Prairie River - Wisconsin

Date: April 2, 2021; Length: 9.5 miles; Duration: 3 hours

Put In: County J Bridge

Bridge with shoulder of the road parking possible. A clear flat spot in the grass is available to put in off some rocks.

Takeout: County C Bridge

Bridge with shoulder of the road parking. A clear grass area with a few boulders in front off on the left before the bridge is a good spot to exit.

Paddling Experience = 4/5

There were two different paddling experiences to this section of the Prairie. One was the calm water with a decent current (and minor scraping occurring), while the other was about a mile stretch of class I-II rapids called the Dells. Both were pleasant experiences in their own right.

Natural Scenery = 4/5

Houses were uncommon and bridges mainly early on, while traveling down a narrow river with banks either lined with trees or open grassy areas. The trip felt enclosed to these immediate mostly natural surroundings pretty much throughout.

Solitude = 5/5

This section of the Prairie is between two county road bridges with not a whole lot in between as for development. Two bridges occur in the first mile before the next one eight miles down river at the takeout. I did pass some fishermen and a person viewing the Dells from a ledge above but otherwise it's a solitaire time.

Gradient & Water Level

Gradient: 8 feet per mile. Decent current & a strong stretch of rapids.
Experience Paddling at this Water Level: At this level the river had a decent current most of the way. Minor scraping occurred in flat stretches while the Dells rapids was a good manageable run though a slightly higher level couldn't hurt.

Gauge Information

Here is information on stream gauge readings around the date of this paddle (Note: Gauge located just upriver of the County C Bridge outside of Merrill.):

  • USGS Number = 05394500
  • Discharge Rate = 200 CFS
  • Gauge Height = 2.7 ft

Overall Experience

The Prairie is a short river in northern Wisconsin that flows into the much larger and longer Wisconsin river.  In Mike Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin, he provides one 9.5 mile section of the Prairie that I did here, going from the County J bridge around Bloomville to the County C bridge just north of Merrill.  The river drops a decent amount over this section thanks to about a mile stretch of class II rapids called the Dells, with one other minor class I rapid later on in the trip.  So going into this river trip my main concern was running the Dells well, but a big part of that comes down to water level, which was right on the edge of almost being too low based on recommendations.

With preparation and circumstances in place, I started my trip hiking with my packed packraft and other paddling essentials from the takeout to the put in at the County J bridge.  After a few hours I reached the bridge and found a somewhat cleared and flat spot on the upriver left side to get ready to get on the water.  With my packraft inflated and backpack strapped down for a mixture of calm and whitewater, I was on the river.  Not long in and I passed a few fishermen, which I expected, seeing a truck parked by the bridge when I was putting in.  After them came a couple backroad bridges, followed by a few miles of calm before the Dells ensued.  The water flow started to pick up as boulders appeared more regularly and the river really started to further narrow and wind.  At this level and in my stable and quick maneuvering packraft I was in good hands though.  The first of the Dells mainly consisted of boulder gardens and decent sized waves to hit, but then some ledges or drops added into the mix.  There wasn’t much break in this mile stretch of the Dells making it difficult to both run what was right in front of me well and set myself for what was to come just beyond and beyond that further.  But I managed with the only somewhat close call coming where I got momentarily stuck on a big boulder, spinning off of it and turning myself fully back around just in time to go over a ledge of a few feet.  At the end of this run I spotted a person from up above giving me props for how I did as they viewed from a balcony area where a trail runs along the river a little ways.  Following the Dells came a much calmer and flatter stretch of river, with the only challenge coming in a little scraping over a few shallow rock beds, one that I may have been able to avoid.  There were a few tight passes with some down trees as well, but nothing requiring too much difficulty or a portage.  Even in these stretches of water, the river had a decent current to it, remaining narrow with islands more common towards the end.  The water had a pretty clear dark brown color to it, while the surroundings consisted of a mixture of trees and open areas of long grass.  Houses were off the river here and there, while bridges were common but mainly clustered in the first mile having three out of the four total.  I also passed a few more fishermen after the Dells as well as some geese and ducks for wildlife.

After about three hours on the water, my takeout came on the upriver left side of the County C bridge.  This consisted of rocks in front of a small cleared grass area with a shallow slope leading up to the bridge, so it wasn’t the easiest or most convenient takeout but it worked.  With my packraft deflated and packed away with everything else, I was back to my vehicle and another river trip in the books.  It was a great experience getting a taste for some whitewater and some flat water, all on a narrow and enclosed river, making me feel like it was just me out there and for a ways.  This may be a one and done for the Prairie for me or I’ll venture farther up or down river at some point in the future to see what it’s like.