★ ★ ★

Mecan River II

Germania to Lock Road:
One of the better getaway destinations for paddling in southern Wisconsin with a northwoods-like feel, the Mecan features crystal clear water, peppy current, and minimal development – all enclosed within an engaging environment. Not recommended for beginners due to the meandering nature and occasional obstructions to be maneuvered around, under and over, this trip is otherwise pretty fun. Just be prepared to be on the water awhile.

Mecan River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 26, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Riffles (there’s one set of I-II rapids at the put-in which can be skipped by launching below the drop at County Road N).

Gradient:
3′ per mile

Gauge:
n/a

Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable. That said, stay off when the river is high; low-clearance bridges and fallen trees will require portaging and the current can be pushy, making for challenging moments at some of the obstructions downstream.

Put-In:
County Road N, Germania, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Lock Road, Southwest of Princeton, Wisconsin (on the Fox River)

Time: Put in at 12:20p. Out at 5:40p.
Total Time: 5h 20m
Miles Paddled: 14.25

Wildlife:
Trout, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, kingfishers, turtles, wood ducks, deer and beaver.

Shuttle Information:
10.4 miles, pretty and easy whether by car or bike.


Background:

The Mecan is a river that seems to divide paddlers into two groups: those who absolutely love it and those who like it but don’t get what all the adulation is about.

Coming from southern Wisconsin, it’s easy to understand what the love is all about. The water of the Mecan is crystal clear and flows with a peppy current. Being spring-fed, there’s almost always enough water to paddle it. And there’s generally little development along its sinuous banks (and what development there is tends to be quite tasteful – think rustic (i.e., not-rustic-but-made-to-look-rustic) cabins, though truth be told they’re few and far between. Plus, because the river is so loved, it receives a lot of maintenance, so deadfall often is not a problem, and accesses along bridges tend to be great.

OK, so what’s not to love? For one, the river (and let’s be real, it’s more like a creek) meanders torturously. Really, it ought to be called the “Mecander.” This is not inherently a flaw but all the back-and-forth paddling does take a toll on a 8+ mile trip.

Complaint #2: the landscape is pleasant but never spectacular. Considering that it takes over an hour to drive to whichever segment of the Mecan you’ll be paddling, that’s a fairly long way to travel for a rather unremarkable landscape. Sure, it’s pleasant how undeveloped it is – but that’s defining something by what it isn’t, not what it is. There is a feeling of wild, but hardly wilderness.

Complaint #3: despite the laudable efforts of clearing out obstructions, many do remain due to the narrowness of the river. In conjunction with the swift current, you’ll usually encounter a couple “moments” while on the Mecan (and by “moments” I mean near-misses or unfortunate tip-overs).

Hence the divide. There’s a lot to admire about the Mecan, yes, but not everyone will love it.

What we liked:
This trip begins with a bang down a fun (if brief) Class II drop below the County Road N bridge. I selected my put-in here, rather than half a mile upstream below the dam that creates the Germania Marsh, because it cut out a lot of extra driving and it eliminated any uncertainty of whether the DNR gate would be closed. That and it’s fun to start your trip on a rapid (for those who don’t find this kind of thing fun, you can easily put-in on the downstream side of the County Road N bridge and thereby skip the rapid).

There are makeshift footpaths to each side of the bridge. The drop is not to be taken for granted – it’s splashy and spectacularly thrilling, however, brief. The rocks along the banks create a rollicking constriction and a couple playful waves. There are great surfing opportunities here as well. If you have a spray skirt, I’d wear it just for this and then take it off, as you won’t need it downstream.

Below the dam you’ll begin to appreciate the crystal-clear water and sandy/gravelly bottom, one of the salient features and selling points of the Mecan River itself and why it’s designated a Class I trout stream. The river width for this whole trip ranges from 40 to 60 feet, making for a very intimate experience. Enhancing that are the near-wild surroundings on both banks. There are no real hills, as the glaciers of the last Ice Age scoured this part of the state and left in their wake a lot of lakes and marsh wetlands. But the lush grasslands and savannas are magnificently serene, particularly since they’re undeveloped. The occasional pine adds a nice pop to the landscape as well. Tree limbs and log stumps do punctuate the river here and there, but in a becoming way that accentuates the attractive nature of the preserved environment.

The first third of this trip mostly flows through a pleasant meadowy environment with virtually zero development (I think only one house). Does it eventually get a touch monotonous? Sure, but it does have an off-the-beaten-path feel to it. Also, one of the only straightaway sections on the otherwise meandering Mecan is found in this first third (just keep in mind, however, that this is the exception, not the rule). At one point during a straightaway the river was symmetrically flanked with trees leaning waterward from both banks, creating a tunnel effect.

During the second third of the trip, the environment changes from the pleasant meadows and scrub oak barrens to a floodplain forest. Gone are the wide spaces of open sky, replaced by bogs, fens and lush greens. It’s a notably different landscape, although the peppy current keeps its moxie. This section definitely is more challenging than the first, as there are more trees that can fall (and have fallen) into the water. Most have been sawed here and there to allow for passage while retaining a natural feel. In other words, you’ll still have to squeak by, under, or through. It’s a fun challenge for the sake of maneuvering and boat control, but it can be frustrating and simply unsafe for beginners. Or after a couple beers by this point.

Shortly below the second County Road N bridge a large island splits the river in two channels; you’ll want to go right. Further downstream the river will split again and once more it’s best to take the right channel. This section is much woodsier than elsewhere but remains intimate and pretty, a nice change of pace from the more spacious meadows. The next bridge, spray-painted “8” also is along County Road N. Below this bridge a couple more obstructions must be negotiated but soon thereafter the river will widen and the surrounding landscape will expand. The meanders do increase, however, so you’ll be constantly steering. In one especially lovely stretch around a tight bend the right shore gracefully sweeps in a leftward arc, undercut with exposed sandbanks about 8 feet tall, as pine trees hover above. After this the Mecan meanders through a woodsy bottomlands and underneath the nondescript bridge at Highway 23.

The final third of this trip is the end of the Mecan as it reaches the Fox River. We’re sappy suckers for confluences, especially a historic one the likes of the Fox. In this final segment the landscape becomes flatter and marshier but the meandering does not diminish in the least. Tree-lined banks prevail but dense woods here are a thing of the past. Between Highway 23 and County Road C, on the near-distant right, is a phalanx of trees that in autumn is hauntingly gorgeous, the foliage a palette of greens, gold, yellow, and flaming reds. Soon the entire right bank gives way to the wide expanse of marsh. The current here remains brisk and frisky, with eccentric eddies demanding your attention so as not to be caught off-guard.

After a brief straightaway, a series of tight, right and left turns leads up to the County Road C bridge (aka “10”). From here to the Fox is less than a mile of paddling. As can be expected, the Fox is humongous compared to the Mecan. Nonetheless, where the Mecan enters the Fox is at a unique bend in the Fox around what at one point must have been a rather large rock formation to divert the big river in a roundabout fashion. The right bank is about 30-40’ high, the left bank maybe 10-15’ high. Both are sandy and attractive.

The takeout is easy to spot and access – at least when you’re on the water (it’s harder to find from Highway 23) – above and to the left of the lock and dam. There’s plenty of parking.

What we didn’t like:
Paddling some 14 miles and change on a narrow, constantly meandering river that has the look and feel of a creek makes for a long, tiring day, physically but also mentally. How many oxbows can a paddler expect to take in before wanting to get out and drag his boat as close to as the crow flies just to eliminate some of the superfluous switchbacks?

Leaving that philosophical question aside, my only real bone of contention on this trip was in the middle section. I question the purpose of deliberately chainsawing only modest cuts of a downed tree in the name of preserving the natural environment. Don’t get me wrong: I am a strong advocate of leaving the world as intact and having as light a footprint as possible. But if you’re going through the trouble of sawing off dangerous tree limbs – for which effort we are ever grateful! – then why not do so in a way that accommodates the reality of most paddlers?

Let’s face it: the Mecan is not some obscure wilderness stream up north. It’s dammed twice and has more than a couple cabins along its banks here and there, to say nothing of the several private campgrounds nearby. Personally, I found some of the tree debris in the middle section to be frustrating – possibly more frustrating that someone took the time to clear so little of it than not having cleared any of it at all. I know that purists might take issue with this but the problem is that there is nothing pure about the Mecan (or most places, frankly). It’s a great stream, no doubt about it. But would it not be better if paddlers experienced it safely and thankfully than getting snagged and capsizing and never wanting to come back?

Finally, the Fox River portion really isn’t anything to write home about. It’s wide and slow, there are lots of houses on one side (right bank) and Highway 23 on the other side (left bank), which has a steady amount of traffic, semis especially.

If we did this trip again:
I’d do some of this trip again, but not all of it. Fourteen miles is just too much on such a torturously sinuous river as the Mecan. I liked the first 1/3 of this trip, from County Road N to – wait for it – County Road N (further downstream). The ledge underneath the first County Road N bridge is a fun little drop to run, and from there it’s quintessential Mecan for almost 5 miles: clear water, meandering stream, good current, little development, plus some of the only straightaway sections anywhere on the Mecan. If that’s not enough, then take out at the next bridge (yes, also County Road N, I kid you not) for an additional mile and a half for a total 6-mile trip, which on the “Mecander” is just about right.

***************
Related Information:
Mecan River Overview: Mecan River Paddle Guide
Mecan River I: Dakota to Highway 22
Mecan River III: Mecan River Springs to 11th Road
Mecan River IV: Dover Avenue to Germania
Article: The Mecan River Offers an Appealing Paddling Daytrip
Outfitter: Mecan River Outfitters

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