The "wilds" northeast of Merrill

August 11, 2006

In July 2006, we reported on the
Prairie River Dells northeast of Merrill, Lincoln County. We were so taken with it, we went back about a week or so later. This time, we decided to tough it out and take some no-kiddin' back-roads in the area.

We'll use two maps to give you your bearings.


You see Merrill in the lower left, and traveling up Hwy 17 you see the Dells marked by the red dot. There is about an 8-10 miles spread between the two.


This map zooms in on the northern side of the Prairie (River) Dell County Park, also by MapQuest. The red box roughly marks the area we explored. Those light grey lines are roads, dirt and gravel, rough dirt and gravel. The blue arrow points to Heineman Rd. heading west. It is a good gravel road. The red arrow points to Loggins Rd., also gravel, a bit worse in shape, which is how we entered the area marked by the red box. After that, it was tough to follow what roads we were on.

This is wild country, as we hope to show you. It is also beautiful country.


This is an aerial view that roughly reflects the area about 10 miles northeast of Merrill that we explored. We want to give you a brief layman's description of what you see. We'll present expert descriptions at the close of this report. It's too bad we don't have 3-D. This area was under the Wisconsin glacier, but is at a northern edge of an area that was not covered by the ice. The glacier left deposits in some areas as it withdrew, called drift ridges and knobs, or small hills. It also left sags, or downward curves, kind of the opposite of the knobs. Some of these have become lakes, others have become marshes. There's not much here too high, not much too low, but an area of ridges, knobs, sags and small lakes.

We entered this area just out of the lower right corner of the photo, on Heineman Road as it crosses the Prairie River.


The road going horizontally across the photo is Heineman, and we are traveling west to east, or right to left. The arrow points to the Prairie River traveling roughly north to south at this location on its way to the Wisconsin River to the southwest. The area marked by the top box is a short body of water, about the size of a creek, that at ground level looks more like a marsh than a creek. It also crosses under Heineman Rd. and feeds the Prairie River in the area marked by the bottom box.


This is that marshy-creek-like area on the north side of Heineman. This marsh was lush with bluish wildflowers that gave the area a blue tint.


This is the view on the south side of Heineman. This is a "car-stopper." We drove by, stopped, and backed up to get a good taste for the beauty of this little area.


This is a zoom view so you can see those wonderful blue wildflowers closer.

We kept driving west, passed over the Prairie River, and came to the intersection of Heineman and Loggins Rd.


Here's the intersection. Heineman curves to the left and southwest. We took a right to the northeast on Loggins Rd and headed into, for us, the "great mystery" of the day, the "Wilds of Merrill." You will note that Loggins Rd. narrows considerably.

It is at about this point that we started just taking any old dirt road to explore, losing our grip on exactly where we were.


A road we got on narrowed considerably as we entered. You can see that part of the road in the photo's center appears to have been recently graded.

To be honest, while looking at our maps, we saw a slew of small lakes back here and expected to find cottages. During our entire trip through here, the only person we saw was a lone cyclist toughing it out up and down these gravel-dirt roads. There are no cottages back here at all, and no people on the day we visited. Interestingly, for all its wildness, the cyclist, traveling alone, had a cell phone and he said it works. We did not have a cell phone, and in retrospect, shivered a bit at the thought of having a car break-down back here with no way to communicate out.


This photo tells you what's going on back here, at least in part.


Just up the road a bit we ran into this area which was being logged. For this editor, it was the first time to be so close to a logging operation back in the Wisconsin woods. So a few photos follow to show you what the area looks like when being logged.



We traveled on, not on the logging road partially blocked by the heavy equipment, but instead to the left and away from this area. The quality of the road steadily deteriorated to the point that we were as low as 5-10 mph to avoid splitting our Jeep's suspension system. Much to our dismay, the loggers had the road blocked off with a large mound of dirt where it intersected a higher quality road. We had to back-track out of there the way we came in. We would simply reiterate the country back here is marvelous, and wild.


Once out of the logging area, at long last, we found a lake, or perhaps better said, a large pond. That was the good news. The bad news is we're not sure what road we're on so we don't know which pond this is. Our best guess is we were on Horn Lake Rd.


As we approached this lake, we know we were on Horn Lake Rd. The cyclist had earlier told us to bear left when Horn Lake Road forked. That's what we did and a very short time later we drove up to an open area where we could park and walk around. This is Horn Lake. It looked part marsh, part lake, part creeks. We'll show you what it looks like from the air.

This first photo is unmarked, so you can just enjoy the view. Please note the lake in the right quadrant which appears to be half marsh, have lake. That's where we were.


Here is the same photo, marked up to identify a few things.


The green arrow points to Horn Lake Rd. In retrospect, we think the first lake-pond we showed you was one of those up by the green arrow, because we had to double back to find the fork.

At that point, we were driving on Horn Lake Rod. south to north, toward Horseshoe Lake Rd. A very small portion of Horseshoe Lake can be seen in the extreme upper right corner of the photo. The yellow arrow points to the fork, with Horn Lake Rd. moving northward and another gravel road jutting off to the left to what is Horn Lake, marked by the red arrow. Thomson Lake is next to it, marked by the blue arrow.


Sorry, just can't resist. The big lake in the upper half of this aerial shot is Horseshoe Lake, and you can see why it has been named that. The road running horizontally at the top is Horseshoe Lake Rd. We have to go back and take a look at it moire closely some day. The road you see just on the left edge of the photo is Horn Lake Rd.

Back to Horn Lake.

What is so interesting about the aerial view of Horn Lake is you can see the extensive marsh area with little ponds and small creeks; these seem to occupy a good half of the lake, the western half on the left.

We've shown you one look at the wide open lake. Here are two more.



Now come a succession of photos of the marshy area.




Now, a little more fun with all this photography.


This is a terrific aerial shot provided by of Horn Lake, a great zoomer! You can see the road coming into the lake area and ending inside the red circle. We took a series of photos of the area inside that circle, right about at its center, where you see the narrow outlet into the rest of the lake.


These next photos and the one above show wetland plants of Wisconsin in all their glory. This photo, and the very next one, are of white water lilies, otherwise known as Nymphaea odorata, fragrant water lily.


White water lilies technically have no stems as we know them. Instead they have "petioles" or stalks connecting them to underwater leaves. It would be fun to argue the difference between a stem and a stalk. Solitary flowers are on the end of the long stalk. These are perennials, they are common in Wisconsin, they are found in many lakes, ponds, and marshes, and they prefer quiet, clear, shallow water, all of which they have here.


We believe these to be yellow pond lilies, or Nuphar advena.


We don't what kind of flower this one is, but it stood out in the middle of the marsh alone, so we had to photograph it! We called it the "Lone Ranger."

We want to close with just a few expert remarks about what we have seen.


The Wisconsin River, which flows through Merrill (top red dot on the map), was formed in several stages. Experts think the lower Wisconsin River that flows generally westward was there first, outside the glacier's cover, or inside the Driftless Area on the map. The stretch from Stevens Point (bottom red dot on the map) to Merrill was a drainage route for meltwater flowing away from glaciers that covered Wisconsin. Stevens Point was in the Driftless Area, while Merrill was just north of it, under the glacier. As the glaciers retreated to the north, the river also grew in that direction. Said differently, the river, which flows south then west, actually grew toward the north.

George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and others have written a good
geological description for Lincoln County and Oneida and Vilas counties, the latter two counties to the north. These three counties are marked by numerous lakes, Lincoln county to a far less degree than the other two. The three counties are also marked by open swamps, once again, Lincoln less than the other two.

The authors say this:

"In the vicinity of Merrill there is relatively a great abundance of the Third Morainic deposits ... The knobs and sags are especially numerous in the valley of the Wisconsin River and occur as far southward as the mouth of Pine River. Some of the drift ridges and knobs in the vicinity of Merrill attain a height of 30 to 50 feet above the immediate surroundings.......The northern part of Merrill on the west side of Prairie River is characterized by numerous depressions and bouldery drift.....This locality seems to be an old river bottom, perhaps once occupied by the Wisconsin River whose earlier bed seems likely to have been along the present line of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway...... Terminal moraine deposits also appear to be unusually abundant in the large valley of the Pine River...... The general result of the Third deposition has been to soften the rugged contours of the earlier land surface."

"Morainic deposits" can otherwise be called moraines, which are deposits of rocks and sediment carried down and deposited by a glacier. We draw your attention to the section in bold type.

"Knobs" are prominent round hills, while "sags" are downward curves. A "bouldery drift" is a large deposit of boulder like material left by retreating ice sheets.

The Prairie River flows through the area we visited and into the Wisconsin River at Merrill. There are numerous creeks in the area that flow from a small grouping of small lakes in the area we explored. The Pine River flows into the Wisconsin just south of Merrill.

There is a lot to see, explore and understand about this area. We have only touched the surface. Hope this interests you enough to explore it more.