Pecatonica River: East Branch VI
Hollandale to Horseshoe Bend Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A revisit to one of our faves, this time slightly tailored to shorten the trip and double-down on the bluff-lined landscape, this section of the Pecatonica River’s east branch is quintessential Driftless deliciously close to Madison. A riffly current sweeps you past several gorgeous bluffs and exposed rock outcrops – including a truly stunning cliff just before the take-out. Alas, there are at least three portages on account of impenetrable downed trees.
October 26, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈3′ per mile
Blanchardville: ht/ft: 5.25 | cfs: 200
We strongly recommend this level. It can be paddled at lower levels, for sure, but 200 cfs keeps the scraping at bay.
Highway 39/Waldwick Street, Hollandale, Wisconsin
Horseshoe Bend Road
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 4:05p.
Total Time: 2h 35m
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Wildlife: Cattle, geese, lots of wood ducks, deer, hawks and great blue heron.
I first began exploring the upper-stream stretches of the Pecatonica River’s East Branch (pretty much a river all its own) back in late autumn 2013 into winter and then early spring 2014. It was a place about which I knew next to nothing initially; but the more I began to explore it, the more enamored I became. The segment from Hollandale to Blanchardville is what started things, a trip that was so rich in its rewards I kept coming back.
For only an hour’s drive from Madison, this little nook just past the Dane County border, into Iowa County, feels like another whole world. While it lies on the far eastern edge of the vast Driftless Area, the terrain here is quintessential Driftless: rolling hills, valleys cut by streams sacred for trout or scuffed by cattle hooves; woodsy bluffs, exposed rock outcrops; a landscape that has changed little in hundreds of millions of years.
I felt like I’d discovered something sacred (which I did) the likes of an archeological dig (possibly hyperbole). Its proximity to Madison, its untold secrecy, its stunning scenery – I fell in love and adopted this stream as my baby. It’s one of the obscure streams I explored that initially inspired me to write a regional guidebook. As such, I’ve come back to it a couple times to keep tabs on it, the way one does for the things one loves.
A couple months back, a paddler wrote the following lament to our site: “We attempted the Highway 39 to Blanchardville section on September 2, 2017 and encountered five complete blockages before calling it quits at McKenna Road. The muddy banks did not make for easy portages. I try and keep a positive outlook regarding our trips, but my best description of this one would be doing the Tough Mudder while dragging and occasionally paddling a canoe.”
My heart broke. While grateful for the update – and amused by the great analogy of the Tough Mudder – I felt awful that a place so cherished to me was the bane of recreation for another paddler. I was away for most of September, and then most of October was awful weather for paddling (and just about anything else, too). But a chance of a warmish/sunnyish afternoon late in the month allowed me to head back to Hollandale and see what was what.
I had neither the time nor inclination to paddle down to Blanchardville, so instead took-out at Horseshoe Bend Road. Taking-out here is the best bang for your buck. The distance from Highway 39 is only 7 miles and change, and it’s where all the bluffs are. Downstream from Horseshoe Bend, the environment is still pretty, but nothing as dramatic. The current eventually dies, too, on account of the dam in Blanchardville.
The put-in at Highway 39 is atypical. There’s an actual parking area immediately west of the river. From there it’s a short schlep of about 250′ to the water itself. There’s no designated launch, but the banks are pretty low and sandy for the most part. Once on the water, you immediately course through a pasture, where there’s a pretty good chance you’ll encounter cattle. The river then sweeps along a modest bluff on the left, through a brief swath of woods, and then slows down a touch back into wide-open pasture. It’s a pretty awesome first half-mile.
Note: there is one ugly downed tree in the first mile. For me, at the levels on this trip, there was enough clearance on the far right side to bend beneath. I noticed that half of the tree is splintered. Were I a betting man, I’d put a couple bucks on high water flushing this obstruction away sometime next year.
After a few zigs and zags, you’ll make a beeline towards the first bluff, a wooded ridge along which you’ll paddle besides. The pattern you’ll experience at this bluff is comparable to the rest on this trip: you’ll paddle right up to it, then alongside it, then face away from it as the river meanders this way and that, and then return to it, over and again. Often it feels like multiple bluffs, but usually it’s a continuous ridge.
There’s a small island that diverts the river in two channels. On this trip, the left one was open, while the right one was pretty sketchy. After this you’ll pass a very random but handsome cabin on the left bank, eventually followed by what looks like an osprey platform on the right. Returning to the ridge after some meandering diversions, you’ll come upon the next deadfall obstruction.A short distance after this deadfall is another one. Alas, and yes, very shortly after that deadfall is yet another one, which requires caution but can be negotiated without having to portage (See “Didn’t Like” below for individual descriptions/considerations for these). The geology starts to get pretty good here, too, where a long line of short sandstone appears on the right wall. It’s a hint at what lies downstream…
Power lines hover above you, and then you’ll cruise past the bridge at McKenna Road, more or less the halfway point. In many ways, everything up to this point has been dress rehearsal; the show really begins downstream of McKenna Road. Before you face the next big bluff, you’ll paddle side-saddle (so to speak) along a medium-sized tree-lined ridge on the left where, early or late in the season (i.e., without leaves) you’ll see some shy and humble boulders and rock piles alike embedded in the bluff (on your right will be tall banks flanked by corn, but you’ll mostly be appreciating the boulders on the left). There are a couple tight places where deadfall requires some maneuvering, but nothing (yet) to force portaging. Just take your time and be mindful getting through.
At one spot there was a whole porta-potty in the river – yes, a whole frickin’ porta-potty!?! – caught in a cluster of limbs and branches. That made me laugh… and made me wonder how in the world that got there…and then made me wonder just how dirty and disgusting the river might be right now if an f-ing porta-potty tipped over and spilled its unmentionables. Yikes! Eventually, high water will whisk that water closet away downstream, to the horror or hilarity of those communities. Blanch-ardville, indeed!
Anyway, as before, the next big bluff looms straight before you, and the river will bend to the left. This one is showier than the others, by far. And while it was past the peak of full-fledged foliage, the colors here were still crisp. I’ve paddled this trip in summertime, and the effect simply isn’t the same. The exposed rock outcrops at this bluff, up to and including little micro caves, are just gorgeous, but will be harder to see or appreciate in the reckless greenery of summer months. Speaking of greenery, there’s a ton of moss and ferns and lichens as well. The river flows in a long straightaway along this ridge for some 1200′. It’s quite the show!
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the show is broken up by an intrusive intermission the likes of a giant downed tree that A) for paddlers’ sakes will require a relatively easy portage via the left bank and B) for river angels’ sakes will require a team of chainsaws to clear out.
Moving away from this ridge, the paddler will still be treated by a little hillock on the left with a dazzling exposure of sandstone all orange, cream and green. Then, for one last huzzah, the river takes you back to a similar but smaller ridge, whose highlight is a gigantic boulder as big as an SUV in the water on the right (which must have broken off from above and tumbled down below a long, long time ago – helluva spectacle that must have been).
After that, a relaxing straightaway extends for a third of a mile. As you come closer to the next ridge, the river will take a huge bend – you might even call it a “horseshoe-shaped” bend – to the right, around and along what is arguably the most stunning rock formations anywhere on the Pecatonica River (main branch, east branch, side branch, trunk, tree, limb, roots, dendrites, leaves, acorns, you name it). It begins with a fantastic outcrop about 15′ above the water, just a big gnarly maw of fissured rock kinda like a clenched fist. This gives way to a long graceful wall, very much like a palisade, of more rock outcrops mingling with a mix of green conifer and colorful deciduous trees. Many of the rock outcrops extend directly into the water. Indeed, this cliff is virtually a sheer wall at least 100′ tall. The current here is slack, so do paddle up to one and touch something a couple hundred million years old. This palisade, with the rocks and trees and tall cliff, goes on for about another 1/3 of a mile. Just soak it up and float – but don’t forget to pick up your jaw.
I’m not exaggerating whatsoever when I say that there’s hardly a prettier place than Horseshoe Bend in southern Wisconsin. There. Secret’s out.
But this too shall pass. The former huge cliff tapers back down to water’s edge. In the final 0.4 mile you’ll be surrounded by farm fields on both sides and scrubby trees along both banks. Again, this is brief. Just after a small hook to the left, you’ll see the bridge at Horseshoe Bend Road. The take-out is on the upstream side of the bridge, on river-left. The bank here is pretty accommodating; mostly flat, not too muddy, and then not too steep a schlep from the river to the road.
What we liked:
Bluffs, baby – bluffs! (Not “baby bluffs,” mind you, but full-on big, buxom, bodacious bluffs!) Bluffs with embedded boulders. Bluffs with stunning rock outcrops. Bluffs for almost this entire trip. Cliffs and swift riffles at times (quiet and placid elsewhere). There are some occasions where the river has some swervy and serpentine meandering, but any of these are offset by long straightaway portions. There’s just such an abundance of beauty in these skimpy 7 miles to make this a tremendous trip – yes, in spite of its obstructions.
What we didn’t like:
Really, the only criticism we can think of are the few tree obstructions that will require even the most commando paddler to portage a time or two. Well, three, at the time of this writing – two in between the put-in and McKenna Road, the other after McKenna. The first was up and over a log (a bit nerve-wracking, but not a deal-breaker), while the second required portaging around an ugly cluster on the right (an easy affair, actually, and one that many have done, given the feint walking path/boat drag in the grass).
There’s a tricky dilemma just upstream of McKenna Road. There, a downed tree has fallen from the left bank, blocking most of the river. There is just barely enough space on the far-left to fit through, but the current is strong here and your aim has to be perfect to avoid brushing against the fallen tree itself or any of the surrounding tree debris immediately up- and downstream of it. On the far right the river bottom is really shallow and pocked with tree stumps and snarls, making it difficult to pass over. Also, there’s an additional cluster in front of the far right; so, to get to the far-right side you have to paddle up to the downed tree, then make a tight right-angled maneuver, then turn your boat left, on a dime, to go straight again. Boats longer than 11′ or so might well get stuck here. It should be doable though, and it’s definitely safer than threading your way through the dodgy needle on the left.
The third required portage is on the left at one of the best bluffs downstream from the McKenna Road bridge. Of all the obstructions and portaging I’d anticipated prior to this trip (from my own experiences on this section as well as comments from other paddlers who’ve done it), this one was new to me… and disappointing. The bluff here on the right has some of the best rock outcrops, and I was really looking forward to savoring the scene. You still will, of course, but it’s a little bit compromised by the ugly cluster that you have to get out and portage around.
If we did this trip again:
We love this trip. Indeed, along with the segment from Highway 78 to Argyle, this trip is the very best that the Pecatonica River’s east branch has to offer (ditto the main branch). Next time, we’ll do this in spring to complete the “ring cycle” of paddling this trip in all four seasons. Ideally, we’ll hit the water early in the day to spend a little time better clearing as many of the obstructions as possible, so as to make the portaging less frequent and/or easier.
Also, gotta check to see if that porta-potty is still there.
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Highway 78 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
Pecatonica River East Branch VII: Highway 78 to River Road
Camp: Pecatonica River Trails Park
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Map: Pecatonica River
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River
6.3 miles for cars or bikes. Some notable but not killer hills along a pretty, pastoral landscape. County Road F is suitable for bicyclists, but be prepared to be passed by an occasional car or truck going at a fast clip.