Pecatonica River: East Branch III
Highway HK to Hollandale
☆ ☆ ☆
Alternating between serene, sublime and sucky, this trip is quite a mixed bag. The water levels are fickle and the obstructions are frustrating but there are fun riffles coupled with magnificent rock outcrops (ancient in this Driftless stream) that make the trip worth consideration. But there’s a big but and it goes by the name of “logjams”.
March 16, 2014
Water levels are almost always reliable but this is a paddle we simply don’t recommend.
County Road HK
Highway 39, Hollandale, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:45a. Out at 5:15p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Wildlife: Bald eagles, lots of Canada geese, a muskrat, 6 sandhill cranes, at least 5 hawks, over 15 deer (yes, 15 – they were everywhere!) and lots of little birds that chirped like squeaky dog toys.
Let me back up before I even begin. I tried to do a segment of this trip back in December, but found significant portions of the river (really more of a creek, to be fair) impassably iced-over. I had wanted to paddle this trip on Saturday March 15th but the gauge still read “ice affected” so I knew better than to try my luck (I may do some dumb things, sure, but I usually don’t do the same dumb thing twice. Usually). So I was delighted to find the gauge reading “above normal” the next day.
Now, it’s conventional wisdom to paddle segments of water in wintertime that you know, saving the unfamiliar ones to be explored in warmer weather (i.e., safe, non-hypothermia-inducing conditions). Sure, I get that. But I really wanted to do this segment of the east Pec and have wanted to do it since last November. Plus, I thought it would make a nice full-circle effect: the same area that marked the official beginning of winter making the official beginning of spring three months later. That said, it was actually colder on this day in March, (22 degrees with a windchill effect of 5 degrees) than it was in December.
What we liked:
The best this trip has to offer are the bluffs and exposed rock outcrops. The landscape takes on a certain rhythm as the river rides along the side of one bluff to another, with bucolic pasture and high banks in between. Standing along the road, you can see how the whole thing has been laid out and you can get a feel for when and where the river will run along the rolling bluffs. Whether by car or bike, this was one of the prettiest shuttles I’ve ever done. Save for the occasional farm, there are no buildings or signs of development while on the water. As the crow flies, you’re only 30 miles or so from Madison but it feels like another world entirely. In a sense, it is: Driftless and very, very old. Most of the bluffs rise 80’-100’ high above the river, some with sheer-faced cliffs of exquisite colors. This is not your garden-variety pre-Cambrian sandstone out here!
I’ll mention this now but it’ll only be relevant for cold-season paddling. The freeze/thaw cycle of snow in concert with the rise and fall of water levels made for some brilliant icicles, ice dewlaps, paper-thin ice sheets and figurine-fragile crystal sculptures. I hope some of the pictures capture a sense of this.
Accesses are OK but not great. The notable exception to this is the take-out at the Highway 39 bridge. There is a dedicated parking area about 30 yards west of the bridge. A path leads from there to the river, where it’s easy to put in. It seems like a popular fishing spot (although in November, December and March, respectively, I have yet to see anyone).
What we didn’t like:
OK, the bad stuff. The really bad, nasty, mean, awful, cursing, crappy stuff: logjams… crazy-big, mind-boggling, tough mudder-worthy logjams. Here’s the thing: for the first three miles or so there isn’t a single obstruction worthy of concern (a couple bits to dodge but nothing mentionable). It lulls you into thinking that this paddle will be a breeze, an unbelievable secret spot. Then you come upon the first of two (total) bridges on Star Valley Road (the road crosses the river twice). Almost on cue, ginormous logjams come out of nowhere and they just don’t quit. Most of these you’ll have to climb onto/into the clusterf*ck of trees and pull your boat over/through, as the banks are too steep to access.
There is one in particular that I would consider both difficult and dangerous. Difficult because it’s strenuous, requires a good amount of balance (so that you don’t fall into the water) and peace of mind (incase you do fall into the water). Dangerous because once you do manage to get past it all and back into your boat, there’s only a few feet before a clearance on river-left allows a navigable slot but there’s a small drop right there with a rock wall on the left that the current steers you into, with another large rock in front only a few feet after the short drop. Needless to say, good boat control is a boon if you want to keep dry. What might be the most frustrating part of that is this rock wall is part of a cliff that may well be the prettiest highlight on the whole trip… but you’re distracted.
All in all, I had to portage three times. It could have been more but given the choice, I’d sooner paddle through the annoying scribble of a fallen tree than get out of my boat and walk around it. That’s just me though, I don’t mind getting filthy. The worst of the portaging is between the two Star Valley Road bridges but there remain a number of other nuisances downstream too. Roughly midway between the last of these two bridges and the take-out, you’re home free, with a boost too of a tributary creek feeding the east Pec a hundred yards or so above Highway 39 (though by then, this trip is over).
Also, the water was shallow. Shockingly shallow, I thought. True, not all the snow has melted but shallow it was, which made me occasionally grumpy (grumpy and by that time, filthy).
This is a perfect segue into some technical gauge specs regarding water levels. The upper stretch drains quickly, so you should consult a couple different gauges. The first is the Ridgeway Branch gauge. It read 7.6’ at 9 cfs. This gauge is located where the East Branch of the Pecatonica and Ridgeway Branch meet by the Mill Dam Road bridge, three miles upstream from this trip’s put-in. The second gauge you’ll want to check is the actual East Branch of the Pecatonica gauge in Blanchardville. It read 7’ and 400 cfs. It is about 20 miles downstream from this trip’s put-in.
Now bear in mind, those were the readings for when I paddled this trip. For comparison’s sake, only 24 hours later, the river dropped to 5’ at 200 cfs at Blanchardville! In other words, the upstream section, which is where this trip is located, probably wouldn’t be navigable at those levels. Or to illustrate it another way, on Saturday the 15th, the gauge was still ice affected. On Sunday the 16th it was open but rated “above normal.” But on Monday the 17th, it was at “normal.” That’s pretty quick drainage. As for the Ridgeway Branch gauge, on Friday the 14th it had 60 cfs but only 9 cfs by the time I paddled it, merely 48 hours later on Sunday the 16th. And this is all with continual snowmelt in mid-March!
If we did this trip again:
I’d like to explore sections even further upstream. There’s a 3-mile segment upstream from where this trip begins off Mill Dam Road. I’ve scouted it and while it looks quite pretty, (and notably different, as part of it features a small woodsy/swampy section, a rarity in this otherwise bluff pastureland area) even from the road it looks both shallow and prone to deadfall.
In conclusion (cue the bugles), I do declare: If I had tried running this trip and found it all iced over again, people would say “see, I told you so!” and think me an idiot. Who tries paddling the same trip in winter conditions? What’s that saying about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result? (I’m pretty sure that’s not the measurement of insanity – for doesn’t that make persistence and perseverance the bedfellows of madness? – but I’m no psychologist.)
In a sense, I was lucky. All the ice had melted and except for the logjams, this trip could have been platinum plus. I’m not bragging about being so obstinate. It’s far more sensible to paddle familiar sections in cold weather season but I felt good about getting back into the paddle saddle and challenging myself.
Is this trip worth your time (and frustration)? Obviously, that’s not for me to say. In truth, my youthful enthusiasm in the first half of the trip had waned by the time I had reached the takeout, due to the obstructions. A shame, because this could be such a great trip otherwise (In fact, my modest dream was linking a portion of this trip with some of the sections downstream of Highway 39, say, Burma Road to Horseshoe Bend Road for an ultra-spectacular paddle. Maybe someday…).
The other consideration is water level. To paddle this section at all, you’ll need at least as much water as was recorded on this day but preferably more. But you don’t want so much more water that it gets pushy so “negotiating” the logjams and obstructions becomes unsafe (Also, there are two strands of barbed wire shortly downstream of the put-in. They’re easy to see and duck under but as always, caution is required – especially if the river is pushy). Some of the tree debris could easily (and safely) be removed by handsaw and teamwork in warmer weather. In terms of nearness to home and a beautiful landscape, such a cleanup would be totally worth doing. In terms of going through the effort if this section is normally too shallow to run except for a couple times a year, then maybe it’s not worth doing. That philosophical question is above my pay grade.
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Blanchardville to Argyle
Pecatonica River East Branch II: Hollandale to Blanchardville
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
4.7 miles (and one of the prettiest shuttle routes I’ve ever done).