Pecatonica River: East Branch II
Hollandale to Blanchardville
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
An exhilarating trip on a skinny river that sneaks its way around one bluff and then another, many of them topped with pine-crowned cliffs, pockmarked boulders and gorgeous sandstone. When not so dramatic, there are oak savannas and tallgrass prairies to take in, while below, the current on the river plugs away quite nicely with occasional riffles.
November 19, 2013
Blanchardville: ht/ft: 4.70 | cfs: 170
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Highway 39, Hollandale, Wisconsin
Water Street, Blanchardville, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 10:50a. Out at 2:10p.
Total Time: 3h 20m
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Wildlife: Bald eagles, kingfishers, one snake, lots of hawks and a gazillion geese.
I won’t be coy, this trip was one of the best of 2013, hands down. A total gamble, as there is basically nothing out there (books, internet) on this segment so I had no idea what I would encounter. But that’s what intrepid paddling is all about.
You have a car or a bicycle at Point A, the other at Point B and once you put-in, you’re committed, come what may. Obstacles, hazards, gorgeous discoveries, all par for the course. Sometimes it’s a wash and doesn’t pan out. Sometimes it flat out sucks. And then sometimes it’s a homerun on the first swing. This trip was a homer, not a grand slam but definitely one to put on the board.
This trip can be dissected in three parts: The put-in to McKenna Road, McKenna Road to Horseshoe Bend Road and Horseshoe Bend Road to the take-out. As such, the trip can be distilled as pretty and impressive, kickass awesome and kind of boring, respectively.
What we liked:
The highlights of this trip (and there are several) are the bluffs and cliffs, which begin in earnest only a mile-and-a-half downstream from the put-in. Before you get there though, the surroundings are quite pretty. The river wends its way through pastureland, carving 10’-tall mud banks. Lush tallgrass prairies envelop you. Soft hills appear immediately, as well as some nice riffles.
The only obstacle I couldn’t negotiate comes at about half a mile or so in, an easy-to-portage fallen tree straddling the entire width of the river. A gigantic gaggle of geese shot out into the sky as I got out (a winged thunder of sudden birds, berserk and barking).
The first bluff appears shortly after that, with attractive rock outcroppings at the top. The river undulates around and back to this bluff a couple more times. At this point, the water is clear with a pretty, sandy bottom (The river will continually alternate between sand and mud throughout the trip.)
The first bridge (McKenna Road) is found at the 4-mile mark. Get ready to find your socks soon knocked off because the best bluffs are to come in this next section. The first is found about a mile downstream of the McKenna bridge. It’s reminiscent of Blue Mounds State Park (which is actually nearby and can be seen from the roads).
Unlike the usual bluff scene in the very southwestern corner of Wisconsin where farmland dominates so much of the terrain, the geology here is very woodsy and forest green, with buxom boulders embedded in the hillside, moss draping many of them. There was a definite whiff of northwoods in these bluff-swept stretches, a characteristic I would never have guessed but was thankful for and in awe of. The river passes along this bluff for a good 100 yards, giving you generous time to take in one craggy overhang and mysterious fissure after another.
The most dazzling rock formations come ½ a mile upstream of the Horseshoe Bend Road bridge. While the preceding rock formations are dolomite limestone, it’s the signature of good old St. Peter sandstone that marks this section. And unlike the preceding bluffs and hillsides, where there is a slope and a bank, here the rockwall is sheer and drops straight down into the water. The rock formations that are between Blanchardville and Argyle are mostly comparable (though less spectacular). Above you, the top of this cliff must be 100’ high at least. The whole stretch is probably only 75 yards or so and taking your time to take it all in is worth your while. I found myself reeling in marvel, wondering how in the world this east branch of the Pecatonica is not better known… (but glad that it isn’t!)
Another mentionable is the nice parking area on Highway 39, maybe 50 yards west of the bridge. A path leads from there to the river, where it’s easy to put in.
What we didn’t like:
After Horseshoe Bend Road, the surroundings flatten out, the current slows to almost nothing and there’s little left to ogle until the takeout. Plus there’s a dam in Blanchardville. Once the river bends to the east (the sun finally not blinding) you will see a white church atop a hill in front of you. That’s your cue to get ready to take out soon. You will hear the waterfall-like dam before you eye the horizon line or the bridge just downstream. A small park/fishing area on river-left is where you want to takeout. It’s not a difficult one, as the bank is at best, a half-foot higher than the water and the current isn’t strong, so you don’t need to worry about being tugged toward the dam. But you obviously need to pay attention and play it safe.
There’s a small parking lot on the downstream side of the bridge and dam, where it looked like you could park without hassle. If not there, (it’s a vet office parking lot next to a stairwell that leads up the hill above the bridge/dam by that aforementioned white church) streetside parking shouldn’t be a problem. If all that fails, there’s an official boat launch about a ¼ mile downstream of the dam, where there’s plenty of room to leave a vehicle (Incidentally, that launch is the official beginning of the Blanchardville to Argyle segment).
The relative boredom of the third section of this trip (3 miles long) is really the only thing I didn’t like. The need to portage one fallen tree was no big deal.
And the fact that it was only 25 degrees outside when I put-in, hoarfrost beautifully limning the peripheries of twigs, grass and leaves like a crystalline filigree, not to mention the first icicles since February, was certainly worth putting up with chill-tingled fingers and toes!
If we did this trip again:
First of all, I will in a heartbeat! But not until next year where it’s a bit warmer than mid-20s. And another inch or two of water would be nice to avoid scraping.
But more to the point, I would take-out at Horseshoe Bend Road. It’s definitely doable and someone even placed a short stepladder there for better access (Clearly, I am not the first person to have paddled this Pecatonica!) There are several alternate put-in options upstream of Highway 39, depending on how long of a trip you want to make. None of them are great (I scouted them all) but all of them look semi-accessible. The Horseshoe Bend Road bridge is 7.5 miles from the Highway 39 bridge.
The furthest I think you would want to paddle upstream of Highway 39 (some 9.5 miles) is a bridge where County Roads H and K converge (Above that, the river is very narrow and too prone to deadfall obstructions.) One consideration to make is that just upstream of the Highway 39 bridge a decent sized creek flows into the Pecatonica, giving it a healthy dose of water. Thus, the area in between County Roads H and K and Highway 39 will have less volume and not be accurately reflected in any official gauge reading. But I am getting ahead of myself, for all of that will have to wait for another trip someday…
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Blanchardville to Argyle
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
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River
7.2 miles, pretty hilly but not so bad to give you a heart attack. The descents are exhilarating!