Pine River (Lincoln)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Pine River (Lincoln)

By on October 28, 2015

Center Road to County Road W
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Hands down, this was the single most fun and exhilarating run of whitewater we’ve ever experienced. This brief but beautiful and exhilarating segment of the Pine River is an absolute must. Non-stop Class I-II standing waves two-feet high (and even taller in higher water) rollicking down a narrow, bluffed-corridor lined with tall banks of pines are the signifying feature, with the highlight being one S-curved series of three ledges. Excellent accesses at both ends make this an almost indulgent experience.

September 7, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class I-II

17′ per mile (31′ at its peak)

Prairie River: ht/ft: 2.4 | cfs: 150

Recommended Levels:
We definitely recommend this level (related to the Prairie River correlated gauge located in Merrill). For novice/intermediate whitewater paddlers, this was a great level to run the river at. More advanced paddlers will seek this out anywhere between 500-1000 cfs (which is kind of mind-blowing to us, as 150 cfs was awesome).

Center Road, Township of Pine River, Lincoln County, Wisconsin
County Road W

Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 3:40p.
Total Time: 1h 40m
Miles Paddled: 2.25
Wildlife: None observed but there was no time to look at anything other than the water in front of us.
Time worth driving to: 2 hours

If this were the promo for the summer action flick blockbuster starring Bruce Willis or Will Smith or whomever, (Editor’s note: Timothy’s choice of action stars are admittedly, a bit dated and kind of revealing but he’s making a solid point) it would go something like this [cue the dramatic gravelly voice]: “In the rolling hills of sleepy Lincoln County, there’s a river that wakes up the dead beneath pine trees and boulders. Pulsing through narrow rock walls and granite Dells, the river bumps and jumps as it twists and turns. And the action Does. Not. Stop. You’ll be breathless. You’ll feel restless. Ten dollars buys you the seat… but you’ll only need the edge!”

We’ve been, ahem, pining away to paddle this section of the river for years now after first hearing about it in Mike Svob’s writeup of the Merrill trip on the Wisconsin River in Paddling Northern Wisconsin, wherein he states: “Experienced whitewater kayakers and canoeists often paddle a couple of miles on the Pine when the water is up – from Center Road to County W. This stretch flows through a beautiful dells area, and has numerous Class I and II rapids.” And with that, we were sold. The trouble is catching it when the water is up (this was actually our third time scouting the river, the previous two occasions were much too low).

For such a short run, it would be pretty silly to go into many details but here’s the overview: the trip begins on moving quietwater, gets riffly, is followed by some fun Class I rapids; then is followed by a couple hundred yards of Class II standing waves; followed by three ledges in a tight S-curve Class II; and then even more fun Class I rapids towards the take-out. The whole run is just about the funnest thing we’ve ever paddled. In-between you’ll be treated to exposed rock walls, a small Dells constriction, a few boulders, 20’-tall banks and a lovely mix of conifer and deciduous trees.

Now, our original intention was to paddle the Prairie River but after scouting the gorgeous but lively Dells section, we thought it might be a little too much for some in our party. Instead, we opted for the much shorter yet mostly unknown Pine River nearby. This turned out to be a great decision, as we probably didn’t have enough time to do the Prairie River justice and still drive back to Madison. Plus it led us to discovering the Pine, which definitely will go down as one of the best of 2015.

What we liked:
We weren’t the only ones being opportunistic with the previous night’s rainfall. Prior to shuttling, we met a group of people who were also headed up to the put-in which is located at an unnamed and random public park at the Center Street bridge (there’s plenty of room for parking and it makes for a great launching spot). Inquiring about whether they’ve done this and what to expect, a woman (whose name we didn’t catch) said she’s done it dozens of time and it should be “bitey” today (“bitey” must mean perfect and splashy and a blast, because that’s what it was).

This short run felt like a bronco ride, bobbing up and down the seemingly infinite standing waves. Sometimes the kayak bow would crash atop one of these waves, sending splashes of water left and right. Other times a wave would crash atop the bow and you’d get a big old lap (or spray skirt if you were smart) full of water. It just never let up and the whole thing was the giddiest adrenaline rush. And all of this is enclosed in a beautiful, intimate, creek-like environment surrounded by gorgeous rock outcrops and rock walls (hence the Pine River Dells).

It was actually kind of ironic that the best scenery couldn’t have even been fully appreciated because there was no way to stop, catch your breath and enjoy the beauty or even take a picture – it was nonstop. But then again, why would you want to? It was very rare run, one that you have to just go with, enjoying the moment and enjoying the ride. So what our still-camera pictures didn’t capture was the entirely amazing run through the canyon corridor because A) we surely would’ve lost our camera, because B) we almost did lose the GoPro, because C) it was nuts.

The only challenging (but truly fulfilling and exhilirating) moment in this admittedly short trip comes at (approximately) the ¾-mark. The river makes an S-curve and falls down three separate ledges. At the bottom of the last one, a large rock formation juts out on the right-hand side, something you don’t want to hit too fast moving from the second ledge. At the level of water we ran this at, it was not technically challenging to avoid running into but it was a safety consideration and something that is well-advised to scout before running. It’s a super-fun (OK, excellent) series of drops.

Of the four of us, one portaged around this section as it was only her second time ever paddling any kind of rapids (actually, it was only her third time ever kayaking a river in general and her first time in Class II conditions). For a rookie, it was quite an initiation and she handled it like a pro.

In fact, we were all pretty stoked after running it successfully that we basked in the excitement of the nonstop fun we just had for about a half-hour. Each of us were grinning ear to ear like cats who just swallowed the tastiest canaries of all time. So you can take that into account – this trip would normally clock in at just over an hour if you don’t stop and enjoy the ride you just had like we did.

After that drop, there’s still a couple fun Class I’s here and there but by now the gradient starts to decrease significantly. When you see the only bridge of this brief trip, at County Road W, look for the take-out on upstream-left. There’s a perfect v-shaped cleft for a kayak to line up in and then a long-ish but not too steep path from the river to a large parking area at the intersection of County Roads W and P.

What we didn’t like:
Only a couple minor matters. The first is street signs. You’ll see a road called Pine Dells Road but it’s a dead-end that leads to a handful of private houses. Unless you know someone who lives in one of these houses and who presumably would allow you to look out their backyard, you won’t be able to see the river from here.

Next is finding the road to the put-in from the take-out. It’s called Shady Lane Road but there’s no street sign for it via County Road P. Just look for the first road to turn left onto after passing “Van Road” (where there is a road sign); it’s Shady Lane, even if nothing tells you it is (incidentally, there is a street sign at the Center Road intersection). Budget cuts in the Lincoln County Highway Department?

The only other dislike is it’s a little dicey scouting the three ledges S-curve. To do so (and you should) there’s an OK eddy on the left to catch and sneak into above the drop. From here you can carefully thread your way around suspicious looking leaves of three and clamber over irregular, pointy rocks to a few places to look at the rapids. It’s totally doable, but the terrain is a little rough.

If we did this trip again:
This already has been consecrated as an annual run, as long as the water is up (we were at the right place at the right time when it rained more than 1.5” the night before). But next time we’ll put in further upstream, either at Highway 64 itself or even County Road X to add more to this sweet gem of a trip and explore what else is out there.

Related Information:
General: American Whitewater
General: Riverfacts


Shuttle Information:

3.3 miles.

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

  • Denny Caneff

    I agree with this chronicler of the Pine River (Lincoln County) that the stretch s/he describes is a delightful almost-whitewater run.  However, I don't see how 150 cfs could possibly be "awesome."  In fact, 150 cfs (using, as they rightly ecommended, the Prairie River gauge as proxy for the Pine) is probably too low to enjoy an optimum experience on that stretch of river.
    I ran it on the 4th of July (2016), with the Prairie River gauge at 150 cfs.  I bounced and bumped my way down the river and got the the take-out.  I would highly recommend at least 250 cfs, which would still make the river accessible for beginning whitewater kayakers. (Over 500 cfs and you should have some whitewater experience.)
    And if you're traveling far to make a run on the Pine, make it worth your trip (Center Road to County W takes less than two hours) by also taking in the next section upstream, from WI Hwy. 64.  The put-in is not great (river right, upstream from the bridge).  On the other hand, there are steady riffles and not as much gradient as the next section, but still enjoyable.  It is very remote and secluded.   I bike-shuttled it, and that too is agreeable, using mostly town roads.

  • Hey Denny,

    I double-checked the gauge info and it was indeed 150. I'm not sure why there would be such a difference in experience. That is indeed a conundrum. Frankly, I don't know what to attribute the discrepancy in water level experiences to. The Prairie drains a larger area and retains its water longer than the nearby Pine, as you know, but that still doesn't explain the contrast in our trip last year and yours last week.

    A solid shot of rain the night of Sunday Sept. 6th gave rise to all sorts of paddle-play options on Monday, Sept. 7th, when we did the Pine. It's possible that we simply caught the Pine at precisely the right moment, whereas had we done it the following day it could have been more like what you experienced – even though the Prairie gage was still at 150 cfs (and rising) on Tuesday, Sept. 8th.

    This is the problem with correlation gages. Maybe the takeaway from all of this is when the Prairie spikes to 150 cfs that should be the ding-ding! alert for the Pine, meaning drop everything and go (you know, in a perfect world when a paddler could just do that). The Prairie usually hovers below 100 cfs, so for it to hit 150 cfs means there's been rain. But as you experienced, that doesn't guarantee a runnable ride on the Pine per se. True, there never are guarantees with water levels, especially with correlation gages. You're probably right that 150-200 cfs is a better bet for catching the Pine, and we're very grateful to you for pointing this out for everyone's benefit.


Miles Paddled documents canoe and kayak trips on rivers and creeks throughout Wisconsin.

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