One year I decided to satisfy a dream of mine, and take a camping kayak trip from Crawfordsville, Indiana all the way to Clinton, Indiana. It meant floating Sugar Creek for some 40 or so miles, and then another 30 or so miles down the Wabash River.
Sugar Creek winds like a huge Boa Constrictor through western Indiana. The creek gives you a fun ride and a wondrous experience with nature.
But this beautiful creek can grab the life of the inexperienced traveler as unexpectedly as a head-on collision on a crowded highway in the middle of the night.
The waters of this little river start flowing in Clinton County, near the Indiana town of Terhune and course southwesterly for 90 miles (estimated) where it dumps into the Wabash River.
Normally the speed of the water is 500 cubic foot per second (cfs). It’s an ideal speed for and kayak.
When it gets below 430 cfs you’ll have to get out a lot and carry your boat and all your . When it gets over 1000 cfs don’t try it unless you’ve got a lot of experience. It gets really fast and rough.
For the experienced whitewater boater Sugar Creek gives pleasure and beauty.
I’ve spent time camping from a canoe or kayak on this little slice of nature for over 30 years now. Every time I see something new, sometimes merely subtle changes along the banks – sometimes very major alterations in the view.
But I always get a feeling of peace and happiness when I float down this stream.
This trip just as I finished unloading the truck, and nearly finished packing the kayak, the sky opened up – and a downpour began.
I quickly finished my packing efforts, and I ducked under the bridge at Elston Park in Crawfordsville to wait for the rain to stop. A few minutes later it was still going kind of strong, so I went back to the kayak and walked it over under the bridge where I made last minute preparations waiting for the storm to pass over.
By 1:00 in the afternoon the rain moved on so I shoved off on my little adventure. This trip was to be my longest ever on Sugar Creek.
I started out paddling part-time and just floating part-time. I later calculated that the flow speed of the creek this particular week let me paddle/float at a rate of one mile for each 40 minute period. And just floating along I made a mile each hour.
At 1:35 another downpour hit. Fortunately, I was near another bridge and stopped to wait again. This storm lasted 10 minutes and I was on my way again.
I started seeing a Blue Heron ahead of me and felt like I was chasing the bird down the creek. You see, it would land along the shore and, just as I approached, it would take flight and move further ahead. This happened the whole time I was on Sugar Creek with both the Blue Heron (there are an awful lot of them out there) and later with the Bald Eagles.
A little downstream from Crawfordsville I stopped to change into swimming trunks and found a campsite. I think it’s a Girl Scout camping spot. I stayed only long enough for a quick look, and got out on the creek and floating again. I did delay to watch a water snake swimming along the shore. It swam around the kayak and headed upstream.
As I left the buildings and traffic of civilization behind me I started seeing turtles (both mud turtles and painted turtles). Overhead a hawk circled looking for an unwary meal. And there on the bank was a muskrat eating. He was a young one.
Continuing my journey I was overtaken by another thunderstorm at 5:30. My luck held out again and another bridge protected me from the worst of it. This one lasted twenty minutes.
I might point out here that I did have a poncho with me and I really didn’t get wet when the rain hit me. It’s just hard to see when your glasses are getting splashed.
Just 35 minutes later I was about to start into a rapid when a big Smallmouth Bass jumped over the front of the kayak. I expect if I’d been in a canoe he would’ve been supper that night. But the kayak is so narrow that he easily jumped over it and landed in the water on the other side.
I got a bit of sunshine during the evening and at 7:25 I passed the old Yountsville Mill. You can still see rusting spokes of the mill wheel poking out from the side of the building.
The early pioneers used Sugar Creek for power, and the ruins of both the Yountsville Mill and the Woolen Mill still present themselves for your appraisal as you float by them.
I stopped for the night at 8:30. There was no place to pitch a tent. I waited too late to stop for the night, and it was getting too dark to go on. So this camping stop consisted of sitting up all night in my camp chair.
It was interesting though. During the night I listened to the bullfrogs singing their croaking melody while the fish slapped the surface of the water as they jumped to eat insects that were swimming on the surface.
And at 1:30 in the morning a couple of Beaver swam by me.
I had a pleasant night of contemplation with the stars and sounds. A great time for thinking. At least until it started raining at 3:00 AM. It didn’t last long though, about 15 minutes.
It got light enough to launch the kayak again at 5:25, and I moved downstream toward the Shades Canoe Camp. I got there at 10:45, and set up camp. I spent that day and night camping there.
Just before I got to Shades though, as I tried to take a picture of a Bald Eagle as it flew overhead, the current tossed me sideways in a rapid. That pushed me up cross current against a rock and filled my cockpit with water. These things happen if you let the rapids turn you. I had to stop and do some baling enough to get on downstream to Shades, where I was able to unpack the kayak and drain it.
The rapids on Sugar Creek have their different moods. Sometimes they’ll suck you in and spit you out the other end so fast you can’t control your boat. Other times they take you on a gentle, rocking ride. And once in a while they get mean, and try to turn over your boat – and dump you out!
Shades Canoe Camp is a nice spot for camping – with a big BUT! (At least this day.) As soon as I got there the gnats attacked. They seemed bent on totally driving me nuts. Luckily I had Avon Skin So Soft with me, and that drove them away for a while.
That night the raccoons were particularly aggressive. I expected them to get into my dirty dishes (I was just too tired to wash them that evening). But all night long they kept coming up and grabbing the tent and yanking at it – trying to get inside. I’d scare them away for about an hour then they’d be right back, waking me up. I guess they smelled the peanut butter that I had in there.
I left Shades at 9:10 the next morning. Late, but I got some much needed rest – in spite of the raccoons. And it was still early enough to get a head start on the canoe renters that came along around noon to put an end to the deer for the day.
This day I decided to just float along. I paddled the kayak only when I had to navigate a rapid.
It started out peaceful. Just the ripple of the water over stones, and the singing of the birds. At one point I heard an owl hooting off in the woods.
At a mile and a quarter downstream from Shades State Park I passed under a cement bridge. An interesting sight was the mud nests built under the overhangs of the bridge. There were a number of swallows entering and leaving. Seems too late in the season for them to be feeding their young as most of the newborns should be out flying on their own by this time.
At 11:00 I spotted the second Bald Eagle of the trip. He left a tree perch just ahead of me and flew downstream. Sighting the Bald Eagles out there in the wild happens to be one of the most pleasurable feelings I have when floating down Sugar Creek. At one time there were no Bald Eagles left in Indiana. This trip I saw three males, and two females. It was wonderful.
Two miles from Shades I shot through a rapid into a long pool of water. There are rock banks in that area, and the spot looks to me as if it’s a great place to do some fishing. I’ve noticed this place before, and on a future trip I plan to spend a couple of days here, just to meditate and fish.
Curiosity can be a very useful tool, and I want to see if the fishing there is as good as it looks to be.
This trip, though, I slowly cruised on through and continued my float.
About three-quarters of a mile further on I saw a Doe with two Fawns in the reeds just ahead of me.
When that Doe noticed the kayak floating toward her she moved up the bank, and into the trees. A moment later she called to the Fawns, and they followed her away from the water.
You see what I mean about getting out ahead of the canoe renters? If anyone were in front of me that morning I would’ve missed seeing those deer. It was just before noon when I spotted them.
I didn’t get to see another deer that day. I stopped for lunch at 12:40, and the first rental canoes showed up while I took that break.
Renters surrounded me all the way to Cox Ford Bridge. I got there at 3:30.
I was treated to something interesting while I was stopped for lunch though.
As I sat on the kayak I noticed something surface right beside me. At first I thought it was a snake but it turned out to be a turtle sticking his head out of the water for a breath of air.
It’s a wonder that I didn’t step on it when I got out of the kayak.
It had brilliant yellow stripes on its head and was very pretty. Every time I moved it would duck its head back into the shell. Then, if I was still for just a moment, it popped its head back out to have a look at me.
I watched the turtle for a few minutes and decided to get on my way again.
All of the renters were getting out at Cox Ford that day, and the afternoon was done for as far as viewing the wildlife was concerned. They spooked even the Bald Eagles so that they stayed in the air floating on the breeze.
I passed under the Route 41 bridge at 3:55, and 20 minutes later I got caught in a really bad storm.
I was out in the open with no place to even get out of the kayak when it hit me. Luckily I was able to tuck into an alcove in the rock where there was a slow-moving eddy.
I grabbed hold of the rock, draped my poncho over the cockpit opening, and held on for dear life.
That’s a picture of me at the spot on a later trip. At the time of the storm, the top of that rock was even with my shoulder. This is a picture taken in the month of September when the water level is much lower.
I heard a tree break and fall across the creek from me. The rain hit me like little tiny punches. The wind tried to wrench me out of my little hiding place, and send me tumbling across the water. The lightning and thunder were like God rolling bowling balls at giant pins just over my head.
Although it was still raining, I was able to get started again at 4:50. The rain kept coming down until 5:30, just ten minutes before I got to the old swimming hole near the Jackson Covered Bridge.
I went on to the bridge and decided to pitch my tent under its protection for the night. I wasn’t confident that the rain was done for, and I had no desire for camping in the open to battle any more rain that day.
The sun did come back out at 6:45 that evening.
As I set up camp a local resident named Mr. Wilson came to wash up in the creek. Seems the storm had knocked out his power along with all the power in the town of Rockville.
I later learned that power was out in Clinton, Montezuma, Hillsdale, and a number of other local towns too.
It was a real bad storm!
I saw the second snake of the whole trip at Jackson Bridge. I was surprised that I only saw two of them. But they are shy and usually run from you before you spot them.
In the morning I was back on the creek at 7:35. Another Bald Eagle came to my attention at 8:15.
At 8:25 a mouse ran up my leg, jumped off of the kayak, and swam toward shore. I hope he made it. I know he’d make a tasty morsel for a smallmouth bass. I guess he must’ve gotten into the kayak during the night. I thought I felt something brush my leg a while earlier, but I ignored it.
Sure startled me when that mouse decided it was time to leave.
I spotted three more Doe at 8:35. I was alone again. You rarely see boaters beyond Jackson Bridge.
I got to the Wabash at 11:45, and headed down the river. It’s a long float from there to Clinton and no convenient place to climb out on the banks for a stretch unless the water’s low enough to expose a sand bar. This trip it wasn’t that low, and the only stop I made the rest of that day was just downstream from Sugar Creek at Montezuma.
I finally made it to Clinton at 4:45 that evening.
Making that camping kayak trip all the way to Clinton was a goal I’d wanted for a long time. I finally reached it, but I was one tired camper at the end of the experience.