Pecatonica River: Mineral Point Branch
Oak Park Road to County Road O
☆ ☆ ☆
A short but lovely jaunt that begins wonderfully and rewards the paddler with several glorious bluffs, exposed rock outcrops, as well as some riffles, but ends in a tangled obstacle course of fallen trees in the last mile. Also, both accesses are far from ideal – the take-out in particular. But otherwise this is a fun, scenic trip for those who’ve never done it (which will be just about everyone in the world).
July 30, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
~3′ per mile
Darlington: ht/ft: 5.50 | cfs: 500
We recommend this level, with a couple caveats, however: 1) The gauge is an imperfect indicator, as it’s on the main branch of the Pecatonica River – this trip is on a tributary branch of the Pecatonica River; 2) You could paddle the river lower than these levels without scraping, although the riffles would be more fun at a higher level; and 3) since this was our first time paddling this stream, we have no baseline of other water-level readings to compare to. Evidence of super-high water abounded on the clobbered grass along the banks from recent storms, but it had been over a week since the last storm, which typically is plenty of time to let a river of this size to subside and calm down. All in all, given how few riffles there are on this trip, there probably is enough water to paddle this except for in the driest of droughts. (Remember droughts?) Just the same, this part of the state is prone to flooding, so stay the hell away from it right after several inches of rain!
Oak Park Road, downstream on river-right
County Road O (at the confluence with the main branch), about 30′ downstream on river-right, south of Slateford, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 4:10p. Out at 6:35p.
Total Time: 2h 25m
Miles Paddled: 6
Wildlife: Leatherback turtles, muskrats, frogs, deer, bald eagles, great blue herons and songbirds.
This trip is a classic case in the Miles Paddled canon of “Explore the Obscure!” This lark of a trip has been on my to-do list for years now. Why? In order to find a bluff. Yes, seriously. It’s gotten to that point in river paddling where we now hunt bluffs…
Let’s first dispel some ambiguity. When driving southwest on Highway 151 between Mineral Point and Belmont, one crosses two rivers in dramatic fashion where the highway descends into the valley and then ascends back to the rim of the plateau. The first time there’s a sign that reads “Pecatonica River,” whereas there’s no sign the second time. What’s notable about this is the stream called “Pecatonica River,” i.e., the eastern-more body of water, is not the Pecatonica River proper, but a combination of separate branches comprising the Pecatonica River network. The actual Pecatonica River is under the second bridge, i.e., the western-more body of water. Whatever, one doesn’t need a degree in geography to work for the Highway Department. (Also, to be fair, Google Maps names both streams “Pecatonica River,” which is funny, because how can they both be named the same thing?) Being the kind of weirdos who look up such streams on a map when our curiosity has been piqued, this one piqued us many years ago.
In April of 2015, I came to the bridge at County Road O, north of Calamine, to do research for the guidebook on what would be one of two Pecatonica River trips featured in the final edition, I was impressed by how wide and “river-like” the Mineral Point Branch is, which flows into the Pecatonica River proper right at this bridge. So, I got to thinking, what about paddling the Mineral Point Branch itself? Furthermore, when I looked up this stream on both the atlas/gazetteer and the topo map, I noticed a very promising bluff upstream that diverts the river irregularly eastward on its way down south. And so a future trip was born.
I chose South Oak Park Road as a put-in, not because it’s established or even ideal (it’s neither), but rather because the options upstream are literally few and far between. There is a bridge at North Oak Park Road, but that would add ~4 miles of predominantly agricultural paddling – it’s right next to a farmhouse – to say nothing of whether that bridge is even accessible. This is cow & corn country, so A) I feel pretty self-conscious about paddling such parts without a convincing reason and B) the odds of cattle gates, wires, fences, and/or low-clearance bridges are very good. By contrast, South Oak Park Road allows you to slip into the river as close to the beguiling bluff as possible.
I chose County Road O as a take-out – the one technically spanning the Pecatonica River, not the one just up the road that goes over Mineral Point Branch – because I’d been there before and knew it was an option. That said, after returning to it, the access there is admittedly pretty poor. What a difference a wet, hot summer makes for weeds compared to a spring day in April when everything was still dormant and flat! You have your choice of either mud or weeds. It’s worth it, because the section from there to Calamine is really cool, if you do that trip, or if you do this one, it’s far more practical to take out here than the other bridge at County Road O one mile upstream. (Continuing on to Calamine would add another 5.5 miles, which together with this trip at 6 miles would make for a full day of paddling, which would be great, but not in the cards when putting in at 4pm on a Sunday!)
Accessing the water at South Oak Park Road is a little dodgy, but essentially doable. Be mindful of loose rock rubble and weeds (poison parsnips especially). Much of this trip follows a pattern of long straightaways followed by a couple breakout kink sessions of meandering, and then back to the straightaways. You’re in corn country on this trip, but the banks are tall enough that you often don’t see the monocultural monotony above you. Besides, the geology show rewards the paddler with many great moments where corn will be the last thing on your mind.
The first rock outcrops come quickly. The mystery bluff that inspired this trip in the first place comes into play a mile downstream from the put-in. It starts coquettishly enough, with a teasing glimpse of a short but attractively gnarled limestone wall on the right. (Actually, the bluff itself and everything not corn will be on the right until passing under the County Road O bridge. Then, the hilly terrain is on the left.) After this you’ll come upon an utterly random concrete bridge pylon from who knows when…? Past this, the base of the bluff slopes from the water to supremely pretty woods. This isn’t public land, alas, but it looks enchanting. Soon you’ll begin to see glimpses of rock outcrops and actual cliffs – behind the leafy camouflage of trees. Where there are breaks in the tree canopy the rock formations are clear as day – and gorgeous! The tallest is a sandstone cliff that towers at least 80′ high above the river, very much calling to mind “Third Castle” on the upper Baraboo River near Wonewoc.
Immediately downstream from the sandstone cliff is a huge bald eagle nest in a pine tree. The rock walls – lining right into the water – and the outcrops in general continue as you paddle downstream until a hundred yards or so from the County Road O bridge. Even when they recede, the backdrop is a meadowy hill that’s very easy on the eye.
Below County Road O, everything changes. Now, the right-hand side is all flat fields, the left flanked by a hill. Gone are specific rock outcrops, but you still get a sense of topography. (Also on the left, you may hear or see an ATV cruising past you via the Cheese Country Trail.) More notable, however, are the endless lines of trees from both banks. Whereas everything up to this point has been essentially treeless and entirely exposed to the sky and sun, here it gets shady – in every sense. It’s all but literally a night-and-day difference. Fallen trees begin and really don’t let up until the take-out. Most of it was manageable – especially after clipping and sawing – although we did have to portage around one.
The take-out setting is pretty, too, where the Mineral Point Branch T-bones the main branch of the Pecatonica River on the downstream side of that County Road O bridge. Getting off the water is a little tricky, however, at least in summer when the grass and weeds are high.
What we liked:
The scenery at the put-in is positively lovely: bucolic, meadowy, hilly and tranquil. We were delightfully surprised by how peppy the current was. All in all, there are a dozen riffles at best, hardly anything even classifying as a rapid in the strictest sense. But having no idea what this brief trip would be like, I more or less expected the current to be slow and flat. The river itself is also surprisingly wide (for being a tributary branch), at about 25′. Not until the final mile or so does it begin to meander in earnest. In the beginning, this trip is a total lackadaisical chill-and-relax float trip – or a fun place to toss a Frisbee.
I had a hunch there’d be a cool bluff on this unknown Mineral Point Branch, but it definitely exceeded my most hopeful expectations! By and by, the point of this trip was to scratch a curious itch I’d had for years and it paid off in spades. The rock formations are gorgeous by any measure, perhaps more so given the obscurity of this branch of the Pecatonica River.
On our trip, a juvenile eagle, still brown and un-bald, was crying out vociferously in the tree where we’d spotted a huge nest. Probably reacting to us – probably the first kayaks s/he’d ever seen. Mom or Dad came swooping back to the tree only a few minutes later in response. We were courteous and respectful, but the teen bird truly was perched on a branch only 20′ above our heads as passed by. It was a thrilling sequence!
Here’s another: we were floating along a left-hand bend that then curved to the right. As it did so, I saw a deer swimming from the right bank to the left, just its head above water. By the time I turned my camera on it had already scampered up the left bank and leapt like a wild gazelle into the privy of corn. All I got was a blurry image of it mid-air, but seeing it before my eyes was pretty awesome.
Even though the section of river below County Road O eventually grew wearisome and frustrating due to the obstructions and obstacles, the contrast in landscapes was pretty cool, and the late-afternoon shadow effect in the lush tree canopy was quite pretty.
What we didn’t like:
While not great by any means, the put-in at South Oak Park Road is decent as far as country road bridges never meant for recreational paddling go. At the risk of repeating myself, all the grass and weeds were flattened by recent high waters, which made for a relatively simple access to the water. Here, as anywhere having anything to do with the Pecatonica River, you’re going to encounter mud.
While the rock outcrops and bluffs are indeed magnificent, you’re in the shadow of Corn for this entire trip. It’s not a big deal, although it’s a bit monotonous. And as often is the case, the crops are planted perilously close to the river, meaning that there’s nothing to protect the soil from being eroded. You’ll see scouring in several places. It’s a losing proposition in the long-run done simply for shortsighted gain.
By the time the rock outcrops begin to recede you’ll encounter two obstacles (at least we did). The first is a downed tree, although we were able to squeak by it on the far right with a little umph. The second is a strand of barbed wire. It was low enough to duck under on the far-left side, or, given the slack line, just carefully lift over your head. Such a wire is a sure sign that cows are nearby. When we drove to the take-out to drop off our bikes and then drove to the put-in with our boats, we saw cows in the river cooling off in the hot afternoon sun. By the time we were paddling this same spot there was no sign of cows – could’ve been milking time or perhaps they were chewing cud underneath an oak trees’ leaves. So, while we were spared such an encounter/delay, other paddlers might not get so lucky.
For a variety of reasons – slick mud, steep banks, tall weeds, nowhere to park – you really can’t take out at the County Road O bridge above Mineral Point in order to avoid the mile of down trees. The obstacle course in the final mile we could have done without. It’s not that it was so bad (it wasn’t) as much as it put a kind of damper on a trip, right at the end, that up to this point had been so great. As mentioned, we had to portage once, and while it was muddy, it wasn’t a particularly difficult portage. Still though, the current is strong in this section, so having good boat control to avoid being swept into strainers is needed.
Finally, the take-out at County Road O is an unfortunate affair. Whereas most of the time we put-in or take-out right at a bridge, here we took out about 30′ downstream from the bridge, on the right. It’s pretty muddy and steep right at the bridge, grassier and flatter just downstream. I (mis)remembered it being easier, cleaner, and more convenient. This probably has everything to do with having been there only once before, in early April. Late July is a whole ‘nother ballgame. The weeds and tallgrass here are big league, spring training long a thing of the past. It may have been an error on my part, at least a sacrifice fly to bring in the runs of paddling this trip or the fun segment of the main Pecatonica River to Calamine. I may be too hard on myself; it’s not that bad of an access. I don’t mind getting muddy during a trip and have a place to clean up; but I’d just as soon avoid getting filthy right at the end, while getting out, with nowhere to clean up at that wouldn’t just make me dirtier.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again! It’s only an hour from Madison, an always-pretty drive at that. The only difference is we’d do it in spring or autumn to better appreciate the rock formations without the leaves compromising the views. Also, if we have more time, we’d likely continue to Calamine downstream, making for an 11.5-mile trip, in order to take in more rock formations, bluffs, riffles and a more fun bike shuttle.
5.1 miles. A pleasant route through the country with an equal amount of hills up and down that’s definitely safe for bicyclists.