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Take the stunning cliffs and curves of the Kickapoo River, the clear water and swiftness of Badfish Creek, the length, riffles and intimacy of Robinson Creek and you've got the best of all paddles, Carroll Creek.
April 26, 2013
Class I (One Class II, an easy portage)
11' per mile
Very difficult to correlate, as there is no online gauge and the stream drains quickly. The visual gauge is the land bridge at the park at the put-in. If water is flowing over the bridge, the creek is high. If it’s skimming the surface, you’ll be fine. If it’s ankle deep, wait a few hours or the next day. Keep off when it’s too high, as it will be dangerous. If it’s more than a couple inches below the culvert-like holes at the top of the bridge, it will be too low. The only times to run this are in spring after some snowmelt or after a heavy rain.
Point Rock Park, Mt. Carrol, Illinois
Jacobstown Road, Mt. Carrol, Illinois
Time: Put in at 2:15p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 6
Wildlife: Five whitetail deer, one beaver, a muskrat, two heron, hawks, geese, roosters, swans and ducks.
Last year was meant to be a year of Northern Illinois paddles, with Carroll Creek being at the top of the list. In fact, it's been on my must-paddle list since the moment I started paddling. However, with historic drought conditions, Southern Wisconsin was suffering (and Illinois was obviously worse) so we had to head north for most of our trips.
But this year, I made it a point to plan a trip there early in the season and I'm glad to say I finally made my way to the much-loved but often-unpaddable, (due to low water) Carroll Creek which starts in Mt. Carroll, Illinois. Neither of the other Miles Paddled guys (or girls) could make the trip (nor could Timothy, who was totally bummed - he had prior obligations. Sorry man, I hate to break it to you but it was as spectacular as you've heard but I know you'll make it there).
What we liked:
From the moment I saw this video by Tom Lindblade in one of his Illinois Paddles videos, I knew I had to experience this creek. Then more recently, Morrall River Films documented a trip down the Carroll, only making my need to paddle it greater (which by the way, we highly reco all their films. They're a must-add paddling resource for your library).
Mark says "The Carroll Creek is probably one of the nicest streams I've ever paddled. From its towering fern-covered limestone cliffs, to its narrow intimate size and fast challenging current. It's everything I enjoy in a stream." It's a spot on description and I couldn't agree more. It's all that, (possibly even more?) and exactly what I've been searching for in a river or creek too.
Coincidentally, Mark extended an invitation to join their group who paddled the creek the previous Sunday. Other commitments prevented me from making it so I had to (begrudgingly) turn the offer down and keep to my original plan.
As mentioned, the reoccurring and unfortunate theme to Carroll Creek, also known locally as the Wakarusa (an Indian name meaning "Winding River") is that it rarely has enough water in it to canoe or kayak. While the water supply is constant on the creek, it's not always runnable due to the small watershed and it drains quickly (unless that's something the locals say to keep this prime secret to themselves - but I doubt it). Despite the current flood conditions across the midwest and especially our area (and as evidenced by every creek and river I passed on my way down), the Carroll is an anomaly. It's as if it's flood-resistance (well I'm probably stretching that truth, apparently it does). You really have to try to hit this up in Spring or after heavy rainfall.
As warned, I expected to have difficulty in the shallows with the creek already losing water but I didn't have any trouble. The water was at a perfect level for my trip (I was fortunate for a midweek rain) but if it were much lower, I would reconsider since it's easy to see how another inch lower and I would've been dragging my kayak in more than a few places. Since there is no gauge, you have to use the low-water concrete bridge near the entrance to Point Rock Park which extends over the creek.
The put-in at the park (which is quite nice in its own right) is very convenient, offering multiple access points. You can put in at that concrete bridge or any numerous areas along the creek from the wide-open grassy field.
Once on the creek and only after the first left-bend in the creek, you'll already come to the only Class II drop on the creek. I chose to portage around it since I totally forgot about it and didn't have my spray skirt on or even in the kayak. I would've most definitely taken on water judging by the chute available. Next time, I'll run it with abandon (famous last words).
Following that drop and just around the bend was an ominous sign - a headstone laying in the water (perhaps a sign that I made the right choice in not running that drop?). Also on that same stretch, keep your eye out for frisbee golf discs from the park's course on the cliff high above river-right. I spotted a couple and even landed a driver which must have been an incredibly errant throw. It should be noted that there are other strange things to be spotted on your journey aside from the headstone, like chairs, precariously-positioned picnic tables and a surprising amount of litter in the water.
From then on, you've entered a steep canyon with beautiful undercut rock formations and bluffs ranging from 50-75 feet high. And it's riffly stretch after riffly stretch. That's what I love about the Carroll. It seems as though you never travel more than a couple hundred yards before you are greeted by riffles, ledges and/or breathtaking rock cliffs and caves. It's gorgeous and intimate. Incredibly pretty.
Before the Ivy Road bridge you'll spot a beautiful house on river-right (something to be envious of for sure) and you'll hit a series of 1/2 foot naturally formed ledges (easy for sure). Almost immediately after that bridge is the Scenic Palisades Road bridge. From there until the take-out, the creek is less twisty but not less exciting. It's still riffly, with some really nice back-and-forth paths, and the current just grabs your boat and takes you along for the ride.
The take-out is river-left just before the Jacobstown Road bridge. It's undeveloped but decent for a bridge-side take out. On this day, it was a rather unstable slab of wet sand and I sunk down ankle deep but nothing to complain about.
This creek is not for beginners or the casual paddler but it would be a great primer-paddle for someone interested in taking that next step towards whitewater with its drops, ledges, riffles, windy nature and pushy current that sweeps your boat around tight turns and near walls and strainers. Only once did I have to portage (other than that Class II) due to a recently-fallen tree. It was at this point that I noticed just how chilly the water was. Portaging in general is quite easy on this creek though, if you feel the need to avoid potential tricky situations. It's clear and stony in the shallows and the deeper channel of water for which to follow is a beautiful cerulean color.
There is plenty of wildlife on the paddle too. I came upon two whitetail deer drinking from the creek, a muskrat, hawks, two heron, a million geese (some whom were obviously protecting nests so I kept my distance) and a bunch of roosters, swans and ducks who were co-habitating on some guys lawn near the take-out. I also maneuvered around a very waterlogged carcass of what appeared to be a deer at first glance but judging by the leg of the animal, it might have a been a dog.
There are several caves along the dells of the Carroll too. I didn't explore these former lead-mines but will surely check them out on a return visit.
The creek eventually flows into Plum Creek a few miles south of the take-out. It might be worth checking out the lower few miles on a future paddle.
I camped at Mississippi Palisades State Park on a tip from Timothy. It was an interesting State Park, not a lot of privacy. In fact, every Boy Scout Troop in Illinois happened to be camping there this weekend. Must have been a Jamboree or something. I found a site in the far reaches of the park. The ground was incredibly soft and waterlogged, as if you could dig down and find the Missisissippi moving below. At night, the trickle of water could be heard underneath the leaves coming down the hill. The next morning I had to put the Jeep in 4-wheel drive to get out since it had sunk overnight.
Being the first time I ever camped (and paddled) in Illiniois, two things really shocked me about Illinois State Parks. First, they don't require a State Park sticker. Hooray! Second, (and the real shocker) was the "All Alchohol Prohibited" sign upon my entrance to the park. Let me tell you, being from Wisconsin, where no such thing occurs, it was like seeing unicorn. It just doesn't exist. In fact, as I was taking picture of the sign, a park ranger came over and without even a question he said "yeah, it's just one of those State things" and then smiled and said, "I recommend a Red Solo cup."
This is where this paddling trip report really ends because from here on out, it turned into a brewery trip...
A radio station I randomly happened upon was playing tribute to the late George Jones which set the mood for my drive alongside the swollen Mississippi and through the small river towns like Savannah. It made for a great drive and I found myself compelled to travel North on the route home through the beautiful city of Galena. Coincidentally, the Boy Scouts were canvassing the Galena area too. They had President Grant's home on the hill surrounded.
Then, since I was more or less in the area, I headed up to Potosi to have a beer at the brewery (something I had failed to do on our Grant and Galena trips). The brewery is beautiful. From a design perspective, the details and branding are spot on and the beer is fantastic. In my opinion, they put out some of the best beer in the State (except for maybe Central Waters, of course). Insider tip: If you purchase a pint glass in the gift shop, they reward you with a free beer token. I only found this out afterward, so I'm saving it for the next time.
On my way back East towards Madison, I decided to keep with the theme of the day and detoured down to New Glarus. For living in Madison for over a decade and enjoying my fair share of Staghorn and Moon Man, I had never visited the brewery. The vibe was a little different and very crowded due to the (finally) seasonable weather. The brewery is expanding again so things are slightly out-of-sorts but it was well worth the visit. Six bucks bought me a full pilsner pint glass and a taster (half a pint) as well as a coupon for a free beer at one of the local New Glarus bars.
A paddling trip just doesn't end any better than that. Sometimes it's the drive and sometimes it's those last minute diversions that tie the whole trip in a bow.
What we didn't like:
I've had some excellent solo paddling trips and they can really be great experiences but on a stream as beautiful and exciting as Carroll Creek, experiencing it alone isn't enough. You really want to share something this awesome. The rest of the crew needs to experience this paddle (and I'll be happy to join them anytime they want to).
Also, no alcohol permitted in a State Park? Is that even American? Camping and beer go together like... [insert two awesome things].
If we did this trip again:
If there ever was a "perfect creek", the Carroll Creek would be it. It's intimate and exciting. It's a narrow creek and offers countless riffles, drops and ledges and it's a breathtaking paddle through a canyon filled with gorgeous bluffs and wildlife all around.
This is the kind of paddle you should plan for every year. Put it on the calendar for early April, bring some friends and have a great day trip. The two-hour drive from Madison is well worth it. It's such a rarity to paddle it, and that alone justifies the travel. It's a special creek and one that I hope to visit often.
Carroll Creek II: Point Rock Park to Jacobstown Road
Camp: Mississippi Palisades State Park
Overview: Canoeing Adventures In Northern Illinois: Apple River To Zuma Creek
Video: Illinois Paddles
Video: Morrall River Films
View Carroll Creek in a larger map
I generally shuttle first and paddle second. This time, I switched it up, hoping the wind (which was moving 15-20mph) would change direction and help my travel back (I don't think it mattered but that was the thinking).
The bike shuttle is a nice little ride though. The first hill is quite grueling (almost as much as the Pecatonica River shuttle) but manageable after that. From Jacobstown Road to that hill, you follow the flow of the Creek, reminding me of the drive from Bozeman to Big Sky where the rivers keep you company down the canyon. It was on that first section where I saw three more whitetail deer and spooked a mischievous beaver in a roadside ditch. From the top of that hill on, it's an easy ride and generally downhill to Point Rock Park.
Miles Paddled Video:
Low-water bridge (visual gauge) heading into the park.
Putting-in just below the bridge.
The aforementioned headstone.
A different kind of sign.
Ivy Road bridge.
Scenic Palisades Road bridge.
The take-out before Jacobstown Road bridge.
The mighty Mississippi.
Ominous and positive at the same time.
Potosi Brewing Co.
New Glarus Brewing Co.