The reliable east branch of the Pecatonica offers a number trip options that can be tailored up- or downstream from Blackhawk Memorial County Park campground, an off-the-beaten-path gem nestled in the gentle hills of driftless country. This is a great choice for beginner paddlers who want an easy introduction to river paddling, combined with the luxury of camping riverside.
Approximately 63 miles long, the east branch begins somewhere indistinctly around Barneveld before converging with the main branch just west of Browntown. The river is diverse – from oak savanna and prairie, to forests and meadows, with peek-a-boo cliffs and rock outcroppings, some sandstone, some limestone. It’s not the swiftest of rivers but it does move along nicely with enough current to kick up your feet and float or paddle with the flow. It’s really a go-at-your-own-pace kind of paddle.
Paddling Style: River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Riverside + Near Riverside
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: Yes | Camping Permit: No
Blackhawk Memorial County Park is a lovely little park and one of the better kept “secrets” for inexpensive and secluded campsites. The name of the park is telling, too, for it is on these grounds where a “battle” in the Black Hawk “War” was fought (really just a skirmish amongst a dozen or so such skirmishes that last two-and-a-half months long in 1832). Led by Col. Henry Dodge (who would later become governor and have lots of places named after him), the U.S. militia outnumbered Chief Black Hawk’s men by a 3:1 ratio. All eleven Kickapoo warriors were killed and then scalped, because that’s what white men did to prove that Indians were savages. It’s no coincidence that the oxbow pond in the park is named “Bloody Lake.” It’s heavy, for sure, but that’s the reality of this backdrop.
Located about six miles south of Argyle, Blackhawk is perfect for last-minute camping where even on mid-summer weekends you can usually find a site on the river or its backwaters. This might be because most opt to camp at the more popular Yellowstone Lake State Park northwest of Argyle. There are 35 sites and all are first come, first served. The park has two boat landings, a handicapped-accessible pier, portable toilets and firewood for sale (when they have it). Canoe and kayak rentals are also available at Yellowstone Valley Canoe Rental.
Campground: Blackhawk Memorial Park | First Come, First Served
35 Sites. All non-electric.
Facilities: Portable toilets and water.
Paddling the East Branch of the Pecatonica River:
Upstream from Argyle to the County Park, you’ll find a tranquil, slow-paced trip past oak trees, a couple gentle bluffs and tallgrass. It isn’t very dramatic but it’s very pleasant. Even further upstream, starting at Highway 78, you’ll find a quiet, mostly slow-paced trip past preserved oak savannas, tallgrass prairie, lowland forests, southern sedge meadows and coquettish rock outcroppings. It’s easy for beginners, poses minimal obstructions, and rewards paddlers with truly terrific scenery and rock outcrop formations – particularly when the trees are leafless. (We also recommend a section of the east branch yet even further north starting in Hollandale and ending in Blanchardville, though that trip is not as close in proximity to the campground.)
Downstream from the park past Woodford is the last stretch of the Pecatonica’s east branch before it merges with the mainstream between South Wayne and Browntown. It offers some truly pleasant moments with modest rock outcrops, tall bluffs and some riffles, though it’s generally very calm and more of a quietwater paddle.