Mecan River Springs to 11th Road:
Two exploratory trips combined into one (for the sake of simplicity) that certainly tested one’s patience and fortitude, but also offered extraordinary beauty and a cool sense of pioneer paddling. Not for casual paddlers, due to shallow water levels and many obstructions – in fact, none but the most quixotic would want to consider this. But if you’re seeking the wildest parts of the outstanding Mecan River, this trip is it. Just don’t be surprised if you get dirty, tired, wet and a little frustrated after the fourteenth portage.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 3-4, 2016
Riffles (maybe a Class I rapid in higher water). Because this upstream portion of the Mecan is so narrow and obstructions that jut from the banks or lined in the stream itself are many, you can expect to play bumper boat and run into things. The swift current enhances this. While not dangerous per se, this is not a daytrip you’ll be much relaxing on.
3-4′ per mile
Water levels are almost always reliable, but because this trip begins at the headwaters of the river, intrepid paddlers who even want to attempt it would benefit from waiting until after a good rain to avoid a lot of scraping in the shallows but enjoy the riffles and light rapids.
Mecan River Springs, off Chicago Road northeast of Coloma, Wisconsin
Day 1: 7.16.15
Mecan River Springs, Chicago Road to Highway 21
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 5:05p.
Miles Paddled: 5.25
Day 2: 7.17.15
Highway 21 to 11th Road
Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 5:15p.
Miles Paddled: 5.5
Total Time: 6h 50m
Total Miles: 10.75
Deer, trout, songbirds, hawks, great blue herons, beaver, turtles and sandhill cranes.
7.5 miles. Very easy on a bicycle.
Say the “Mecan River,” and most paddlers in southern Wisconsin have a general idea of what you’re referring to. Narrow creek-like stream, crystal clear water, sandy bottom, some riffles, northwoods-ish environment with raised banks and some pine trees (others, who may not have had the most pleasant experience, might chime in with: really narrow, really shallow, one sharp turn after another, lots of things to bump into, cold water, wet trip, took forever). All of those attributes are true, for the Mecan is a two-sided coin in that sense (and why it’s not the place to bring beginner paddlers – we’re looking at you, Bill).
But whatever one’s take on the Mecan, chances are you’re referring to one of two trips in Mike Svob’s book (or perhaps Mike Duncason’s book before him): from Dakota to Germania or Germania to the Fox River. Few paddlers venture into the Germania Marsh – and for good reason (unless you’re a die-hard birder), as it’s wide, flat, slow, shallow and pretty dull. But even fewer paddlers have ventured upstream of Dakota. Perhaps a there-and-back trip around the natural lake at Mecan Springs State Natural Area, the headwaters of the river. But in between that spot and County Road JJ/Y, where most Mecan River trips begin? There’s practically no information out there. For a river that’s only about 45 miles long, that leaves 16 miles of unknown opportunities. Math fans will quickly compute that such a gap equates to one-third of the entire river. And that, friends, is where Miles Paddled comes in.
Who better to explore the obscure? Who better to brave the wild and wooly mysteries of murky waters, the terrific obstacles of fallen trees and logjamborees? Who better to labor with handsaws and pruners, hauling loose limbs, stumps and clumps? Who better to curse aloud with blood, sweat and tears, mud and dirt, skin rashes of unknown origin, too many ticks to count, spider bites still healing weeks later, all the while wondering why the hell do we actually do this in the first place? Who better to spend one hour per mile paddled – or portaged – hopelessly, pitilessly trying to pioneer an experience for the sake of blazing trails (alas, not saddles), knowing full well that none but the fringe of the fringe will even know what we’re talking about, or where, much less actually care? But that’s who we are and what we do, dagnabbit.
So we spent the better parts of five separate afternoons on the Mecan in autumn last year and late spring this year to paddle (or walk, in some cases) every bit of it that we don’t have on the website. Admittedly, much of this was for the sake of our own curiosity, plus we’re a little OCD about completing rivers (hey, it’s a better hang-up to have than rearranging furniture or checking locks, right?) The upshot? There’s good, bad, some ugly, a lot of beauty and a ridiculous amount of potential – which is a euphemistic way of saying “opportunity” for folks with chainsaws who like to see tangible jobs well done. Those with Mecan-do attitude, you might say.
We did this trip on two consecutive days, sensing that it would have been a fool’s errand to try to do it all in one day. The river – really a creek – is very shallow and very narrow in its uppermost segments, the streambed punctuated with boulders and lined by overreaching branches from tree-lined banks. We knew that the probability of obstructions would be high, if not constant. So exploring the Mecan in bite-sized chunks – first, from its source to Highway 21, and then from Highway 21 to 11th Road – seemed like the most sensible approach to doing something that was not terribly sensible in the first place (we already knew about the river below 11th Road, because Timothy paddled it last year, and the segment from 11th Road to Dixie Road is the official trip in his forthcoming book.)
Even though these were two separate trips, the overall feel of the river environs on both is much the same – yet certainly distinct from the more conventional stretches of the Mecan River from the town of Dakota to the Fox River. Up here, the river really is pretty wild and more rugged than those downstream. There’s less development, more hills, and the gradient is certainly steeper. We daresay that the upper Mecan may well be the single riffliest stream in south-central Wisconsin.
Day 1: Mecan River Springs to Highway 21
While we’re not the biggest fans of flatwater lake-paddling, the Mecan River Springs is surprisingly quite lovely. First off, it’s a pretty cool novelty to be able to paddle the actual source of a river (usually it’s much too shallow to do so). Secondly, almost all of the lake is protected public land that is part of the state natural areas program. The water is clear, wildlife is abundant, and gentle hills encircle you reaching as high as 30′. We didn’t see any springs bubbling up from below the water itself – they might be there, somewhere…? – but on the north side of the lake the banks were percolating with groundwater, a pretty enchanting phenomenon. Access onto the lake is as easy as it gets, and there’s plenty of parking as well. The only houses on the lake are on the southeastern portion, and there are three.
Light riffles await at the County Road GG bridge, which is where the river “begins” for all intents and purposes (note: there is no dam or anything here. It’s all continuous, which again is a rare novelty). An attractive area of meadows and marsh lies on the other side of the bridge before the river narrows in earnest and meanders like madness. The water is crystal clear – but shallow. The streambed itself is composed of sand and gravel. Obstacles such as logs and small boulders will require you to dodge around, duck under, or ride over, but it’s essentially smooth sailing for the first mile, which shocked us (and also led to a totally false sense of expecting/ hoping the river would be magically obstruction-free). The banks will rise 15-40’ tall, sometimes dramatically, other times gradually where gentle knolls lead away from the water. The creek-like feel of the river is all the more enhanced by its unabashed riffles, which in turn made the conceit of “discovering” and “pioneering” this section all the more giddy.
That is, until we came upon a barbed wire fence in the middle of nowhere, eventually followed by another (they’re usually in sets of two). Talk about all but literally puncturing the little balloon we had been feeling. To be fair, getting through each of the fences unscathed was not a problem whatsoever. But the mere presence of them was unwelcome, of course, but also foreshadowed the doom and despair of other obstructions further downstream (it’s worth noting that, to our knowledge, these are the only two barbed wires anywhere on the Mecan River). The first few obstructions were easy as snap, typically a modest cluster of tangled downed tree limbs. Because everything had been open up to this point, we dedicated ourselves to clearing the first few sets of these. Often, all this requires is getting out of your boat and just pulling these errant branches out of the water and tossing them aside onto the banks. Some require a handsaw and clippers, but many can simply be yanked out.
We cleared out everything leading up to the next bridge, at 9th Avenue (where a small riffle whisks you through a culvert), and shortly downstream of it, too. Unfortunately, things get real ugly real fast in the next section, from 9th Avenue to Highway 21. Expect a full mile and change of logjams and impassable downed trees. To say that this was frustrating is putting it mildly. It got so bad that eventually we stopped trying to paddle altogether and instead just walked our boats – because it becomes pointless getting into and out of it over and over again, when you know that there’s yet another obstruction right around the bend… followed by another, etc.
The landscape does eventually open up, the banks grassy and no longer tree-lined (diminishing the likelihood of obstructions), yet the river tapers to its narrowest dimension in the half-mile or so leading to Highway 21 – literally jump-the-brook narrow. Brush and alders extend from the banks, and because the river is ridiculously meandering and narrow, you can expect to “encounter” these now and again. And there will still be an obstacle or two to portage, once an enclosed forest setting comes in just before Highway 21. One of these obstructions is a rickety but pretty cool footbridge right on top of the water that is part of the Ice Age Trail. In fact, a very pretty segment of the trail lies from Highway 21 to the Mecan Springs SNA. Because of this, one could do a “boat-and-boot” trip on this section of the Mecan by taking out at Highway 21, where there is a sizeable parking area, and then hiking back to the Springs instead of car or bike shuttling, another novelty.
Day 2: Highway 21 to 11th Road
Riffles and rocks lead up to and continue past the box tunnel bridge at Highway 21. That will be the case for the next couple miles, actually. Not unlike the previous day, when the first mile or so was surprisingly free of impassable obstructions, the short stretch from Highway 21 to County Road B is mostly open. It’s shallow, narrow, and fast; you’re always on-point and pivoting left and right around, under, and over obstacles. The segment from County Road B to Cumberland Road, on the other hand, was much more of a nuisance. There, lots of downed trees impede a paddler’s progress. While not as frustrating or dirty as the trip from the day before, it was still a disappointing nuisance after awhile. Disappointing in that, if cleaned up and cleared out, these upstream sections would be friggin glorious.
To be fair, there are indications of past chainsaw’ing and sweat equity having cleared out some truly thick tree limbs, for which we were most grateful (and not a little surprised that others had already dared brave these troublesome upper sections). Sinuous riffles continue to Cumberland Road. (A quick note: after this trip we machete’d a doable path at Cumberland from the road to the river, on the upstream side of the bridge, river-left. It’s still a little slippery and steep and only a few would bother launching from this point. There is, however, a designated parking area just a hundred feet west of the bridge, one of dozens of access points along the Mecan River Fishery Area).
From Cumberland to 11th Road lies one of the prettiest sections anywhere on the Mecan River. The current remains frisky and brisk, and you’ll still be dodging around obstacles. We spent a solid hour at least clearing out three separate clusters in this section, so as of June 2016 this should be entirely open, without portaging. But again, it’s not a section to relax doing, as you’ll still need your best game on, lest you crash into the banks or rocks or logs like a pinball (“open” doesn’t mean “wide open,” but rather “open enough” to squeeze through or under without portaging). At first the banks are grassy and low, and innumerable small springs feed the stream. Closer to 11th Road the landscape is even boggier – like a forested wetland– with spongy fens and sphagnum moss coming out of the woodwork, together with green blazes of lush ferns. But the banks will rise as well, many of them sandy and as tall as 20’ with attractive pine trees lining them. The feeling of intimacy and seclusion is spectacular. You’ll pass by one or two houses at best in 3.5 miles.
In the final mile leading to 11th Road the river does slow down and widen, the bottom sandy. Conifers start towering above you, while in the water itself are umpteen stumps sticking out, the tops sprouting grasses that look like pineapple leaves or punk-rock hairdos. A left-hand turn will take you to 11th Road, where the bridge features two culverts. There’s a small ledge leading to the one on the left (the one on the right is not runnable, due to a tree cluster on the downstream side). The paddler has two choices: run the little rapid here and take out on river-left on the downstream side of the bridge, or skip the ledge and take-out on the upstream side, also on river-left. The little ledge is fun, but getting out on the downstream side of the bridge is muddy and steep. Getting out on the upstream side is a breeze, but you have to be careful about paddling hard enough to dry land without getting pulled into the current leading to the ledge. It’s not dangerous, but the current is strong here. Either way, there’s another convenient parking area on the north side of the bridge, about 75′ away.
What we liked:
Maybe it’s the contrarian in us, the nonconformist, but whereas our first experiences on the Mecan River, years ago, felt a little underwhelming, these lesser known, more obscure upstream sections totally clicked. Whereas we’d previously felt that the Mecan was overrated, now we got it and felt smitten.
In these 11 miles the landscape changes so much that it feels like going to an amusement park, yet it still manages to retain an inner core or character that wavers not. From a flatwater spring-fed lake that resonates with tranquility and palpable calm to a scrappy stream with frisky riffles and challenging meanders; to gravel bottoms lined with boulders to lush sand as far as the eye can see; to a hardwoods forest of oaks, ash, maples, sycamores and oh so many pines, to a spongy bottomlands of wet fens, seeping springs, and fanned out ferns; here tree-canopied in variegated shades of light and shadow, there a wide sky of raging sun for all your skin to soak up; now a hilly terrain of undulating trails up and down, then a flat swamp that seems to go on forever – the river itself always clear, always engaging, always intimate, swift, secluded. This is the Mecan River at its best – this is any river at its best (well, except for the obstructions).
Also, parking is excellent. At the Springs, at Highway 21, at Cumberland Road, and at 11th Road, are designated parking areas right by the river. Of these, only the Springs and 11th Road have an area that resembles a launching access, but both Highway 21 and Cumberland Road are totally doable.
What we didn’t like:
The obstructions, of course. Seven hours is a long time to paddle nearly 11 miles. Granted, at least two of those hours were spent clearing out some of the many obstructions. But still. And there’s hardly anything worse, when paddling, than taking your boat for a walk because the portaging is so constant as to make getting in and out of your boat just about pointless.
The worst section is from 9th Avenue to Cumberland Road, approximately 3 miles total. A month or two later, Timothy still has spider bites on his legs from the ridiculous amount of drop-down commando arachnids from the low-clearance trees, at one point 17 just on his shins. And let’s not talk about ticks. They’re ubiquitous as well (though typically only when you’re on land, which is to say when beginning or ending your trip – but we’re talking about finding them on us after the most casual brush with the thinnest blade of grass, not after tromping through brush waist-deep or bushwhacking the jungle dark). Hell, we found one tick on a tie-down strap that was on the ground for maybe one minute before lashing it over our boats. That’s how ubiquitous they are.
The other problem with this trip is the shallow water. Considering how close one is to the very source of the river itself, catching it with enough water to avoid near-constant scraping will be difficult. But making that even trickier is not paddling when it’s too high as to be pushy and dangerous or when the water is cloudy. Such is the paddler’s dilemma…
If we did this trip again:
On the one hand, it would be a tough sell to endure the many portage-required obstructions, especially as for us this trip is over an hour’s drive away. On the other hand, if any stream merited an all-hands-on-deck clean-up and clear-out mission, it’s precisely the upper Mecan – even though it’s far away and often shallow. It’s just that pretty and engaging a stream; creek-like paddling surrounded by a glory of public land. But like a beautiful old house that’s been neglected for a decade, the upper Mecan needs a whole lot of maintenance, insofar as paddling is concerned.
Conservationists may argue that it should be left as is, and that we paddlers should just mind ourselves with the more conventional and already established sections further downstream. That may be a valid point. Nonetheless, we’d return with muscles and machines to clear out the most egregious spots while leaving as light a footprint as possible. We ourselves benefited from the work others have done already on these obscure segments and we in turn cleared out at least eight other portages. We’re hopeful that this tradition continues.
Mecan River Overview: Mecan River Paddle Guide
Mecan River I: Dakota to Highway 22
Mecan River II: Germania to Lock Road
Mecan River IV: Dover Avenue to Germania
Article: The Mecan River Offers an Appealing Paddling Daytrip
Outfitter: Mecan River Outfitters
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video (Cumberland Road to 11th Road):