Pecatonica River: Dodge Branch
Sunny Ridge Road to Banner Road
☆ ☆ ☆
An intimate stream hidden in plain sight buffeted by bluffs, rolling hills, and exquisite rock outcrops, with many riffles and diverse wildlife, this obscure branch of the Pecatonica River system offers a lot of remarkable charm. Alas, catching it with enough water will be tricky, and the second half of this trip is all but booby-trapped with umpteen obstructions – up to and including paddling past a shooting range.
May 13, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
~4′ per mile
Blanchardville: ht/ft: 7.7 | cfs: 400
We strongly recommend this level. Please note that this is a correlation. The Dodge Branch is a tributary of the East Branch, and this trip is nearly 18 miles upstream of the USGS gauge. Also, for point of reference, the river was atypically high when we paddled it. Notably lower than this will result in frequent scraping.
Sunny Ridge Road, West of Jonesdale, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:40p. Out at 5:10p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.75
Deer (with fawn), turkeys, turkey vultures, bald eagles, trout, muskrats, king fisher, goldfinches, wood ducks and sandhill cranes.
5.8 miles. A few hills, of course, but totally fine for bikes and cars.
You know those “Adopt a Highway” signs you see sometimes while driving down a road, a call often heeded by Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs, Jaycees, or the Rotary Club? (Personally, I’m still waiting for the Public Notary to get involved…) I myself (Timothy) feel a certain kinship ranging between affinity and fealty for the East Branch of the Pecatonica River. Originating due west and a smidge south of Madison, near Blue Mounds State Park, the “East Peck” tumbles southward to unite with the main branch of the Pecatonica River near Browntown, in Green County. The reason for this sense of stewardship is a bit sentimental (which I won’t bore you with) and circumstantial (which I will bore you with).
The first time I paddled any segment of the East Peck was back in 2010, between Blanchardville and Argyle, thanks to a quaintly outdated (and now out of print) document I happened upon touting its paddling opportunities. I so enjoyed it that I did a longer version of that trip two years later. That trip was even more enjoyable than the first, which then led me to wondering what are the other segments of the river like, both upstream and down-. And so began one man’s quest to quench a curious thirst.
Being no stranger to impractical gambits (or poor judgment), we pioneer-paddled the section of the East Peck from Hollandale to Blanchardville, back in late autumn 2013. That was one of the very best exploratory trips we’ve ever done – and one of the inspiring factors that led me to compile a list of lesser known river trips that eventually would become an entire guidebook. Since that trip was so rewarding, it was only natural to wonder about and wander around the area even further upstream of Hollandale. Well, not all the sandstone rock outcrops that glitter are golden, and all good things eventually come to an end (as does one’s patience after umpteen logjams to portage).
But, while exploring that obscure section upstream of Hollandale, we noticed a tributary stream coming into the East Peck just before the bridge at Highway 39. At the time, we gave it hardly any thought, as the section of river it came in at already was too problematic to repeat or recommend, plus it already had a telling sign and major strike against it: a wire cattle gate. But then in the summer of 2015 Rick Kark’s vast compendium of paddling Wisconsin rivers came out, and we’d noticed that he cites, along with the main and east branches of the Pecatonica River, a “Dodge Branch” of the Pecatonica system. We’d noticed too that while he lists this trip in the table of contents, there’s literally no mention, record, or description of it anywhere else in his guide. It simply says “See Pecatonica River,” but then when you do, there’s nothing whatsoever about an alleged Dodge Branch. Dodgy indeed, Mr Kark!
So, we looked it up, eventually found it, then traced it from beginning to end, and were delighted to find that it’s the same tributary to the East Branch we’d noted earlier, just upstream of the bridge at Highway 39. And so once again we got to wondering… Why did Kark cite this stream but then omit it from his inventory? Can it be paddled? Should it be paddled? (True, in an ideal world, these levels of inexhaustible curiosity, consideration, willingness to spend time and money on a cause, etc., would be far better served toward something sensible – like social justice or registering folks to vote, growing my own food or planting trees. Or re-shingling the roof. But when you’re called a Kayak Fanatic, there’s a certain reputation that precedes you, and expectation thereof, for better or worse).
To cut to the quick, the Dodge Branch of the Pecatonica River – technically, the East Branch of the Pecatonica River – begins on the east side of Dodgeville. (Why it’s called this and not, say, “Dodge Creek,” we have no idea. Why isn’t the East Branch, which is derivative, not called something more individual and independent, such as the “Sui Generis River” or “Whatchamacallit Creek”? Hell, call it the Holla River. Anything. “Branch” just connotes subservience. The Pecatonica leaves much assignation to be desired. To wit, there’s also a Jones Branch, a Mineral Point Branch, a Rewey Branch, and a Sudan Branch – all of the Pecatonica River’s mainbranch?!? Whatever.)
Adequate water and accesses are issues up here and remain so until Sunny Ridge Road. Sunny Ridge Road, by contrast, is very welcoming and has plenty of good water volume – that’s why we started our trip there. The access at County Road W is pretty darn lousy, frankly, as it’s steep and muddy, but it’s doable. The next bridge down is this trip’s take-out, at Banner Road. The access is less lousy, but still not all that good; but again, doable. The bridge down from there is Paulson Road, where there really is no access at all. Downstream from Paulson is Highway 191, in Hollandale, where there’s a wired cattle gate (plus no good access). Beyond that is where this so-called Dodge Branch feeds the East Branch. So, that’s how we ended up etching out this trip specifically.
The put-in is at Sunny Ridge Road, on the upstream side of the bridge, river-left. The banks here are grassy, low, and rock rubble-free, making it a very convenient access. The landscape here is all hilly pasture, the stream itself only some 25′ wide. Almost immediately, a set of riffles will have you locked in, game on. A modest but still stately sandstone rock shelf will jut above the waterline on river-right, a mere hint of what’s soon to come. Then the landscape will open up, the gentle pasture like a rolled out carpet of eye-popping green. The river will bend to the right and around a taller, showier series of rock outcrops on the left. It’s a long, lovely rise of exposed sandstone.
A couple tight, twisty meanders precede the next bridge, at Twin Bridge Road – named, we surmise, for the present day and former bygone predecessor (all that’s left of which are two large pylons atop the banks like Easter Island statues). On the downstream side of the present-day bridge is a large but lazy sheet of fencing clumsily intended on keeping cattle penned in. Normally, we loathe these structures. What makes this one different is it’s attached at the top end by wires tied to the top of the bridge, so it easily swings forward. It’s also very light, so lifting it up for you to fit under is a simple matter.
Downstream from the bridge a remarkably tall ridge rises above the river on the left. At first it’s all trees. But after the river bends to the right, the top tier of the ridge terrace features a huge, long plane of coral-like glowing orange, yellow, and gray sandstone. It’s truly magnificent and rivals any stretch on any of the umpteen sections of the Pecatonica River. It’ll be easy to gawk at, but do be mindful of a couple strainers and obstructions to, um, dodge (yes, we had to do that at some point in this write-up). One such obstruction is an odd cattle fence and downed tree combo – it looks like the tree kindly fell on top of the fence, or washed downstream, caught onto the fence, and clobbered it for the most part. Anyway, at least at the level the river was at when we paddled this trip (i.e., high enough to paddle this stream in the first place), we had a reasonably easy go at riding over the tree/fence; other paddlers may want/need to portage around or over this.
Shortly after this a smaller but quintessential rock outcrop comes before you, this time on the right. About 60′ high and crowned with pine trees, its stratified layers are just lovely. This is followed by sites a little less easy on the eyes, but, really, par for the course and perfectly fine: first a farmer’s ford, then a sunken set of wires by dilapidated metal gates on each bank. The wires were breeze-easy to ride over, and the gates don’t extend past the banks. (Fortunately, the purpose of this farmstead footprint came clear to us with a whole herd of cows high on the hoof, all of whom followed us along the right bank – well, one did, and then every other groupthinking one followed suit.) As unsurprising as all cows doing what one cow first does, a second set of wires will be found downstream; but this too, we’re happy to report, is as saggy and without ado as its predecessor.
A couple atypical straightaways, some with fun riffles, take you to the next bridge, at County W. One could justifiably – and sensibly – take out here, even if it’s not the most accessible place to get out. To be frank, it stinks. The banks are steep and very muddy, and then it’s a bit of a schlep up to the road. But parking is pretty decent at this bridge (southwest side of the road – or, upstream, river-right). So, why is it sensible to take out at a pain-in-the-ass place? Because what follows in the next half-mile is legitimately awful – and arguably unlawful. On the southeast side of the County W bridge is a shooting range. Where are the targets? To the northeast. Where does the river flow downstream from the bridge? You guessed it – northeast.
Needless to say, it’s rather unnerving to paddle right in the direction of a firing range! To put it mildly. Oh, but wait; it gets worse. I kept thinking, OK, as long as I huddle close to the right bank, I should be safe and protected. Yeah, that’s all fine and good except for two very relevant factors: 1) There’s a clusterf*ck of a double logjam in this section that you have no option for other than portaging (unless you’d packed dynamite with you, which probably would receive a healthy thumbs up from the guys and gals at the shooting range); and 2) while I have neither a clue nor care what kind of shooting is done down here, I kept hearing, and then felt, scattered shot coming down all around me. Allow me to repeat that, lest I be too subtle: shot was raining down on me. It didn’t hurt, but I sure as hell could’ve done without the whole shebang (pun intended). What’s funny is I never wear baseball caps in life, unless I’m paddling while it’s either raining or very sunny. Now I have a new reason.
Joking aside, the double logjam cluster is menacing. There really is no way around it, on account of the banks being steep and wooded. You basically have to paddle into it, then climb over it – and the pile is several feet high, mind you – while dragging your boat behind, all the while trying not to slip since the tree is wood, and if you’re paddling this river in the first place, you’re only doing so after it’s rained, which means it’s wet. And you have to do this two times in a row (although the second one isn’t as complicated or dangerous – other than you’re still downrange from shotguns cracking off one after the other, f’ing a!).
(Incidentally, there are no photos of the double jam because the current was pretty strong and I had to pay attention to avoid getting totally screwed – or shot. Also, I tend to be more of a fair weather photo-taker, meaning I capture more of the good than the bad and ugly. When the bad-and-ugly get dangerous, I put the camera away. Sorry.)
Fortunately, the river will turn left and you’ll be basically out of range, thank god. You’ll still hear shot raining down, but you ought to be in front of it soon enough. The landscape is flat momentarily, but then, out of nowhere, a pine-topped sandstone bluff looms right before your eyes, a scene that could easily be mistaken for the Wisconsin Dells. It’s totally iconic and a fine payout for the anxiety you’d just gotten through. There’s an old expression in the paddling world called pining for sandstone.* A cute play on words, it refers to the likelihood of finding exposed sandstone where there are bluffs lined with pine trees. We have no idea why or how this happens, geologically, but the fact remains that where and when you see conifers and bluffs, there’s probably gonna be some cool rock formations, too.
* No, there isn’t. Sorry, but I made that up while paddling this trip. The dumb crap that goes through my brain while paddling is downright frightening. Still though, you can’t tell me that wouldn’t make a good name for a bluegrass band or at least the groundbreaking album name for said band.
Anyway, the stunning sight will fade and then give way to a minor obstacle in the form of a small tree spanning both banks. Enter stage left Tim the Tool Man, wielding a dry bag inside of which awaits a trusty battery operated reciprocating saw. Nip, tuck, zip, snap, gone. The rest of the tree still straddles the river, but now it should be an easy ride-over.
The same cannot be said of the next obstruction, alas. Here, inexplicably, is what looks like two steel I-beams spaced only 18″ or so away from one another and crudely joined by 4×4 blocks. The structure spans across the entire 20-odd feet of the river, although it doesn’t lie on top of the banks, but rather it’s embedded inthe banks about midway between the waterline and the ground itself, making it impossibly too low to squeeze under but much too high to ride over. In other words, it’s perfectly in the way; and, being steel, perfectly impervious. Because the banks here are too muddy and steep, there’s really no practical way to portage around it; so, once again, it’s a matter of sidling up to it and straddling over it. On the plus side, we didn’t need to pull our boats up and over it, instead pushing the boats down so that they could sneak underneath the structure, and then slipping back inside on the downstream side. But it was still an awkward pain in the ass.
Things quiet down for a breath-catching moment as you leisurely float through the largely undeveloped landscape. Soon enough, you’ll be pining for sandstone, and voila! – there’s a new view off to the left, where the river bends to the right. After you bend right you’ll be rewarded with a long straightaway of a thousand feet, where a beautiful rock wall abuts the water on the left. A way less beautiful down tree/ jam cluster follows this, but it’s relatively small and minor. Immediately downstream from it is another curious spectacle – a more moderate logjam piling up at the wooden pylons of a former bridge. It looks hideous, but there’s a small space on the far right that was open at the time of our paddle for us to sneak through. What function this bridge once had is a fascinating thought experiment, given its present day location and the surrounding terrain (i.e., middle of nowhere).
The landscape opens up again to a meadow feel with nary an obstruction to worry about (well, momentarily). Another huge rock outcrop pops into view around a tight right-hand turn, this one part of a very small hill, not a ridge or bluff, and not peppered with pines either. Still though, it’s a good 30-40′ tall and squats before you like a silent sentinel. The landscape remains open for a short while longer, now rewarding the paddler with a pleasant view of a small ridge off on the far left with the tell-tale signs of tall silos peaking above the treeline. After a few meanders the river will slip back into more confined (i.e., intimate and engaging) woods where riffles suddenly appear in another long straightaway. There’s also another double set of downed trees to maneuver around. (Everything’s in pairs on this trip…) It’s not super-complicated to avoid getting pinned against anything, but there’s really nowhere to get out and portage around the obstacle course either. Two trees fell from the steep left bank, so fitting under them is no difficulty at all since the right bank is much lower, leaving ample clearance above the trees on the left side. But there’s a third tree in the water also on the left side to avoid, so you’ll need to pivot away from that rather nimbly. The complicating factor is a cluster of tree debris/strainers on the right bank near the third tree of which you’ll definitely want to keep a wide berth. Again, it’s not super-complicated to avoid an incident here, but you do need to be on.
And time for a quick station identification reminder from your pals at Miles Paddled who remind you that despite the access kind of sucking at County Road W, it’s worth putting up with to avoid having to put up with much worse stuff downstream. Like being shot.
Fortunately, the rest of the trip from here on is all gravy. There’ll be another quick view or two of exposed outcrops embedded in the woodsy ridge to the left before the landscape flattens out again. You’ll pass a house on the left (“wait, was that the only house we’ve seen this whole trip…?”) followed by the adjoining driveway bridge with a ton of clearance. Before you reach the bridge at Banner Rd you’ll come upon an unusual small island around a right-hand bend. You’ll need to decide quickly whether to take the left or right channel. Go right, as the left side is “distracted” with tree debris and nastiness. (You’ll have seen this earlier, when you left whatever shuttle vehicle at the bridge.)
Taking out will require a little bit of care, but it’s by no means difficult. The bridge and surrounding grounds at Banner Road are none too welcoming at first glance, but there is a public easement here. The only corner of the bridge’s four total that is accessible is the upstream side, river-right. The current here is strong, as there’s a set of riffles both upstream and down- of the bridge. The right bank is fairly low and rocky, so what we recommend is purposefully running aground into it or making a sharp 180-turn into it so that you’re facing upstream, parallel the bank. The effect will be largely the same, because if you purposefully nose the bow of your boat aground, the strong current will continue to push the stern forward, which in turn will cause you to fishtail at least 90 degrees if not a full 180. Either way, there’s a small break in the barbed wire to bend under for both yourself and your boat. The schlep from the river to the road is very short and none too steep. Parking here is pretty lousy and narrow, but Banner Road receives very little traffic.
What we liked:
Despite its varied obstructions, this trip offers a fabulous combination of fun riffles and stunning scenery. Given its geographic location, we had a reasonable hunch of seeing some bluffs and whatnot, but the astounding geology show was far greater and more generous than our best expectations. One of our favorite experiences is paddling a new stream with a friend or few, none of whom had ever been there before, everyone soaking up the novelty and holy-smokes-wouldya-look-at-that along the way. It’s a thrill.
On the day of our trip the sky was overcast with clouds. The day was melancholy in the most evocative way, and the screaming-green, tree-free hills in the pasture settings set against the gloomy gray sky made for a very Scottish feel, which added to the already charming atmospherics. And complemented perfectly our choice, go-to canned beer, a Scotch Ale dubbed Old Chub.
What we didn’t like:
I won’t be coy or mince words – standing atop a slippery, uneven logjam cluster and pulling my boat over it while trying not to fall over or through, all the while perfectly exposed to and surrounded by rifle fire, boy howdy did that ever suck! I mean, of all the times I’ve been subjected to the discomforts and frustrations of unwelcome portaging – and there have been copious such opportunities throughout the years – never once did I think (at least without embellished, for-effect exaggeration) that I might actually die doing so. But here, I really did think, “Jesus, I might actually die here…” All for what? Exploring an obscure stream in Iowa County, Wisconsin. Great epitaph, that.
Is that why Kark mentioned but then left blank this trip? Did he, um, dodge a bullet?
There are plenty of rewarding geology numbers downstream of the County W bridge, but the handful of obstructions, some requiring portaging, will countervail their appeal for most paddlers. And any sensible paddler should be disabused of paddling downstream from County W on account of the shooting range. I mean, geez Louise.
OK, also mostly irrelevant, but the road sign outside the shooting range at County Road W read like this. Huh? That just makes my brain hurt.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again, but next time call it quits at County Road W and skip the [expletive deleted] shooting gallery and equally potty-mouthed logjam flustercuck. While the exposed rock outcrops in between County Road W and Banner Road are quite becoming, the nuisances also found in that segment pretty much mitigate the good stuff. Besides, the geology is no less gorgeous in between Sunny Ridge and County Road W.
We were sorely tempted to put in at County Road Y, upstream of Sunny Ridge, but decided to skip it after much deliberation since there is nothing welcoming about it whatsoever. For starters, it’s fenced off (which we don’t think is legal; but try telling that to the landowner without being told something or other about making America great again). Secondly, there’s just no good or safe way to get to the actual river from the road without going rogue. Thirdly, it’s very shallow here. But it’s got a great riffly flow to it and promising bluffs galore! So maybe, just maybe, next time we would go rogue like a stealthy pod of Navy SEALs and put in at County Road Y just to get it out of our system and then put up with the dumb crap by taking out at County Road W.