Sugar Creek II

Bowers Road to State Road 120:
Unquestionably, the single worst, most disastrous “trip” in Timothy’s tenure of exploring the obscure by kayak, this paddling debacle incurred thirteen portages around fallen trees and low-clearance bridges in under two miles, getting stuck beneath a tree and tipping in the creek sideways, and finally abandoning everything after feeling fed up to then schlep boat and gear a mile through woods and a steep hill and walk a few more miles along a county highway in the pitch dark back to the car.

Sugar Creek

Rating: ☆
Trip Report Date: April 17, 2017

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: 

≈ 2′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Jackson Creek: ht/ft: 8.9 | cfs: 45
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.

Current Levels:
Elkhorn (Jackson Creek): ht/ft: 8.48 | cfs: 8.92

Recommended Levels:
We don’t recommend this trip at any level.

Bowers Road, southwest of East Troy, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.73325, -88.44354
Emergency take-out in the middle of the woods before State Road 120
GPS: 42.73659, -88.41715

Time: Put in at 6:15p. Out at 7:50p.
Total Time: 1h 45m
Miles Paddled: 1.75 (approximately)

Wood ducks, a baby-lobster-sized crawfish and probably lots of other critters too (but I was too cranky to care and I wasn’t wearing night-vision goggles).

Shuttle Information:
6.3 miles of walking.


Only two days before had I begun a total-gamble, shot-in-the-dark exploratory trip on Sugar Creek that ended where this trip began. That trip was such a delightful success (and a relatively short one at 7 miles) that I was eagerly curious to discover if it could be lengthened by adding another 2.5 miles to the next bridge (Highway 120) or five miles to the bridge after that (Hargraves Road). Moreover, I’d scouted those two bridges after my first 7-mile trip and I really liked what I saw: perfectly adequate room for parking a car, decent to good access to the creek, and no deadfall in sight up- or downstream (those features cannot be extended to the third bridge downstream – Potter Road – where parking and access are meh and there’s deadfall in plain view).

I was in the area again anyway, driving back north from my trip on Piscasaw Creek earlier in the day, and reasoned that I might as well do this five-mile addendum, rather than make a separate trip out of it, since it’s over an hour away from where I live. Sure, it was 6:00 at night by this time and I was about to gamble on five unknown miles, but your honor, and may it please the court, the following considerations were bona fide:

  1. I feel guilty enough about all the damn driving I do to paddle, so reducing my carbon footprint even by a pinky toe is important;
  2. I had to portage only once in the first 7-mile trip on Sugar Creek, which boded well for what lied downstream
  3. It was only 5 miles, and I had just shy of 2 hours of daylight still, so worst case scenario, I’d be doing the bike shuttle in the dark, no biggie.

Oh, how wrong I was!

I already had to portage within the first five minutes – not a good omen. Indeed, it was the first of 13 portages well before I reached the halfway point (which I never even reached anyway, as I had to bail out on this trip before I got down to the first bridge at Highway 120). It was ridiculous just how utterly unpaddleable this section of the creek is. Cursed, really. I was disappointed, a little pissed off, and inconsolably amused by just how unmerciful it was. It’s a combination of natural and human-made causes: the former is mere deadfall and strainers; the latter is low-clearance golf course and pedestrian bridges through Alpine Valley Resort (like 8 within a half-mile). Honestly, it’s like Sugar Creek goes through a radical change of multiple personalities after Bowers Road, the take-out from the first trip and the put-in for this one. What had been kind of wild and wonderful suddenly becomes total development and fugly-awful.

I’m not really in a position to provide an overview of this trip, since I had to abort it before even reaching the midway point. Shortly downstream from Bowers Road, where the creek meanders narrowly through wetlands and woods, the landscape opens up first to a golf course and then the overall resort complex of Alpine Valley. The scenery is pretty – and pretty interesting from a paddler’s point of view – but many of the bridges are low-clearance and require portaging around. A few of these are particularly difficult.

After the resort the creek heads back into the woods. It’s very attractive here, but deadfall is quite problematic. It’s in this section where I gave up (see below). Presumably, the landscape remains wooded until Highway 120. From there to the next bridge, Hargraves Road (which incidentally was my intended take-out), I don’t truly know, since it was forsaken. From having scouted it a couple days earlier, it was marshier and resembled the Hodunk Road area from the first trip.

What we liked:
It might be surprising to some when I state that I really don’t mind paddling through golf courses. Actually, it kind of surprises me. I really don’t care much for all the associative trappings of golf – the fake nature, the rich, white Republican business class back-slaps and cigars, the crazy cost of playing a round, the fertilizer runoff and gas use to mow those lawns, etc. But there is a kind of Calvin and Hobbes-esque feeling of being an insolent kid “playing through” the links in a kayak much to the bemused amusement of the adult white shoes, white pants and white belt crowd. It’s like the paddling equivalent of the bozo standing behind a live TV reporter and gesturing like a jerk for the camera. Plus, streams are almost always riffly running through golf courses. (Why is that?)

It’s also not everyday when you paddle past ski lifts and alpine slopes. The hills here are steep, and the setting is pretty. It’s understandable why someone had the foresight to develop a resort and downhill skiing area. The novelty of this alone was entertaining – that is, while you weren’t getting in and out of your boat umpteen times to portage around bridges.

Once you’re past all the resort development the creek meanders back into a secluded setting of woods and boggy swamp. If it weren’t booby-trapped with innumerable obstructions and obstacles, it would feel more fun and rugged. Instead, it feels drugged.

What we didn’t like:
As mentioned, I had to portage within the first five minutes of this trip. It wasn’t difficult, but it did give me momentary pause that maybe doing this so late in the day wasn’t such a hot idea after all. One portage within the first five minutes on a 5-mile trip of unknown paddling at 6:15 pm in mid-April…? I did contemplate being reasonable and considered just paddling upstream back to Bowers Road, my car, and doing this whole thing another time. (Bauer to Bowers, over and out?) But I’m often more stubborn than rational and somewhere between the two lies an irrepressible hope that things will work out – or at least tell a good story. Things most definitely did not work out this time; but I hope the story’s good!

I also stopped taking photos after awhile, because the whole affair was so pointless. Had it been earlier in the day, and had I not been frustrated, I would’ve been more circumspect and have documented the cumulative experience. But I was pretty cranky by this point.

I became especially surly after a double low-clearance footbridge over the creek made for a particularly tricky portage, as one had wrought-iron siding (and the banks were too steep to just go around; you had to go over the concrete footbridge itself). What this entailed was snuggling up to the footbridge without getting stuck underneath it, carefully getting out of your boat in the strong current while still holding onto your boat so that it didn’t flush underneath downstream, then pulling it on top of and over the footbridge, setting it on the downstream side, still holding onto it so as not to lose it downstream, then sitting back down in it – again, in strong current – and resuming your not-so-merry way. Twice. And those were just those two obstacles.

The next such dilemma came shortly later where I thought I could squeeze my way underneath a very low-clearance downed tree. Key word here: thought – I thought I could squeeze underneath it. I tried; I got wedged. I was leaning as far forward as possible, arching my back like a contortionist cat, but there was no traction to be had. I was stuck. I tried wiggling every which way – left, right, sideways, forward, backward. I was stuck. Frustrated and stymied, I leaned a little too hard towards my right, and suddenly water came pouring into the cockpit. I mean, a dozen gallons within seconds. I knew my goose was cooked. I was pinned and water was coming inside the boat. I felt myself starting to sink…

Remarkably, (or learning from experience) I had the presence of mind to take my camera off from around my neck and hang it on a dry branch a moment or so before it would’ve been dunked underneath the creek. Then I emergency-exited the boat, stood up (fortunately, it was shallow enough, and not muddy, so that I could do so), and dragged the half-ton beast to the banks. Believe you me: it is not easy dumping out all that water by yourself! It truly is remarkable how heavy a kayak gets when full of water. Good lord…

Yes, I should have portaged. I know. Thanks.

Having been dumped like a jilted lover, and in turn dumping out my boat, I got back in to give the creek one more chance. I’m kidding. My heart was already broken and I was humiliated. It was over between the creek and me. Trouble was, I still hadn’t even reached the halfway point yet. Moreover, I didn’t know how far away the halfway point was, since I hadn’t heard any telltale sounds of passing cars in the faraway background. But I knew I’d have to get out there and then walk back to the car. There was no way, at this rate, I’d ever make it to the intended take-out bridge where I’d left my bicycle.

Sure enough, only a minute or so later there was… another cluster that would require a portage. Right before this I’d noticed on my left a totally random pier with a boardwalk. In a better mood, I’d have had thought about this more as I passed it; in my present mood, I didn’t really care. But now that I had to get out of my boat again anyway, I thought I’d check out the pier. By the look of the wood, it was new. And nice. I decided to change into dry clothes at that point because I realized that I was just done with paddling. Mentally, I wasn’t into it anymore (in retrospect, this also was stubborn and irrational). So I walked the length of the boardwalk to see what I could see. I assumed it would lead to a yard, which would lead to a house, which would lead to a road, which (eventually) would lead me back to my car. What I didn’t know simply was how far anything was relative wherever the hell I was. So I just walked without my boat to do a little rescue recon.

Well, the boardwalk was a good hundred yards long (give or take) and it eventually led, not to a backyard, but a trail. A trail?!? I was pretty sure that none of this could be public land, yet it was clearly a trail. Not just a trail either, but a network of trails, with various ones diverging hither and yon, some of them even named with wooden placards posted on trees. For real?!? Where the hell was I?  Had no idea, but I reasoned that it had to lead to somewhere. And since I had no more interest in paddling and didn’t even know where that next/first bridge was anyway, I figured I’d just bail there and then and walk my way out of the woods.

So I returned to retrieve my kayak and dragged it what would be in the end a full mile along this trail through the woods up to a tall hill. By this point I could hear cars and knew the bridge had to be nearby. Well, before I schlepped everything up this hill I thought I’d first walk up to see what was at the top. A house – or at least a series of house-like buildings. OK, I thought. This should be interesting… Nothing like a dirty, unhappy vagrant coming from out of the woods at dusk in your backyard in the middle of nowhere to inspire a little hunny-get-my-gun. I walked back down the hill to get my boat only to find… the paddle wasn’t in it. Seriously? Come on! I played the scene back in my head again and knew immediately that I’d set it aside on the dock and forgot to put it inside the kayak. Mother-@#&%$#! And so I jogged a mile back to the dock, found my paddle right where I’d left it, jogged a mile back to the kayak, and now hoisted it on my shoulder to ascend the hill. That was three miles of legwork right there.

Typically, a dog announced my impromptu entrance as I got to the top of the hill and near the house/buildings. This prompted a human to come out of the house to hush her pooch, at which point I waved in the darkness and said hello. Needless to say, I startled her. And then a man came out of the house. It took about 10 minutes to convince them I was not some prowler against whom they should stand their ground and shoot my ass. All things considered, they could have been meaner and more threatening. Then again, they could have been nicer and more sympathetic. The kindness-of-strangers index was somewhere in between. Basically, they regarded me as some fluke alien whose UFO crashed in their backyard. I’m sure that from their perspective they just couldn’t wrap their heads around someone paddling Sugar Creek A) at all, B) at night, C) on a Monday night, or D) by himself. To be fair, that’s totally valid. Just the same, they were cool about letting me leave my boat and gear at their driveway – which is off Highway 120 (literally 600′ north of the bridge) – while I walked back to my car and came back to retrieve everything. They didn’t offer to give me a lift and I didn’t ask.

Add 3.3 more miles of walking to my “paddling trip,” mostly along County Road D, past 8 pm, in the dark, mostly pickup trucks whirring past me at 60 mph, etc. Needless to say, no cars slowed down to offer me a ride either. Fine, whatever. An hour or so later I reached my car, turned on the heat, drove back to the kayak, then back to get the bike, and then began a 90-minute drive back to Madison. It had been a long day already and now it was a long night too. I was exhausted, exasperated and hungry. I finally got home around midnight – after taking the wrong road and getting disoriented in Whitewater, which is what happens every single time I have ever driven through Whitewater. Seriously, every single time.  What is it about that place?

The funny thing, if you want to call it that, is this: had I not gotten out at that pier and instead just portaged another time, or even 2-3 more times and kept paddling, I’d have arrived at the Highway 120 bridge probably within half an hour, if not sooner. I still would’ve had to walk back to the car, since I would’ve been only at the halfway point, but it would’ve saved an hour at least. And been less exhausting. (Did I mention that I did all this while dealing with a pinched nerve in my neck, shoulder, and arm?) But like I said, I couldn’t have known that at the time, and I was just done with paddling in my head as it was.

If we did this trip again:
Yeah, no. If I did this trip again, I’d be insane. Fool me once, Alpine Valley, shame on you. Fool me twice, commit my ass to an asylum.

Related Information:
Sugar Creek I: County Road ES to Bowers Road
Wikipedia: Sugar Creek

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    William Petersen
    June 17, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    While not as bad as your trip, your report reminds me of my friend Scott and I attempting to canoe the West Branch of Blue Mounds Creek from Frame Road down to County KK west of Mazomanie. I was excited to think that we might be the first to ever canoe this small stream. We just got on the water when it started to rain, in February, so it was cold. The first 100 yards was fine. Then it was a pickup stick game of downed trees. After struggling up and over or around many trees in the cold rain, we finally decided to walk out. We dragged our solo canoes across a corn field and made it out to County K that runs parallel to the west. An older guy in a beat up white van stopped and asked if we needed a ride. We were covered with mud and twigs. He asked what we were doing. We told him we had been canoeing. He exclaimed that he thought he was the damn fool to have ever tried canoeing the stream. He told us a story of canoeing the stream at flood stage and getting washed under a strainer. So not only did we have a miserable February paddle, we were not the first to attempt to canoe that stretch.

    • Reply
      Miles Paddled
      June 19, 2017 at 8:47 am

      Hey William,

      Thanks for sharing your woebegone story with us! We feel you. There is something irrepressibly alluring about paddling a new prospect — whether it’s ever been done by others before or just new to us ourselves. Sure, the likelihood of these gambles paying off usually is not in our favor. In fact, often they’re downright disastrous! (Except for that one out of ten times when it does, and you feel like Christopher Columbus, and the heady bliss of discovery eclipses the nine other disasters!) But where would we be without calculated risks? And what else would we learn without the lessons that making “mistakes” bestow upon our oh so humbled selves? Besides, it’s often the mishaps and bloopers we remember best, not the incident-free, easy-peasy stuff that’s practically indistinguishable from one another. Would it be crazy to re-paddle this segment of Sugar Creek or your W. Branch of Blue Mounds Creek? Absolutely. But does it make for a a good story? You bet it does! Especially with the friend you were with at the time.

      Here’s to more adventures, epic or picaresque!

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