Red Covered Bridge Park to County Road 1150:
After years of waiting for the right levels, we finally got a taste of Big Bureau Creek. Wider than expected, this run was riffly, swift and altogether interesting. It was a bucket list paddle that did not disappoint.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 17, 2016
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
~5.5′ per mile.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Big Bureau Creek: ht/ft: 4.45 | cfs: 640
Big Bureau Creek: ht/ft: 2.57 | cfs: 28.4
These are ideal levels. Based on information from Tom Lindblade and Mark Morrall, 350 cfs would be absolute minimum and 450 cfs is ideal.
Time: Put in at 1:20p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 3h 25m
Miles Paddled: 13
Deer, turtles, geese, fish and heron.
We spend a lot of time watching gauges. And it’s quite possible that no greater time has been spent watching any one gauge more than Big Bureau Creek’s. After seeing videos by Tom Lindblade and Mark Morrall some years ago, Big Bureau quickly became a priority on our Illinois to-do list. And in some ways, it almost became an obsession to visit after years of finicky water levels.
When we’ve had our chances, other things got in the way. And when nothing was in the way, the water levels were less than ideal. It drains quickly – very quickly. So it’s best to drop everything and jump on it when you can. Thankfully our opportunity, after years of waiting and watching, finally came to fruition this year.
We got our water level information from Tom and Morral’s two videos. One where Mr. Lindblade noted that 300 cfs is perfect and the other, from Morral’s DVD, River Trails of Northern Illinois, where they paddled it at 450 cfs. So we’ve been targeting between the two for the right time to strike.
After a heavy week of rain, there were many paddling options throughout Southern Wisconsin but even better, Illinois options opened up. We often say that it can be feast or famine when it comes to levels (and it’s really quite true) but none more is true than paddling in Illinois. There’s a plethora of excellent paddling opportunities but it’s even thirstier down there than it is in our own backyard so it’s best to take advantage when the advantage is given.
With the sudden spike in levels, we decided to head down to paddle it on a Friday, just incase it was too low by Saturday (and because it was literally dropping by the minute). Now in hindsight, we certainly could’ve paddled this on Saturday but it was worth not taking the chance (in fact, it afforded us another excellent run on Saturday – another must-paddle destination in the area… stay tuned).
What we liked:
The drive to Red Covered Bridge Park is a short jaunt from Princeton. You’ll know you’re getting close to the park once you drive through (what else?) the Red Covered Bridge which one has to appreciate on adorability alone. It’s a pretty and well-maintained bridge that acts as a grand-entrance to the actual park itself, which is essentially a small side-of-the-road wayside with decent parking but no facilities.
As soon as we scouted the put-in, it was obvious to the eyeball test that the water was swift. We even had to ask ourselves if it were safe to paddle. But of course, if we kept our wits, were smart and expect that a river (or creek in this case) that was moving at 3000 cfs as recently as the previous morning was probably carrying some debris with it, we’d be fine. Plus, as mentioned, this creek was dropping at such a quick pace that by the time we were done, it was going to be much lower than when we started.
We launched directly under the covered bridge which involves minimal ambling down some rocks but it’s not too difficult. There are a few options just upstream that require small-bank descents if you want to approach the bridge instead of beginning under it.
Once on the water, you’re greeted almost immediately with riffles and this will continue most of the trip, save for one quieter, yet still engaging section. In general, Big Bureau is as riffly, wonderful and exhilirating as billed. There are numerous tall sand and clay banks that really are the hallmark of the creek. Inbetween, it alternates between low-banked agricultural environs and though rare, sometimes woodsy passages. Mini islands and gravel bars pop up occasionally but there are surely more in lower water.
What immediately struck us was how wide this “creek” was. It was much wider – think even wider than the Yahara – than we anticipated. It wasn’t intimate as far as narrow but there are certainly narrow “doorways” and moments between gravel and sandbars where the current just grasps your boat and spits you out into another wider section. It’s more intimate in the sense that there wasn’t much, if any, development and it often feels remote.
The water wasn’t the familiar blue-green color which is common to streams in this area, but that was expected with all the stirred up mud and clay from recent rains. On occasion, there was a familiar hue in pools when the sun hit just right but it was mostly brown today. And though we expected mud, it wasn’t all that noticeable.
And despite all the rain, there was no deadfall or portages or wire (as was once reported) to contend with. Most of that would be due to, again, how wide this creek is. There also wasn’t very much wildlife to speak of. But then again, we were having too much fun and were probably too damn loud – which gave plenty of notice to any bank dwellers.
From the put-in to Highway 80 is an absolutely delightful section. You’ll wind your way through sand, low cut mud banks and impressively high clay bluffs. Riffles and standing waves will greet you sporadically. You may noticed that I skipped a bridge, that being Backbone Road/County Road 1815. That’s because, on this day, it was being replaced so it didn’t exist but it resulted in one of the highlights of this first section – a fun little splashy drop (which also resulted in a wave of water in my boat, the first of a couple this day). No idea when the project will be complete but best to take advantage of the situation while you still can.
Between Highway 80 and Highway 34, the excitement seems to die down a bit with nominal riffles but still pretty scenery of sandbars to navigate in and sporadic canopy. A highlight of this section is the all-wood Captain Swift Bridge which is another but more modern covered bridge and it’s a thing of beauty. Two covered bridges in one paddle? Yes, please!
After 34, the excitement returns and it continues all the way to the take-out. More riffles, more banks, gravel bars, more standing waves and noticeably more agricultural erosion along high corn. The best part is the Class I(II) drop where the Hennepin Canal is siphoned beneath Big Bureau. It’s a fun and splashy (and scenic) drop.
It’s at that point that you could consider taking-out and portaging up to the Hennepin Canal. And while we had considered taking advantage of the Hennepin part of the paddle – being a charming diversion and all – after scouting and confirming, we resigned ourselves to the fact that, historic as it may be, it is indeed a canal and that’s it – a slow stagnant canal. You’re better off continuing down the Big Bureau (we ended up getting our Hennepin fix but in an entirely different way but we’ll get to that shortly).
Continuing on affords you, well, just more of the same instead of flat canal water. It’s a short leg to the take-out at the County Road 1790 bridge, which is a very accommodating place for putting-in/taking-out/fishing or even swimming as Timothy can attest to. And as a reminder just how strong this creek can get in times of high water, there’s a huge log-jam with full trees piled up against the bridge pylons to punctuate this section.
Coming on the tails of recent rains, the word of the day, was indeed “swift” because the other thing about the level we paddled it at was the speed we paddled it. It was nearly a record. At the 350 level, Lindblade/Morrall suggested that 13 miles would take about 5 hours. At these levels, however, we paddled 13 miles in just under 3.5 hours which is pretty impressive. The current was moving and if you blinked, you’d miss 13 miles of excellent Illinois paddling.
After a great paddle, our next item on the agenda was to find camping. We asked some locals about camping at the take-out and they suggested there was lots of options around. They alluded to numbers on the Hennepin which in hindsight made sense but at the time, our lack of familiarity with the area, it didn’t. Our phone suggested that Hennepin State park was 10 miles west, so despite heading East for the following day’s paddle, we shot West to search for camping.
In hindsight, it should have been easy, but then again, nothing in Illinois is easy. See, what we didn’t know until we traveled to Hennepin State Park (where there is indeed a park but it’s not a camping-park) was that camping is allowed along many designated areas beside the Hennepin – basically near the locks – which is what the numbers correspond to. There’s a kiosk at the park, which, after some deciphering, explains the locations of places to camp along the Hennepin. The cost for a night? $8. Not too shabby. (And by the way, this is after taking Svob’s suggestion that there was camping available in Princeton – that information is outdated – the camping at Lake DePue Park doesn’t really exist. Although so locals suggested we go ask the cops if it’s OK to camp there that night. No thanks!)
Not only did we not expect camping along the canal but we couldn’t have found a more ideal location and it was so convenient after such inconvenience of not knowing where to camp. We found an ideal and insanely large camping spot. We inquired to the only other locals drinking at a nearby site about payment. They said some guy would be around to collect the $8. That “guy” or ranger never stopped by, so we still owe the Hennepin $8 (which I’m sure we’ll get some sort of ticket in the mail for because, ya know… Illinois).
For future reference, we also inquired about firewood, to which these folks also had the hook-up to some guy by the name of Clyde. He was willing to unload a truckload of wood for $40. And by truckload, let’s be literal here. It was practically an entire barn of barn wood. Only staying for a night, we said we’d take about $20 worth (feeling kind of bad that he made the trip). Even that was too much wood for us (think cord of wood) so we took only about half. Clyde, being a fair salesmen asked for $15 and was on his way (Clyde’s digits incase you need some firewood on the Hennepin: 779-348-5988)
After the wood delivery, we were starving and too lazy to cook anything so we headed into Wyanet and took Yelp’s suggestion for dinner. Disaster Shack was the choice. A cavernous old hardware store turned-something, then-probably-turned-something-else, and then something-else, etc., turned Burger Joint. And it hit the spot (neither of us took the F5 challenge but damned if I didn’t try to get Timothy to get his picture on the wall – and who couldn’t use another t-shirt?).
After eating this and this, we ambled our way back to camp after a solid day. Camping next to Hennepin was again, not what we were expecting but it was perfect. After downing some Goldilocks (fitting for the day and this paddle) we were off to sleep, serenaded by the distant sounds of train bellows.
A brief history on the Hennepin Canal: Initially known as the Illinois and Mississippi Canal (the I&M) and constructed in 1890, the canal was built to create a shipping shortcut from the Mississippi to the Illinois River to reduce the distance from Rock Island to Chicago by 419 miles, a much cheaper prospect considering how costly railroad was at the time. However, by the time the canal was finished in 1907, the cost of shipping by rail had gotten much cheaper and barge sizes increased, making the canal nearly obsolete. By the 30s, it was used primarily for recreational traffic until that ended in 1951. Today, the 33 locks sit idle and the canal is used for only recreation. For paddling purposes, it’s slow and stagnate and would certainly be entertaining to few.
The Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park brochure I picked up states “If canoeing is your sport, come ready for a workout! The waters are calm so back and arm power are required. The locks are no longer operational and must be portaged. Lock 21 east is particularly tough. For a great 1-2 trip, begin at Rock Falls and continue to the Visitor Center.” While it’s almost certain, we’ll never seek out the Hennepin for one of our trips, it is an interesting and historic opportunity if you like flatwater.
But when we’re in the area again, we’ll absolutely spend a night camping next to this historic canal once again.
What we didn’t like:
The drive through Illinois. It’s a terrible 2.5 hour drive. I’ve only driven this route once before but it’s been etched in my memory – accurately so – as boring as all hell. It was back in 1999 when we drove to see Ani Difranco in Bloomington/Normal Illinois (why we drove that far? No idea, but man I was pretty smitten with her back then) and it’s as flat and boring as I remembered. Of course, add on the tolls, traffic, bad drivers and it’s just a despicable drive. Timothy took the backroad-non-toll scenic route from Madison – much more sensible and recommendable.
If we did this trip again:
Absolutely. We’d love to try this at a different level (though that’s just getting picky) only to see what else is revealed on this beloved creek.
There are many creeks that feed the Illinois that are well-documented and we’re happy to add to the first-hand information on a great stream like this, but we need to thank people like Tom, the Morralls, Bob Tyler and those at (the formerly active) paddleaway.com for highlighting this creek. The itch was finally scratched and it was definitely worth the wait and effort.
The Big Bureau doesn’t earn a 5-star rating on reputation alone or certainly even jaw-dropping scenery. It’s just a helluva lot of fun on a pretty, river-sized creek.
Guide: Paddling Illinois by Mike Svob
Guide: Canoeing Adventures in Northern Illinois by Bob Tyler
Video: Tom Lindblade
Video: Tom Lindblade
Video: Rock Dam via Korey Atterberry
Wikipedia: Big Bureau Creek
Miles Paddled Video: