Pine River to Texas:
A very abbreviated segment of the Merrill to Granite Heights trip (11.25 miles) due to lack of time and winter conditions. Highlights include a swift current leading up to one very solid Class I+ rapids, with pleasant hills, high banks and two handsome railroad bridges at the mouths of two rivers feeding the Wisconsin. Detractions are houses on shoreline and nearby highway noise.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: December 2, 2013
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I+
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Merrill: ht/ft: 5.2 | cfs: 2500
Merrill: ht/ft: 5.06 | cfs: 2200
We recommend this level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin.
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 12:55p.
Total Time: 1h 10m (with lots of down time and diversions)
Miles Paddled: 5
A couple white-tailed hawks, many kingfishers, chickadees, a blue jay and a waddle of ten wild turkeys – survivors after Thanksgiving Day!
Only 4.5 miles but essentially all of it on County Road W, which has no shoulder for bicycles and where there is a surprising amount of cars and trucks, all driving awfully fast.
I’ve driven I-39/Highway 51, between Wausau and Merrill, about a gazillion times and I’ve never tired of its pretty rolling landscape with glimpses (from the northbound lane) of the Wisconsin River muscling its way through marshes, wooded bluffs, grassy banks, occasional farms, houses and the set-in-time paper mill in Brokaw. While the highway hugs this southerly segment of the river the entire time, the picturesque setting of the river and rolling hills has inspired me to look and listen past the steady din of passing trucks and cars.
For this trip I wanted to paddle the Granite Heights put-in to Wausau itself, a modest trip of only 7.5 miles, as it looks more remote and attractive. Trouble was, most of this trip was impossible due to ice (the dam in downtown Wausau significantly slows the current even as far upstream as Brokaw, creating the effect of a flowage, which stagnant water freezes up much faster than flowing water.)
So I was left with the Merrill to Granite Heights segment which is notably longer at 11.25 miles, to say nothing of a 13-mile bike shuttle (a full day of play in the best conditions). This being the 2nd day of December, 27 degrees and snowing, with the river already beginning to ice up and pushing nighttime by 4:30 pm, this was hardly the best of conditions.
Compounding these late-season misfortunes, river accesses here are few, if not far-between. From the official put-in at Riverside Park in Merrill, there is essentially nothing until the 8-mile mark at the end of Pine Bluff Road (see map below). But then there are two more spots to access the river a mile-and-a-half and three miles downstream, respectively.
A three-mile trip seemed silly but I was running out of ideas after scouting every possible road running relatively close to the river but I didn’t find any alternative accesses. And while I was certainly curious about paddling through Merrill, I knew that the rapids and less-developed segments were downstream the Highway 51 bridge. I got a wild idea to scout around the bridge crossing the Pine River, mainly because I’ve had this little river on my to-do list for a couple years now. The Pine was frozen over but I noticed a snowmobile trail running behind a bar across the street from the bridge.
I followed it down to the railroad bridge that spans the Pine at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Quite picturesque, a little bit rugged but totally doable. Plus, with snow on the ground, I just dragged my kayak like a sled along the trail rather than carry it on my shoulder for 75 yards. The thought of having a “Stand by Me” moment crossing the railroad bridge did cross my mind but I reasoned that the odds of a train coming through then and there (or the next 100 years for that matter) seemed slim to none. Some basic bushwhacking followed below the bridge to the nearest spot of open water on the Wisconsin but it was no problem.
What we liked:
In the beginning, the current was excellent, all the more appreciable with slushy ice chunks swiftly floating by! The river is always wide but a number of islands divide the main flow and offer nice channels. Plus, there’s a charge one gets, I don’t know how best to describe it, when paddling our beloved Wisconsin River this far north, where the setting and surroundings are so different than in the southwest part of the state. Maybe it’s like hearing Dylan play electric guitar for the first time. Or Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust phase. Definitively different but there’s something very impressive and impressionable knowing it’s all apiece.
While the bluffs and rolling hills are further downstream, this trip offers attractive high banks, most topped off with pine trees. The most exciting part of the trip is the brief but formidable rapids just upstream of the Trappe River mouth. The rapids appear after a sharp left turn and before the river turns next to the right. The rapids are closer to the right bank and as such, since the river is so wide, the rapids can easily be skirted by paddling closer to the left bank. The water will still be choppy but no more so than paddling into a headwind. Rated as Class I, the waves had plenty of oomph which I was pleasantly surprised by. Because the rapids are situated in a bend of a wide river, the current is impressive and should not be taken for granted. I thought it best to pay attention and paddle true rather than try to snap a couple choice pics while running them. I really, really did not want to get swamped (or worse) in water that cold!
The takeout was definitely more forgiving than the improvised put-in. Still though, a word of caution about it. To find the takeout you must first turn onto Wisconsin River Road off of County Road W (there’s an even smaller “Wisconsin River Road” off Center Road but finding that – which you don’t want anyway – is akin to locating the Bat Tunnel.) You’ll drive past a cute park on your left and then a field called Jesse Ball. Immediately after these and on the right, you will see a dirt road turnoff. A loop of about 20 yards long leads you to a wooden stairway that leads down to the mouth of the Trappe River, a good 25’ below. If you take-out here, you will need to schlep your boat up these itty-bitty stairs. As I said, this was an easier access than the mouth of the Pine River but it does require a bit of strenuous effort.
The last cool thing to mention, and this is probably an element unique more to winter paddling than paddling this segment of the Wisconsin River in general, is all those chunks of slushy ice and how they began to coalesce in bends where there were jets of current whisking them in a unified line downstream. I paddled alongside this trail of ice beside the banks for a good hundred yards, enthralled not only by the novelty of the event (it was like watching a stream of diamonds flow beside you) but the sound was simply exquisite. Think jazz brushes on a snare drum. Think the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was wonderful! A time if ever there was to have captured this trip on video, alas…
It’s worth mentioning that nearby the Pine River has a notable whitewater run. The popular segment puts-in at Center Road and takes-out at County Road W for a quick but impressive 2.3-mile run through a dells micro-gorge.
In addition, the Trappe River is a choice whitewater spot too, with a number of put-in options (County Roads G, J or North 97th Street) as well as places to take-out (North 73rd, County Road WW, Shady Lane Road, County Road W or still at the mouth of the Wisconsin River off of Wisconsin River Road), depending on what kind of paddle experience and length you’re looking for.
What we didn’t like:
First off, whatever I mention here should be put into context of the fact that this trip is a spliced segment one-third the length of the more official daytrip. What’s missing here is the full effect of beginning in the much-developed downtown setting of Merrill, together with its high bluffs and paddling past the big islands and then under the Highway 51 bridge all the way down to Granite Heights Road. That said, this short stretch is only so-so.
Both banks of the river are flanked by roads, Highway 51 on the right and County Road W on the left. Thus, there is a constant background sound of cars and trucks. Additionally, there are houses and farm fields along most of this stretch, too. The one exception to that is the last 1.3 miles, or from Pine Bluff Road to the Trappe River, where there is a public land area called the Wisconsin River Forest Unit. This is where the river bends and where the rapids are located but it is too brief.
If we did this trip again:
I would a) probably not do it in winter and b) do the entire Merrill to Granite Heights segment.