art event that was held there.)
He explained that the mill was on DNR land but the building itself is owned by the Portage County Historical Society. He also told me the DNR is working on trail that leads a little downstream and closer to the bridge because it’s an easier/more-gradual put-in versus the current immediate drop-off at the bank. So, just know that A) you can access the river from this property, but B) the put-in might be easier and moved downstream in the near-future.
The width of the river resembles more of a creek at the put-in, at maybe only 12′ wide. From there to Lake Meyers Road the river transitions from as narrow as it looks at the put-in to a little less narrowish at its widest – probably 20′ or so. The intimate environs are mostly wooded with cedar and pines. The paddle itself begins easy and free-flowing over clear water or sandy shallows which aids in locating the occasional boulder lurking just below the surface (which also helps avoid bumper-boating).
Wildlife was at a premium on this trip, but I was paddling early afternoon. I’m sure this upper stretch is teeming with critters earlier or later in the day due to the dense foliage. In place of wildlife, my gaze was constantly set upon the alluring water ahead of the bow – alternating from clear to weedy to so-weedy-I-can’t-see-the-bottom, back to a clear shallow sand-bottom. Along the way you’ll encounter sets of vertical wooden poles spaced apart in various fence-like configurations near the bank edges. I’m still not entirely sure if the purpose of these pilings are for fish habitat or a means for erosion control but they’re certainly not natural (despite being made up of natural materials).
The current was swift and navigating some of the rugged corners might frustrate the beginner paddler. That said, the entire paddle was portage-free except for one low-clearance bridge which must be portaged about a half-mile from Lake Meyers Road. It was, however, a very easy endeavor as the farmer (or someone) has created a very tailored portage on river-left outfitted with a sturdy plank tucked against the bank within a narrow inlet that made getting in and out of the boat really convenient. In terms of portages, this one makes you feel like royalty. After a short drag across a dirt road, you’ll find easy entry once again and quickly be back on your way.
After the mandatory low-clearance bridge, there was a considerable amount of deadfall for a stretch. All navigable however, as this section was obviously maintained with evidence of fresh cuts. It did make me wonder if the upstream section was maintained like this but I would be surprised if it was. Due to how narrow this river is, this section (or that one) would certainly be unpaddleable any given week with any given storm that rolls through Central Wisconsin.
As soon as you pass beneath the Lake Meyers bridge made up of four culverts, the width of the river turns on a dime. It’s immediately wider and continues to get wider and wider (and then even wider on its eventual conclusion in the Amherst millpond.) With more straightaways and generally slack current, this won’t appeal to everyone – especially those who love the intimate nature of creeks and rivers of this size at the outset.
Just before the next land/rivermark is the Tomorrow River State Trail bridge, and despite wonderful water levels, the hundred yard stretch approaching the bridge had me worried. It got real shallow, real fast. I was barely floating on five inches of water and progress was slow. There wasn’t an obvious channel but as long as I kept an eye out for a six-inch channel, I was fine. Thankfully, it’s a short-lived slog. I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that the mill pond could be that low too, but thankfully it wasn’t!
Just past the Tomorrow River State Trail is a public landing on river-left at Cate County Park if you want to shorten this already short trip even shorter and forgo the Millpond paddling altogether. For me, since it was only a four-mile paddle, I wasn’t going to cut it any shorter. In Timothy’s report, he mentioned it being choked with weeds in late summer making it even less appealing. But here I was in late summer encountering no weeds (although, it’s possible I was here after a recent clean-up). Instead, the surface of the water was covered in green, gray and some “color that lacks color” algae blobs (blobs are a scientific term, right?) They didn’t slow the wide-open paddling but it wasn’t all that pretty, and at times, it didn’t smell all that great.
At the end of the three-quarter mile long millpond is a dock just right of the dam. It’s an easy and convenient take-out upstream from the less charming-looking mill than Rising Star by comparison, (it looks nothing like a mill anymore and is used to generate electricity for Amherst) but downstream from the dam was lively with many locals doing some midday fishing.
What we liked:
For a short day-trip with some lake/millpond paddling, this is a delightful paddle. It’s one of those outings that’s as interesting as you want to make it since it lacks any real identifying features – but that’s not necessarily a negative (or at least as negative as it sounds.) It actually reminded me of a very enjoyable and recent paddle on the Des Plaines River where nothing really happened and there wasn’t much to look at. I was left to my own devices to find the beauty in the mundane. Plus, for me, these miles were essentially the beginnings of the Tomorrow-Waupaca (as far as paddling goes) so it was great to see where it (almost) began and I could finally flatten that corner of Svob’s guide.
What we didn’t like:
There’s really nothing I didn’t like.
And though nobody’s asking… I did have some thoughts about the millpond which does nothing for Amherst. Sure, I fully accepted it as part of the paddle – that wasn’t a surprise – but what I saw was an opportunity despite how unpopular the idea might be (and might certainly ruin any chance I have at being awarded the key to the village). While the put-in is soaking in charm and history at Rising Star Mill and where the river is invitingly intimate, the take-out at the former location of the mill in Amherst which holds back a big clumsy millpond and is largely unusable, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s pretty evident that this is a prime dam-removal contender that could benefit the community. Much like the nearby Crystal River which is an enviable example of a river returning to its natural course once again after its dam removal, (of course, that was removed due to the cost of upkeep) except in this case, it would do much more to define the area. I don’t know how much electricity is generated for Amherst from that dam, but I’d be surprised if it were much more than what a small field of solar panels would generate in its place. I know, I know… waterfront property and all that… but the potential transformation to the area and resulting benefits aren’t being fully realized in its current state. Oh, the possibilities…
If we did this trip again:
The Tomorrow-Waupaca River will always intrigue me. This river and this part of Wisconsin engages me for paddling and adventuring like very few. I’m not entirely sure why, but it does. In hindsight, I found it interesting that Svob chose these four-ish miles of the Tomorrow. I see the convenience and appeal of a mill-to-mill trip, but the payoff isn’t as great as other paddles in the Waupaca area.
And since there’s more upstream that could potentially be paddled, it seems like an outlier, really. If I knew the upstream section was at least somewhat maintained, I’d definitely return to lengthen the trip, but it seems like a roll of the dice to recommend. It’s just too narrow and all it takes is one storm to create numerous blockages upstream from Nelsonville.
I’ll definitely be back to explore upstream one day, (and earlier in the year to provide a better visual on Amherst Pond) but I still have a few more miles to complete my Tomorrow-Waupaca journey before then.
Tomorrow-Waupaca River Overview: Tomorrow-Waupaca River Paddle Guide
Waupaca River I: Amherst to Durrant Road
Waupaca River II: Buchholz Road to County Highway Q
Waupaca River III: County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
Waupaca River IV: Riverview Park to Reek Road
Waupaca River V: Weyauwega to Decker Memorial Park
Camp: Hartman Creek State Park
Overview: Stevens Point Convention & Vistitors Bureau
Wikipedia: Tomorrow River
Alternate Trip Report: Longer Paddle (6.5 Miles)
Rolling Hills Road to Amherst
July 4, 2014
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
An endearingly narrow, intimate stream with crystal clear water, nice current, a couple of boulders to dodge and a sense of quiet solitude, the Tomorrow is a must-paddle tucked away in the gentle hills of central Wisconsin.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Waupaca: ht/ft: 1.7 | cfs: 277
Waupaca: Gauge discontinued in June of 2020.
The gauge is located midway between Waupaca and Weyauwega, considerably downstream of this trip. While shallow, the water level was perfectly adequate for paddling. That said, another inch or two less than this would make for cranky paddling.
Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 5:50p.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Two adult deer, three fawns, lots of fish, a muskrat and at least five great blue herons (one with a fish in its bill).
6 miles by bike or car. A short segment on the Tomorrow River State Trail can be accessed for a bike shuttle.
Undoubtedly the narrowest stream I’ve ever paddled, the Tomorrow feels like an adventure all its own. The water is crystal clear, the bottom is sandy and gravelly and the current, peppy, with only a handful of houses to distract from the view. For a great little daytrip with a ton of character and solid beauty, the Tomorrow does not disappoint. And who could beat capping a paddling trip with a visit to Central Waters Brewing Company, only 100 yards or so from the river in Amherst? (tap room open Fridays and Saturdays)
What we liked:
The signature features of the Tomorrow River are its clarity and narrow intimacy. A kayak is best on these waters, though a canoe could still manage (might have to portage some of the low-clearance bridges and culverts). When I finally laid eyes on the stream at the put-in, I was equal parts smitten and worried. Smitten because the landscape is so pretty and the river itself just gorgeous but worried that I’d encounter many downed tree obstacles on a stream so narrow (incidentally, I had to portage only once, a non-negotiable tree lying across the water from bank-to-bank, just upstream of the Loberg Road/Highway 161 bridge).
I was also initially concerned that the depth would be too shallow but it was totally adequate. It took me the better part of the first mile to acclimate to the optical illusion of the water appearing too shallow. I thought it (felt it) because the water is clear as air! I never ran aground or scraped but it always seemed like I was bound to. It was a very cool effect. So too were the very visual fish nonchalantly swimming by and the huge logs (and at least one wing dam) submerged and almost looking like a shipwreck.
There are no rapids and only a few riffles but the current guides you along nicely. Midway through this short trip, the stream is dotted with some large boulders that add to the charm. You’ll pass by some houses and at least one farm but most of the time you feel like you’re away from it all.
The old mill in Nelsonville on river-left handsomely adds that something-something feel to this gem of a stream. The wildlife was outstanding, with three white-speckled fawns in the water or on the bank being the most memorable. And of course a handful of stately and symbolic great blue herons!
I have to say thank you to the volunteers and conservationists who have done such a great job in protecting this little river!
What we didn’t like:
Other than the intimacy and water clarity, there is nothing necessarily spectacular about this river. There are no rapids, no rock outcrops, no camping, etc. The water’s shallow, there are lots of boulders and logs to dodge (fun for sure but for those looking for a lazy-day float, this can be work) and a few notable low-clearance bridges and culverts could be dicey in higher water levels (or canoes).
Another downer is how short of a trip this is, especially if you’re driving from afar. Here’s the thing about that: there’s not a whole lot upstream of this trip’s put-in that looks feasible (expect even shallower, narrower water and probable downed trees and tricky access) and then there’s the damn dam downtown. You can certainly portage around the dam and continue downstream for however many miles your heart desires. It’s much more developed than the lovely segment upstream of the dam, but it does feature pleasant riffles and boulders.
The put-in is adequate. There’s a small space for 1-2 cars along the road and there’s a trampled down path that leads to the water from the road. Be careful, it’s steep. And definitely check yourself for ticks! What it lacks in easeful access is made up for in a very attractive twin-culvert bridge made out of rough-hewn stone.
The other drag about this trip, truly, is the stagnant impoundment of water created by the dam. This would probably be different in spring or autumn but in summer, it is god-awful choked with weeds. Not only are you motionless due to the utter absence of current but the weeds impede your progress of ambitious forward strokes. It’s worth putting up with because of all the beauty upstream but this pond/lake/cesspool is a disappointing, anticlimactic end to an otherwise awesome trip (but there is a nice small dock to the right of the dam that makes for a perfect take-out).
If we did this trip again:
First, I would take-out at the official boat launch (on river-left) that would cut half a mile or so of flat, weedy lake paddling. Or I would portage the dam and continue paddling downstream on the Waupaca.
On reflection, the Tomorrow feels like how I wished the Mecan River did. Maybe I’m biased (I used to live in a town in Massachusetts named Amherst, and my favorite Wisconsin brewery is Central Waters) but I’d sooner drive an extra 30 minutes to paddle the Tomorrow than the closer-to-home Mecan. Both rivers meander along pretty wooded settings and have clear, swift water but the Tomorrow is a solid A to the B- of the Mecan, in my book at least. The water is clearer, the trees more piney and the landscape more interesting.