Highway 78 to River Road:
A long overdue redux trip on an excellent stretch of the East Branch of the Pecatonica River that is easy for beginners, poses minimal obstructions, and rewards the paddler with truly terrific scenery and rock outcrop formations – particularly when the trees are leafless.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 11, 2018
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈1-2′ per mile
Blanchardville: ht/ft: 7.2 | cfs: 360
Gauge note: The gauge is located right at this trip’s put-in, so readings are as perfect as they come.
This is the highest recommended level. The first time we paddled this section the river was at nearly half the height as this return trip. At lower levels there was a chance riffle or two, which is more fun than a swollen river. But generally speaking there’s always enough water to paddle this trip.
Highway 78, south of Blanchardville, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 5.75
Deer, bald eagles galore, gaggles of frantic turkey, cattle, hawks, kingfishers and evidence of both beaver and muskrats.
4.6 miles. A little hilly and very pretty, but Highway 78 is not the best road for bicycling.
We first paddled this segment of the East Peck as part of a longer trip at the end of September, in 2012. It so happened that it was the first of what would become many trips down virtually all of the East Peck’s segments throughout the years, one of my favorite and most-coveted streams in southern Wisconsin. Also on a personal level, a chance photo from that first trip back in 2012 ended up becoming, through bittersweet serendipity, the cover image for the guidebook I wrote (it was chosen by the publisher, not me). All in all, this stretch of the river has held a special agency for me personally.
That said, it would take another six years to return to it. In that time we’ve paddled every practical (and impractical) section of the East Peck, from its upstream sources south of Barneveld to its confluence with the main trunk of the Pecatonica River. One such section – Hollandale to Blanchardville – we’ve paddled at least four times. And while I’ve wanted to return to this section for years, the whole Blanchardville-to-Argyle trip is a particularly long day trip, clocking in at 16 miles total.
From the boat launch in Blanchardville at the mouth of Gordon Creek it’s 3.3 miles to the bridge at Highway 78. Frankly, they’re a dull and monotonous few miles. From Highway 78 to River Road, the next bridge, are just shy of six miles. From River Road to the boat launch in Argyle are 6.8 miles. That’s a popular summertime trip, given the ease of access and parking at both River Road and in Argyle. But that segment has more straightaways and less meandering than from Highway 78 to River Road. Plus there are two other detractions: a golf course that takes up a lot of real estate on the right bank (the river doesn’t run through the course, but parallel to it) and the current just disappears a mile or so upstream of the boat launch, on account of the dam in Argyle.
Considering we’re well into cold season paddling, wherein the window of time between the (relative) warmest hour of the day and sunset is pretty skimpy, it didn’t seem prudent to replicate our 2012 trip in full. Instead, we hedged our bets and took out at River Road, rather than go all the way down to Argyle.
The put-in at Highway 78 is peculiar. There’s a dirt road off of the highway on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left (technically the south bank). It leads to a farm field, not a parking area. But it does provide a convenient place to park a vehicle or two, pulled off to the right side. From there it’s a steepish schlep to the water. The safer, surer path is via trampled grass. The other is loose rock rubble. Accessing the water from the bank is OK but a little muddy. Admittedly, the access is much better (though still muddy – it’s the Pecatonica…) at the boat launch in Blanchardville, but that adds 3.3 essentially lackluster miles.
On the water, the river width here is approximately 50′ wide, which is representative for this trip. The first couple hundred yards finds you paddling past cornfields and pastures in a straightaway. But before you know it (or start wondering “why did I drive out this way for this?”) you’ll see an attractive hill topped with pine trees behind the right bank that attracts the paddler’s eye like a colorful string to a curious kitten. Where there’s a hillock with pine trees crowning its brow, there’s a darn good chance there’ll be sandstone rock outcrops at its base. Before you get there, however, you’ll see a smaller, more unadorned knoll on the right. On the skin of its grass is a juxtaposition of aspen, oaks, boulders embedded in the hill, and a deer stand at the top. As the river bends to the left, away from the hill, you might take a gander at it now in the background, behind you. At the risk of sounding vainglorious, this is the cover shot on the guidebook (minus my friend in the kayak with the shit-eating grin).
A few more meanders will lead you to a rewarding view of a rampart-like rock wall of exposed sandstone about 20′ tall that will flank the right bank for some 300′. It’s truly a lovely stretch unto itself; but for this trip it’s just a warm-up for what lies downstream.
Alas, around the next bend awaits a nasty logjam cluster. Comprising two separate downed trees locked together like giant antlers at odd angles, we discerned no real way through, not even an impractical one (which is saying something given the three paddlers not typically disposed to portaging). On this trip’s higher than normal level it was a pretty simple and not hideously muddy affair to portage around the mess on the right. For us it was the only obstruction requiring a portage.
It’s all lush rolling hills for the next mile as the river meanders in gentle sweeps past moor-like pastures with cattle way away looking like 1200-pound dots. Trees then return to hem in the otherwise open landscape, creating more of a bottomlands feel. A near-iconic truss bridge comes into view suddenly. When we first paddled past this structure in 2012 we noted with amused enthusiasm the cut-in-half couch creating in effect twin Barcaloungers atop the bridge with a heckuva lovely view. They’re still there, although in the intervening six years time has not been kind to the indoor-out furniture. Then again, we’ve had some pretty wild high-water events just this year alone. The amount of grass and branches still festooned against the upstream side of the bridge from such astounding high-water levels is remarkable, the remains of flash flooding. Just downstream from the bridge is an equally remarkable wooden staircase on the right-hand side, from the top of the ridge to the riverbank itself, a height of 40′ approximately and double that in total length, a truly commendable undertaking (and a whole lot of post hole digging). Justly so, as the land here must be entirely private property – and it’s a veritable slice of paradise at that.
The west bank of the river here (river-right) is a raised ridge with exquisite rock outcrops and mossy greens like a mural a quarter-mile long. It’s not nearly as tall as other ridges or bluffs on the East Peck, or as geologically endowed, but it is singularly aesthetic – the prettiest sweep on this trip. Where there’s moss, there’s water (especially where embossed on sandstone or limestone – the two prominent rock types in the Driftless Area, both of which are porous and allow for water percolation). And in the cold weather said water freezes. As it drip-drip-drips downward, given the gravity of the ridge, icicles form, clung to the outer edges. We’ve always loved this effect, even if seen from afar. Perhaps it rekindles a childish awe from early winters, a weird twinge of crystalline beauty and menacing daggers, dragon teeth. Or maybe it’s just self-evidently cool as hell… Either way, it’s pretty awesome. In one section where you could paddle underneath a rock overhang, the icicles dangled at the edge with just enough space to paddle behind them, a neat feat indeed (and I think a first for us).
That quarter-mile-long stretch probably is the prettiest on this trip, but the show ain’t over yet, folks. A long straightaway surrounded by pastoral plains allows you to readjust after the majestic rock outcrops and weeping seeps. Then a series of tight turns (left, right, right, left) takes you past an isolated hill with a very attractive rock outcrop. That pattern will repeat itself a quarter-mile later. The river then will make a series of tight, intricate meanders looking like the spine of a three-humped camel from above (and making this 6-mile trip seem longer than it actually is). After the last loop a relaxing straightaway leads to an 80′-tall ridge elegantly dressed with verdant pine trees at top, a layer of copper-hued oaks below, and another rampart-like wall of gray-and-green rock outcrops studded with pockets of moss. All on the left bank, you’ll paddle parallel this lovely encore performance for about 600′. It’s a fitting valediction for a very scenic trip.
Then, just as this trip began, a half-mile-long straightaway precedes the bridge at River Road. The designated launch is on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-right. Like anywhere on the Pecatonica system, there’s a whole lotta love here – and by love, we mean mud (sorry, Led Zeppelin). How much you’ll endure will depend on how high or low the river is at the time of your trip as well as where precisely you exit and have to A) walk on and B) drag your boat through it.
What we liked:
They say you can’t go home again (well, at least Thomas Wolfe said that). The first and only time we paddled this segment of the East Branch was at the end of September in 2012 during a scintillating Indian summer – remember those? Autumn had barely even put the coffee on yet, so the world was still awash in wild greens, the landscape yet several weeks away from harvest time. Back then, I was with two pals, all of us in shorts and t-shirts, sandals, cold beers you needed to keep cold. One of those pals – you might even say the man on the cover of the guidebook – moved to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago (and has been dearly missed ever since). The other, thank heavens, is still here. As am I. Life moves on, invariably, just as a river does. Always and everything for the time being.
This return trip was paddled six years and six weeks after that initial trip, but it couldn’t have been more different. Some of that was due to the higher water level, sure. And there was a definite distinction in the gray November skies and high temps in the upper 30s. Instead of tank tops, we wore three layers of long-sleeved shirts, jackets, vests. Gloves and winter hats and rubber boots. Wool, fleece, microfibers – every layer water-resistant and/or water-proof. Instead of cold beer we had hot beverages to keep us warm. (OK, we still had beer – y’know, to keep us warm…and young still).
This time around, however, with the leaves all gone from the trees, we were treated to a naked landscape and all it had to reveal. And what a view it is! Considering how short this trip is (6 miles), there are no fewer than four individual segments of rock outcrops, all of them prominent and pretty stunning. Equipped with our late-season paddling X-Ray glasses, we got to see the landscape from an entirely different perspective than we did in September 2012. As such, the whole feel for the trip changed – and for the better. Neither I nor my other pal who did this same section six years ago remembered it being so bountiful or picturesque. Indeed, it was like paddling a brand new river. And this time around we paddled this reacquainted river with a brand new friend, a fellow intrepid soul who doesn’t mind the cold temps or abandoned landscape.
No, you can’t go home again. And neither should you try. Nostalgia is a taste bud best left as food for thought. We can muster all the OCD strength to reenact something as exactingly as possible, but it can never be the same as it first was. And neither should it be. The best we can do is hold on to those precious memories from the past with as much as grace as we’re lucky to get, and then let go of the rest, that we can be present for new experiences. How else do we grow? It’s not either-or, but both. The sun-drenched wistfulness of a late-summer trip is not better than an early-winter one; it’s just different. The warmth and leafy flush was here, and then it went away. One dear friend moved on, another has become a part of the brood. Such is life. With heartfelt humility I’ll give thanks for that!
What we didn’t like:
The only real dislike was the one logjam we had to portage around. Otherwise, this trip was outstanding.
If we did this trip again:
Well, we now know that this trip should be paddled either in the early season or late season, without leaves so as to better take in the views. That said, hitting this trip in the full blush of autumn would be mesmerizing. This abbreviated trip makes for a great outing if you have only limited time to be on the water. Otherwise, head on down to Argyle for the full effect.
Pecatonica River East Branch I: Highway 78 to Argyle
Pecatonica River East Branch II: Hollandale to Blanchardville
Pecatonica River East Branch III: Highway HK to Hollandale
Pecatonica River East Branch IV: Argyle to Blackhawk Memorial County Park
Pecatonica River East Branch V: Woodford to Highway 11
Pecatonica River East Branch VI: Hollandale to Horseshoe Bend Road
Camp: Yellowstone Lake State Park
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video: