Pecatonica River Nature Preserve to Trask Bridge Forest Preserve:
A simple paddle that’s as pleasant as it is dull, where merely being on the water is more important than the surrounding landscape or fun rapids. This short jog on the big, broad, muddy Pecatonica begins and ends in two forest preserves with great accesses and has no obstacles or obstructions between. Because it’s short and easy, it makes for a fine trip for kids, beginners, or just the paddler looking for quiet time on a river.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 15, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
~1′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Shirland: ht/ft: 5.95 | cfs: 1850
Shirland: ht/ft: 4.78 | cfs: 1270
We strongly recommend this level. This is a pretty high level of water, but considering how slow the river is at normal levels, having an extra shot of espresso in this cup of joe will go a long way. That said, there’ll always be enough water to paddle the Pecatonica River (if it were “too low”, that would mean it’s the end of the world). Just be careful to keep off the mighty Pec in super-high levels, as it’s prone to flooding (typically in spring or after torrential rain).
Time: Put in at 11:40a. Out at 1:45p.
Total Time: 2h 5m
Miles Paddled: 6.75
Great blue herons galore, hawks, wood ducks and a mink.
6.1 miles for cars or bikes, most of which is on Highway 70, which has some traffic but good shoulders for bicycling. There are also some hills, but nothing truly formidable.
It ain’t easy being the Pecatonica River. For starters, your name is mud. Literally. Secondly, hardly anyone speaks of paddling the Pec with fondness or fervor. The best one might say is “it can be paddled,” knowing full well that can is not the same as should. Last, even though you begin in southwestern Wisconsin only 25 miles east of the Mississippi River – your ultimate destination – you travel away from the Mississippi for 200 miles into north-central Illinois, then northeast to feed the Rock River just south of Beloit, which only then goes back southwest to the Mississippi River 160 miles later. Why? Every other neighboring river – the Platte, the Grant, the Fever/Galena – all head to the Mississippi like good little streams. You, Pecatonica, you seem to go out of your way to prove some kind of point… but what, and why?
Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot for the Pec. It just doesn’t make a lick of sense. For all those 200 miles, it has hardly any of the gorgeous geology its neighboring streams do, or the clear water, or the moving current. Born and raised in the Driftless Area, it has the look and feel of any mediocre river surrounded by agriculture and floodplains. And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only river in the Driftless that flows out of and away from the Driftless. Why?!? It’s like it wants to be boring and ugly. It’s the exception to the rule, poor thing.
On a purely personal note, for purely sentimental reasons, I (Timothy) came down to the Pecatonica River, just east of the town of Pecatonica, Illinois, because exactly this time last year I’d attended a 10-day-long meditation course three miles east of this trip’s take-out. A paddling blog is hardly the time or place to talk about Vipassana meditation, but suffice it to say that for ten days you take a vow of silence, wake up at 4:30 am each day and begin what will be a total of ten hours of meditation, eat only two meals a day, and you cannot read, write, exercise, drink, smoke, have sex, or make eye contact with others. No phone. No internet. No newspaper. No anything. Needless to say, it’s pretty intense.
Fun fact: by pure happenstance, the day my retreat began last year was November 9th, the day after the election. Helluva coincidence, but also a helluva time to cut oneself off from the modern world and venture within.
When the retreat was over, I drove to the nearby Pecatonica River and scouted it from different locations. In his guidebook, Paddling lllinois, Mike Svob documents this section from the town of Pecatonica to Rockton, where it meets the Rock River – which I’d known about beforehand and wanted to see with my own eyes. (After so much time in the darkness with my eyes closed or looking only at the same meditation hall, cafeteria, and residential commons buildings, there was a lot I wanted to see with my eyes again!) Anyway, I knew I’d return sometime to paddle the river… and maybe reminisce.
My original plan for this trip was to put-in at Sumner Park, in the town of Pecatonica itself, for what would have been a 12-mile paddle. But on a river as slow as the Pecatonica, 12 miles is a chunk of change. Especially this late in the year, when it gets dark at 4:30 pm. Also, despite the forecast, it was actively raining still by 11:30 am, the temperature still only in the mid-40s. And then there were the 30 mph blasts of wind. So, trying to avoid a typical misadventure, I did something atypical: I sensibly cut the trip to 7 miles by using an alternate put-in and just left it at that.
Maybe I can learn from past mistakes after all…
The put-in at Pecatonica River Forest Preserve is a muddy but otherwise simple affair, due to a concrete boat launch. There’s plenty of parking here as well as facilities. Here, what you see is what you’ll get: hardwood bottomlands, muddy banks about 8′ tall, and a river well over 100′ wide. There’s nothing exactly dramatic about the landscape, here or anywhere in the area but it’s not without some charm. But it is what it is… and that won’t change.
One thing worth mentioning is the discernible watermark on many of the trees indicating how high the river gets when it floods. That line is a good 3-4′ up the trunks, yet those trees still are several feet above the waterline of the river. Think about that for a moment – that’s easily 8′ of water, minimum. That’s an astonishing rise of water in any stream; but for one as wide as the Pecatonica – again, over 100′ wide – that’s simply amazing.
For the first couple miles the big river flows in long broad straightaways, often surrounded by undeveloped land. Well, maybe not “surrounded”; usually, just one side will be undeveloped and wooded – the other will be agricultural. Meister Svob offers quite simply “a sense of isolation is perhaps its best attribute.” I think that’s spot-on. Grassy banks extend for as far as the eye can take in. With hardly any exception, these are tall enough to prevent seeing above them from close-up; but since the river is so wide and straight, you’ll see the landscape fine enough from afar. There is a lot of sand – it’s not all mud… but it’s mostly mud.
The only prominent landmark on this trip is an attractive horseshoe-bend around a sand-clay bank about 30′ high. The undercut exposed bank wraps around the bend in a pleasant 180-degree turn. It’s cool, but it’s truly the only singular highlight of the trip. There’ll be a few other such horseshoe-shaped loops, but none as sharp. Otherwise, the river runs in long straightaways.
There’s only a few houses or signs of civilization along the way. Also, there are mile markers all along this watery corridor. They do descend in number (and often are as precise as to be counted in quarter miles; e.g., you’ll often see a sign reading “21 ¼” or whatever the number is at the time). It stands to reason that these markers do correspond to the river itself, considering that from this trip’s take-out there are only another 20 miles or so to the Rock River. But why are they there? What purpose do they really serve? And where do they begin?
Woods, grassy banks, and floodplains continue to call the shots all the way to the cool blue-colored bridge at Trask Bridge Road. Here (upstream side of the bridge, on river-left), there’s another concrete boat launch, this one much less muddy. While much smaller than the forest preserve at the put-in, this spot is pretty and thoughtfully saved for public use.
What we liked:
This may sound strange, but I don’t often relax while paddling. I mean, for a minute or two, sure. But I’m usually taking notes or photos, singing a song in my head, running late and trying to hustle, worrying about how late I’ll be getting back home and feeling guilty about leaving my dog alone. I’m often getting ahead of myself by imagining how I’ll later be recording this experience for the website or perhaps a guidebook.
And that’s on a good day, when my boat isn’t broken and taking-in water… Or it’s getting cold or dark and I’m lost. Or I’ve ruined another electronic device by getting it wet.
But because I had last year’s meditation retreat experience in my head, I really had nothing further in mind (or mindfulness) for this trip than simply being on the water and going with the flow. Vipassana meditation basically means observation. I just wanted to do what I imagine most paddlers totally take for granted as their basic purpose for kayaking or canoeing in the first place: float down the river and take it all in. I wanted to do that while shutting my “monkey mind” up, concentrating solely on the here and now. In other words, less doing and more being. To just observe without judgment. Seeing the forest, not the individual trees.
As an exercise in restraint, I deliberately didn’t paddle at all for the first few miles, instead simply drifting downstream, feeling my boat right itself by the current without effort or force. This was easier to do physically than mentally, not least since there were no issues with deadfall, since the river is so wide. And in this stretch at least, there are no low-clearance bridges either. While it may not be the prettiest stream, it is a good place to relax and literally go with the flow. Both Mike Svob and the Winnebago County website boast of the abundant display of wildflowers in springtime, notably bluebells. That sounds lovely, to be sure, but I really appreciated the sheer austerity of late autumn, everything stripped down, brown, and muted. It allowed for slow, quiet contemplation.
Another cool feature is the incredible amount of oxbows. Do yourself a favor: click on the map below to expand it, then switch the view from “Street” to “Satellite.” You’ll see that a series of oxbows surround the river on both banks for miles on end. Altogether, from a bird’s eye view, it looks as if someone spilled a bag of curlicues while walking down a road. Or better still, a littering of locust tree pods that, in autumn, you’ll see on the ground or rattling with desiccated staccato if still clung to their branches. All along the Pecatonica River these vestiges of old meanderings lie strewn in present-day pools and sloughs. The forest preserve at the take-out is basically a peninsula of dry land surrounded by an ‘m’-shaped oxbow. It’s truly remarkable how the river has reshaped itself, practically shedding skin.
What we didn’t like:
It’s just boring. The river is big, wide, and slow. It’s muddy. It’s monotonous. It’s Illinois. (Just kidding! I mean, it is in Illinois, but there are lots of cool and pretty places in Illinois.)
Let me be candid: my own heart’s darling is a narrow, meandering stream with obstacles to dodge, clear water, peppy current with some rapids, occasional rock formations, somewhere hilly. The Pecatonica is none of these things. The lower Pec, here in Illinois, is pretty much the opposite of those things. As such, I’m biased. But it’s a perfect stream for some types of paddlers. It’s wide, slow, and easy. It’s great for newbies and kids, great for canoes, great for any paddler simply seeking river time without any hassles.
If we did this trip again:
Unlikely, honestly. This was a one-and-done, something I personally needed to do for myself. That said, I’d rather have begun in town and made this the 12-mile trip I first imagined. Alternatively, one could put-in at Trask Bridge Road and paddle 11-ish miles to another forest preserve/dedicated landing just upstream of where the Sugar River empties into the Pecatonica. I doubt I’d go out of my way again, from Madison, to go down to north-central Illinois just to paddle the Pecatonica. Again, if its best attribute is isolation, I can get that much closer to home. But if I lived closer or were visiting, I’d definitely be up for revisiting this wayward river.
If you do go here, or happen to be in the area, do yourself a favor and go walk around Seward Bluffs Nature Preserve. It’s just 3 miles south of the town of Pecatonica, but feels like a world away. Indeed, it has all the characteristics of the Driftless Area, up to and including a clear-water creek coursing around tall rock outcrop bluffs. With respect to the last Ice Age, what can be said about Winnebago County itself can be said about most of Illinois: only a very small portion was spared the colossal bulldozing of the glaciers. More sobering still, of the small portion that is Illinois’ Driftless Area (technically the northwestern triangle from the Mississippi River to the Rock River to the Wisconsin border), very little of it looks or feels quintessentially Driftless. Thankfully, there are exceptions – Carroll Creek and the Galena/Fever River are spectacular places, even Yellow Creek has a couple tricks up its sleeve. Alas, while all of the Pecatonica River in Illinois lies within the Driftless Area, you’d never really know that while paddling it. Yet, somehow only three miles south is a little parcel of land like a postcard. It’s a really cool little park.
Pecatonica River I: Calamine to Darlington
Pecatonica River II: Darlington to Red Rock
Pecatonica River III: Brownton to Winslow
Pecatonica River IV: Mifflin to Jones Branch Road
Camp: Pecatonica River Nature Preserve
Camp: Seward Bluffs Nature Preserve
Good People: Friends of the Pecatonica River
Good People: Illinois Paddling Council
Wikipedia: Pecatonica River