Saltpeter Cave Crossing to Eddyville Blacktop Road:
A true destination trip in every sense, Lusk Creek is an obscure stream set in a glorious wilderness environment featuring steep-walled canyons, cliffs, caves, boulders as big as school buses, waterfalls, jade green water, and innumerable pay-attention rapids. The two caveats are catching it at a level high enough to float without scraping – but still safe without it flash-flooding – and difficult accesses. But the paddling is oh so worth the wait for ideal conditions and mild inconvenience.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 30, 2018
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class I-II (II-III at high levels)
~20′ per mile for the first 5 miles, then ~7′ for the last 4 miles
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Eddyville: ht/ft: 4.3 | cfs: 225
Eddyville: ht/ft: 2.99 | cfs: 14.9
We recommend this level. For ordinary “lightwater” paddlers, an ideal level would be somewhere in the 300-400 cfs range to avoid scraping. For whitewater paddlers, anything below 300 will be much too low.
Bear in mind that this section of Lusk Creek is enclosed within a wilderness canyon that is prone to flash flooding. Lusk Creek can double or triple in height in hours. Seriously, hours. Conversely, the creek drains about as fast as it crests. Even in just a moderate light rain, we saw it rise from 4’/150 cfs to 8’/1600 cfs overnight on 3/29/2018 and then drop down to 4.5’/300 cfs by the following afternoon on 3/30/2018. Catching it at a sweet spot that’s neither dangerously high nor disappointingly low will be a mix of luck and lust (or “Lusk”). But do be mindful of these dynamic fluctuations. At high levels with pushy current there will be genuinely dangerous obstacles and difficult-to-nonexistent portaging. And accesses off the creek and out of the wilderness forest are very limited, via arduous trails, and far from any main roads.
Saltpeter Cave Crossing via Trail 481 via Stone Bottom Road, north of Eddyville, Illinois*
GPS: 37.53557, -88.54647
Eddyville Blacktop Road bridge
GPS: 37.47259, -88.54769
* This was not precisely our intended put-in, but circumstances (re: washed out/rutted mud roads) prevented starting our trip where we wanted. We don’t truly recommend putting in via Trail 481, as it means parking your car and then hiking your gear 1.5 miles through the forest; but it was our only option.
Time: Put in at 2:50p. Out at 7:50p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 8
Kingfishers, great blue herons, bald eagles galore, deer, beavers and otters.
7.5 miles – mostly hilly, not the best for bicycling (narrow shoulders, fast roads), but doable. Note: the last ¾ mile along Stone Bottom Road is a dirt/mud road with crater-sized potholes and deep ruts. A slightly shorter alternative route can be taken by turning right onto New Home Road just after heading up north on Highway 145. Google Maps incorrectly labels this road “Straight Road.” What’s further confusing is there are two places along Highway 145 one can turn right onto New Home Road – one south, just mentioned, or 2.3 miles north. New Home Road is a crude kind of backwards letter C, beginning and ending at Highway 145. Both ends go to Stone Bottom Road, which is the road you want. From Eddyville Blacktop Road, if you take the southern right turn onto New Home Road there will be less traffic, but the road is a bit more worn and haggard. There is however a great view of Bear Branch along the way, one of the bigger tributaries of Lusk Creek (and theoretically paddleable in its own right on the very rare days it has enough water in it). Taking the northern right turn onto New Home Road is all baby butt-smooth blacktop, but there’s more traffic and faster vehicles.
For starters, let’s get on the same page. Lusk Creek is located on the eastern side of Shawnee National Forest in the southernmost tip of Illinois, an area that looks more like the Ozarks than the corn-soy-alfalfa flats that so predominate the blandscape that is the Prairie State. (We like to think of it as “Illitucky.”) Indeed, all of Illinois’ eight total designated wilderness areas are located in Shawnee alone – in that inverted triangle between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers that is southernmost Illinois. And within the national forest are five entirely separate geological areas – from cypress swamps and bayous to fossil-rich cretaceous hills to staggeringly massive sandstone bluffs.
A tributary of the Ohio River, Lusk Creek is only 30-ish miles long and drains an area of some 10-ish square miles. That said, it’s surrounded by a hundred side creeks, separate branches, tiny forks, rivulets, springs, waterfalls and weeping seeps. When it rains, all that water has nowhere to go but tumble down the hills and slickrock to Lusk Creek. Roughly 2/3 of the creek flows through the national forest, where it is a designated wilderness area. If the Upper Iowa River and Halls Creek got a room for an hour, their lovechild would be Lusk Creek. It is not only the premier whitewater stream in southern Illinois; it has got to be the single most beautiful stream anywhere in the state.
I don’t even remember anymore how I first heard of Shawnee National Forest, considering I didn’t grow up in the Midwest and it’s a million miles away from where I’ve been living since I moved to Wisconsin in 2003. Nonetheless, it’s been on my to-do list for well over a decade now. It’s just that it’s a loooooong drive away – a post-lobotomy-like long drive through allllllll of Illinois at that, together with its thousand douchebag drivers at 100 mph and $20 in roundtrip tolls. From Madison, without traffic, construction, or bad weather [insert high-pitched cynical laugh here], it’s still a good 7-hour drive down there. When the mind entertains all the alternative places in the Midwest one can go camping and paddling that also are seven hours away (if not closer), without tolls or Illinois drivers or the most mind-numbingly monotonous drive through vast flatness, well then, now you might understand why it’s taken a solid ten years for me to get down there.
Still, it’s worth all the grumbling bellyache, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous. Think of the Dells and Devil’s Lake. Now quadruple the scale of things – cliffs, hills, boulders, waterfalls – but take away all the tourists and the kitsch (well, some of the tourists). That’s Shawnee in a nutshell. And I knew that there is a beguiling stream down there called Lusk Creek that whispered everything a paddler’s sweet nothings could ask for – canyons, cliffs, caves, waterfalls, whitewater, and water the color of jade green glass.
I can assert with crystalline certainty that I have never spent as much time or detail studying maps (yes, plural) before paddling a stream than I have for Lusk Creek. Before or after, actually – and I’m a total map nerd. On the one hand, there really isn’t that much info out there on paddling Lusk Creek. What little there is comes either from American Whitewater, Mike Svob’s Paddling Illinois, or random YouTube videos. All of these are pretty sketchy when it comes to accessing the creek (although we’re currently updating the American Whitewater page). Furthermore, as small as Lusk Creek is, AW and Mike Svob cover two separate sections without so much as a skinny mile of overlap, and none of the YouTube bros indicate even imprecisely where they put-in or took-out. And while the paddler customarily has her choice of beginning or ending a trip at her discretion of this bridge or that, here in the Shawnee Hills there is only one bridge that crosses Lusk Creek. For point of reference, Svob’s trip begins at this bridge (Eddyville Blacktop Road), while the AW trip ends 4 miles upstream of the bridge.
In other words, the AW trip begins and ends somewhere in a wilderness forest without the usual drive-to-the-bridge ease of convenience, while Svob’s trip at least begins at a bridge but also ends kinda randomly in the middle of the wilderness forest. Hence poring over the maps.
Wonky disclaimer: the next few paragraphs are going to dive into the weeds of Lusk Creek logistics, which may well bore some readers to sleep. Feel free to skip ahead to the Overview, if the bevy of nuts and bolts below ain’t your cup of tea.
We probably have Mike Svob to thank for putting Lusk Creek in our wheelhouse in the first place. But what’s strange is that he makes no mention of the creek upstream of his trip, even though he does say a few words (none glowing) about what lies downstream. Even stranger is that his trip does not include the veritable canyon section of the creek or the famous 100′-tall waterfall at a place called Indian Kitchen, both upstream of his put-in – for which we have American Whitewater to thank for bringing to our attention. Considering that these are some of the unique features that make Lusk Creek Illinois’ most beautiful stream, one has to wonder “Mike, what’s up with that?” It’s a curious omission to say the least.
So, we knew that we wanted our trip to encompass the canyon and waterfall – nay, needed our trip to encompass these areas. After all, we sure as hell aren’t gonna drive 14 hours and pay 20+ toll dollars roundtrip to miss the most beautiful spots by a half-dozen miles. The question then became, where do we start this trip in order to get the most of the good stuff, and then where do we take-out to get the least of the bad stuff?
American Whitewater covers a 5-mile section of the creek, where the best rapids and steepest gradient are located. But, as mentioned above, both the put-in and take-out for their trip are basically off-the-grid accesses that are a far cry from accessible. Plus 5 miles is a short distance for all that driving. So, it made sense to add 4 miles and continue on to the one-and-only bridge over Lusk Creek where the access is pretty simple – making for a solid 9-mile trip. (It’s worth mentioning that an official canoe launch will be built on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, in the near future, as eagerly boasted by the staff at the visitor center in Harrisburg.)
And while Svob’s trip, beginning at the bridge, sounds and looks plenty pretty, it would A) add 7 miles, making for a fairly long day on an unfamiliar stream still early in spring, to say nothing of an even longer bike shuttle, and B) result in both the put-in AND take-out located at inaccessible, pain-in-the-ass places. I myself wouldn’t even want to do that, but there was no way in hell I could or would even try to talk my girlfriend into such hardships.
Instead, we came up with a kind of à la carte solution, essentially going with the put-ins for both American Whitewater’s and Mike Svob’s trips while declining both of their take-outs, thus coming up with our own unique Miles Paddled trip, which is always fun.
To paddle the whitewater and canyon section of Lusk Creek, there are essentially two options – neither of them very good: Stone Bottom Road (from the west) or New Liberty Church Road/Highway 10 (from the east). On the official Delorme Illinois Atlas/Gazetteer (p. 90) Stone Bottom Road is labeled “FR 1628” and shows the solid-line road peter to an intermittent dash to the water, where there’s an official “hand-carry boat launch site” symbol. Whether that’s 100% accurate we can’t verify, because the “road” was a rough, sloggy hash of liquified mud that was too washed-out and rutted for my Subaru Outback to even consider without getting stuck and stranded. (True, this was in late March, after a rough winter and before the road crews got out to improve things. That said, Lusk Creek is paddleable only after some solid rain, which will render the roads mud-slop regardless.) To avoid a serious pain-in-the-pass “portage” via forest trails just to put in on the creek, you’d need a 4WD truck with tires the size of Tasmania. We had no such option, so instead we parked at the trailhead for 481/Saltpeter Cave/Natural Bridge, off Stone Bottom Road, and then schlepped/hiked 1.5 miles to the water (which kinda sucked and took almost 2 full hours, but was worth it).
Also, it’s worth mentioning that Delorme sometimes gets it wrong. We’ve discovered false boat launches before, where the map shows something that reality lacks. (County Road C up in Bayfield County, Wisconsin, at the Sioux River, p. 22 – we’re looking at you, you liar!)
As for New Liberty Church Road/Highway 10 (which in the atlas/gazetteer goes first by FR 404 then FR 488 and finally 1000 E), we personally can’t verify this, as there was no time to scout, but a seemingly well-knowing soul at the visitor center in Harrisburg was confident that one could drive down to the church/cemetery, park there, and then hike in to the creek. To put this in perspective, the satellite image on Google Maps shows that this is feasible, in theory, but none too promising. There is no official trail here by the church/cemetery, so even though the shortest distance between the two points of the road and water is approximately 0.6 miles, that’s as the crow flies. On the other hand, there is an official trail (492 A) off of the road – north of the church/cemetery – and this can be taken down to trail 457, which eventually leads to the creek, but this is definitely a longer hike than trail 481 mentioned above. Furthermore, getting to this spot in the first place more than doubles the shuttling distance. Therefore, the advantage of putting-in over here is lost on us. (That said, this was our first time in the area and we would be happy to be wrong about all of this if it means a better, more practical way to paddle Lusk Creek.)
For the record, there is an official ford over the creek called “Blanchard Crossing” (GPS: 37° 32’ 44” N / 88° 32’ 18” W) that is mentioned in a few recreational blogs, up to and including comments on the American Whitewater’s page for Lusk Creek, where some paddlers have put-in. But nobody (paddler, hiker, horseback rider) has ever thought to share how they got to Blanchard Crossing in the first place – i.e., via Stone Bottom Road or New Liberty Church Road, or how far they had to hike in, if at all, from whichever road they took to the crossing.
It’s baffling puzzlements like this that keep my addlepated brain awake at nights…
Also for the record, the day before our paddle I waltzed into the visitor center in Harrisburg armed to the teeth with such nitty gritty questions in tandem with maps, books, printouts, and what-alls. The kind but kind of useless folks there ended up learning more about the creek and wilderness area’s surrounding roads from me, who’d never been there before, than I from them. Hence never getting a clear and unequivocal resolution to this mystery. Believe you me: it pains us not to have resolved this unnecessarily ambiguous riddle about put-ins and accesses, but we’ve turned over every stone (bottom road and otherwise), to no final avail.
Finally, there is a third option – at least in theory – heretofore unmentioned: putting-in at the Little Lusk Trail Lodge, a private campground on the banks of Lusk Creek before it enters the national forest. This would be the easiest option of all, by far, but A) it probably would require permission first to do so (which may not be granted, being Illinois and all), and possibly a fee (again, being Illinois); B) it would add 3.5 miles of who-knows-what-kind-of paddling before the good stuff at either of the two put-in options detailed above; and C) it would be really shallow here, as C1) the very origins of the creek are located only a mile or so upstream from the Lodge and C2) there’s a dumb dam creating a small pond at the Lodge, which unnaturally dewaters the already shallow creek.
Anyway, we went with Option 1 – Stone Bottom Road. Or at least tried to. As mentioned above, the dirt/mud road became impassable after a point, even in the high-ground clearance AWD Subaru. (Unlike getting a cow up a flight of stairs but not down, it’s one thing to slip-slide your way down a muddy, rutted road to the water, but quite another matter to drive back up that road afterward. And being stranded in the wilderness does not a fun idea for one’s vacation make. Especially at night, especially in March. So, we parked in a designated area for cars at a trailhead and began carrying our boats through the thick-rooted, rocky, muddy, side creek-fording forest trail #481 to the main stream… somewhere down below. I (Timothy) shouldered one boat, while my ass-kicking, bad-ass girlfriend towed another using my two-wheeled kayak caddy. Yes, the going was slow and arduous – the trail is approximately 1.5 miles long, and it took us 1h 40m to finally get to the bottom of the canyon and find a suitable place to launch a boat onto Lusk Creek. (I say “approximately,” because for reasons that defy comprehension, none of the trails in the Lusk Creek Wilderness area are measured out in miles or kilometers, either on the trail signs or the official map. Why, Illinois, why? It’s like you want people to dislike you…)
Schlep-hiking through the wilderness forest to find the creek was that kind of completely impractical chutzpah you sometimes do in life in hopes that the hardship will be rewarded (which in our case it was). It reminded me of stories I’ve read and videos watched wherein paddlers hike in their gear to catch a rare run of wilderness river – which, of course, was precisely what we were doing; it’s just that usually those stories and videos are set somewhere on the Wild & Scenic waters in states west of the Mississippi River, not Illi-freakin-nois. But this truly was the most guerilla/rogue launch we’ve ever done, and it felt pretty cool. (Let the record show that it did not feel pretty cool on my shoulders and hips the following day, or my girlfriend’s cramping-up hand during the actual paddling, after towing the kayak caddy for close to two hours!) It did make that first beer taste exceptionally good, however.
[Ed. Note: we later learned that two-wheeled carts are not permitted on the wilderness trails, for the record. That’s not entirely surprising, since wheeled carts – even for a canoe or kayak – are prohibited also in places like Sylvania and the Boundary Waters. But what is a little questionable is how essentially traceless a 2 lbs-cart hauling a 40 lbs-kayak is compared to a half-ton horse. Where am I going with this? Horseback riding is extremely popular in Lusk Creek Wilderness. To wit, we were passed by six horse-human combos composed of two groups in just 30 minutes… on not just any old random Friday afternoon in late March, but Good Friday/Passover at that… in a wilderness forest of 6300 acres. We’re all for equestrian trails, but holy hell do they make a muddy mess of things! So, prohibiting a kayak cart is pretty fatuous in comparison – especially when the roads are so impassable as to render a necessity hiking your boats and gear in.]
We’re going to assume that you don’t hike down to the creek, but instead drive there in the appropriate vehicle using whatever road leads most logically to it but does not look like a post-air raided blitz; and so we won’t spend time talking about the hike or trail. It’s a beautiful trail past mesmerizing rock shelves, walls, waterfalls, and mini-canyons.
The scenic splendor begins right off the bat at a horseshoe-shaped left bend around a steep bluff with a gorgeous rock outcrop called Saltpeter Cave. About 40′ tall and 80′ wide, it’s more properly a giant rock shelter/overhang than a cave, but still. There are many naturally shallow fords across the creek, allowing for easy access on or off the water. Downstream of the cave you’ll find yourself surrounded by steep forest hills embedded with humongous boulders in a straightaway. Generally speaking, when this is the case, the current slows down… for a moment. Lusk Creek is a classic riffle-pool-riffle stream – well, rapid-pool-rapid is more accurate. And while it’s called a creek, it’s at least as wide as, if not wider than, most Wisconsin rivers. Nonetheless, since it is prone to flash-flooding and since it is bejeweled with ginormous rock formations, deadfall tends to accumulate, particularly at tight bends. Paddlers need to be vigilant for the first 3 miles of this trip especially, up to and through the canyon/Indian Kitchen section.
But it’s not consistently wide. Often it will constrict and funnel flumes of Class I-II rapids (or III, at higher water levels) through little bottleneck breaks between rocks or downed trees – or rocks with big trees pinned against them. Even with a Midwestern adjustment for scale, it would be a gross exaggeration to overstate the height of the bluffs and ridges; at most, we’re talking about 200′ above the water-line. This isn’t the desert southwest or Pacific Northwest, to be sure. Still though, many of the rock formations that have calved off the “parent” bluffs range from dimensions as big as garages to full houses – no kidding. The sheer size of things in this wilderness is simply breathtaking, especially by Midwestern standards!
And then there is the sheer age of things here. Not unlike the humble nook section of northwestern Illinois in the assigned “Driftless Area,” the Shawnee Hills also were not glaciated. As such, the rocks here are many millions of years old.
A sharp bend to the left follows the mouth of Little Bear Branch on the right, which in turn is followed by an ear-shaped bend to the right around a considerably tall bluff. Here, at the base of the bluff is an exposed rock wall that lines directly into the water. The colors are exquisite, the rocky textures magnificent.
Prior to our trip, we’d read on American Whitewater about a caution-commanding hazard to be on the lookout for in the shape of two huge boulders that would require portaging around. First, I spied a tell-tale horizon line and heard the roar of a small but reputable rapid. As I got closer I saw two pretty big boulders only 15′ away from the base of the rapids, which diverted the water to the left in a crazy 90-degree bend. I assumed this was the cautionary hazard. After getting out to scout the drop, I talked myself into running it…because the teen boy in me is still alive and well, despite turning 40 last year. (My girlfriend sensibly portaged around this, on the left, a difficult and longish portage through scrubby alders, trees, downed logs, and rocks.) I ran the rapid without incident, and it was that twin feeling of adrenaline-spiked terror and high-fived attaboy. Indeed, there’s a brief but wild run of ledges and rapids by these boulders and where Bear Branch comes in (also on the right).
Another ledge or two follow, but things shall begin quieting down. A gentle left turn here, then a gentle one to the right there, and suddenly you realize you’re flanked between two rock walls in what can be mistaken for nothing other than a canyon. The effect is subtle at first, but once it hits you, you’ll fall like a feather. At least at our levels, we’re happy to report that the current was entirely gentle through the canyon, which was unexpected but welcome. We simply stopped paddling and just floated along as gravity allowed, soaking up the marvel. The jade green water, the cream-colored and ruddy sandstone rock walls, the evergreen swabs of lichen and pines – the painter’s palette is an audacious majesty for the whole spirit to take in. And when there’s been recent precipitation – which is to say during or just after the only times you can ever hope to paddle Lusk Creek with enough water in the first place – the tall bluff walls on the left will have mascara streaks of slickrock from rainwater with nowhere else to go but lemming-wise off the cliffs.
The belle of the ball is at Indian Kitchen, an implausibly tight horseshoe-shaped bend where a bridal veil of water cascades from over 100′ above directly into the creek. You can easily paddle behind the curtain of falling water, which is a pretty neat treat. Other than Pictured Rocks in the U.P., we’ve never seen this display of waterfall down a slick-rocked bluff anywhere in the Midwest. Surely, it washed away all thoughts of sore shoulders, hips, and cramped hands.
Just downstream from this, after a gentle left-hand bend followed by a right-hand bend, you’ll be face to face with two truly ginormous boulders – so big, you can clearly see these two monoliths from the satellite map. “Oh, those are the boulders warned in American Whitewater,” I realized… Calling them boulders probably is misleading. They’re more like rock islands. Whatever they’re called, they pose a dilemma that needs to be resolved on the spot in live time. You cannot go left, as it’s all just rock rubble and no dry-land access. And you cannot go between the two boulders, as whole trees get lodged there in a colossal logjam. The only way around is on the right. American Whitewater advised portaging, but for us there was plenty of room to navigate safely without having to portage. But these are tight side channels in swift current surrounded by colossal rocks, none of which should be taken for granted.
A long, gentle straightaway follows but for a brief bend here and there before the next access on the right at a ford off Ragan Road. The remains of old bridge pylons can be seen here. This is where the American Whitewater trip ends. However, two things should be noted: 1) there are plenty of riffles, Class I rapids, and beautiful rock formations downstream from here; and 2) from the creek to the main road, it’s a 2.5-mile-long drive along Ragan, which is another dirt/mud, pockmarked/rutted road, which may be impassable. Besides, from here to the bridge at Eddyville Blacktop Road is only 3.8 paddling miles, all of it easy, open, and quite lovely. And the Ragan Road/Eddyville Blacktop Road intersection is less than a half-mile from the bridge itself, where access is way better. So why not continue on down to the bridge?
Also, for us – and this may be incidental, but it’s worth mentioning – the only wildlife we saw was from Ragan Road to the bridge.
These final 3.8 miles reminded us of the very best the Baraboo and Pecatonica Rivers offer: steep wooded bluffs, sentinel-like rock outcrops, occasional riffles and little ledges, and great wildlife. The only difference is you’re still in a wilderness/national forest setting. Most of the paddling here is along broad straightaways, with only a handful of bends and kinks. Understandably too slow or “dull” for hardcore whitewater paddlers, it will still be outstanding for all other paddlers. It stands to reason that Mike Svob’s trip is comparable to the Ragan Road to Eddyville Blacktop Road section, but that will have to wait for another time to find out…
Finally, the bridge at Eddyville Blacktop Road appears. There’s no access on the right, period. While there should be an official launch on the left bank in the future, at the time of this writing such a launch exists only on draft paper. The current here has some pep, but it’s relatively easy to get to the left bank on the downstream side of the bridge without having to step outside of your boat and get wet. The bank here is steep, but it’s all sand. And there’s plenty of parking just above the bank, making this a choice access.
What we liked:
The geology along Lusk Creek is just gorgeous. Not only is it a cool conceit of wilderness paddling through a national forest, it equally feels good – good bordering on something like spiritual or religious (and not because this was Good Friday). This is what rivers should look like, what rivers used to look like. The jade-green water, the near-continuous rapids, the almost otherworldly boulders, bluffs, caves, cliffs, and canyon – it’s all simply extraordinary.
Go there. Just go. Be ready for it, and wait for it until conditions are right. But go.
What we didn’t like:
Well, of course there’s the fol-de-rol of the mirage-like, mysterious put-in and the 100-mins-long hike along forest trails just to get to the creek itself. That ended up eating a lot of time – and daylight, which while in the month of March is still a hot commodity. Even this far south – further south than Richmond, VA, for the record, capital of the Confederate South after all – daylight is not to be taken for granted.
Mind you, though this took an exceptionally long time, the reasons for that vary:
All in all, we portaged around 4 tricky spots total where paddling without incident seemed too difficult, and the portaging is none too easy in these parts; We took approximately 200 photographs, because it’s so ridonkulously gorgeous!; We cleared out a couple logs pinned against giant boulders that were not only impediments, but potentially lethal obstacles; We changed clothes once and sponged out our boats several times due to the rapids; and we intentionally dawdled a good 30 mins after seeing otters, waiting and hoping to see them pop up their periscopic heads or adorable little nostrils or scamper around the banks – otters being my girlfriend’s favorite animal, her soul-animal, which she’d never before seen in the wild.
In spite of the above disclaimers for how and why an 8-mile-long trip took 5 hours (which still strikes us as mindboggling), towards the end we were champing at the bit to be done, eagerly hopeful to see the bridge. I knew we had a longish and steep bike shuttle ahead of us, most of which would be done in the dark. (And of course our bikes didn’t have lights, because we never thought we’d be getting off the water only at 8pm! Mercifully, the moon was full and the sky unclouded.) And then there was my lurking anxiety about still driving up a short but steep hill section full of deep-rutted mud slop at Stone Bottom Road, once we’d have pedaled back to the car. And then finally was the mental calculation about just how long all of these inevitable logistics would take before we’d arrive safe and sound and dry and warm back to the campsite to then make a fire and make dinner (i.e., 10 pm). It was a long day.
This time-take also disabused us of the notion of exploring Saltpeter Cave. If we’d have had more time, and had we not just started, we’d have poked around and played about here, but alas. Hate to forfeit such a unique feature like that…
We will mention that there were two nasty obstacles to avoid altogether or try and negotiate, right away. The first was where the water bounced off a rock wall and boulder at an odd angle – against which an unrooted tree was pinned, with a large branch stretching across most of the creek’s narrow width. And of course the current was quite strong here. You’d have either to duck under the clotheslining branch or try to paddle around it… but of course all that pushy current took you right at the branch and boulder. In other words, Yikesville! The other was just downstream where a downed tree was in the water, pinned against an even bigger boulder, and stretched to the opposite bank. The current was slower here, and with enough pluck and stubbornness, one could ride over the tree (in higher water this likely wouldn’t even be an issue).
We mention these so as to illustrate the point that such obstacles should be considered inevitable on Lusk Creek.
Even though the wildlife was genuinely great from Ragan Road on, there was nothing – not a peep, squeak, squawk, flitter, flop, scamper, or kerplunk – nothing up until that point. What kind of wilderness is where the wild things aren’t? This was plain strange and pretty underwhelming.
And then, finally, there’s just the matter of fickle water levels. Not unlike my kayak, Lusk is a leaky creek. It literally was dropping in the five hours of our paddling on it. We did a fair share of scraping in the shallows and shoals, which is asinine considering it had five times the amount of water only 12 hours prior to our putting-in. Goldilocks, meet Queen Bee/Type A Valley Girl. Geeze louise!
If we did this trip again:
Oh, we will, for sure! But next time we’d do a few things differently. For starters, we’d wait to do this later in the year. While there is a unique advantage to paddling in early spring or late fall, when the trees are leafless to better take in the surrounding landscape, it would be great to see the wilderness in full unbridled greenery. Or better still, autumn. We’d wait also for Lusk Creek to be a little bit higher – not 1000-cfs-high, but somewhere in the 300-500 cfs range – to avoid scraping and get a bit more splash. And perhaps most important, we’d return only after the Pope County Highway crew improved Stone Bottom Road from its lunar crater impassibility and/or drive to the intended put-in with a 4WD truck to avoid schlepping in our gear via forest trails.
But this is all in an ideal world. In the real world, we’d essentially paddle Lusk Creek whenever it’s running. It’s definitely worth whatever inconveniences it poses.
Camp: Redbud Campground at Bell Smith Springs Recreational Area
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Shawnee Forest
Map: Lusk Creek Wilderness
Wikipedia: Lusk Creek Canyon