Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian Road:
Another in the unofficial “escape to Illinois” series for 2013. This final segment of the Sugar River is actually distinct from its usual connotations in Wisconsin. It’s sandy instead of muddy, completely undeveloped and even protected by two state forest preserves instead of marked by agricultural crap (and traps), housing and private campgrounds. Don’t worry though, you’re still likely to find folks with saints’ patience slowly floating in tubes, just like in Wisconsin. All around, a nice river not too far away and worth the drive.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 14, 2013
Brodhead: ht/ft: 1.02 | cfs: 280
We recommended this level. Please note that anything below 50 cfs will be extremely shallow and frustrating. We recommend a minimum of 60 cfs on the Verona gauge.
Colored Sands Forest Preserve, Haas Road, Shirland, Illinois, Winnebago County
River’s Edge Campground, North Meridian Road
Time: Put in at 2:30a. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Lots of great blue herons, kingfishers, killdeers, deer, and two bald eagles.
I have not had the best relationship with the Sugar River. In fact, most of my experiences on the Sugar have ranged from frustrating to disappointing to deadly. And yet I can’t seem to shake it. This promising segment just over the border in Illinois especially, which is the final stretch of the river before it empties into the Pecatonica (which also begins in Wisco).
What first caught my eye about this trip was beginning in a protected forest preserve named “Colored Sands” that seamlessly merges into a second forest preserve. After that I had no idea what to expect, though from experience, I was a bit suspicious but wrong. This really is a splendid paddling day.
What we liked:
I don’t know about the “colored” allusion but the sand bluffs in the beginning are quite pretty. There are only a handful of them, none necessarily towering (about 25’ high) but cool nonetheless. The river here is about 60’ wide (and will stay that way for most of the trip). There are downed trees along the banks, as is expected for a heavily forested area but not a single one anywhere that obstructed easy passage. The Sugar River Forest Preserve immediately follows Colored Sands (both river-left) and offers quite attractive river-facing campsites. Sandbanks are ubiquitous here, some of them quite big and the sand itself was soft and fine or as my friend sarcastically joked, “that’s some good frack-worthy sand.”
After these two preserves, the river takes on characteristics of flood plain as well as low prairie. While these two setting types typically bore me to tears, I found everything on this trip surprisingly pleasant, mostly because there just isn’t much development anywhere along the river. What also helps distract a paddler from the essential flatness of the landscape or lack of notable geology is the very becoming clarity of the water itself. Shockingly clear with a sandy bottom and not a usual feature for such narrow river beds in this area.
The final highlight of the trip is a handsome trussed bridge right at the mouth of the Sugar and Pecatonica River, about 1.5 miles upstream of the takeout. Now on a “new” river, the Pecatonica is considerably bigger and muddy. As such, you have two takeout options, Chinese or Thai. Just kidding. You can either paddle upstream on the Pecatonica for a hundred or so yards to a public landing or continue down to a private landing just before a bridge. I opted for the latter since paddling upstream for me is comparable to running (I do so only if something is trying to arrest or eat me). The takeout downstream is not without some issues but we’ll get to that below.
What we didn’t like:
The only things worth mentioning in this regard are the accesses. Starting with the put-in, the only nearest alternative still in Wisconsin is off of Nelson Road by Sugar River Park, a solid 7 miles from Colored Sands and quite probably obstructed and mud-ugly (but maybe worth checking out some time). The put-in at Colored Sands requires a 60-yard or so schlep from the parking lot to the canoe launch. A well-marked path leads the way to the right of the bird-banding building. There is a much easier, more accessible put-in option a mile downstream of here of Yale Bridge Road but using it forsakes the best of the sand bluffs.
As for taking out, you can either paddle upstream the Pecatonica to a great public boat launch or continue on 1.5 miles (from where the Sugar ends) to a private campground/coffee house on the river-left. Usually I avoid these places like the plague but it’s the only option (the bridge at North Meridian Road is totally inaccessible, offers nowhere to park and is pocked with “no trespassing” signs everywhere.) The campground here is rather big and because I can be rather daft (or dumb) sometimes, I just sauntered in, left my car, and rode my bike out as though I had every right to do so. A big believer in asking forgiveness before permission, I saw no reason to inquire about whether there is a fee to use their boat launch until or unless I was approached by someone. I never was. But other paddlers might be more prudent.
If we did this trip again:
Because I too “shall not cease from exploration” (to borrow from T.S. Eliot), I’m sure I will venture from that last port in Wisconsin down to Yale Bridge Road to see what else there is to see.
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River VIII: Brodhead to Avon
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Wikipedia: Sugar River