County Road WW to Wisconsin River Road:
A fun and scenic jaunt on a lesser known segment of an already hardly known tributary of the Wisconsin River just northeast of Wausau, this short trip is satisfying in every sense. Just don’t paddle it if it’s too low.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 2, 2015
10′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Merrill (Prairie River): ht/ft: 2.08 | cfs: 98
Merrill (Prairie River): ht/ft: 2.22 | cfs: 112
The Prairie River gauge is the best correlation to water levels we could find and this was way too low. You’d want a minimum of another inch to avoid scraping. Three more inches would have been perfect.
Time: Put in at 1:20p. Out at 3:20p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 5
Owls, wood ducks, deer, crawfish and kingfishers.
An easy 4 miles suitable for bicycling.
File this trip under “if at first you don’t succeed – and if your second, third and fourth other trips also don’t succeed – then either give up or go here.” To make a comedy of errors-type of long story short, this trip sprung on the fly after four different prospects failed to pan out.
Following a challenging but enlightening and excellent day at the Wausau Whitewater Park, Barry and I had camped the night before along the Wisconsin River, just downstream from Grandfather Falls, at Camp New Wood County Park. Coincidentally, our first prospect was none other than the New Wood River, which comes in from the opposite bank of the Wisconsin River than the county park, thus requiring a roundabout drive to access the nearest bridge across the water. After a scenic backcountry drive along the dirt roads of Lincoln County we slowed down to what we’d hoped would be our take-out bridge at the New Wood River. Much to our chagrin, the river was way too shallow to even entertain the idea, much less endure the frustration of paddling it.
Next we considered the Dells of the Prairie River, a trip I’ve wanted to re-do for years now. But the skies were not auspicious in the least, so we ruled out that idea before driving directly into the cell of a nasty thunderstorm. OK, the next whitewater stream that comes to mind in this neck of the woods is the Pine River, a small but rugged tributary of the Wisconsin River downstream from Merrill. Fortunately, that took only a 10-minute drive to find out that it too was way too shallow. Sweet, 0-3.
So our last idea was just to paddle the Wisconsin River itself downstream from Merrill, putting-in where we’d last left off during much colder conditions and paddle down past the rapids of Brokaw to the northern outskirts of Wausau (there were no shortage of Tom Brokaw impersonations as we contemplated this. If only there were another nearby town called “Rather” or “Jennings,” one could have a field day with that). We dropped off one vehicle at the takeout and were ready to roll. But as soon as we got out of the car at the put-in – and I mean literally within one minute of shutting off the engine – a big old rumble of thunder tumbled up in the clouds. Aw, crap. Seriously? And then a minute later it began to rain. Sometimes when the gods speak, they do so in no uncertain terms.
At this point we’d burned at least three hours of precious time just driving around, time we could have been actually paddling rather than trying to paddle. Oh, well. Even if we’d put in right then and there, we still had a solid 7+ miles to do, in our whitewater-esque crossover boats (not at all the right vessels for as wide a river as the Wisconsin), facing the inevitable slow torpor of the dam impoundment in Wausau. Ordinarily this would be fine, but Barry had to book it back to Madison and there were just too many signs telling us that paddling today was not to be. So we bailed on that too.
But I decided to try my luck on something else (yes, a fifth prospect altogether), mainly because I didn’t think paddling a 200’-wide river that would eventually have zero current would be all that much fun in my compact 9’ boat. Instead, I thought I’d explore the Trappe River, a somewhat obscure stream (more creek than river) that feeds the Wisconsin about midway between Merrill and Brokaw. I’d been aware of the Trappe after reading about it on American Whitewater, plus I had used the access point at its mouth for that separate Wisconsin River trip a couple years ago.
For point of record, the popular whitewater run lies a few miles upstream of the more modest segment I selected – something I pretty much pulled out of thin air (I knew where the Trappe would end and I just chose a public road bridge upstream – north of Texas, Wisconsin, which incidentally, is it not strangely fitting that a town named “Texas” is in the biggest county in Wisconsin, Marathon County? What actually lied in between those two points I myself had had no idea). Turns out I got lucky (or maybe “rewarded” for all the busts earlier in the day). This segment of the lower Trappe is great and perfect for whitewater-curious paddlers. It has just enough fun thrills without any of the technical tricks or dangers found upstream.
What we liked:
But for the three pedestrian (and/or golf cart) bridges and clubhouse in the very beginning and then another couple houses once or twice, there’s hardly any sight of development. The water clarity is excellent – a truly beautiful mix of soft sand and rocky gravel. About midway into this short trip lies a long, engaging boulder garden. There are no dells (rocky outcrops through constricting a river) in this segment, and I don’t think the Trappe is as geologically endowed as either its next door neighbor to the north, the Pine, or the Prairie about 15 miles farther to the north. But it’s still a sweet stream with a rugged northwoods feel all its own.
This section is a great place to get a taste of and hone one’s skills on Class I rapids and quick maneuvering around boulder gardens. This segment can be categorized basically as quietwater, riffles, light rapids and then mostly quietwater with one or two final riffles for good measure. The section with moving water is quite pretty and rugged in feel but perhaps the prettiest portion lies near the end of trip. Here, the river slowly flows past tall sand banks in a thickly forested area of lush ferns and trees where you will feel lost from civilization for a few carefree moments.
The take-out itself is rather picturesque as well. Directly above the Trappe where it enters the Wisconsin is a handsome truss railroad bridge. The undeveloped but easy to spot landing is on the left about 25 yards upstream from the bridge. From there it’s a schlep up a staircase and then along a walking trail to a dirt road to a couple different places to park a vehicle or leave a bicycle.
What we didn’t like:
Well, the low water was in every sense a drag. But that’s nothing more than bad timing, not some intrinsic issue with this stream (It is August after all and it’s been dry the last couple weeks. I had to do a whole lot of butt-scooting and double-fist pole-vaulting (disconnecting the two ends of the paddle, holding each half-shaft, stabbing the bottom blades and pulling myself forward; yup, it gets real old real fast). But I was able to paddle, which is better than no time on the water). Paddle this at the higher levels recommended above and you’ll have a great time.
The only other thing that is a little dodgy about this is the take-out. For some folks the relative inaccessibility will be bothersome or begrudged. From the water to the stairwell lies some 40 feet through a mostly stomped-down path. Then the staircase itself is perhaps a gain of 30 feet. From the top of it to where you can park a car or lock up a bike is another walk, this one a little longer, say 100 feet. That is, unless you have a high-clearance vehicle with AWD or 4WD, in which case you can drive much closer to the staircase (alas, my little VW Golf can do no such thing without seriously disemboweling the underbelly of the car and probably getting stuck in such a fashion that I’d want to have AAA on speed dial). I personally don’t think this is a big deal, certainly not a deal-breaker, especially if one paddles with a friend (making the schlep much easier) but I do feel obliged to mention the unique nature of this landing.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this trip again – but only in higher water. Additionally, I’d like to check out the more challenging section of rapids upstream for a full day on the water.
Wikipedia: Trappe River