★ ★ ★

Turtle Creek III

Spring Parks to School Section Road:
A combination of two streams on one trip with a few hassles that should disabuse most sensible paddlers of recapitulating this, doing each separately instead, but this area of the upper Turtle Creek has a lot to offer.

Turtle Creek

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 19, 2015

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: 
Class I(II) first mile (flatwater thereafter)

Swan Creek: 15′ per mile Turtle Creek: 2.4′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Clinton: ht/ft: 4.68 | cfs: 320

Current Levels:
Clinton: ht/ft: 3.60 | cfs: 49.0

Recommended Levels:
This is an unusually high level for the creek. You should definitely be able to paddle this at 200 cfs and as low as 100 cfs, albeit with some scraping.

Springs Park, West Washington Street, Delavan, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.63011, -88.65232
School Section Road
GPS: 42.63189, -88.71521

Time: Put in at 2:25p. Out at 4:25p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 6.25

A bald eagle, great blue herons, green herons, kingfishers, hawks, turkey vultures, muskrats, deer, songbirds, turtles (painted, soft shell and snapping) and at least one brazen fish (salmon? carp?) trying to swim upstream the dam.

Shuttle Information:
4.2 miles, most of which is along Hwy 11, which made for a less than ideal but totally doable bike shuttle.


My intention was to paddle much more of Swan Creek than I actually did. My original plan was to put in at Country Road O just south of downtown Delavan, 3 miles upstream of the dam. The short back-story to this is a tip from a friend of mine who sometimes works in the Delavan area. An intrepid paddler, when he sees a stream rising his curiosity is piqued. A man much smarter than I, he encourages and typically convinces me to be the canary in the coal mine, pioneer paddle and then let him know afterward whether it’s good or bad. And I fall for it every time! So that’s how I even had Swan Creek on my radar, otherwise, I’d have had no idea about its existence.

On the satellite map it looks very alluring: an intimate stream surrounded by a primarily undeveloped landscape (absent the outskirts of a golf course and brief skirmish with an interstate highway) coursing through woods and a light ridge. Plus it would hook up with Turtle Creek, and who doesn’t like 2-for-1 deals? – especially when it’s a swan and a turtle!

But after checking out the creek at the CR O bridge, I began having misgivings. For one, it’s really narrow and thus prone to deadfall. For another, the current was quite fast because the water was high. That’s a dicey combination for a pioneer paddle. Contributing to my apprehension was that there are no other bridges between County Road O and West Washington Street, thus allowing for no scouting. In other words, once you put-in, you’re committed to it, come what may. As even a casual reader of the site would know, I myself have been rather burned (or wet) lately by deadfall-clogged creeks that have quickly turned a fun day to one that was fraught with frowns (or worse). So I was a little reluctant to get screwed again. Really though, I just didn’t think it was safe or smart to pioneer paddle a 3-mile segment about which nothing could be known when the current was so pushy.

See, old dogs can learn new tricks. It just takes a while.

So I drove back to town and scouted the bridge at West Washington Street. Directly beneath the bridge are quite inviting Class I-II standing waves with more light rapids downstream for about a hundred yards, including a pitch-perfect play spot ledge that looks like it was designed for whitewater surfing. There’s a public park called Terrace Park along the west bank of the creek where you can put-in off the grass downstream from the bridge but there’s really no good spot on the upstream side.

However, there is a true hidden gem of a large public park called Springs Park through which Swan Creek flows. I found a very convenient ad hoc launching spot only a short walk from the parking lot, a few hundred feet away. I chose this in order to run all the rapids at Washington Street. It turned out to be a smart move, as there’s a whole lot of tree debris in the creek upstream, as well as an impassable low-clearance culvert that would have been seriously dangerous to encounter in pushy current.

From there it’s a short distance to the dam (0.4-mile), located next to a municipal pool/mini water park. And here’s where it gets tricky. First, even though there is a sign pointing to where you need to portage around the dam, there’s still no good place to do so. It’s a steep bank on loose gravel to schlep your boat up, around a guardrail and then back down the same on the other side of the dam – wherein you’ll encounter the second problem. Next, there’s only one place to re-enter the water below the dam, but you’ll have two choices about which channel to take around large boulders that split the creek. To go right, at least in the volume of water I encountered on this day, you must be a seriously good whitewater paddler, as there are huge waves and swells ranking Class III+. To go left – which is what I did since I was alone and had no one to assist me in case I capsized – you scrape down what appears to be but is not in fact enough water at a 2-foot ledge (more on this below).

After that Class I rapids whisks you 800 feet towards Richmond Road, where you will likely have to portage around because it is absurdly low-clearance. (Maybe it would be doable at a lower level, but this is a moot point because I don’t really recommend any of this anyway.) Re-entering on the other side is not difficult, but in the fast current you have to be careful and self-controlled about where to take out since it’s nothing but grass and weeds. You absolutely do not want to get swept into the bridge and pinned against, or under it!

From Richmond Road to the confluence at Turtle Creek is about 670 feet of riffles. The two meet at a pretty spot where a modest promontory jutts out between them, with a bench providing a scenic spot to hang out. You could put-in here, as evidenced by a trod path where others probably have. However, only 50 yards or so downstream is a low-head dam and I didn’t see anywhere to portage it. Normally, it’s not wise to run these dams due to the recirculating current below them (called “back rollers”), but sometimes you can, especially if the water is high since it allows for more of an angled slide down the ledge than a precipitous drop in lower conditions.

You might be able to scout the dam from the unnamed road catty-corner to Zoellner Lane, on the west bank of the creek, before you’re on the water but you’d have to be very discreet about it. I ran the dam to the right of its center, which looked safest. It was a lot of fun, but by that point I’d taken off my spray skirt, though I could have used it for this unexpected splash!

After the low-head dam all the swift current begins to slow down and but for a random riffle or two, everything is quite even-keeled. The section leading to King Street is pretty but not what you might call breathtaking. That said, it’s entirely enclosed within public land, a parcel of the Turtle Creek Wildlife Area, so what it lacks in write-home-about beauty it makes up for in undeveloped naturalness. But the King Street to School Section Road segment is quite lovely and definitely worth doing. The only trouble is there’s nowhere to launch at King Street. Thus, either you put in at the confluence and run the low-head dam for a pleasant 5.5-mile afternoon trip, or you enter the Wildlife Area via County Road M and walk south along the unnamed creek that feeds the Turtle for a 3.5-mile jaunt.

What we liked:
The rapids, baby, the rapids! Really though, one could spend a good hour in the half-mile stretch of Swan Creek alone. The standing waves beneath the West Washington Street bridge were fabulous and the ledge drop/surfing hole 30 yards downstream was awesome. I’m glad I was wearing my spray skirt, or I’d have taken in quite a bit of water! This small segment itself is a great place to get cozy with light whitewater without any real risk, as the water is shallow and there are no obstacles to get hung on. Plus the land itself is public, so getting out and back in as many times as your heart desires is easy and safe.

The raging whitewater (at least at 300 cfs) below the dam was quite a sight. Cooler still was a large fish (salmon? carp?) that tried hopelessly to swim upstream it. I saw this shadowy shape try twice before it disappeared beneath the waves.

The 800 feet of riffles and light rapids between the dam at Veterans Park and Richmond Road were certainly fun too but less of a challenge. And then finally that drop at the low-head dam on Turtle Creek was a great adrenaline rush. After all that it was high time to crack open a cold beer and relax in the hot sun, adrift in the wildlife watching turtles (aptly) and herons, my ears dialed in to the surround sound of songbirds. To be sure, there will be light riffles here and there for the next 5 miles, but they’re all easy teases.

The Turtle Creek Wildlife Area is positively lovely, and you’ll certainly delight in the natural landscape disrupted only three times by tasteful barns. Here and there, the land will rise gently in sinuous curves, always on the right. They punctuate the otherwise flat landscape with pleasant waves. After the bridge at Highway 11 the creek will narrow, pass an attractive ridge on the right and you’ll encounter a cluster of obstructions once or twice. It isn’t unsafe but you’ll need to have good boat control to avoid snagging on a stray branch or log. The takeout at School Section Road is not developed, but there’s a worn footpath on the left at the upstream side of the bridge. The only trick is, because the current picks up some speed here, you will need to paddle hard to the left bank to avoid missing the takeout.

What we didn’t like:
Swan Creek is so alluring but probably not worth the potential nastiness. This was unrepresentatively high so I can’t speak to its character at lower, more normal water levels. But I’m confident that the 3-mile section from County Road O to Washington Street would require a lot of cleaning up. I’m loath to let an alluring prospect go but sometimes practicality gets the better of me (it’s rare, but it happens).

Unless you’re a hardcore whitewater paddler, just skip the whole dam. It’s an arduous portage and once you re-enter, you have to choose the right channel. Why? Well, let me tell you. I chose the left channel because it looked safer. It wasn’t until I began scraping down a 2-foot ledge, where I thought I had enough water, when I realized my mistake. The trouble is it’s not just inelegant scraping. Turbulent water will come at you from the right, pushing you to the left, where there are lots of strainers and low-hanging branches. You’ll want to paddle to the right to avoid these but doing so moves you against strong current, a conflict of interest. At least twice I nearly tipped over due to these squirrelly conditions. I got lucky, frankly; I easily could have gone under. And then you have to portage around the low-clearance bridge at Richard Road only 800 feet downstream. I just don’t think it’s worth it for recreational paddlers.

It’s unfortunate that to run only the Turtle Creek section you have to confront the low-head dam. I don’t recall there being anywhere to portage around it or just get out to scout. It’s fun to run but there is a safety concern due to the re-circulating current. But there’s nowhere to launch a boat after that point to make doing this trip by itself worth it, since it would only be about 3 miles, some of which is prone to occasional obstructions.

If we did this trip again:
I’d do the short Swan Creek section as a point and play for fun and practice beginner whitewater skills but that’s probably all. I definitely enjoyed this section of Turtle Creek but it’s the least interesting or engaging on the whole stream. I’d sooner paddle the next section of the creek – from School Section Road to South O’Riley Road – if I were in this part of the state again. It’s prettier and has no safety concerns or portaging. Stay tuned for that trip report…

Related Information:
Turtle Creek Overview: Turtle Creek Paddle Guide
Turtle Creek I: Sweet-Allyn Park to Dickop Street
Turtle Creek II: O’Riley Road to Sweet-Allyn Park
Turtle Creek IV: School Section Road to O’Riley Road
Good People: Friends of Turtle Creek
Video: Wisconsin Paddles

Photo Gallery:

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