County Road ES to Bowers Road:
A truly charming stream that meanders through wetlands and past tree-topped hilly moraines, with outstanding wildlife sightings, only minor obstructions, and a palpable feeling of escaping the everyday world – up to and including (or in spite of) paddling through a wild, wooded median in between an interstate highway.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 15, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles + Minor ledges
≈ 2-3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Elkhorn (Jackson Creek): ht/ft: 8.8 | cfs: 22
Gauge note: This is a correlative gauge from a nearby but not necessarily comparable stream. As such, take this reading with a grain of salt.
Elkhorn (Jackson Creek): ht/ft: 8.31 | cfs: -999999
We recommend this level. Given the wetlands complex of Sugar Creek, we have reasonable confidence saying that water levels should usually be pretty adequate for paddling. Even though it’s surrounded by hilly terrain, the current itself isn’t terribly peppy, so it should hold its water. The best thing to do is visually scout any of the bridges to determine its depth.
Time: Put in at 3:20p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 2h 10m
Miles Paddled: 7
Wood ducks galore, softshell and snapping turtles, deer, sandhill cranes, turkey vultures, hawks, kingfishers and one humongous beaver.
A super simple 5 miles with only one steep hill. Or, if you’re not paying attention because it’s been a seriously stressful day, as it had been for me, then you can make this a 9-mile shuttle involving two steep hills by going south in order to go northwest. Not recommended unless you’re a glutton for punishment.
First of all, if you’ve never heard of Sugar Creek, you’re hardly alone. It’s in southeastern Wisconsin and curiously flows west-east before teaming up with its saccharine sibling Honey Creek to feed a spoonful to the Fox River in Burlington. Sugar Creek had been on our to-do list for a few years now, mainly for two reasons: a unique one-mile segment of it flows through the no-man’s land median of I-43 and given the hilly terrain of this part of the state – you’re literally in the shadow of Alpine Valley – it seemed reasonable to deduce that at least the landscape would be pretty and maybe the current would be peppy, too. Plus we paddled a pleasant portion of Honey Creek last year and wanted to see if Sugar Creek offered a little more sweetness.
My original intention was not to paddle Sugar Creek, but rather complete our paddling reconnaissance of Piscasaw Creek undertaken by Barry earlier in the week. But pretty much the worst imaginable accident while driving with a boat on your car happened to me while driving due south to Illinois in the face of 35-mph wind gusts: the front end of my roof rack got torn off and my boat, snug in a J-hook, flew off with it. It happened instantly, with no forewarning whatsoever. Mercifully, this was on a quiet country road and there was no one behind me or passing me in the opposite lane when this occurred. Interestingly, the rear end of the rack was fine, except that the J-hook attached to it snapped right off the crossbar like a twig. Incredibly, the kayak itself sustained naught but a scuff; seriously, there’s no visual damage at all.
After a little roadside manhandling and stubborn determination, I was able to bend enough metal to set the front end in place again – thanks especially to the random kindness of a stranger who pulled over to offer help (and a pair of needle nose pliers). It wasn’t pretty – it was gangly as hell, actually – but it was adequate. I laid the kayak down on the other side of the roof rack, where I have a set of saddles (not another pair of J-hooks) and strapped it down for all dear life. For good measure, I chain-locked the two crossbars together just in case the front one got a bit uppity. Pretty redneck, but it worked.
Two last points. 1) Did I tie down the bow and stern of the kayak like a smart paddler before all this happened, knowing especially that it was a windy-as-hell day? No, I hadn’t – and that likely would’ve prevented this debacle in the first place. Note to self: take a whole 5 extra minutes and do this every damned time, moron! 2) When it’s gusting 35 mph winds out of the southwest, then choose a stream that doesn’t also flow southwestward. I’m not exaggerating when I tell that a minute after turning due south onto the country highway where the roof snafu happened, I started to wonder whether paddling the Piscasaw in this wind was such a bright idea. I’d be dead against the wind in a mostly open prairie landscape the whole time. But I’d already driven that far south (I countered in my head) and had committed to it mentally. Sure, I had a couple other prospects as backup plans, but I’d already driven past them by this point. And then whoosh! There went the roof rack, just as all this was going through my head.
So it was that I opted for Sugar Creek instead, since it flows west-to-east, and would be mostly shielded from the wind. More sensible folks probably would’ve just gone home, cutting their losses, thankful even to be able to put a rack back on the roof and transport their boat at all. But I’m not nicknamed “the Fanatic” for nothing, and no one’s ever accused me of being sensible (Editor’s Note: This is the first time I’ve heard Timothy referred to as “the Fanatic”).
One last note: I took a few documentary photos of the roof rack carnage after it happened because it was quite the spectacle. However, I forgot to put my camera back in the bag I take with me while paddling. And after feeling pretty fried and frazzled, getting a late start on a total gamble of a trip, having a bunch of dumb crap going on in my brain about life, and doing the bike shuttle first, I hadn’t noticed that I’d inadvertently left the camera in the car at the take-out. I hadn’t even realized it until I pedaled to my kayak at the put-in and there was no way I was going to ride my bike back to the car in that wind. So all of the on-the-water photos were taken on my piece of crap flip phone camera so I apologize for their grainy ugliness.
There’s no established access at County Road ES, but the banks are dry and flat, so easing in is, well, easy. Plus roadside parking is quite adequate here. In the first mile, the creek will meander left and right in enough tight bends to make the Kickapoo River feel like a ruler. It’s rather astonishing how twisted it is. Equally astonishing were the baby whitecaps on this very narrow creek – about 25’ wide at its max – that formed when I paddled into the wind. This only occurred in the first mile or so; after that the stream is less torturously twisted and flows generally eastward. A few relaxing straightaways are found as you approach the first bridge, at Hodunk Road.
In that first mile or so the environment is a beguiling bog of soggy wetlands. The foreground is supremely flat, but there are raised moraines framing the backdrop. Further into the trip the banks will rise, as the creek flows closer to the rolling hills. I won’t exaggerate the topography, but the creek has cut through a valley with raised moraines on the north and south (re: left and right). The whole effect is an extremely pleasant mix of skunk cabbage-clumped fens and swaths of hillside oaks.
Generally speaking, the current was gentle. Riffles appeared below a total of three beaver dams as well as the culvert/tunnel bridges at Hodunk Road and the interstate. In very high water Class I’s might form here but in normal conditions it’s pretty tame.
You could definitely take out at Hodunk Road, where there’s a county park called Price Park Conservancy. Again, there’s no designated access, but it’s pretty basic, clean and easy. This would make for a 4.5-mile trip. From there to this trip’s take-out at Bowers Road is another 2.5 miles. The creek meanders more and there are more obstacles to dodge around, duck under, or ride over. That’s what makes me conclude that those locals who have paddled the creek take out at Hodunk. However, it’s the stretch from Hodunk to Bowers where the creek flows plumb between the north- and southbound lanes of I-43 in a wild, totally undeveloped median. Calling this contradictory juxtaposition of civil engineering and the natural environment a “phenomenon” might be a stretch, but it is certainly a uniquely interesting experience. On the one hand, you could not literally be more surrounded by civilization – you’re in the middle of an interstate highway! But on the other hand, the landscape here is completely abandoned precisely because of the two bridges of the highway, resulting in a kind of wilderness oasis in between them.
After the second interstate bridge the landscape will open up on the left, while the right side is still woodsy and thick. The closer you get to Bowers Road the creek will widen out a bit and the foreground totally flatten in a cattail marsh environment. The take-out at Bowers Road is less easy than the put-in at County Road ES. It’s doable, but a bit arduous.
What we liked:
By and by, there’s hardly any development along this 7-mile stretch but for a house and farm, a deer stand or a ladder leading to nowhere. You really do feel like you’re in a special place.
I had to portage only once this whole trip, which was a delightful surprise on the order of shocking. There’s really no information or intel about Sugar Creek in any book or blog. Even the inveterate Great White Kark paddled only the last couple miles of Sugar Creek, a stretch I knew ahead of time but of which I had no interest in recapitulating. This was not some stroke of good fortune (says he who’s roof rack flew off the car only a couple hours earlier!), but clearly the work of bygone paddlers who’d done commendable work clearing out strainers and stragglers. This probably is the best kind of stream maintenance, when it’s by locals for locals (or fools like us who drive 90 minutes to take a chance on something obscure). It’s one thing to clean up and clear out a popular river – we always appreciate that. But to come upon an all but unknown stream, expecting the worse only to discover that others have been giving it some TLC all the while, we just love that.
We first had a taste of this novelty way back in 2013 when we explored the upper Maunesha River where a short stretch flows between Highway 151 (where there happens also to be a heron rookery). For the sake of reference, let me shed some light here. The widest gap between the two bridges on I-43 is only 1,000′ and the overall creek distance between them is about a mile. Still though, that’s a mile of paddling in a completely intact natural environment. Minus the din of highway noise, you feel like you’re a king of an unknown region where you can do anything hidden in plain sight and no one would be the wiser. How often do you get to feel like that?
Overall, the wildlife on this trip was outstanding. Specifically, I’ve never seen so many wood ducks on a single trip. They were everywhere. It was pretty awesome.
What we didn’t like:
Really, the only thing not so great about this trip is the take-out at Bowers Road. The only realistic and legal place to do so is on the upstream side on river-left as there are “No Trespassing” signs on the downstream side of the bridge. The bank is a little steep, overgrown with weeds and thorns, and it’s all strewn with crumbling rock rubble. It’s totally doable, just not ideal. However, parking is adequate for a couple cars by the bridge.
Spoiler alert: you absolutely should not continue further downstream, past Bowers Road, to the next bridge at Highway 120, even though the access there is better and the creek flows through the Alpine Valley Resort, which makes for an interesting novelty. Trust me on this – but we’ll save that for a future report. Somewhat similar, the options for putting in above County Road ES are few and far between and do nothing to improve this trip. For better or worse, the best of Sugar Creek is from County Road ES to Bowers Road.
If we did this trip again:
We’d totally do this trip again. It should be fun in summer, where overhanging trees would provide leafy relief from the sun. We’d do it again in autumn to see all those oaks blaze in color. We’d do it in winter if the water were open, to see the snowy outlines of the moraine hills. Whenever we’d do it next, I’ll be sure to bring my damn camera! Doh!