The forecast is worrisome. In the days leading up to a Saturday kayaxpedition on the Mecan River, it climbs from 40% to 60% chance of thunderstorms. On the eve of the daytrip, the radar animations show approaching cartoon doom.
But a 60% chance of thunderstorms leaves a 40% chance of not thunderstorms, of missed opportunity. A 40% chance of arriving at the end of the year, recognizing that it did not include enough days in a kayak, and reflecting that one bypassed day on the Mecan River might have remedied the shortfall.
So we go. Six people, six kayaks, three cars. Consulting the "Mecan River 1" pages of Mike Svob's indispensable Paddling Southern Wisconsin guidebook, we drive north along I-39 and US 51, then detour via backroads in northern Marquette County to scout water levels under the low-clearance bridge at 14th Avenue. They're fine - no need to portage around it today.
Continuing to our put-in at the County JJ bridge near Dakota in southern Waushara County - about 90 minutes north of Madison - we unload the boats and gear. Some of us stay to arrange equipment while the rest shuttle cars down to the take-out at Highway 22.
The shuttle car returns. Within minutes, we launch into a good pushy current. The sun blazes in an arid blue sky, as if in perverse response to my apprehensions regarding the forecast.
Today, the Mecan's spring-fed water is cool, clear, shallow. On a hot afternoon, these qualities are ideal for doffing, dipping and re-donning a broad-brimmed hat. Or plunging your arms elbow-deep into the current, then raising them to the sky and letting the water drip down to your torso.
My kayak gets hung up on the sandy bed several times through these first twists and turns, reintroducing me to a stream I've neglected for several years. Soon discerning the patterns of its deeper channels, I begin to recognize its personality.
Crossing from Waushara south into Marquette County, this section of the Mecan is narrow and winding. As soon as you negotiate one bend in the river, the next presents itself for diplomacy.
These bends in the river add to the Mecan's innate sense of isolation. Winding through a woodland landscape that sometimes yields to small prairie remnants and the occasional small farm, it is flanked by deep stands of mature trees or defined by tall grasses.
The abundant foliage buffers each bend with natural ramparts against civilization. Traffic on nearby roads is neither audible nor visible. Even among a paddling party of six, dropping back two or three turns mutes voices to an extent that leaves me feeling alone.
At least twice, my sense of isolation grows so strong that I catch myself checking to make sure my whistle is still attached to my PFD, in case I need to signal for help.
The Mecan's remote nature is accentuated by the number of trees that have fallen across the river. Some appear toppled by strong gusts of wind. Others look like their fatigued roots have let go, resigned after decades of clinging to the soil in unrequited love.
One of these trees requires us to portage around or over it. Other trunks and limbs spanning the river have seen modest grooming. Clean chainsaw cuts suggest the thoughtful discretion of stewards, trying to avoid leaving evidence of their intrusions to facilitate canoe and kayak navigation.
These downed trees, and the river's turns, make the Mecan a fine river for honing boat-control skills. Occasional surface riffles and vees also signal the need for attentiveness.
We encounter only three other paddling groups during our four-hour, seven-mile Mecan River trip. At least one bunch appears to be equipped by Mecan River Outfitters & Lodge (920-295-3439), which also provides shuttle service if you bring your own boats.
Their total number comes to about one paddler for each of the bridges punctuating this segment of Mecan wilderness: first a small wooden bridge, then the low-clearance 14th Avenue span we'd scouted on the way to our put-in, a small farm bridge, spans at Dixie Drive and Dover Avenue, four more small farm bridges, another at County F, one at 15th Avenue and the Highway 22 bridge, where we take out.
There are also a couple of woebegone houses along the way. A couple farm silos visible above the tall grasses. A couple faint rumbles of distant thunder.
But the storm's lightning passes too far off to threaten us. Instead, a few high clouds deliver a brief, gentle shower as if to wash away apprehension, remind me that a 60% chance of thunderstorms leaves a 40% chance of regretting a missed opportunity - and that, absent thunder, kayaking in the rain on a hot summer day is mighty enjoyable.
Then the rain relents, and the clouds part for the sun.