Little Turtle Creek
S. County Line Road to S. O’Riley Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A diamond in the rough of Rock County, Little Turtle Creek dazzles with crystal-clear water, steady current, lots of riffles, and a thrilling mix of prairies, pastures and forest. Good accesses and excellent wildlife only add to the whole experience. A couple down trees to portage can be expected, and water levels will be typically too low without a visit to scrape city; but the former are simple affairs and the latter is worth the wait after a recent reputable rain.
May 3, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner/Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈4′ per mile
Clinton: ht/ft: 5.00 | cfs: 550
Gauge note: this is only a correlation gauge on Turtle Creek proper. In addition, this is a crazy-high, very atypical level – the Turtle normally flows around 150-200 cfs.
We strongly recommend this level but this is highly abnormal, so let’s be real about that. We returned to do this trip three months later, in August, when the Turtle Creek gauge was at 300 cfs – which is still an atypically high level. Alas, that did not correlate at all to Little Turtle Creek being runnable. We put in at Lake Shore Drive and took out at S. O’Riley again, a distance of 7.75 miles, and it took us five hours to “paddle” (re: as much walking/scraping as we actually floated). There are two strands of barbed wires near the interstate bridge in normal water levels (not one, which is all we saw at 500 cfs), so we had to carefully threaded through them as they were impossible to just ride over. Same thing with some of the downed trees during our initial trip. This is a stream you don’t have the luxury of paddling when you want to. When in doubt, scout either the County Line Road or Lake Shore Drive bridges. If Little Turtle Creek is a no-go, the main Turtle Creek is always a reliable consolation prize. Little Turtle Creek is too much of a gem to paddle during low conditions. Save it for the just-right occasion.
S. County Line Road, Allens Grove, Wisconsin
S. O’Riley Road (the actual bridge, not the wayside DNR lot)
Time: Put in at 10:20a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 2h 55m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Great blue herons, wood ducks, a ton of fish, deer and at least two if not three owls.
3.8 miles by car or bike. Very pleasant and easy, with only one hill.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure to paddle Turtle Creek proper, then at some point (probably the Fairfield segment) you’ve seen a significant tributary come in on your left – and that’s Little Turtle Creek. Years ago I remember first seeing Little Turtle Creek and then taking a look-see on the satellite map afterward to get a better sense of what was what. It looked paddleable in its own right, but for years it had just remained a curiosity in my head.
Fast-forward to April 2020 when a chance encounter had me driving on I-43 and crossing over a beguiling stream that caught my attention. I knew where I was, and so I had a hunch that it could have well been Little Turtle Creek. Again, afterward, I fired up the old satellite map on the interwebs and confirmed that it was indeed the very same stream. That was all I needed to know to pencil it in for an exploratory paddle this year. Turtle Creek proper can sometimes be a fickle-enough stream with respect to adequate water levels, so I reasoned that its tributary had to be even more so. Hence, I waited til Turtle Creek was flowing fast and high, which was the case only weeks later.
As for landings, I knew that the confluence of Little Turtle Creek at Turtle Creek proper was just upstream of the S. O’Riley Road bridge. From the confluence up to the last bridge across Little Turtle Creek are 2.5 miles through a wild-looking floodplain. It seemed crazy to me to skip that last clip – why drive all that way to an obscure stream and leave its final miles unexplored? At the confluence, paddlers have two options: continuing downstream only a couple hundred yards to the bridge, where there’s a totally adequate access (thanks to it being a popular place for fishing); or paddle upstream a couple hundred yards where there’s a dedicated DNR boat launch and parking area. The latter option seems inadvisable for two reasons: 1) as I like to say, “friends don’t let friends paddle upstream” and 2) what with coronavirus craze and social distancing, I knew that the DNR boat launch/parking area would be a veritable zoo on a gorgeous sunny spring Sunday (and boy was I right – we saw a ton of paddlers coming downstream as well as pickup trucks with kayaks in the back all either coming from or headed to the boat launch/parking area).
That then left the question of where to start. We took a shot in the dark on S. County Line Road, and once we got there it looked quite inviting – ample room on the shoulder to pull two cars off the road, excellent access on the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, without fear of trespassing. You could try your luck at the next bridge further upstream (County Road J), but as it was we were casting our hopes on an 8.5-mile paddle about which we knew nothing, which seemed ambitious enough.
The last thing worth pointing out before getting on with it is the notable distinction of Little Turtle Creek flowing north. It meanders a hell of a lot, sure, and after the interstate flows northwest, but its general direction is northbound, which is a novelty in Wisconsin (and something to consider with respect to the wind). Also, while making several detours east and west (while flowing north), the shuttle distance for this trip is less than half of the creek itself (3.8 miles to 8.6 miles, to be precise), which makes for a ridiculously easy, scenic and fun pedal after your paddle.
The scene at the put-in is pretty and bucolic: nothing but meadows and farmland. And then there’s the creek itself: bubbly and crystal clear like a glass of champagne. To steal a line from a pal of mine, I’d declare Little Turtle Creek as “the champagne of Rock County rivers…because it’s so clear and bubbly.” It really is though, astonishingly. I don’t recall seeing a whole lot of natural springs, so Little Turtle Creek will need enough water to paddle without a ticket tape parade through scrape city.
In the beginning, the creek is classic prairie paddling (and indeed reminded me of neighboring Piscasaw Creek): the landscape is open and sprawling in a picturesque way, a gentle roll here, a gnarled bur oak there. The banks are typically low and grass-lined, meadowy (which acts as a buffer to soil erosion, which in turn helps the creek running with such clear water). The creek is narrow, the current swift and riffly. Here and there the banks will rise some with a very attractive lift – nothing grandiose, but rather gentle and beguiling. The first mile is surrounded by farmland, but this will change as the trip goes on. Before the first bridge at Lake Shore Road you’ll hear a set of rapids followed by a minor horizon line. The cause of this is a farmer’s ford, and depending on water levels, you can either run it (with a rough kiss of a scrape), portage it, or stand up and pull your boat over it. Just downstream of the ford is the first and most prominent tributary on river-right, called Ladd Creek. Past that is a big old red barn as classic as a corvette.
After the first bridge everything changes as quick as a wink, the sparse openness gives way to tree-canopied enclosure with a slight floodplain feel. The current quickens, and there are more obstacles to dodge. (Plenty, actually, but that only enhances the rugged feel of the experience.) The woods will thin out after a mile, but the surrounding landscape will still feel wild and wonderfully obscure. And there are plenty of quiet spells where the current is slack and slow.
From Lake Shore Road to the next bridge (Temperance Trail) is the longest section of the trip with the least development (4 miles) and arguably the most scenic and fun. You’ll pass by a mix of sandy banks and gravel bars, meadows with gnarly oaks, swaths of conifers and clusters of skunk cabbage. Heck, even a quaint pedestrian bridge seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As well as an unusually steep sandbank on the left more typical of what you find in the Driftless central-west of the state. It’s truly a lovely stretch of water to paddle; if there’s at least one section of the creek you check out, let it be this. Many times we marveled at how pristine the water was and wild the surroundings were. You just don’t find such places in Rock County… We charitably attributed it to sound agricultural practices and good stewardship (also not often found in Rock County, but great people can be found everywhere, no matter where you are).
Eventually the surroundings revert to the trip’s beginnings, back to farmland, sparse space, low grassy banks and thin trees off in the distance. In quick order you’ll pass under two minor bridges – Temperance Trail and County Road X – and then the twin bridges of the interstate and immediately after those N Road (no, not County Road N, just N Road?!?). It’s an abrupt juxtaposition after a 4-mile stretch with next to no development, four bridges within 1.25 miles on the water. Preceding the interstate bridges are abutments from an old bridge, along with a small ledge and a strung wire to watch out for. The bridges of I-43 look colossal to everything else, plus it’s always fun to see the bridge from the river where previously you saw the river from the bridge (which more or less inspired this trip in the first place). The N Road bridge is a culvert with three openings looking like “nnn” – why not name the road NNN?
After N things get wild and wooly again. But for a kind of backwoods bivouac – a clearing of land along the banks on private land where folks created a cool camp area complete with deer stand tower – there are no signs of civilization from here until the next bridge (which is the last bridge). The creek courses through a floodplain for 2.5 miles ’til the take-out, which is just downstream from the confluence with Turtle Creek proper. While not technically difficult, this stretch of the creek should not be entertained by beginner/inexperienced paddlers simply because the current is brisk and there are strainers to avoid all over the place. It’s in this section where we had to portage, but only twice and both easy. Other paddlers may experience more fallen trees, however. Trees fall all the time, but rarely away from the water and rarely leaving a passable gap between bank and rooted base. Some fallen trees we rode roughshod over, but only because there was enough water (barely) to allow us to; at lower water levels, these would pose more of a problem. The surprisingly robust current is really fun, and we found the various obstacles to avoid a not unwelcome challenge.
But the current will slow down, and a wide straightaway precedes the confluence at Turtle Creek proper. Turn left – or just go with the flow. The take-out at S. O’Riley Road is only 600′ downstream from the confluence and is located on the downstream side of the bridge on river-left. There’s a well-worn area to get out at, flat and grassy, with a well-trod path up to the road.
What we liked:
This was one of those “everything” trips – as in, what did we like? Everything! Ev. Ree. Thing. Seriously. Somewhere midway into the trip I tipped my hat and exclaimed “This is so good! I can’t believe how awesome this trip is!” (It’s at the 4:36 mark in the video, for anyone interested in catching me at my most teenage inarticulate.)
First and foremost, the water. The creek itself is crystal clear. Sparkling, glittery, bedazzling even. Champagne-like and then some! Loaded with legions of fish swimming between surface and shimmery gravel bottom. And virtually nonstop riffles and little bitty rapids. Then there’s the surrounding landscape itself, a picturesque blend of pastures, prairie, meadows, and wooded floodplains. Rock County typically gets but a quarter-round of applause for its aesthetics, being predominantly agricultural and flat or urbanized and bordering on blight and Beloit (the home of Hormel after all). But this part of the county is truly very pretty, a veritable diamond in the rough. Sandbars, gravelbars, skunk cabbage patches, raised ridges, fast floodplains. Just a sense of being away from it all in a wild-feeling landscape. It’s not for nothing we saw an abundance of notable wildlife cameos, up to and including three owls (which is unheard of). Plus those frisky fish, which made us damn well giddy and goofy, laughing at their stupefying abundance (to the point of feeling a little skittish about even paddling, wondering/worrying whether I’d be slapping them with the paddle blades). At 4:54 in the video you’ll see a line of fins skate across the water surface, swift as a wave of swallows or starlings, just one of innumerable times we happened upon them.
And for those who appreciate a choice dessert following a sumptuous repast, the shuttle from take-out to put-in, whether by car or bike, is a shockingly short 3.8 miles – less than half the paddling miles.
What we didn’t like:
Well, the gunshots (3:48 in the video). More a Zen molestation and auditory nuisance than actual concern for our personal safety, but it was overkill (literally or figuratively). Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-powpowpowpow! Alright already, Jesus!
And of course nobody likes having to get out and portage. But for us there were only two unmanageable trees we had to portage around, and they were easy-out-and-back-in affairs. Considering that I was expecting more of a worst case scenario for downed trees, this was a walk in the park (or floodplain).
If we did this trip again:
We’d do this again anytime the water levels allow. If there’s one thing we’d do different, it would be just starting another bridge or two upstream, thereby extending this trip another mile or some.
Turtle Creek Overview: Turtle Creek Paddle Guide
Miles Paddled Video: