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Rick's Corner

Descent of Pine Creek

Adapted from “Midwestern Creek Canoeing,? Paddler, Jan/Feb 2002.

Dredged and channelized by Depression-era engineers, the Green River of Northern Illinois barely qualifies as a river. But there is one stretch where the river still runs swift and free between wooded banks, and it was here, on an adolescent outing with my father, that I had my baptism into a form of canoeing I’ve come to think of as creek paddling-a sport that can be pursued equally well in the Willamette Valley (ask Julz).

In the farm country of my youth, there were few whitewater opportunities and paddlers had to be innovative. Some set forth on the big rivers, including the biggest of all, the Mississippi. One of my cousins became expert at surfing the four-foot wakes kicked up by grain barges, hitching high-speed rides along the mile-wide river. He also talked of “stump farms,” unpleasant impediments to navigation created when dam-building flooded low-lying areas. Rather than leaving unsightly water-killed trees, the dam builders cut them off just below water level. In the calm, coffee-colored backwaters, the stumps were invisible and canoeing took on an unpleasant similarity to riding bumper cars at the county fair. Surfing a barge wake into a stump farm was a mistake you did not repeat.

My own passion went the opposite direction: to the tiny creeks that tumbled into the big rivers via boulder-garden riffles that made you wish for a hinged canoe.

On the Green I was still learning, and my father and I were running it on a day when the water was high enough to carry us easily over rocks and gravel. Then, in the midst of an otherwise easy riffle, I learned that not all obstacles are below water. I was familiar with the dangers of overhanging branches, but this was something new: a single strand of barbed wire arcing across the stream at neck height.

“Backpaddle!” I yelled, with visions of decapitation. My father heard the note of panic, saw the fence and dug in, barely bringing us to a halt in time for me to lift the wire, so that we could slide safely underneath.

I don’t know the rule now, but in those days, fences across navigable rivers weren’t legal. On small, infrequently paddled streams, however, there is no agreement between farmers and paddlers over what “navigable” means. To the paddler, a navigable river is anything you think you can float. To a farmer, it’s anything too deep for cattle to wade. That leaves a lot of room for disagreement.

The Green was a substantial stream, easily 100 feet across. On other outings, inching down knee-deep creeks, I was probably lucky not to be accused of trespassing.

For years, my eyes had been on Pine Creek, an insignificant tributary of a river called the Rock, which was nearly the size of the Willamette. The upper part of Pine Creek was far too rocky and shallow, but according to the roadmap it was only six miles, not counting meanders, from there to the Rock. How difficult could it be?

One summer, I persuaded a friend to give it a try. A year later he was to help me discover 25 miles of riprap and sandbar on the middle Green, after which he appears to have given up canoeing for life. But on Pine Creek we both still had enthusiasm for the unknown. Ours may even have been a first descent; I was probably the only person on Earth who considered Pine Creek to be navigable.

A few minutes after leaving the park, I was faced with the familiar sight of a single strand of wire sagging across the water. Only this one didn’t have barbs.

I stopped the canoe just upstream, scanning the bank for fenceposts. In the Midwest, single strands of unbarbed wire mean only one thing. I’d just spotted the first of a series of white insulators when my friend-who apparently didn’t have any farmers in his family-grabbed the electric wire. He yelped and lurched spectacularly, nearly accomplishing the difficult feat of swamping a flat-bottomed canoe in 12 inches of water.

Trying not to laugh, I told him to climb out, then did the same myself, reaching ahead with the paddle, intending to lift the wire daintily so I could slide the canoe through underneath.

I forgot the paddle was wet. I also forgot that I was standing in ankle-deep mud, with water flowing around my calves. The result was memorable. My yell echoed from the riverbanks, and I dropped the paddle, flailed my arms and nearly sat down in the creek.

It was time to think. My buddy went ashore and found a safe place to crawl under the wire. I dried my paddle, then dried the gunwales of the canoe, thanking my lucky stars they weren’t aluminum. So prepared, I again tried to edge it under the fence, braced for a second jolt. But this time nothing happened. Moments later we were back afloat, not daring to ask how many more times we might have to repeat this operation.

The answer, thankfully, was none. But an hour later, we came face to face with the reason for the fence. It was a bull, eyeing us from the middle of the deepest channel.

Before setting off, I’d tried to anticipate all possible obstacles: snags, barbed wire, boulder fields, miles of shallow gravel or mud. I’d even thought about what to do if the creek dived into a culvert. But I’d failed to consider electric fences. And a bull was beyond my wildest imaginings.

We backpaddled to a halt, considering our options while the bull considered us. One possibility was to pole, paddle and wade back upstream–safe, but no fun. Another was to out-wait the bull. Eventually it would go ashore, but on a hot July afternoon, “eventually” might be a long time. We could also portage, but leaving the river seemed unwise.

Luckily, there was a second channel, unoccupied by livestock and shielded from the bull by a mid-stream snag. And, as bulls go, this one seemed fairly placid. Steering as close to the far bank as possible–but still less than 20 feet from the bull–we built up speed, then glided, attempting to broadcast “nice doggie” thoughts. It worked, and an hour later we emerged on the Rock for an energy-sapping upwind paddle back to civilization.

Now, a quarter-century later, I live in the West, where paddlers don’t compete with livestock for right of passage, and where the streams that draw young adventurers are foam-filled chutes falling from the mountains. But whenever I’m in flat country, any creek bigger than an irrigation ditch brings the same thought: Could I get a canoe down that? And, what would happen if I tried?

– © 2002, 2005 by Richard A. Lovett


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