County Road F to Landing 10
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
This may be the best little Wisconsin driftless creek nobody’s ever heard of (well, save for a couple). It’s scenic, intimate, swift and envokes a sense of discovery because, save for the occasional trout fisherman, it’s rarely paddled. In short, it’s a condensed version of the Kickapoo with a dense abundance of unique and breathtaking sandstone bluffs in an all too short 2.25 miles. But despite the length, Billings is a special paddle, sure to put a smile on the face of creek lovers.
August 13, 2016
Ontario: ht/ft: 8.61 | cfs: 89
These were bare minimum levels. 89 was fine with some scraping but 110 or above would be more ideal.
Ice Cave Parking Lot, County Road F
Landing 10 on the Kickapoo River, off Highway 131/County Road P, north of Rockton, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:25p. Out at 2:55p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 5.50
Wildlife: Heron, ducks, eagles and trout.
Few creeks fall into the “unheard-of gem” category these days, but Billings lives up to that, um, billing. It’s an absolutely delightful driftless stream.
Last year, Rick Kark released his paddling opus, Kark’s Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to 309 Wisconsin Streams (opus may be strong wording). In it, he credits his own excursion inspiration to Michael Duncanson (the guy who inspired Mike Svob and his paddling guides), which in turn, inspired us to check out Billings. Timothy and friends headed up to Billings last September, only to find a shallow and therefore, unpaddleable stream running at 50cfs (so they paddled a stretch of the Kickapoo instead, which of course, was also was too low at those levels – and wherein, Timothy’s leaky boat troubles began).
Well, nearing the end of the summer of 2016, it was time to return and remove it from our docket. Fortunately, after getting some rain, we were treated to a delightful trip and all that comes with such small-stream endeavors. It’s classic creeking at its most pleasurable but unfortunately, it’s as short as all get-out. But there’s a lot in-store in these 2+ miles and worth the trip, so long as you add on some of the Kickapoo River for a longer day trip.
What we liked:
The recommended put-in in terms of ease and seeing the most and best of Billings is located just off County Road F at the parking lot to the Ice Cave (which itself, is a pretty little diversion, but certainly even prettier in winter). The lot accommodates a few cars but there are no facilities. The access to the water is a minimally brushy (thankfully, nothing poisonous) decline towards the waters edge just downstream right of the bridge.
Prior to choosing this put-in, we scouted upstream but let’s be real, there’s no upstream to paddle. It’s essentially the size of a drainage ditch and it flows through a sprawling farm which can be seen and scouted from along County F. If you had to portage, you’d most certainly be trespassing. There are wires stretching across the creek to prevent cattle from roaming and there’s a low-clearance bridge that would have to be portaged (again, you would be trespassing). It doesn’t look anymore fun or scenic than what you’ll see from the highway (you can spot the rock formations on the far side of the creek from your vehicle) so it’s best to put the rest on ice and put-in at the Ice Cave. In short, to consider anything even further upstream borders desperation.
With nothing more than riffles and tight (but forgiving) corners, Billings is fine for beginners who don’t mind the occasional inconvenience. You might even consider it a beginner-creekers-creek despite a couple portages and minor hassles and obstacles. Billings definitely has a few but the upside is far greater than the downside, and they are quite minimal and easy to overcome.
Soon after launching, the creek begins to reveal modest rock and sandstone walls which will increase in numbers and get ever more appealing as the trip continues. For all intents and purposes, the allure of this creek for us, is that it is every bit a creek – small, shallow and intimate – but with amazing sandstone formations and walls. It isn’t a stretch to call this the “mini Kickapoo”, (mini-poo?) it really has that feel, just much narrower and less traveled.
The water is crystal clear, the surroundings alternate between light canopy to little stretches of open prairie but the small bluffs and rock walls are what you’re here for and they are plentiful and majestic in such a small setting.
After the County F bridge, Billings gets increasingly more interesting and fun. The creek constricts and mossy limestone walls and cavernous curves continue, as do the light riffles which lead from one turn into another. It’s between County F and the confluence where you’ll find the highlight of Billings, a breathtaking slot cave, hidden from the approach. You’ll see a flat front face – some 20 feet long – where, hidden behind, is a cave to paddle through. It’s a really unique natural structure and the broad, flat leg, holding steady in the water is a beauty. It’s pure delight to paddle through (and it’s quite photogenic).
Portages were expected but you can thank my partner at Miles Paddled for making things more manageable. Tim Depot, and his ever-present lawn and garden shed, clipped and prunned and cut and broke and lifted and heaved his way through (he refuses to portage), which is to your benefit. However, there were two non-negotiable portages (one prior to Highway F bridge, another after that, in a beautiful ravine/canyon-like setting) but easy stuff to conquer especially since the creek isn’t very deep at these levels. You do have him to thank though, because he made a few potential portages and obstacles easier to run over, duck under or climb through. Helluva guy, that Tim.
After some more sandstone walls and riffles, you’ll soon be getting closer to the confluence with the Kickapoo. Once there, an unfair hint of disappointment set in for us (which is admittedly, completely ridiculous because it’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the State and Midwest) because the “completely new fun” was over – now we were onto something very familiar. It was a bummer that there wasn’t more Billings to explore! (Yes, that’s a totally spoiled attitude!) It’s just that, well, we’ve visited the Kickapoo numerous times and coming from a more intimate and new stretch to the recognizable features of the Kickapoo, left us longing for more. (Too soon! Wah! Wah!)
(OK, we’ll get over it)
Just after the confluence (which by the way, you will immediately notice – and feel – the much faster moving and stronger current of the Kickapoo) on river-left is a giant pile of rock that had fallen from one of the cliffs. This, despite my own familiarity with the Kickapoo, was the one feature completely new to me. The last time I had paddled the Kickapoo, the formation was still intact. The immense size of the clean cut shards had me thinking that it must’ve been something to hear when it finally gave way and tumbled (then again, does sandstone make a sound if nobody’s around to hear it?)
The rest of the trip to landing 10 is a breeze. It’s pretty, scenic and within one of our favorites sections of the Kickapoo. You could certainly take-out at Winchel Valley Road (a half-mile down the Kickapoo) and call it a day, but we recommend taking out at the Bridge 10 landing. Why? Because it’s the Kickapoo – as lovely as any river gets in the state. And because 2.25 miles of Billings is far too short of a paddle (and on its own merits, is seriously suspect after a 2-hour drive).
The river was busy with many Kickapoo-ers making their way downstream with amateurs and novices around every bend (I didn’t spot any pros, but maybe…). Eventually, we made it to a bustling take-out. The landing is downstream from Bridge 10, not immediately at the bridge like other landings, but a few hundred yards further. The take-out requires a $4 fee to park and there’s rudimentary facilities.
While definitely more scenic than the West Fork of the Kickapoo, Billings is just too short of a paddle to give 5 stars on its own (as much as we’d like to). When you take the paddle as a whole – and all that comes with it – in this case, one great creek flowing into another great river, there’s definitely a case to be made but we felt, instead, that it’s a solid 4-Star paddle. Those who like small creeks and all the nooks and crannies and good and bad they offer, will love Billings. Add on a length of the Kickapoo like we did and you’ve got yourself a wonderful paddle.
Returning to our vehicle at the put-in, we decided to explore the ice caves, one of many in the Kickapoo Valley Area. It’s a short hike to find the wet cavernous ridge. It’s definitely worth the added time to explore this natural feature and we can only imagine how much more interesting it is in winter.
On the road home to Madison, we made another diversion, with a stop at the delightful Hillsboro Brewing Company. They brew some decent beer and make some even decent-er(?) pork nachos which our bellies were welcome to welcome. The most unexpected surprise was spotting a Central Waters poster that I designed some time ago. It was a random find in a random place and pretty cool to see.
What we didn’t like:
It’s just too darn short. Creek beggers can’t be choosers but I’d certainly take a few more miles of Billings if it were as wonderful as this stretch was (alright, that’s certainly begging).
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely shoot for a few more inches on the gauge but all in all, it’s a very fulfilling (albeit short) paddle. Like us, you’ll long for more Billings but we’ll certainly take what we can get. It’s a bit rough and tumble for casual paddlers who prefer convenience, but for the weekend adventurer who loves to explore less-paddled streams, Billings holds an incredible amount of riches.
While a bike shuttle is certainly an option, County Road F should be ridden with caution since it’s the main road through the area (and much busier on the weekends with many paddlers shuttling). You might even share the ride with horses – this area is also popular for horseback riding – perhaps a horse shuttle is in the cards down the road?
Miles Paddled Video: