Mill Creek (Iowa)
Loy Road to Highway 23
☆ ☆ ☆
A pretty creek but a mostly miserable paddling experience with one notable exception at the very end. I wouldn’t even recommend this trip to my enemies. Unless, of course, you like difficult portages, poisonous plants, white-knuckled ducking, sweaty hand-sawing and a million mosquitoes, in which case, Mill Creek is the trip for you!
June 8, 2014
2.5′ per mile (virtually zero near the confluence)
This is a paddle we simply don’t recommend regardless of levels.
Loy Road bridge, Arena, Iowa County, Wisconsin
Boat Launch at Highway 23 bridge, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.75
Wildlife: One blue heron, lots of turtles, wood ducks, a merganser with merganser ducklings, a beaver, cattle, a horse and a foal, one deer and some geese. Oh, and mosquitoes.
Time worth driving to: 30 minutes
What’s that? Never heard of Mill Creek before? There’s a reason: it’s unforgiving and awful. It is, I am certain, where trees go to die – and fall into a creek in the most perfectly frustrating patterns. Really, I don’t think Mill Creek could be better designed as an obstacle course if it had been deliberately engineered as such. I came this close to giving up on it but I’m glad I didn’t because the best part, which is to say the only good part, came right at the very end and maybe made up for all the other crap preceding it. Maybe.
What we didn’t like:
I’m going to switch things up here and start first with what I didn’t like for two reasons. One, in hopes of disabusing anyone of the notion to check this creek out and two, to better emulate my own experience paddling it, since the only thing I actually liked came at the end (after all the awful hazing with portages, white-knuckled ducking, brutish barreling over logs and deadfall, pestiferous mosquito swarms, cattle and horse standoffs and etc.). Did I mention that you shouldn’t bother paddling this?
First off, my intended put-in was at Coon Rock Road for a sixish-mile paddle but there is zero access there. Zilch. What you will find there are wild and weedy patches of grass 4’ high on a precipitous and muddy slope to the creek. Even if you dared wading through the grass (and if you were to do so, you might just as well find ticks and put them on you to spare you the suspense and them the hassle) it’s too steep to try and launch a boat there. Even by my standards.
So I found the next bridge upstream, at Loy Road. Better, but still pretty despicable. However, it provided an opportunity to try out my new machete hacking out the tall grass. A couple phonebook-sized rocks allow you to stand rather than sink into mud as you carefully slip into your kayak. Forget about trying to canoe this! I had to hunch down immediately just to clear underneath the bridge. I was able to put up with putting in here but I’d never recommend it because a) it sucks and b) the section downstream just ain’t worth it.
Obstructions begin immediately. I had figured that I’d encounter some snags and snares but this was just unbelievable. Honestly, I began laughing after awhile, because the whole thing was just preposterous! In the first two miles I had to portage once, barrel over ten fallen trees and duck under another ten. And that was all a section I hadn’t even anticipated paddling in the first place. The next four miles were only worse. I stopped counting the portages after a dozen. It took me 2h and 45m to paddle 6 miles, all of it work, no time or opportunity to relax. (Incidentally, it took me only 1h and 15m to paddle the remaining 2.7 miles from the County Road C bridge to the takeout but I’ll talk about that below.)
For what it’s worth, I portage only as a last resort. I will do everything I can to avoid it, whether impractical or imprudent. So if I portaged a dozen times, an average paddler would likely do so more than that. And when I say “portage” I basically mean hoisting: I never went onto the banks and around an obstacle mainly because there are poisonous and highly suspicious plants everywhere; instead, I climbed out and onto the downed tree in the middle of the creek, lifted my boat up and over said tree and lowered myself back into the boat. A dozen times at least. It gets old.
So too did all the hand-sawing, clipping, punching, pulling and prying. And as you’re wasting lots of time doing all this and not actually paddling, the mosquitoes come at you from all directions, pricking their needles into you with such subtlety as though it were mere acupuncture, until you itch like a mother and slap yourself fanatically. Especially cute was when I happened upon some cattle (cows, bulls and calves) on the edge of a bank, snorting and coming just short of charging at me. I’ve never had an actual encounter with cattle and I’d like to keep it that way, with horned bulls especially. So I just wait it out until they get bored or spooked and move on. But as I did so I was just a sitting duck for mosquitoes. Blood, sweat and just short of tears, this trip.
Lastly, there’s almost no payoff to these obstacles and nuisances. Sure, some portaging is understandable and occasional “landscaping” is all but a foregone conclusion. You don’t mind it when it’s worth doing as a courtesy to future paddlers or a future repeat paddle for yourself. But this was just worthless. If paddling trial and tribulation were awarded as merit badges, then MilesPaddled would be Eagle Scouts after the last couple trips. This is one of those streams that looks great on paper (on a topi map) but fails to inspire in reality. You do paddle alongside a couple pretty hills but the foliage is so dense and thick (like the mosquitoes) that you don’t realize it most of the time. And nowhere are there cool rock formations on these hills and bluffs – until the very end.
What we liked:
After passing under the County Road C bridge, the landscape opens up in a pretty savannah/prairie area. You nearly want to cry for joy that there are no trees around to die and fall into the creek to block you. For a little bit at least, this was the first/only time to relax. The mosquitoes were less of an issue, too, given the open exposure to wind. It was around here that I began hearing voices. Literally. You might think I was going mad after the debatable loss of blood from the mosquitoes, my frustration and fatigue and my concern that I wasn’t going to make it to my takeout ’til dark. But these were not voices in my head. I knew that at some point downstream of County C the creek would flow (I use that term loosely) past Tower Hill State Park, so I assumed there were hikers afoot. I heard murmurs from time to time. Then I began to think about Deliverance and how appropriate that would have been on this trip from hell.
I was all but waiting for the banjo music as I rounded a bend only to come upon the absolute last thing I thought I’d see: other kayakers! Four of them in all and they were doing exactly as I and I could have hardly believed it. Who else would be so crazy as to try paddling this misbegotten, godforskaen creek!?! I felt relieved and sorry for them at the same time. We chatted and laughed. They lived in the area and were new to kayaking. Good lord, I thought, this is the kind of creek you paddle if you never want to be in a kayak or canoe ever again in your life! I loved their attitude and lightheartedness. I loved more that I had only another 2.5 miles or so until the take-out!
The creek widens out as it approaches the Wisconsin River, which means less portaging/ducking/barreling over, which is a godsend. However, it also means there’s no current too, just a flat cesspool breeding ground for you know who… Zzzz….
About 20 minutes after I left my newfound friends and paddled on I came upon a truly spectacular sight: a sublime sandstone cliff in the water towering some 60’ above. At the base of it is a tunnel, next to which a sign tells you what happened here in the past. You’re in the state park now, a tiny parcel of land more interesting for its historical context than its natural beauty. For the story on Tower Hill, the smelting of lead shot and the excavated tunnel, read this.
You can get out here and walk along the shore or hike to the top of the bluff but be careful of the poison ivy. And bear in mind that the mosquitoes will still be following you. A ¼ mile or so downstream from the cliff are waterside campsites as well as a decent boat launch for paddlers (not power boats). You could take out here but it’s much more fun to merge into the Wisconsin River, which seems like a superhighway compared to the torpor of the creek. A half-dozen or so attractive rock walls line the left bank, by the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. In normal conditions there would be fantastic sandbars near the river-right shore but the Wisconsin is still very high, so these unfortunately, were washed out.
The take-out at the official boat launch/park on the river-right upstream side of the Highway 23 bridge is a great access with enormous parking and a couple portable toilets. But the mosquitoes will follow you there too… I counted seven that managed to sneak inside the car as I loaded my kayak onto the roof. The bastards!
Additional Info: Since you’re so close, you should drive just a touch down the road from the take-out and check out Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. It’s architecture at its most sublime. Bring your binoculars though, as you’re not allowed to get too close without taking the exorbitantly priced tour. It’s at the intersection of the southern/western leg of County Road C and Highway 23 atop a small hill. (Incidentally, Taliesen means “shining brow” in Welsh – hence the beautiful building on the hill. And as most people probably know, FLW was originally born in the area, in nearby Richland Center.)
Also, (and equally unrelated) if you’ve never been to a performance at American Players Theatre, stop depriving yourself and check it out. It’s theatre at its best and a helluva fun time if you take along the makings for a picnic before the show.
If we did this trip again:
Yeah, no thanks. The only part of this trip worth doing is County Road C to Highway 23 but that’s a 2.7-mile paddle full of mosquitoes, no current and not without a couple obstacle issues (You’re not out of the woods, literally and figuratively). The state park is pretty cool though and that sandstone cliff is glorious.
Camp: Tower Hill State Park
7.5 miles whether by bicycle or car.