Steuben to Plum Creek Road
Another wonderful daytrip down the lower Kickapoo, away from the hoo-ha and hoi polloi of the more popular segments upstream, this trip makes for a full outing of uninterrupted beauty along rolling hills, wooded ridges, very little development, and a lot of outstanding wildlife.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 29, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
~2′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Steuben: ht/ft: 6.5 | cfs: 450
Steuben: ht/ft: 6.40 | cfs: 484
Water levels are almost always reliable. The Kickapoo is prone to flooding, so keep off during high-water events.
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 14
Bald eagles, turkey vultures, hawks, great blue herons, wood ducks, a pileated woodpecker, an owl, a flock of swans and a mink.
9 miles, featuring a whole lot of hills. At the time of this writing, the bridge at Highway 179 was under construction, which meant a detour north and east of 3-ish miles. Mind you, this is the only bridge across the Kickapoo from Steuben to Wauzeka. There is no public access to the river on the left-hand side (re: east bank) until the boat launch in Wauzeka at Highway 60. We come for the intimacy of the natural scenery, the getting-away-from. But sometimes that comes with a price of logistical inconvenience.
I’m a sucker for a good story – always have been. Provide me a compelling narrative, and I’m all in. (It’s why I’m still sore about the Phillies losing the World Series…) Stories are what we tell ourselves, for good and bad. Without them, stuff just happens – without rhyme or reason, purpose or redemption – an unremarkable sequence of quickly forgotten things. With them, however, every detail matters and contributes to the point. It’s what we were wronged by and why we are right; it’s how we came to be us, and not them. It’s why and how we eat what we eat, sing what we sing, speak how we speak, and dance how we dance. It’s the difference between our reality and theirs over there.
I don’t expect this to be of any interest to anyone other than myself and the very relative world I live in. But for me this trip provided a neat and tidy way of wrapping up the paddling season* by returning to the very place where it began earlier in the year: the Plum Creek landing on the Kickapoo River. Six months ago (nearly to the day), the 2022 season was emotionally commemorated by putting in here and paddling down to Wauzeka. It was late April/early spring, with similar weather. The principal difference was the leaves hadn’t yet come out, and there was more daylight. That and there was nothing but a lush red carpet of opportunities rolled out before me. Spring writes poetry while autumn does the accounting. Half a year is a long time, but it’s still funny to me how 60 degrees in April feels like winning the lottery and looking for your flip-flops, while in October it’s suddenly sweater weather and knit caps.
And so I wanted to return where this year started a la T.S. Eliot’s famous phrase:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
* As has been disclaimed elsewhere, one of us has a season, while the other blithely if not blissfully dismisses cold weather and its attendant risks out of stubborn determination to keep alive a tradition that no one remembers how or why or even when it started, which is paddling at least once a month every month in the calendar year. That said, I do have a season for exploration and newness, which if I’m lucky, cracks open sometime in March or at least by April and extends to October or November. But the towel gets thrown after the clocks get set back an hour, the temperature dives, and the orange blaze bows and guns come out. Water does freeze after all. Well, mostly…
The landing in Steuben is concrete-lined, so it’s easy and (mostly) clean. It’s not without mud, but it is Kickapoo Country after all… There’s a lively little riffle above the bridge – essentially, the only one on this trip. Hills are ubiquitous, but generally in the backdrop, not the foreground. Atop the grassy banks that are about 7′ tall are various wetlands all along the way to the Highway 179 bridge and slightly beyond. To the bridge it’s an indirect 2.6 miles, half that as the crow flies. It is quite pretty though, all those undulating hills. It’s not showy by any measure; rather, it’s a subtle drama.
Below the bridge the river will oscillate between floodplain bottoms and steep hillsides spilling directly to the water’s edge. In between are lots and lots of scrubby shrubs along banks about 4′ tall. But for an occasional peek and poke at the apex of some of the bluffs, there are no exposed rock outcrops to speak of. We’re a long way’s downriver from Ontario, Rockton, and La Farge. But that’s alright; we’re also a long way’s away from “Old Town Road” or Chris Stapleton being Bluetoothed from aluminum canoes rented and dented. It’s 11.4 miles until the Plum Creek landing, so sit back and get comfortable; we’re gonna be here a minute.
This is one of those it’s-all-about-the-journey-not-the-destination trips. I suppose a lot of paddling presupposes that notion. Runners and rowers know that, bicyclists and skiers too. River-paddling is one of the very few pursuits that actually ends in a different place than where it began. It’s one of the reasons why we love rivers in the first place. And every river tells a story. (At best, a lake coughs up a terse haiku.) To put it in context, 11.4 miles is a long stretch to be uninterrupted by…well, damn near anything measurable or mentionable. It would be redundancy ad nauseam to narrate how many times the Kickapoo meanders around tall bluffs or scoots down long straightaways; drifts past spooky skeletal trees half-drowned in the water, their literal limbs poking above the river like compound fractures; or sinuous ridges wooded with or without leaves where turkey and deer alike will scamper up when scared. It’s bluff country out here, wild and wooly, a paddler’s paradise for its prize of privacy.
This footprint of the Kickapoo is not quite as endowed with public land along both banks as is the next section down, but A) that’s not a fair comparison since that area is a spectacular sprawl of state-owned properties, and B) there’s still next to no development regardless of deed-claimed possession. But for a house or few – all set way back from the river, and on higher ground, thanks to the flood-prone Kickapoo – this trip still feels a little primeval. Besides, there are several swaths of public land along the river here, more numerous than most rivers in the first place. And a couple of the houses you will see are atop the bluffs so many hundred feet high they’ll nearly appear as a mirage. Must be one hell of a view out the kitchen window washing dishes…
In the last couple miles the hills come into the foreground, with the effect of paddling through a narrow, intimate valley. The river is as wide as ever – approximately 80′ – and still meanders in the most bemusing and indirect manner. But the feel of the landscape is closer and a lot cooler. During the sequence of a tight bend to the right and then left, Plum Creek quietly enters the Kickapoo on river-right. That’s the best head’s-up/landmark to cue your attention for the landing, since there’s no bridge to take out by. But it’s pretty obvious from the water; it would have to be quite night, or the paddler plumb drunk, to miss it. It’s an official access point, but there’s no dedicated landing like at the put-in. But it’s easy, flat, and, again, mostly mudless.
What we liked:
For purely personal reasons, I was kvelling to have “ended” the “season” where it had “begun” half a year earlier. But regardless of timing, we always like to link sections of a river together. That said, if anyone wants to contribute reports for the million miles and half as many logjams in between La Farge and Steuben, have at it – please and thank you!
Seriously though, this is a real nice trip for any novice to the Kickapoo. (Due to this trip’s length, it’s probably not the best first kiss of the Kickapoo for novices. Save that one for the next section downstream, or bet it all on the ostentatious stuff in between Ontario and La Farge.) The river is wide enough so that deadfall poses no problems, but not so wide as to feel lost in the sprawl of a big river’s maw. It’s a great landscape to paddle through with a friend (or two), as you can weave conversation with environmental immersion, catching up and shooting the sh*t while fully in awe of the bounty and beauty of the Driftless Area.
My favorite moment of this trip was toward twilight, when the autumn-low sun dipped behind the tall bluffs with just enough ambient light to cast gorgeously haunting shadows. True, this was two days before Halloween, but still.
What we didn’t like:
Could this be a hair shorter? Sure. But it’s not, so what can you do?
If we did this trip again:
From Madison (but also likely just about anywhere outside of Crawford County, which is to say most places), this is a bit of a drive for a long daytrip. More fun (and fuel efficient) would be making this an overnight trip and combining it with the next stretch down to Wauzeka.
Kickapoo River I: Ontario to Rockton
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Kickapoo River III: Highway 131 to Ontario
Kickapoo River IV: Plum Creek Road to Wauzeka
Camp: Robb Park
Camp: Wyalusing State Park
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River
Miles Paddled Video: