Darlington to Red Rock:
A very pleasant stretch of river that gets little to no attention but is quite worth paddling, the second half of this trip in particular. With small rapids at the very beginning, some hills midway through, lots of bald eagles at the end, very good landings and a dedicated bike path for the shuttle, it’s a great trip all around.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 15, 2013
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Darlington: ht/ft: 2.30 | cfs: n/a
Darlington: ht/ft: 2.27 | cfs: 119
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Time: Put in at 11:40a. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 3h 35m
Miles Paddled: 11.75
Bald eagles galore, a couple hawks, some fish, a blue jay and a muskrat.
Only 6.8 miles and virtually all of it on the Cheese Country Trail.
Confession: for years I had been holding a grudge against the Pecatonica and I’m not entirely sure why. It could be that Mike Svob lists only one 8-mile trip worth paddling on this 90-mile-long river. It could be that the Pecatonica (or “Pec,” as the locals call it) is very muddy and who wants to paddle in muck? Or maybe it’s that the Pec, while in the southwest, flows southeast and drains into the Rock River in Illinois, as opposed to many other area waterways that feed the Mississippi.
Whatever the reason, I’d more or less written off the Pec (at least the main branch, I’ve done the east branch several times), which is silly and irrational. The popular trip on the Pec has already been covered, so this trip covers the next sequential section of the river, about which I’ve not been able to find any specific information about anywhere on the net or in paddle guides.
There’s good, bad, ugly and beautiful on this trip (actually, there really isn’t anything ugly and the “bad” ain’t all that bad either!). The good and the beautiful though, definitely make this trip worth checking out.
What we liked:
To begin with, the put-in at Black Bridge Park offers a ton of parking and a thoughtful, if muddied, launch area. Only a hundred yards or so later, a delightful Class I rapids of about 50 yards long is found at a tight leftward curve before a large hill (There used to be a dam there long ago). It’s for this reason I strongly recommend putting in at Black Bridge Park and not Pecatonica River Trails Park landing or at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot (both offering developed landings).
There’ll be riffles here and there for the next 11 miles, particularly at the mouth of Otter Creek (about 5 miles into the trip) but nothing more than that. With a modest gradient of 1.2’ per mile, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent the current actually was. Another thing that surprised me was how clear of obstructions this segment is. I never had to portage and hardly had to duck or maneuver around trees. Thank you volunteers!
While the first half of this trip is fairly nondescript, the second half is excellent. Hills begin and while they aren’t as dramatic as the Platte River (a short way’s away to the west) they’re still quite pretty and provide ample opportunities to spot wildlife.
To wit, the last mile of this trip hugs a pretty hill, in which area I saw more bald eagles in one concentrated spot than anywhere at any point in my life. I lost count after 15, many of them still immature, brown with mottled spots of white. Eagle feather tufts floated on the water as commonly as dandelions. It was truly spectacular. Turns out this is a nesting area where eagles roost each year, or so a local fishing at the takeout told me.
Other than two cool views of unidentifiable fish flickering at the surface in downtown Darlington, one belly-flopping muskrat, a hawk and a blue jay later on, there was no other wildlife sightings (but the gazillion eagles more than made up for this. And yes, the band Department of Eagles was on my mind all the drive home).
Before the eagles, however, one comes upon a nice tight rightward turn in the river where exposed slits of rock in a hillside shine in the sun. Just after this, out of nowhere, the only rock formations on this trip are found and they are spectacular! Moss-strewn and tree-topped, the rocks are gorgeous sandstone, about 20’ high, calling to mind the Kickapoo or Dells on the Wisconsin River. I never would have guessed that such gems would be hidden on the Pecatonica, it was a great find!
One last note: the takeout off Walnut Road, an official landing named “Wells Landing,” was a most unexpected surprise, offering generous parking as well as concrete ramp. This was most fortuitous because originally my paddling plan was to begin at one bridge upstream of Walnut Road and then paddle down to Riverside Road north of the town Gratiot. But as I drove down Highway 23 and noticed Black Bridge Park and then the rapids, (plus I’m a sucker for small towns with a quaint Main Street, which Darlington has in abundance, together with a stately county courthouse) I knew that this is where I should begin my trip.
My intended put-in was Rollercoaster Road, not only because it sounds cool (and one would infer hilly) but because I read about it somewhere once in a Lafayette County River Landings pamphlet many moons ago. I don’t know who would suggest or recommend this but let me tell you, unless you want to be knees-deep in mud while ducking under a 4’-high underside of a bridge, this is not a feasible put-in option for anyone other than masochists.
Oh, and then there’s the Cheese Country Trail, a 47-mile-long multi-use (read: mainly ATV/snowmobile) trail from Monroe to Mineral Point. Either a state trail pass or tri-county trail pass is required. A regular road bike is adequate but not preferred for this trail, as it gets pretty “rutted” and irregular by ATV traffic. It’s a very pleasant option though, particularly on a weekday. I didn’t see or hear a single ATV the whole time, which is very rare.
What we didn’t like:
There’s definitely the mud factor, which normally isn’t much of an ado but in cold weather paddling I’d just as soon not have be tracking around sticky globs of mud over everything. Before I even paddled a single stroke, after settling in at the put-in, I noticed that the cockpit was filthy already. This will remain an issue anytime you have/want to get out of your boat while paddling the Pec.
A lot of this river is flanked by steep 10’-high banks, which is nice in terms of privacy and shielding from the wind but it doesn’t make for easy access. The other complaint about this trip is that the first half coincides with continuous truck/car noise from the road. Not until after Otter Creek enters does the river finally swerve away from Highway 81 and the paddling experience begin to feel intimate and remote. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about that because there are no intermittent bridges downstream of Darlington. There’s the misbegotten Rollercoaster Road bridge (the first bridge after downtown) which if you’re willing to put up with it, means you must forfeit the fun little rapids in Darlington. So you must choose or be willing to put up with roadside noise.
Also, unless the day I did this trip was unique somehow and the exception, not the rule, the smell of livestock was everywhere. Not manure, mind you, just “animal.” Like walking into a barn. It wasn’t offensive whatsoever but it was unmistakably distinct and nearly ubiquitous.
If we did this trip again:
I could be talked into doing this again. Ordinarily, for a paddle that requires a 1.5-hour drive just to get there, I would opt first for another stream I have yet to explore. But the fun rapids in the beginning plus the Rollercoaster Road bridge to Walnut Road bridge section make this a really pleasant paddle.
I’d be interested in checking out other segments of the Pecatonica downstream of this one, too. For instance, Gratiot to South Wayne looks promising. Additionally, Otter Creek also looks like it has real paddling potential. I went up it a tiny bit, out of curiosity and it was bigger than I would have guessed.
In fact, that might make a great trip unto its own, putting in upstream somewhere on Otter Creek (there are plenty of bridge opportunities in between Darlington and Mineral Point) and paddling into the Pec, taking out at Walnut Road.
Pecatonica River I: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River III: Brownton to Winslow
Pecatonica River IV: Mifflin to Jones Branch Road
Pecatonica River V: Pecatonica River Nature Preserve to Trask Bridge Forest Preserve
Camp: Pecatonica River Trails Park
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Pecatonica River
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River