Milwaukee River
★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River I

By on June 29, 2012

Newburg to Fredonia
☆ ☆ ☆

A beautiful paddle on a fun section of river with clear water, lots of riffles, excellent fishing, many islands and a rolling landscape that continues to capture the imagination.

June 24, 2012

Class Difficulty:
Riffles + Class I

Milwaukee: n/a
Cedarburg: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 90
Gauge note: The Milwaukee gauge was inoperational due to dam removal.

Recommended Levels:
These levels were far too low to paddle. Instead, we recommend a minimum of 470 cfs on the Milwaukee gauge and/or 325 cfs on the Cedarburg gauge.

Fireman’s Park, Newburg, Wisconsin
Waubedonia Park, Fredonia, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 12:30p. Out at 6:30p.
Total Time: 6h
Miles Paddled: 10.5 (Due to construction/alternate put-in location)

Wildlife: A barn owl, lots of trout, turtles, crawfish, blue herons, and a couple osprey.
Time worth driving to: 2 hours

Touted as the most scenic stretch of the long and diverse Milwaukee River, one that begins almost immediately through a nature preserve, the river here twists and turns in a fun, active way. It offers at least three modest drops (ranging from a few inches to no more than a foot) and lots of riffles. Probably not suitable for someone’s debut paddle but accessible to most beginners. If you’re into fishing, this is a premier place to be. We saw several that were a foot-long (I don’t know squat about fishing, much less names of fish). Plus, southeastern Wisconsin rivers are coveted areas for the springtime ritual of spawning steelheads (I know that name at least, after looking it up in a book).

The water here is clear and you will see more crawfish shooting backwards than at a Bubba’s boil back down in Baton Rouge. Seriously, hundreds. The river bottom fluctuates between sand, gravel and odd chunks of rock about as big as a phonebook (remember phonebooks?). One very cool section (I don’t remember where) featured a series of small shelves underneath the water, something that reminded me of the Lake Superior coastline. The Riveredge Nature Center lies only a mile downstream from the put-in and flanks both sides of the river for a solid mile. High wooded bluffs surround the scene; it’s very pretty.

What we liked:
It’s very pretty, isolated and entertaining. Great wildlife and a beautiful setting.

What we didn’t like:
Low water! Did you notice how long it took to paddle this? Six hours for almost an 11-mile trip! Not until the town of Waubeka is the water volume normal and adequate but this is at the 9-mile mark! Up until then, there wasn’t a window of time longer than 30 seconds between rock-bottom scrapes and foul-mouthed grumbles. It got old, quick. Granted, southern Wisconsin is in the grips of a parched drought but this area of the state received a lot of rain earlier in the week.

I first checked the USGS site for the Cedarburg gauge (the closest one to Newburg-Fredonia) and the water level was rated as good, not even fair. What the website doesn’t tell you is that the dam in Newburg is currently being removed. This is always welcome, to be sure but the problem is that the water upstream of the dam has been drained during this project, thus leaving precious little below the dam. I saw no signage anywhere mentioning this. It was not until I returned home (a heluva lot later on in the night than I had planned for!) and looked online for clues did I come across this little bit of light shed on what’s going on.

To put this into context, Mike Svob recommends that the water level be at least 350 cfs for a comfortable, scrape-free paddle. The Cedarburg gauge read “Good” the day before I did this paddle. I checked it again the following day, and it read 99 cfs (!) for 6/24/12, which is both humbling and heartbreaking. The same day last year, you wonder? 550 cfs. That’s what happens after draining a river upstream in conjunction with a rainless drought. Bear in mind that Cedarburg is a good 24 miles downstream of the Newburg put-in.

If there is no present term for this and unless this is deemed insensitive or politically incorrect, I would like to offer “wheelchairing” for the following scenario: when the water is too shallow to bother using your paddle, yet you remain too stubborn to get out of your boat to walk and schlep, so you reach down on opposite sides of your kayak and propel yourself forward with your hands, pitiless inch-by-inch, in desperate and/or delusional hope of finding a deep-enough pocket of water to warrant using your actual paddle and redeem the whole experience.

If we did this trip again:
I absolutely will and not just because of spite and pride but because it is scenic and fun. BUT ONLY IN ADEQUATE WATER! I don’t know when the full dam removal project will be completed, let alone when we’ll ever get rain again but it would be wise to contact the Washington and Ozaukee Public Parks departments first to make sure there is enough water. At the time of this writing, my email to both has gone unanswered, maybe because I am from Madison (Together with Waukesha County, Washington and Ozaukee constitute the trifecta of the dead-red Republican bastion in Wisconsin. Indeed, saying nothing of the umpteen pro-Scott Walker yard signs and bumper stickers, one actually read “Former Embryo.” Wow! Hadn’t seen that one before). [Editor’s note: The guy had a rough day, I had to let him vent]

Coincidence or conspiracy, the town of Waubeka is apparently the home of Flag Day. And to think I missed that momentous occasion less than two weeks ago!)

Related Information:
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Discovery World
Milwaukee River III: Grafton to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River VI: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VII: Fredonia to Grafton
Milwaukee River VIII: West Bend to Newburg
Milwaukee River East Branch I: New Prospect to New Fane
Milwaukee River East Branch II: New Fane to Kewaskum
Milwaukee River East Branch III: Dundee to Mauthe Lake
Miles Paddled Video: Grafton to County Highway T
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River


Shuttle Information:

Just over 6 miles. A lovely pedal through the rolling landscape and farms of bucolic Washington and Ozaukee counties.

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