Into The Wild: Canoeing the Sugar River

addling the Sugar is the closest thing around to a ‘wild’ experience.”–Don Miller”]As with “No Child Left Inside,” welcome to a new series of articles in partnership with Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) and The Rock River Times. In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the FREC presents this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Don Miller
Education Director, Severson Dells Nature Center

My understanding is that we have more than 90 miles of floatable waters in Winnebago County. If you were to cross political borders, that number would increase significantly. With that much water, there are numerous great local river trips to canoe or kayak. My favorite, based on the biases I have—solitude, wildlife, landscape, and a few other categories—is the Sugar River. The best stretch of the Sugar makes you travel out Wheeler Road in northern Winnebago County and eventually take a right on Nelson Road. Soon after entering Wisconsin on the east side of the road, you find Sugar River Park (not the Forest Preserve). There is a good “put-in” spot there for your float down to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District’s canoe launch on Yale Bridge Road.

This river trip is not for beginners. You need a little paddling experience to run it—top side up, anyway. The Sugar is notorious for having tree parts just under the water’s surface too hidden to see, but not so deep that a keel on the bottom of the boat doesn’t take a grip and flip you over faster than a hummingbird’s wings beat. That is one of the reasons I enjoy paddling the Sugar—you actually have to paddle and “read” the river.

Another reason to float the Sugar is that the wildlife is tremendous. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ publication The Sugar/Pecatonica River Basin, 45 species of mammals occur there, including species such as river otter and badger. Approximately 260 bird species regularly appear in the Sugar/Pec River area; among the breeding species, 25 are considered rare.

Although altered over the decades, and with some areas still being destroyed, there are vast areas of forest, wetlands and some prairie found along the edge of the Sugar River. At least 30 species of threatened or endangered Illinois plants are found in the Sugar/Pecatonica watershed, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

I have a “canoe” full of experiences to tell about paddling this stretch of the Sugar River. The most memorable would be the sighting of a Blanding’s turtle. Blanding’s turtles are a rare species of reptiles that can be found along the Sugar. The male turtle has a striking canary yellow underside to its neck. I not only spotted one Blanding’s turtle on this trip, I found two. In fact, what was seen was a mating pair enjoying the peace and solitude of their surroundings together (if you get my drift). It is fairly rare to see even a single turtle, let alone a mating pair. Such it is with a little luck and the mysteries of floating the Sugar River.

In my opinion, paddling the Sugar is the closest thing around to a “wild” experience. Much of that has to do with the quietness of the waterway. Very few buildings can be seen from the water’s surface. There are no road noises that can be picked up from river’s edge. The only sign of civilization may be the summer sound of a distant tractor working the land or a jet contrail overhead. Depending on water levels and your own hurry, the trip can take anywhere from two hours to four. I suggest taking the slow route. All the good things in life take time, and this float trip is one of those good things.

Visit to see map for location of canoe launch and parking lot on south side of Colored Sands Forest Preserve on Yale Bridge Road.

Don Miller is education director at Severson Dells Nature Center, 8786 Montague Road, Rockford. For more about Severson Dells, visit

From the June 23-29, 2010 issue