If there’s one stream in southern Wisconsin that is a paddler’s paradise, it’s the Mecan River. Starting at a pretty lake fed by natural springs, the river meanders for some 40 miles through a mixed landscape of hardwoods, oak savannas, boggy fen wetlands and oh so many glorious pines.
Oh, and did we mention that the water is crystal clear? And that almost all of the land surrounding the river is public? And that it’s loaded with riffles and light rapids, especially in its first 10 miles (it’s average gradient is roughly 3 feet per mile)? On top of all that, water levels are almost always adequate, since it’s a spring-fed stream (that said, after recent rains the river can be particularly pushy, the water clouded, and some of the low-clearance bridges will require portaging around). The icing on the cake is the plethora of put-in/take-out options at the many bridges, allowing paddlers to custom-tailor the length and variety of trip. A couple of local outfitters do a commendable job of clearing out obstructions while remaining good stewards of the landscape by leaving as light a footprint as possible. By and by, the Mecan has the look and feel of a northwoods river, but without the drive.
If this sounds too good to be true, let it come with a couple caveats. First, the Mecan River is not friendly to newbies. It meanders like crazy – think of it as the “Mecander” River. Together with that, there are lots of obstacles in the water to avoid – to paddle around, under, or ride over. And since the current is always reputable, particularly around obstacles and bends, solid boat control, confidence, and calm are required to prevent untoward capsizing or at least frustrating mishaps. But as long as you have basic skills and also allow for enough time to paddle your trip, you’ll fall in love with this gem.
Mecan River Springs State Natural Area to Highway 21
Miles: 5.25 | 2016 Trip Report
Beginning at the very beginning, this section starts at the headwaters of the Mecan River, where natural springs feed a pretty kettle lake left behind by the receding glaciers of yesteryear. Surrounded by steep hills and almost no development, the setting is here is quite picturesque. The river proper is found at the southeastern outlet of the lake, below the County Road GG bridge. There is no dam here or any barrier whatsoever. In other words, on one side of the bridge is a lake, while on the other is a creek-like river. Very cool.
Below the bridge the river is all riffles and steep banks, with an occasional hill or two. The river is narrow and shallow, and maneuvering will be required at all times to avoid obstructions and also find the deepest channel of water. Expect a downed tree or two, not to mention two barbed wire fences, but you may not need to portage until after the 9th Avenue bridge. Unfortunately, from 9th Avenue to Highway 21 there are many portages. In addition, because this far upstream stretch is so narrow and shallow, catching it with enough water to avoid scraping or outright walking will be tricky. The surrounding landscape is exquisite, so putting up with the obstructions can be justified. A segment of the Ice Age Trail will parallel the river on the west bank (river-right) in the final mile to Highway 21. There’s no official launch to put in or take out at Highway 21, but there is a designated parking area right at the stream.
Highway 21 to 11th Road
Miles: 5.5 | 2016 Trip Report
The best thing one could say about this segment is that it’s really fun and possibly the prettiest – definitely the riffliest – stretch anywhere on the Mecan. The caveat, however, is all the nasty obstructions in between County Road B and Cumberland Road. As in the previous segment upstream, whether putting up with these impediments is worth it to take in the solitude, riffles, and beautiful environs is up to you. This stretch is for the adventuresome paddler, not the casual kind. After Cumberland Road the obstructions will become much easier, thanks to volunteers (including our own sweat equity). You can put in at Cumberland, but the access is difficult due to steep, slippery banks. There is a small parking area immediately east of the bridge. This section is quintessential Mecan River: a narrow, meandering stream with swift crystal-clear water underlined by a rocky/sandy bottom, surrounded by public land. Throw in some steep banks and a mix of boulders, spongy bogs, and glorious pine trees. It’s utterly diverse and captivating. The riffles peter out a mile downstream from Cumberland. What handful of houses you’ll see are literally few and far between, all of them attractive and unobtrusive.
11th Avenue to County Road JJ
Very pretty and only slightly more developed than the preceding segment (here too the few houses there are tend to be nice cabins – or modern day homes masquerading as cabins, what I like to “rustic chic”). There’s a fun little ledge on the upstream side of the left culvert at the 11th Avenue bridge. Accesses here are excellent, and both 11th and JJ have designated parking areas by the bridges. The river here is slower than upstream, but still the current is reputable. And since it meanders and has an obstruction or two, paddlers will need to be able to maneuver with fluidity and spontaneity. It’s worth the “work”: this segment of the Mecan is awfully aesthetic – in autumn especially; the crisp colors of yellow and red in foliage will knock your socks off. Along this segment, too, you’ll find hints of the marshland found further downstream; but here it’s pleasantly mixed with conifers and oaks, steep banks and gravelly bottoms. There’s a fun light rapid through and leading out of the culvert at the JJ bridge.
(Nota bene: The official Mecan River trip in Timothy’s book, Canoeing & Kayaking South Central Wisconsin, begins at 11th Avenue and ends at Dixie Avenue.)
County Road JJ to Highway 22
Miles: 9.75 | 2013 Trip Report
Many paddlers will be familiar with this segment, as it’s the first of the two Mecan River trips written about (and thus popularized) by Mike Svob in his vaunted guidebook, Paddling Southern Wisconsin. On a summertime weekend you should expect to encounter others paddlers on the water. Understandably, as this segment is a great daytrip. Several road bridges along the way allow for alternate accesses to shorten this trip: 14th Avenue, Dixie Avenue, Dover Avenue and County Road E. The landscape remains mostly undeveloped, the streambed is lush and sandy, the banks pine-lined and 10’ tall. The hints of marsh grass, in conjunction with the width of the river, become more pronounced as well (below Dover Avenue everything flattens out and gets less engaging). There’s a riffle here or there, and the meandering is as incessant as ever. But the obstructions will be mostly cleaned up, as local outfitters do a commendable job clearing these out. The natural ones, that is. There are half a dozen low-clearance bridges to be mindful of and watch out for. If the river is high, some of these will require portaging around.
Highway 22 to County Road N
Miles: 6 | 2016 Trip Report
In our humble opinion, this is the most boring segment of the Mecan River. It’s flat, slow, and feels monotonous. It’s scrubby and open. And then there’s Germania Marsh itself. Only inches deep, it’s a fake lake created by a dam downtown. Before you even enter the marsh you’ll have to portage around an electric fence fish barrier. It’s easy and well-marked but it’s a little muddy and uninspired. Germania is neither prettier nor uglier than any other garden-variety dam-created marsh. Is it worth paddling? Probably not, unless you’re into that. Maybe in spring or autumn during the bird migrations. A second portage is required around the dam. Less than half a mile downstream from the dam is the single-best rapid on the Mecan River at the County Road N (aka Eagle Road) bridge. A classic inverted-v slot of water precedes a ridiculously fun Class I-II rapid with two drops. It‘s a simple, safe splash of whitewater, but expect to get wet!
County Road N to Fox River Confluence
Miles: 14.25 | 2015 Trip Report
This is a long segment and not recommended unless you intend on being on the river for the whole day. One can begin by running the fun rapid under the bridge at County Road N or by putting in on the downstream side of the bridge. From this County Road N bridge to the next County Road N bridge lies 4.75 miles. It has its pretty moments, but it’s pretty monotonous too. It’s scarcely developed, however, which is always nice. The steep banks and gentle hills are a thing of the past, but here and there are landscape flashes that will continue to capture your attention: undercut sandbanks, quaint footbridges, islands braiding the main stream into separate channels, a tunnel-like canopy of trees. A rarity anywhere on the Mecan is found in this segment too: a straightaway. Only approaching the second County Road N bridge will you see a house.
It’s 3.75 miles from the second County Road N bridge to Highway 23 (where between there is yet one more County Road N bridge). The surroundings begin to feel a bit wilder here as the landscape morphs from the oaks, pines, and shrubs to a floodplain hardwood forest. Obstacles in the river are more numerous here, and since the river is back to its meandering tricks, you’ll need to have solid boat control to avoid running into a tree stump here or log cluster there. This section is cool in its own regard, but it can be tiring if by now you’ve been on the water for a few hours; it’s better to tackle this segment on its own and take-out at County Road C.
Downstream of Highway 23 the river widens and opens up more, making for less of a workout. Exposed sandbanks reappear as well. From here to the next bridge at County Road C – which also is the last bridge on the Mecan before its mouth at the Fox River – are 2.5 miles. On the river right, aka west of the river, the landscape is flat and marshy, while on the left a line of trees continues. The feeling here is of blissful isolation, as there’s really no development anywhere. The Mecan will become slow and wide since you’re close to the confluence. It’s less than a mile from the County Road C bridge to the Fox River. If you don’t take out here, you will have to continue onto the Fox, where the next take-out option is 3 miles downstream. Here, the Fox is relatively huge – a good five times wider than the Mecan. In its original state, this portion of the Fox was rather pretty; a small hill on the right and tall sandbanks on the left are its prominent features. Today, alas, there are houses on the right for the entire stretch, and Highway 23 runs parallel to the left bank. There’s a boat launch making for easy take-out access at the lock and dam on river-left, off Lock Road, where there’s a small park as well.