Mifflin to Jones Branch Road:
A surprisingly swift section of the otherwise sluggish Pecatonica River surrounded by steep hills, modest bluffs, several striking rock outcrops and very little development, this trip suffers from shallow water levels, poor accesses and several obstructions – natural and artificial.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 20, 2016
Riffles + Class I
~7′ per mile (Note: there are some very slow sections in between the riffles)
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Darlington: ht/ft: 3.40 | cfs: 248
Darlington: ht/ft: 2.27 | cfs: 119
We recommend this level, although with the following caveats: the riffles and light rapids would have been more fun with another inch or two of water, yet at this lower level, scooting underneath tree limbs was pretty easy. Thus the paddler’s dilemma: a better run of riffles but more portaging at downed trees, or scraping in the shallows but having more access underneath obstructions.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 9.75
Cows, bulls, great blue and green herons, one vibrant pheasant, turtles galore (painted, leatherback, snapping), wood ducks, deer, owls, beaver, turkey vultures and a raccoon.
7 miles. A very pleasant route through the country with an equal amount of hills up and down that’s definitely safe for bicyclists.
Another in our series of “Explore the Obscure!” The inspiration for this trip was pure serendipity. While driving along County Road A between Highway 151 and Rewey, en route to the Grant River last month, I noticed a small parking area and sign stating the Pecatonica River Woods State Natural Area immediately before crossing over this upstream section of the Pecatonica River. I’ve been curious about the upstream portions of the Pecatonica River for awhile now, so I decided to scout various bridges up- and downstream of County Road A. I selected this section because the river appears too shallow above County Road G in Mifflin and too agriculturally monotonous below the takeout at Jones Branch Road.
The paddling itself would be a gamble, of course, the 10 miles of water between those two points. But our favorite thing to do is go somewhere new, especially if there is a tingling sense that we’re the first people to do it. Naturally, that’s a conceited fiction – we’re not the first to do anything! Maybe the first to share such info, which alone is both a pleasure and a privilege and why we love seeking out such obscurities in the first place.
What we liked:
There’s a few attractive rock outcrops about 20 yards upstream from the put-in. About 200 yards downstream is a truly glorious rock wall that ascends high up a bluff. Comparable to something you’d see on the Grant or Platte Rivers, it is the most dramatic rock formation of the trip, and it happens almost immediately – a heck of a way to begin a trip! There’s even a weeping seep preceding it, also on the left (further downstream you’ll encounter other natural springs too beyond the banks).
The other thing you’ll notice right away is how peppy the current is. Mile after mile for more than the first half of this trip you’re treated to countless riffles and light rapids. Given the location of all these Driftless bluffs the gradient isn’t surprising; but when you’re more accustomed to a certain river being slow, as is generally the case with the Pecatonica, then this catches you off guard (the Baraboo River is like this too, of course: mostly slow except for one dazzling 3-mile stretch of rapids). The river here is studded with boulders and rocks, mostly below the surface. The water itself isn’t as clear as say the Grant or Platte Rivers, but it’s much clearer than the muddied floodwaters for which the Pecatonica is better known downstream.
The first 2/3 of this trip is far and away the prettier, more intimate and outright fun portion. On two occasions the river sweeps past a steep wooded bluff on the left. These are particularly pretty sections, the second one enclosed within the aforementioned State Natural Area. There are a few straightaway segments of the river, too, which are welcome breaks from all the meandering turns and pivots; here you can just stop paddling a spell, relax and simply float downstream.
When not woodsy there are many attractive meadows and hilly pastures – not all of them populated by cows (see below). At the takeout there’s a pleasant little Class I drop, very easy to shoot down. The only trouble is paddling back up it. There’s no real place along the banks to get out, and the power of the water down the gentle ledge is pretty impressive. It took me a good 8 attempts until I marshaled enough muscle, willpower and taurine determination to make my way up it like some dumb spawning salmon.
What we didn’t like:
This is not a much-paddled section of the river, so access points are pretty guerilla. They’re all totally doable but arguably impractical for some folks. For instance, at the put-in you’ll have to climb down a 4’-drop and pull your gear down, then launch off angled rocks. The takeout, likewise, is muddy, narrow and steep. There’s a bank-to-bank downed tree right at the put-in bridge, which is never an inspiring sign for beginning a pioneer-paddling trip. That said, this is the worst natural obstruction in the first 5 miles.
There are three unnatural obstructions in the first half-mile: two wires (probably electric) and one metal fence. The two wires can be easily ducked under without concern. I pushed the fence forward and then bent down to pass underneath it. Even in the pushy current I passed beneath this unscathed. Still, it’s a little unsettling. Below the Peniel Road bridge (aka County Road J) lie two barbed wires – one you can duck under, the other I just rode over.
If you haven’t seen cattle by now, you will. In the next mile the river is surrounded by pastureland on both banks. Esthetically, it’s quite pretty – particularly if the cattle are off in the distance, calling to mind some Ansel Adams-like iconic pastoral photo of a lone cow retreating from the heat in the cool shade of an oak tree’s cover high up a hill, surrounded by grass, a boulder here and there, etc. When they’re in the water, literally scared shitless, or threatening to ambush you from high above the banks, then it ain’t all that pretty.
I had a showdown with one particularly brave (or stubborn) cow that began crossing the river but suddenly stopped and then just stayed there standing its ground. After five minutes of my laughable “heyas!”, handclaps and paddle brandishing, I scooted over to a side channel, got out, dragged my boat over a fallen tree, and re-entered downstream of the cow, still in the middle of the river. Fine, you win…this time! Consider it a precursor to the detours of the summertime construction season.
The deadfall and required portages increase downstream from County Road A. The hills, riffles and rock outcrops are far fewer in the second half of this trip, too, particularly after Peniel Road. It’s for this reason that the trip quickly downgraded to a 3-star trip from a former four. None of the portages were outright bad, but after five or six one’s enthusiasm starts to siphon. And because this section has fewer of the fun features found upstream, the portages feel just stupid and pointless.
If we did this trip again:
We’d take out at County Road A, at the trailhead for the Pecatonica River Woods SNA. Below County Road A there’s just too much deadfall and not enough scenery to make it worthwhile – plus the riffles diminish. We’d do it again in late autumn or early spring next time, in order to see better the rock features in the bluffs not camouflaged by leaf canopies.
Pecatonica River I: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River II: Darlington to Red Rock
Pecatonica River III: Brownton to Winslow
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