Pecatonica River
★ ★ ★

Pecatonica River I

By on June 18, 2012

Calamine to Darlington
☆ ☆ ☆

While not overly spectacular, the Pecatonica is just a solid and pretty paddle located in the driftless area. Coupled with a convenient atv trail for a bike shuttle, this is a very accomodating waves-to-trails paddle.

June 16, 2012

Class Difficulty:

Darlington: ht/ft: 2.37 | cfs: n/a

Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable.

County Highway G Bridge, Calamine, Wisconsin
Pecatonica River Trails Park, Darlington, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 8.25

What we liked:
While there is nothing overly spectacular about this stretch of the Pecatonica that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile paddle. In fact, I would highly recommend it. The exceptional beauty of the bridges and parks at the put-in and take-out, charm of Darlington and the drive from Madison (which is one of my favorite areas of the state to drive through) all add up to a great day-paddle.

The slight irony to this paddle was that I had planned on doing it last Sunday. But just before departing, I thought I’d read Mike Svob’s trip report in his book Paddling Southern Wisconsin once more. He makes mention of the annual Darlington Canoe Festival which happens during the second week of June. Suddenly it occurred to me that it was the second week of June. And while the details in Mike’s books (naturally) get outdated from time to time, this was not one of those times. Sure enough, Sunday was indeed the canoe race, with the first wave starting at 6:00am. The one day out of the whole year I planned on kayaking the Pecatonica, just wasn’t meant to be.

So a week later, I made the trip. The put-in at Calamine (which is a total of a few old and historic houses) is instantly iconic, with a metal truss bridge jetting out of the surrounding corn fields and painted in a green that only bridges this old are. With a sawdust-type trail leading down to a little dock, you never have to get your feet wet putting in. Just downstream from the bridge is the Cheese Country Trail bridge. It’s a very scenic put-in and start to the journey.

The water is murky brown. Rarely do you ever see below a few inches. The current was moving at a steady but not overly quick rate. Riffles are practically non-existant, save for the ones created by the many logs you’ll travel over. The paddle is probably 70% canopy covered which makes for a great paddle on a hot day, offering protection from the sun. The banks are often high with very few places to get out, if at all. Animals were scarce except for a lot of standard-issue birds, ducks and squirrels. I startled a few unidentified fish, a sandhill crane and even a deer high up on a bank. It’s easy to follow the map on this paddle as there are very straight sections with obvious elbows that give you an idea of where you are.

The Pecatonica struck me as a canoer’s river if there ever was such a thing. There was just something about it that seemed perfect for canoeing. In fact, I would consider it a wonderful river to introduce beginners to paddling as their is nothing too wild or difficult about it and it’s never very deep. Of course, I did hit it after the Canoe Festival and it’s clear that the organizers of the event go to great lengths to keep this section free from debris. As storms move through prior to or post-festival, there is sure to be some downed trees since there is so much canopy.

Darlington claims the title of “Pearl of the Pecatonica” which according to Mike Svob is based on claims that clams were once harvested for pearl buttons. It also reflects the city’s relationship with the river as Darlington seems to live in harmony with the Pecatonica. The care and pride they bestow on this stretch of the river and the parks surrounding it is evident. From the well-maintained park that serves as the entrance to the city on highway 23, it shapes the Western side of Darlington and seems to go on forever as it winds its way towards downtown. In fact, finding the take-out was a little tricky since the parking lots, driveways and ATV trails all seem to blend together. It’s clear they put a lot of effort in maintaining the area and celebrating the river that flows through their city with not only the Canoe Festival but for recreational purposes of all kinds (camping, fishing, ATV, etc.).

The take-out is located near the campground which would be a great place to spend the night after a day of paddling. There is nothing private about the grounds (camper next to camper) but it would do the job if you were in the area. You could probably even paddle right up to your campsite.

I had to bike-shuttle this trip but it was the most convenient of any shuttle I’ve encountered because the trail runs parallel to the river. The Cheese Country Trail is a 47-mile multi-use rail trail. It stretches from Monroe to Mineral Point, connecting Browntown, South Wayne, Gratiot, Darlington, and Calamine. The trail is used by ATVs, bicycles, horses, snowmobiles, and hikers. And in my case, it makes for the perfect trail to get from put-in to take-out or vice-versa. ATV traffic is common on the trail (and throughout Darlington) it seems. The ride was an easy 30-minute ride on a flat gravely route and a surprisingly enjoyable end to the day.

What we didn’t like:
There really wasn’t much to not like about the Pecatonica. Sure, some riffles and and a few more places to stop and get out would be great but it’s a very nice river to canoe or kayak.

If we did this trip again:
A 2-hour paddle and a 30-minute bike made this a great paddle. Add in the drive West from Madison through driftless country, to the charming town of Darlington and you have the perfect day-paddle.

Related Information:
Pecatonica River II: Darlington to Red Rock
Pecatonica River III: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River IV: Mifflin to Jones Branch Road
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Blanchardville to Argyle
Pecatonica River East Branch II: Hollandale to Blanchardville
Pecatonica River East Branch III: Highway HK to Hollandale
Pecatonica River East Branch IV: Argyle to Blackhawk Memorial County Park
Pecatonica River East Branch V: Woodford to Highway 11
Camp: Pecatonica River Trails Park
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Pecatonica River
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Video: Canoeing the Pecatonica River in Darlington, Wisconsin
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River


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