★ ★

Piscasaw Creek III

Denny Road to Squaw Prairie Road:
An almost great trip with pretty scenery, fabulous wildlife, engaging riffles and light rapids, alas, it comes with some serious caveats: it’s usually too shallow to paddle, it’s dangerous and it may be illegal. Other than that though…

Piscasaw Creek

Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 17, 2017

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: 
Riffles

Gradient:
≈ 6′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Walworth: ht/ft: 6.5 | cfs: 5.09

Current Levels:
Walworth: ht/ft: 5.42 | cfs: 2.65

Visual Gauge:
Piscasaw Creek Visual Gauge
There’s an inconspicuous bridge marker at Denny Road located on the downstream side closer to the north bank (i.e., river-right). The water was a few inches below the 18” mark, which is on the high side.

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level – although we can’t in good conscience really recommend this trip. Regardless, the creek was still high after the solid dose of rain received only 36 hours prior to this trip. You can paddle it a little lower, but we don’t recommend anything below 4.95′ on the USGS gauge.

Put-In:
Denny Road
GPS: 42.34673, -88.76447
Take-Out:
Squaw Prairie Road, northeast of Belvidere, Illinois
GPS: 42.29133, -88.81037

Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 9

Wildlife: Lots of wood ducks, more soft-shelled turtles than we’ve ever seen before, red-wing blackbirds, songbirds, sandpipers, several deer, great blue herons, a few bald eagles and one ginormous beaver.

Shuttle Information:
6.2 miles. Simple and easy but pretty boring (and sadly lined with roadside trash).


Background:

This was the trip I’d intended on doing two days earlier, before my roof rack got torn off the car in 35-mph wind gusts. Undeterred and still irrational, I returned to make the most of a sunny day and after a welcome wallop of rain raised river levels.

My plan was to begin at Denny Road, where Barry had ended a week before, and take out at Woodstock Road. This would have made for a 7-mile trip, which is on the short side for an hour+ drive to north-central Illinois. But we had reason to rule out anything below Woodstock Road since there’s an active bald eagle’s nest just downstream from it (for more on that, as well as what makes this trip dangerous, see the “Didn’t Like” section below).

Trouble is, there is nowhere to access the water or park a vehicle at Woodstock. At all four corners of the bridge are barbed wire fences, and there is literally zero room to pull off the road (if you did, you’d be in a ditch). A bizarre amount of traffic (for what’s essentially farm country) prevented me from even stopping at the bridge for more than 30 seconds, which in turn prevented me from spotting any bald eagle nests. So, instead I drove down to the next bridge, which is Squaw Prairie Road, where there’s decent enough access and parking. This added two miles to the trip. (Interestingly, the only stretch constituting a residential area is at the end of the Woodstock-to-Squaw Prairie segment. Also interesting is that there’s a continuous run of Class I rapids here for a hundred yards or so.)

Overview:
In a number of ways, this Piscasaw trip reminded me of our beloved Badfish Creek: both are peppy, narrow, meandering, and meadowy, with nothing terribly dramatic, but still lovely. You’ll be constantly maneuvering around strainers in a not-to-be-taken-for-granted current. It’s a fun paddling challenge, however. You don’t need to be a professional paddler – lord knows we’re not (and who is anyway?) – but you do need to have basic boat control under your belt.

Piscasaw is a classic prairie paddle. On this trip, the banks are generally pretty low, the landscape itself rather modest. But for a surprisingly wooded section with a steep hillside followed by two brief sweeps past an attractive eroded bank, the topography is subdued. This 9-mile trip courses through four distinct landscapes: meadowy marshes, farm fields and pastureland, bottomland forests with one woodsy ridge, and a residential area – more or less in that order. Typically, it’s when you’re in the bottomlands where the current is at its peppiest (if that’s a word), though the current is brisk everywhere on this trip. (The only notable exception to this is a ¼ mile clip upstream of Woodstock Road, where the creek is wide, shallow, and straight.)

The put-in at Denny Road is great. There’s plenty of roadside parking and accessing the river from the road is easy. On the north side of the bridge (i.e., river-right), on the downstream side, is an easy-to-miss visual gauge spraypainted on one of the pylons. This is the most helpful indicator of how high or low the creek is. From here it’s about a mile to the next bridge, at Russellville Road. The creek meanders around a farm, house, and a couple random mounds of… something (dirt? burial mounds?).

A long stretch follows Russellville to the next bridge at Woodstock Road. Naturally speaking, this segment is one of the prettiest and most engaging anywhere on Piscasaw Creek. The only problem – and it’s a big problem – is a godforsaken cattle gate barrier (see below). A wide expanse of pancake-flat pastureland precedes Woodstock Road.

Below Woodstock Road are two additional miles in an attractive environment where the creek was its riffliest. Downed trees will require vigilant maneuvering, but portaging shouldn’t be an issue. About half a mile upstream of the next bridge, the take-out at Squaw Prairie Road, a brief but sudden row of development appears on the left. Anywhere else this would be totally normal, but here, after 8.5 miles of farms, a “neighborhood” seems disjointed. Fortunately, there’s a sweet little run of Class I rapids here, too.

Unlike Denny Road, the access at Squaw Prairie Road (downstream side, river-right) is less accommodating. It’s a muddy, weedy drag from the river to the road.

What we liked:
Access and parking at Denny Road is excellent, plus the visual gauge marker is located here too. On top of it all, it’s a very inviting scene: there’s a small hill to the north, and frisky riffles are found both up- and downstream. Given how narrow, twisty, and strainer-strewn this creek is, I ended up paddling 9 miles in two hours, which is crazy-fast. I wasn’t in a hurry either. And this is taking into account the encounter with the dangerous cattle gate, which stalled me in more ways than one (but more on that in just a bit).

The wildlife on this trip was pretty spectacular too. There were more soft-shelled turtles on this trip than I’d ever seen in my life. Unless you’re a herpetologist, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s ever seen so many soft-shelled turtles in one 2-hour period. Seriously, it was like an infestation – in the best possible way. Just find a glaring hubcap-like object shining in the sun, and two seconds later it would wattle for all dear life and kerplunk into the water. Well over two-dozen in two hours, over and over, slip and splash. It was ridiculous – and cool as hell!

There’s a lot I liked about this trip, but there’s at least one seriously flawed problem with it, possibly two, that unfortunately spoils this section of Piscasaw Creek.

What we didn’t like:
There are three serious problems with this trip:

  1. Low water levels
  2. A brutal, medieval cattle gate barrier
  3. An active bald eagle’s nest that may prevent paddlers from being near it

Caveat #1 is simple enough. To keep it neat and easy, look for 5′ on the USGS gauge. Trouble is, it’s rarely that high. In fact, it’s really only at that level after a serious dose of rain – and then for only a couple days before it gets too low again. Timing is everything.

Caveat #2 is much more complicated. In what is probably the prettiest stretch on this trip, in a secluded tree-canopy area with a tallish ridge on the right where the creek is all meanders and frisky riffles, suddenly there appears the single ugliest, most malicious fence/barrier we’ve ever had the misfortune to happen upon while paddling. I can’t even call it a cattle gate, as one side of the river is a ridge, the other a bottomlands woods, with no discernible pastureland in proximity. The barrier itself is composed of what looks like old metal headboards, 10+ of them pieced together with barbed wire, spanning the entire width of the creek and extending additionally with 5′-tall strands of barbed wire fencing along the banks, making portaging supremely impractical.

A friend of mine phrased it exquisitely: “It looks like something from a zombie apocalypse film, like it should be covered in the rotting but still flailing corpses of the undead who’ve tried to breach it.” Indeed. See photos below.

You have two options: forcibly get out along the steep muddy banks and try to squeeze your way through the barbed wire strands without impaling yourself on rusty metal barbs and inviting lockjaw– hello tetanus shot! Or paddle into it by nimbly threading your way through the damn metal posts in a slot most ajar in really fast, really strong current. I opted for the far left side, the only space just wide enough (but still super-narrow) to squeeze my way through — but not without scraping against barbed wire that is still part of the barricade itself. The tricky thing was lining up just perfectly to hit it spot on. Tricky always in current like this, the more so since the left bank is curvy and shallow, which ends up making the backside of a boat tailfish sideways to the right. On my first attempt I came within 2′ of being pulled parallel to the barricade and getting pinned against it, which would have been… well, I don’t even want to think about. “Unforgiving” would be a nice way of stating it. It was a harrying experience. Goddamn!

Caveat #3 is just a nuanced, unresolved and impractical dilemma involving wildlife and recreation. In the excellent Morrall River Films video on Piscasaw Creek, Mark adds a disclaimer about being told later by a government official that it is illegal to be within 660′ of an actively used bald eagle’s nest between the months of February and August. That snagged my curiosity like a monstrous cattle gate, so I looked into it and found the actual legalese. The part that pertains to paddlers is as follows:

Category F.
Non-motorized recreation and human entry (e.g., hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, birdwatching, kayaking, canoeing).No buffer is necessary around nest sites outside the breeding season. If the activity will be visible or highly audible from the nest, maintain a 330-foot buffer during the breeding season, particularly where eagles are unaccustomed to such activity.

The reference to 660′ made in the video, I believe, is to actual building, construction, mining and forestry. Recreational activities, like paddling, are bound to a perimeter half in size. Of course, the problem here is how are you to know whether the eagles are mating/nesting unless you see one, and how are you to measure the distance between a boat on a body of water to a nest in a tree? Are you supposed to A) get out of your boat and portage a 330′ distance away from the nest, even though that would all but certainly mean trespassing on private property or B) just paddle upstream back to the car miles away? And what is the statute of limitations even if you know that in the past eagles have used a nest to raise chicks? Do eagles just keep popping out eggs til they die? Are there no retirement packages for AARP raptors? Kinship care when grandparent eagles babysit chicks while mom and dad have a night in town together? If you see an eagle in a nest, must you always assume it’s breeding or raising chicks? Where do eagles sleep at night? Can’t they just chill out and vedge on the couch after a tough day at work? Finally, how in the world can you reasonably predict that this might happen before you launch your boat?

Prior to the Morrall video, we’d never heard of this eagle provision. There is no sign anywhere. No one would know this obscure rule unless you worked in fish and game. Mark Morrall had to disclaim it since he sold a video about this trip, after being contacted by whomever. But the point is this is a random tree in the middle of a random field, not a designated park or parcel of wildlife area that might otherwise be reasonably closed for part of the year to not disturb nesting eagles.

The ethical dilemma is it’s one thing to plead ignorance and plausible deniability if on some paddling trip – wherever you are during the months of February through August – you happen to spot an eagle’s nest and see it occupied at the time and can do nothing more than quietly, calmly float past it in the most respectful manner possible. But it’s another to know that there’s definitely a nest you’ll pass during this trip and that there’s nowhere to take out before passing the nest – because Woodstock Road is strictly a non-option.

That’s why after considering the Gates of Hell cattle barrier and also this eagle dilemma, we really cannot recommend this trip.

Finally, when I rode my bike back to the car at the put-in, there was a young man in a pickup truck with his girlfriend in the front seat. Nice kid, outgoing, knew the creek. And then he unzipped a long bag, took out a rifle and practice shot into the water. Fired something like three incredibly deafening rounds. He said he was in the National Guard. I don’t know. It was utterly bizarre, and I’d had enough of Piscasaw for the day without questioning the intentions of a sharp shooter.

If we did this trip again:
Hell no. You probably shouldn’t either. Sorry.

***************
Related Information:
Piscasaw River I: Maxon Road to Streit Road
Piscasaw Creek II: Streit Road to Denny Road
Video: Tom Lindblade
Video: Morrall River Films
Wikipedia: Piscasaw Creek

Photo Gallery:

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