Pecatonica River – Mineral Point Branch
Date Paddled: May 5th, 2018
Put-in: Ludden Lake Boat Ramp
Take-out: North Oak Park Road
Distance: 4.8 miles
Time: 3 hours 29 minutes (atypical...expect 2.5 hours)
Gradient: 14' per mile (9.8' if you exclude the dam)
Water Level: Pecatonica River @ Darlington 500 CFS or 5.5'
Located near the city of Mineral Point, the Mineral Point Branch of the Pecatonica is an obscure paddling prospect sandwiched between the Dodge Branch and the main branch. Typically the upper reaches tend to be too shallow to run, but after some recent heavy spring rains, I finally got an opportunity to check it out.
While I suppose I could have started this trip at Hwy 39, it was worth it to add 1.2 miles and launch at the Ludden Lake boat ramp. Ludden Lake is quite striking… Basically it is a small flowage lake nestled in a scenic valley with sandstone outcrops on both shores (reminding me of Lake Redstone). Along the western shore was some really nice lakeshore property with beautiful boardwalk staircases wrapping down the hill and around huge boulders. Many of the homeowners had kayaks and this is likely a popular paddling lake. To the southeast you could look up to see (and hear) cars whiz by overhead on Hwy 151.
At the south end of the lake is a dam which the locals like to use as an oversized water slide. I’m not sure I can endorse using a 20′ high dam as a waterslide let alone running it in a boat, but given the dams immense width, this might not be impractical. I portaged…easy to do on either bank. While Luden Lake is a cool little flowage lake, it is likely burying scenic rapids or even a waterfall given the extreme gradient which is tragic.
The river stays interesting following the dam as it flanks a ridge with several recessed sandstone outcrops. I was worried about logjams from my prior map scouting, but from here to Hwy 39 there were none I had to portage (although I did have a few squeakers). The current stays fast here with many riffles and several decent Class 1 rapids. A highlight was a long sandstone wall abutting the water and covered in lichens and moss. Following this was what appeared to be an old dam that I would speculate had washed out.
The mile following Hwy 39 (a doable bridge access BTW) was not as interesting. A thin strip of trees separate the river from the adjacent farmland. Large oxbows exposed unsightly mud banks and there are a few trees to dodge. It was here that I had my only logjam portage of the trip. On the plus side, I could see scenic exposed bluffs in the distance and one local one that looked like a giant finger.
Soon after came the highlight of the trip in a massive 90′ high outcrop that jutted out of the hill like a freight train. Topped with white pines, this was quite scenic and you can actually see this from satellite view. Unfortunately lighting was very tricky early in the morning and most of my pictures did not turn out.
The next few miles are somewhat repetitive but pleasant. Basically the river meanders south through a large open valley where it occasionally tags the western bank to reveal a striking outcrop. The current stays riffly and surprisingly strong. Exposed mud banks were an eyesore and topsoil erosion must be a big issue for farmers. Pasture tends to replace cropland here and I did see occasional cows and their calves. It would be fascinating to know what this river valley looked like before settlers arrived.
The last two miles have a different character as they appear to be owned by a farmer who seems to be more conscientious about taking care of his land and the river valley. Here low density grazing is applied, rock fill has been used to prevent erosion and little white signs signify that much of the land is private but accessible to the public via an easement. This was very much appreciated! The landscape here was very pretty… Rolling green hills, few trees, and short grass reminded me of Hobbiton. The geology changes as well with a few limestone outcrops which replace the sandstone I saw earlier. The only downside was a super low bridge that acted like a dam and had to be portaged…just a bit too steep to be run.
All in all this was a great trip that I enjoyed because of the scenery and good current. But I can’t give it five stars because of the amount of mud I saw, the occasional snag dodging, only being able to paddle it at select flow rates, and the fence I had to scale at the take-out. …but adventurous paddlers should very much enjoy it. As a PSA when on the river and you encounter private property, always be very courteous. Leave a small footprint, don’t harass the livestock, be careful with fences, and don’t leave garbage. Good paddler and landowner relations are key to improving paddling access options.
My put-in was the Ludden Lake boat ramp which was very nice. It had ok parking, a ramp for launching, and no fees. There are no facilities nearby.
An alternate upstream access for the adventurous could be Mill Creek Road which would add 4 miles to the trip. This leg could have 1-2 logjams and a few outcrops, but is very small.
An alternate downstream access could be the dam off Hwy QQ. I’m not 100% sure this is public, but locals and fishermen use this area all the time. You would have to drag your boat 400′ over a grass trail to reach the water below the dam.
Another alternative downstream access could be Hwy 39. Not ideal and a bit weedy but doable. You miss out on a nice upstream section if you launch here though.
My bridge take-out at N. Oak Park Road wasn’t great. Not only was it uncomfortably close to a farmhouse, but I had to hoist my boat over a cow fence to reach the road. Typically you are permitted to traverse the adjacent land to a DOT road, but I still fretted about doing this so close to a private house. It turns out I was needlessly worried as much of this area, including the land surrounding the bridge, is part of a DNR voluntary access program denoted numerous by little white signs and by this map.
An alternate downstream take-out would be S. Oak Park Road which should be a doable bridge access. These additional 4.3 miles flow through open pasture and should be mostly logjam free and have a few outcrops.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
My bike shuttle wasn’t fun….5.9 miles and very hilly. On top of this 1.5 miles were on a major freeway Hwy 151 (well the shoulder). Typically you are not supposed to bike on freeways, but I did see a freeway sign stating that biking/walking was not allowed NORTH of Ridge Street, which insinuates to me that my southernly pedal was legal. Avoiding Hwy 151 would be somewhat brutal. This alternate route would take 8.4 miles and be EXTREMELY hilly (686′ of ascent and 581′ of descent).
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
The current was pretty fast with plenty of riffles. In high water conditions (like this trip) this means multiple Class 1 rapids, but nothing greater.
The Ludden Lake dam should be portaged and this is easy to do on either bank. You might be able to run the dam (locals use it as a waterslide) but it could be dangerous. Near the end of the trip there was an absurdly low bridge that acts as a de-facto dam and that too must be portaged (easy).
Fences weren’t really an issue…just one noteworthy one and that was very easy to get under.
This leg largely didn’t have much in deadfall, although I don’t suggest doing it in a bigger boat as occasional ducking and dodging is required. I only had to portage a logjam once the entire trip.
River Depth and Navigability:
The Mineral Point Branch is often too shallow to run. Unfortunately the nearest gauge at Darlington is ~25 miles downstream and likely not super accurate. Below is a depth guide based on my best guesstimates:
- 0-250 CFS: Likely too shallow.
- 251-350 CFS: Perhaps doable but could be quite bumpy.
- 351-650 CFS: A good target range. You shouldn’t have to get out for shallows and the current shouldn’t be too feisty. This trip was done at 400-600 CFS (the gauge dropped fast that day).
- 651-800 CFS: The river would be very high…likely a doable depth for experienced paddlers but the current could be a bit obnoxious.
- 801+ CFS: This might be too high to be enjoyably paddled and could be slightly dangerous.
There was a lot of waterfowl and birds in the area that day. I recorded cliff swallows, geese, many songbirds, a snapping turtle, several great blue herons, two sandhill cranes, some clams, an eagle, some ducks, and what I believed was a white dove. The highlight was the many softshell turtles that were sunning themselves on the banks.
For many paddlers who have ventured into southwest Wisconsin, you assuredly have seen the many “Protect the Driftless” signs. ATC is a large power line company that makes money from selling and renting power lines, and they have plans to build a significant line from Dubuque to Middleton which would cut through the heart of the scenic driftless area. This line would consist of massive and unsightly 17-story tall towers, but even worse would be the access road ATC would create directly under the line so their heavy machinery could setup these towers. They did something similar along the I-90 corridor from Madison to Black River Falls for the Badger Coulee Line, and the resulting clear cutting and destruction was atrocious.
You can find out a lot more and learn how you can help at http://driftlessconservancy.org/protect-the-driftless/. This has been a very frustrating issue as politicians and the local media have given it very little attention or oversight. In fact I would argue that ATC has been buying influence in this arena (such as their purchases of sponsorship ads on Wisconsin Public Radio…which has been oddly silent on the issue).
Other Mineral Point Branch Trips:
- Mill Creek Road to Ludden Lake Boat Ramp: 4.0 miles. Very small and will require high water. Fences might be an issue. Mostly open pasture with maybe 1-2 logjams. There are likely several scenic outcrops on this section.
- Ludden Lake Boat Ramp to N. Oak Park Road: 4.8 miles. A nice paddle through open pastures, rolling green hills, occasional outcrops and some light rapids. Reviewed here.
- Ludden Lake Boat Ramp to Ludden Dam: 0.5 miles. Ludden Lake is popular kayaking lake that consists of scenic rocky shores with occasional outcrops.
- Ludden Dam to Hwy 39: 0.7 miles. A fun section with maybe three Class 1 rapids and several sandstone outcrops. I am not 100% sure the land below the dam is public access, but the locals and fishermen use this all the time.
- Hwy 39 to N. Oak Park Road: 3.6 miles. A great stretch through an open valley with fast current, several larger outcrops and only one logjam.
- N. Oak Park Road to S. Oak Park Road: 4.3 miles. Mostly open and clear of logjams. Maybe one jam. Likely a couple of outcrops. A good prospect.
- S. Oak Park Road to Rock Road: 4.7 miles. A good prospect with many outcrops and maybe no logjams.
- Rock Road to Hwy O: 1.6 miles. There could be a few logjams. Maybe one outcrop. Hwy O also marks the confluence with the main branch of the Pecatonica.
Other Paddles – Pecatonica Watershed:
- Pecatonica River – Main Branch
- Pecatonica River – Dodge Branch
- Pecatonica River – Mineral Point Branch
- Pecatonica River – East Branch
- Gordon Creek