East 18th Road to Highway 71:
A trip as breathtaking for its continuous rapids as for its stunning scenery, Covel Creek is simply, paddling bliss. Even if it’s out of the way (from Madison) and offers less than ideal access at the bridges, this is one of our favorite trips of all time. The only caveat is catching it with enough water to paddle.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 18, 2016
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
19′ per mile.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Leonore (Vermillion River): ht/ft: 6.02 | cfs: 1090
Gauge Note: There is no gauge for Covel Creek. The best proxy is the Vermillion River in Leonore. Bear in mind that the Vermillion is bigger and drains a much larger area. Referring to the gauge will give you a reasonable idea at least of current levels, high or low. The best thing to do is visually gauge the river at the put-in, especially the two little ledges immediately upstream. If the water is low there, meaning you can see lots of rocks, it will be even lower downstream – in which case don’t even bother (incidentally, American Whitewater recommends doing Covel Creek when the Vermillion is at or above 8000 cfs. That may be true for dedicated whitewater paddlers, but for “lightwater” paddlers who want some rapids without fear of incident and who still want to revel in the awesome scenery, we’d say shoot for 1500-4000 cfs).
Leonore (Vermillion River): ht/ft: 4.35 | cfs: 398
This is the recommended minimum level.
Time: Put in at 11:40a. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 4h 35m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Great blue herons, bald eagles, deer, fish, turtles, owls and songbirds.
5.1 miles. Hilly, with light traffic and partial gravel roads.
It must have been videographer Tom Lindblade, or author Bob Tyler, who put this stream on our radar in the first place. But wherever it came from, Covel has been on our to-do list for years now. And good lord, are we glad we finally got there! Covel Creek is a classic example of an incredible diamond hidden in the rough. Whether at the put-in or take-out, you’d never know that continuous Class I-II rapids dance between rock walls and canyons for mile after mile. Minus a couple road bridges and a golf course, the environment is totally wild and shockingly exotic for north-central Illinois. And yet it is one of the most gorgeous and thrillingly engaging environments we’ve ever had the good fortune to paddle in.
Starting a hundred yards or so downstream from the put-in, the creek begins to shake a leg and then does not quit until about half a mile upstream from the take-out. Meaning, this stretch of Covel Creek is pretty much continuous riffles and rapids for six glorious miles. And it’s one rock wall after another, exposed sandstone, cool fissured slate and Gaudi-esque dolomite – all ranging from 50′ to 150′ high. Weeping seeps and elusive springs feed the creek as much as the paddler’s imagination. There’s a stretch or two on the left where alluring woods with deep rolling hills go on and on, beguiling the paddler to get out of the boat and go wander around. Add an impressive smattering of cool wildlife – eagles, owls, deer running along ridges – and you get just about everything you’d want from creek paddling.
Following a bizarre repository of industrial plumbing fixtures on the right bank below the put-in, riffles begin after an eroded sandbank about 30’ on the left. Soon after that, the first of a gazillion rock formations appears on the left, here fissured slits of slate that resemble petrified wood. Tiny islands and small boulders constrict the streambed, which in turn kicks up the rapids. Another tall sandbank will line the left side of the creek again, this one about 50′ high with slate rock accentuations. The boulders will increase in size as does the creek’s gradient, resulting in some really fun rapids (and in our case, a notable mishap). A giant rock resembling a diamond or inverted pyramid is followed by a small intermittent stream, both on the right. Because the banks are at least 10′ high – taller yet with grass or trees – you’ll see only one or two houses on this trip, at least in summertime. You’re never far from fields and backyards, but you almost never see them either.
A more rambunctious rapid tumbles next to an attractive rock wall on the right. We scouted this just to be on the safe side. More rock rubble is strewn near an abandoned bridge foundation. Light rapids and awesome rock walls continue. Approaching the railroad bridge a glorious and stupendously tall rock wall lines the left bank, beige and gray, craggy and fissured. More riffles whisk you past a low-lying meadow and then beneath the Highway 23 bridge. Just after the bridge lies an easy 1′ ledge on the right. Just before the bridge at N. 2501st Road*, another gloriously tall rock wall lines the left bank, one of umpteen palisades in this 6-mile trip.
Just downstream you’ll see the pedestrian/golf cart bridge. You’ll want to pay attention here, as there’s rock rubble everywhere. There used to be a dam, too. In higher water this might be a raucous spot of rapids; when we did it, it was fun but nothing to even bother scouting. At the risk of sounding repetitive, more awesome rock walls continue, now on the right. As do light rapids. Covel Creek really is this glorious and engaging!
We had to portage around one tree just around a left bend from the golf course rapids. You can actually see this tree on the satellite map, so it’s probably been there awhile. It’s an easy portage via the left bank. And as soon as you’re back on the water, the light rapids and rock walls are there to greet you.
OK, OK. We’ll wrap this up so as not to sound redundant or vain. But seriously, the landscape continues to be wild and the current rambunctious as all get-out. This is true all the way until half a mile (at best) upstream of the take-out (although some of the coolest rock formations do continue until the very end, but not the high cliffs). What distinguishes the second half of this trip, after the golf course, is a deep and totally undeveloped woods on both sides of the river. The left side in particular is wildly beguiling. Timothy got out at the mouth of a creek and hiked up it for about ten minutes, in hopes of finding some waterfalls (which we’d seen from the road during the shuttle), but he never did (and we already were taking a ridiculously long time for such short mileage). The ad hoc hike was a cool little leg-stretch, however.
All right, the last mile: dolomite rock formations resembling ancient retaining walls line the creek where rapids rush past. At no point do you ever really relax or take anything for granted. Even towards the end you have to have your paddle-game on and pay attention. But what is more thrilling than negotiating fun rapids surrounded by august geology? But, yes, sigh, the current will finally slow down. Yet suddenly sandstone rock outcrops make a welcome cameo appearance. The most prominent of these is on the far-right, where a modest natural bridge/rock tunnel is found. It’s exceptionally pretty and as perfect a cherry on top of the Covel Creek sundae as can be imagined.
More modest rock outcrops on both banks line the now very wide creek all the way to the take-out at the Highway 71 bridge (which are virtually hidden from the highway – it’s as if Covel is purposely hiding its cards). While doing some research, we came to learn that there once was a magnificent stone arch bridge that spanned this stretch but it was (unfortunately) removed decades ago after years of decay.We got out directly underneath the bridge itself, on river-right. From there it’s typical highway access, with a short schlep up a well-trod path through brush back to the road and shoulder above.
What we liked:
Covel Creek is exactly the kind of creek that keeps us searching for that next great gem. It has a bit of everything but even more than we anticipated with scenery that outdid itself. Plus, the riffles and rapids were just pure fun.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in is a bit of a shit show. To be fair, when we were scouting it, a truck driving down the road slowed down and stopped to chat with us. Real nice guy, a paddler himself who knew the creek well, who it turned out was also the landowner whose property abuts the creek on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left. He gave us permission to put-in there. Very cool – especially in finicky Illinois, where paddling is sometimes considered trespassing (yes, even if you’re on the water!).
The only problem with that approach is the plethora of poison parsnip. Seriously, it was everywhere. Instead, we opted for the upstream side of the bridge on river-left, which probably was another landowner’s property. Here, there’s a feint path leading to the water. There’s parsnip there, too, and who knows what else as well. Just be careful and tread lightly. The access at the water is muddy and a little ugly, but totally worth the inconvenience.
(We also considered putting-in at the first bridge upstream of 18th just to add a little more to our trip and also to take advantage of two very alluring ledges 30 yards upstream of our put-in bridge, but there were No Trespassing signs everywhere, so we decided not to chance it. Ill annoyance, indeed!)
The main thing we didn’t like? Well, we suffered yet another electronic device casualty on this trip. No, not another camera, not in the conventional sense at least, but a smart phone because of a dumb misread of the current. So here’s what happened (as witnessed by Timothy, who was behind Barry). A sudden ledge funneled a considerable force of water straight into a very large, very immobile boulder. Imagine a driveway apron, where the right side is flat while the left side is steep. That’s what the ledge looked like. In higher water, the right side would’ve been a perfectly viable option to avoid the boulder and there’d have been no incident or anything to think about. But in the low water that we experienced, the right side was too shallow to paddle. That left a choice between running the funnel without running into the rock, or portaging the shallows.
Bear in mind, this was a split-second decision – Barry ran the funnel… and ran right into the rock. Bear in mind too that our crossover kayaks are 10’ long. While shorter and nimbler than conventional recreation kayaks, 10’ and 200 lbs (boat + body) is a lot to turn on a dime in a pushy current.
The upshot was Barry went sideways, took on water in mere seconds and took a bath. As did some of his belongings – the most notable of which was his phone. So we spent a good 20 minutes bent over with our hands scouring the streambed for a phone under rocks, in shallows, behind plants – anywhere a thin piece of shiny silver plastic could’ve been lodged – all to no avail. A huge loss, financially, circumstantially, pragmatically; contact numbers, photos, music, etc. So we began bailing out his boat, which at this point weighed several hundred pounds with all the water inside the cockpit.
To make a short story long, while tipping the boat this way and that to shake out the excess water from every nook and cranny, low and behold the hidden phone slid out from underneath the foot brace/bulkhead. To be sure, it was a ruined device (amazingly, it still held power after being submerged for quite some time, but it was hot as hell until it finally gave up the ghost). Luckily for him, the AppleCare he bought to cover his penchant for cracked screens, covered the replacement.
Lesson learned: electronics and water do not a good combination make (but we knew that already – Timothy has destroyed two flip phones as well as two cameras while accidentally combining gadgets with H2O). The better lesson, realistically, was in reading the river (well, that and putting your damn stuff inside a dry bag or buying a frickin’ phone case – you do kayak, right?!). We should’ve portaged/walked the boats over the shallows and avoided the rock outright.
But that’s what’s counterintuitive sometimes when paddling rapids in low-water conditions: on one hand, it’s essentially safer than when the water is high because it’s easier to control your boat; but on the other, it’s hard to avoid getting caught in shallows when water from behind you continues to rush forward and knock you over or trap you sideways. The point is never to underestimate the awesome power of moving water, whether a stream is high or low. Each condition has its own hazards.
It’s worth noting that it took us 4.5 hours to paddle 6.5 miles. And that’s 6.5 miles of rapids, no less! True, we ate a good 30-45 mins with the capsize debacle. And we lost time when Timothy searched for elusive waterfalls in the woods. Additionally, we did scout a few of the drops to avoid another accident. And there was at least one portage around a fallen tree. But still. Not that we were in a rush (clearly!), but 4.5 hours in 6.5 miles is almost intentionally slow. Yet, if ever there was a stream to take your time on for the sheer magnificence of its natural beauty, it’s Covel Creek. What gave us a humbling chuckle was that it actually took us an hour longer to paddle this 6.5-mile trip than the 13 miles on Big Bureau Creek the day before! That’s an hour longer for a trip that is half the mileage! It’s relative, though.
(* We’ve commented on this before, on a previous trip in Illinois, so kindly forgive the redundant rant. But “2501st Road”? Really? That’s the best name someone could come up with? Not to be confused with 2500th or 2502nd? In the Illinois heartland, of all places. We understand the function of numerical streets in a city – the Bronx in New York goes as high as the 240s. But A) that’s New York frickin City, and B) the 200s is nothing as ludicrous as the 2000s, let alone when that two-thousand five hundred and first road is in the middle of corn and soybean fields! We’re not expecting romantic monikers the likes of “Tchoupitoulas” in New Orleans or La Cienega in Los Angeles. But a numerical road name in the middle of nowhere is not just a preposterous disconnection from wherever ground zero is a million miles away, but it’s a squandered opportunity too. You could name a road “Broolopadoo” or “Skwayforth” or anything. Or name it after whatever German or Norwegian first settled the land, Schmidt or Olsen. But 2501st Road? Come on! Pretty much anything would be better than that!)
If we did this trip again:
We’d do this trip again in a heartbeat – a fluttering, puppy love heartbeat at that – only difference is next time we’ll wait until the creek is higher. While certainly runnable, we did scrape here and there, and even had to walk a couple short but too-shallow sections. And then of course, there was the phone vs. rock debacle that we’ll prepare for next time…
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Canoeing Adventures in Northern Illinois by Bob Tyler
Video: Tom Lindblade
Miles Paddled Video: