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The Pecatonica River

By Jim Johannsen

“The Pecatonica River is incredible,” says Greg Keilback, a biologist with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District. Greg recently completed a survey of amphibians along the river in Winnebago County. Among his finds were leopard frogs, chorus frogs, spring peepers, toads, and spotted salamanders. The protected lands along the Pecatonica contain the richest wildlife habitats in the region. It’s an incredible resource for wildlife and flora.

The “Pec,” as it’s called sometimes by the locals, began forming several million years ago when the glaciers inched their way across southwest Wisconsin and northern Illinois, leaving their meltwaters to begin carving a region of broad, open ridgetops, deep valleys, and steep, wooded slopes. Another batch of glaciers travelled across the Pecatonica River’s watershed some 200,000 years ago, smoothing over northern Illinois into a region of rolling hills once covered by prairies

Bending here, winding there, the “Crooked River” sometimes almost doubles back on itself, stretching 194 miles across five counties in two states. The river’s headwaters are nestled in the hills of Iowa County in the Southwest Savanna region of Wisconsin. The two branches flow south, meeting just north of the state line before continuing south to Freeport, Illinois. Here, the river cuts east and wanders through the Rock River Hill Country of northern Illinois. The Pecatonica receives the waters of the Sugar River near Shirland, Illinois, before emptying its own waters into the Rock River at Rockton, Illinois.

The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the East Branch Pecatonica River, has its headwaters at Yellowstone Lake State Wildlife Area near Argyle, Wisconsin. Visitors to the park can explore a 4000-acre natural area containing grasslands, oak woods, and savannas. The grassland areas along the upper regions of the river are home to many rare grassland bird species like Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows, Dickcissels, and Upland Sandpipers, whose populations are declining worldwide.

Pecatonica Woods State Natural Area helps preserve the water quality and wildlife along the West Branch Pecatonica River. This preserve is located near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, and is open to the public for hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and hunting. This preserve is also home to the endangered wildflower called fire pink, a plant so rare that it is not known to grow anywhere else in Wisconsin.

The word “Pecatonica” comes from the Native American words “pekaa” and “niba.” The exact translation of “Pecatonica” is unclear, but the three most likely translations are “slow water,” “muddy water,” and “crooked water.” The Pecatonica valley was occupied by the Sauk and Fox Native American peoples at the time of European settlement. Several archeological sites have been discovered near the confluence of the Pecatonica and Rock Rivers. The burial site of a Sauk man was discovered on Pecatonica River bank property several years ago. By the year 1835, all the Sauk and Fox peoples had been moved west of the Mississippi River.

Some people don’t like the Pecatonica River because it’s so muddy. The Pecatonica is sometimes refers to as “the Fertile Valley” because of its rich, black soil. Topsoil from the many farms in the region erodes into the river every year, leaving the river a rich chocolate color. The river is a popular paddling destination for many canoeists and kayakers, but many recreationalists are put off by the muddy conditions. Fisherman sometimes step out of their boats into knee-deep mud.

Public access to the river is plentiful in Winnebago County. Canoe launches can be found at Sumner Park, Pecatonica River Forest Preserve, Trask Bridge Forest Preserve, Two Rivers Forest Preserve, and Macktown Forest Preserve. The trip from Pecatonica River Forest Preserve to Trask Bridge Forest Preserve is a favorite with local paddlers.

The secluded Pecatonica River would be a good river for a beginner paddler to hone his or her skills: the river is generally wide with few obstacles, but there are plenty of sharp bends to challenge a paddler’s turning ability. Paddlers can canoe for hours and never see another person. As a general rule, few gas-powered boats are found on the river. The ones that are present are typically fishing boats with small motors. Jet skis can sometimes be found on the lower part of the river near Two Rivers Forest Preserve.

Boat access is somewhat more limited in Stephenson County where several private and a few public landings are available. The Friends of the Pecatonica River Foundation is working to establish more public access sites along the river.

Like many Midwestern rivers, the Pecatonica suffered many years of abuse and pollution before environmental protection laws were enacted in the 1960s and 70s. A battery factory in Freeport was one of the biggest culprits, degrading water quality and killing off thousands of fish and other wildlife. The river once contained as many as five dams in its history, only two of which remain. Dams inhibit the breeding of aquatic species. We need to improve the river and its tributaries so the migration routes of fish aren’t blocked. Yellow Creek, a stream that empties into the Pecatonica River near Freeport, is classified as a Biologically-Significant Stream and is an important reproductive area for aquatic wildlife. The Yellow Creek Watershed Partnership was founded to ensure that this stream remains a haven for wildlife.

Siltation and agricultural runoff remain the biggest threats to the ecological integrity of the Pecatonica River. Thousands of pounds of topsoil are washed into the river each year from the rich farmlands that lie along the river. Many landowners have begun to leave buffer strips along the river’s edge and along the tributaries to try to minimize the damage done by erosion. Farmers tend to think that they need to get the water off the land as quickly as possible. Many of the streams and creeks that feed the Pecatonica River have been straightened and channelized to speed up the drainage process during times of heavy precipitation. The result is increased erosion.

Floods are not uncommon to the Pecatonica River valley. Landowners are typically restricted from building right along the river’s edge because of the risk of flood. About once every ten years, the Pec abandons its banks and spreads out over the low, flat bottomlands, depositing silt and nutrients in the natural areas and destroying thousands of acres of crops. The many marshes, streams, and ponds near the river help to absorb the excess water during times of flooding.

If the Pecatonica River had a mascot, it would be the Sandhill Crane. These large, water-loving birds stop at the many marshes and ponds that are found near the Pecatonica River as they migrate from the southern United States and Mexico to Wisconsin and Canada every year. With a wingspan of nearly seven feet and a red blotch on their foreheads, these birds are hard to miss if you know where and when to look for them. You have a great change of seeing or hearing them on the Pec. You can find them on almost any part of the river.

The Pecatonica is a popular angling spot for many fishermen. Channel catfish, carp, and northern pike are often caught along the river’s lower watershed. Fifteen year-old Nick Tassoni landed a 14.75-pound walleye in January 2012, breaking a 50-year old record for walleye on this river, only to have his new record broken two months later by Jim Zimmerman when he landed a 15.06-pounder on the same stretch of the river.

Winnebago County contains several thousand acres of protected land along the river’s banks. The Natural land Institute of Rockford, Illinois, acquired 212 acres of land adjacent to Pecatonica River Forest Preserve and the Torstenson Family Youth Conservation Education Center. “We’ve been working to protect this natural area since it was identified as one of the last remnants of the original bottomland forest in the Pecatonica River valley in 1976,” said Jerry Paulson, Executive Director of NLI. The marshes, ox-bow lakes and bottomland forest that comprise the preserve make for some of the best wild bird habitat in the county. Local birdwatchers and naturalists have identified this region as one of the most biologically-diverse areas in the Pecatonica River valley. Over 100 species of birds have been spotted in the Pecatonica Bottoms, including four endangered and threatened species. The tiny, sky-blue cerulean warbler is just 4 inches long and weighs a mere one-third of an ounce, migrates from the boreal forests of South America to the broadleaf forests of North America every year to breed and nest. Cerulean Warblers need large, unbroken tracts of forest to raise their young. The forests along the Pecatonica River are one of the few places in northern Illinois where these tiny birds can be found. In the springtime, the forest floor is blanketed with Virginia bluebells, prairie trilliums, and blue-eyed Marys.

Winnebago County Forest Preserve District’s corridor of forest preserves complements NLI’s Pecatonica preserves to protect the health of the river and enhance habitat for its wildlife. Pecatonica River Forest Preserve is a prime example of the vast hardwood forest that once extended along the Pecatonica and Rock River corridors all the way up to Wisconsin. Crooked River Forest Preserve and Pecatonica Wetlands Forest Preserve both provide critical floodplain protection and habitat management. Pecatonica Wetlands is one of the largest and most successful wetland restoration projects in northern Illinois and supports dozens of waterfowl and wading bird species.