Milwaukee River
★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River IV

By on August 10, 2014

Kewaskum to Barton
☆ ☆ ☆

A pleasant stream gently meandering around the bottom hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, this upper stretch of the Milwaukee River lacks the small rapids and scenery downstream but is nice enough in its own right.

July 19, 2014

Class Difficulty:

2.8′ per mile (Approx.)

Kewaskum: ht/ft: 3.15 | cfs: 80
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 6.3 | cfs: 580

Recommended Levels:
We recommend these levels.

Below dam off Parkview Drive, Kewaskum, Wisconsin
Above dam off Commerce Street, Barton, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 5:35p.
Total Time: 2h 5m
Miles Paddled: 8.5

Wildlife: Great blue herons, wild turkey, a variety of ducks and several kingfishers.
Time worth driving to: 30-35 minutes

This trip came about quite at the last minute. First, I wanted to go somewhere new, fun and different. I thought about re-doing the Newburg-Fredonia section of the Milwaukee River since the water levels were looking great but at the last minute I was inspired by a wild hair idea to try my luck further upstream on a stretch I was unable to find much info about. The map corroborated this whim: the topo looked promising – Kewaskum isn’t called the “Gateway to the Kettle Moraine” for nothing, plus I noticed an official state trail that would allow for a tidy and entertaining bike shuttle. I was sold.

I’m glad I did it but am doubtful I’d go out of my way to paddle it again. It’s a nice paddle but there are prettier and more engaging trips on the Milwaukee River. But as a novelty alternative, this is a fine little trip.

What we liked:
I’m a sucker for hills. I fall for them every time and they never fail to capture my attention or appreciation. Time for a quick geology session (cue the corny music). Despite this part of the state having been heavily glaciated during the last Ice Age (actually it’s precisely because of the retreating/melting glaciers) there are lovely rolling hills, called “drumlins,” everywhere (though not always seen from the river itself). The drumlins are basically deposits from the glaciers, the deposits also known as “drift.” This is why the large and spectacularly gorgeous area in south- and central-western Wisconsin is called “Driftless”. The glaciers never bulldozed through it, never deposited their drift there.

As such, the hills in southeastern Wisconsin are not characterized by the haunting exposed rock outcrops (predominantly sandstone and limestone) in the southwest. The Kettle Moraine is its own country, more gentle, less dramatic but still quite pretty. You catch a couple of drumlin glimpses during this trip, not too many and not enough to go out of your way for but enough to feel like you’ve seen something.

During this trip you’ll pass two designated state natural areas, Kewaskum Maple-Oak Woods and the Milwaukee River Floodplain Forest. Thematically opposites, the first is set upon a raised indentation of the landscape, the other flat bottomland.

The floodplain forest is pretty cool, about two miles downstream from the put-in. While you’re never far from civilization, here is a temporary escape and a near-oasis. You can certainly get out of your boat and explore the area on foot too. There are a few of these moments on this section of the Milwaukee River where the environs are surprisingly intimate. This contrast to the better-known utterly urban portion is what makes the Milwaukee River itself so interesting and alluring.

A mile-and-a-half or so upstream from the take-out, the only section of riffles begins in between Newark Road and the state trail bridge, at their best at a really cool metal truss bridge and a small island. Most of this trip is slow flatwater, so the riffles were much appreciated and even seemed like a rush. It’s very shallow here, however.

The other thing I really liked about this trip is the bike shuttle option. To be fair, the segment of the Eisenbahn State Trail that I pedaled was fairly nondescript. It basically runs parallel to Highway 45, with all its noise and annoyance but it sure beats trying to ride on the highway itself. Seriously though, we’re champions of bike paths and applaud their existence wherever they’re located.

What we didn’t like:
The river also runs parallel to Highway 45, so you’re almost never out of earshot of the highway din the whole time. It does diminish the charm some. So does the golf course immediately downstream from the put-in. There’s one bridge on the course too that’s a low-clearance hazard and would be difficult to clear in a canoe.

Notwithstanding the surprising depth of the river for this up(per)stream stretch, the current is painfully slow to nonexistent. Given that the surrounding landscape is hardly incredible and often in the surround-sound of highway traffic, the slowness makes the cumulative experience drag on.

Lastly, the takeout is a bit dodgy. There really is no designated place to take-out. I exited on the left just before the dam in Barton and then walked across a parking lot to the street (the parking lot is technically private property – set aside for the residents who live in the old mill building, now condos and apartments). Others have likely done this too, as a trampled down clearance in the grass can be discerned.

The unofficial access is not a big deal but what I could not for the life of me figure out is what one is supposed to do if desiring to portage around the dam and continue downstream? For there are neither signs directing you on where to safely portage nor any decent access to the river itself downstream (don’t know why you’d want to, as another dam lies a mile downstream, in West Bend*). Rivers are public areas and have right-of-ways, so there should be at least a good faith effort made to ensuring safe access in the event of an intrusive dam but I noticed no such thing.

*After this dam a popular stretch begins in downtown West Bend to Newburg, where the former dam there was recently removed (and replaced) with some fun riffles, I’ve heard.

If we did this trip again:
Doubtful. I’m glad I checked it out on a whim, but for a 90-minute drive from my house, I’d so rather do a different/better section of the Milwaukee River. That said, I’d consider checking out a section even more upstream of this, say in between Cambellsport and Kewaskum. Water levels would be tricky though. But the bike trail continues in this direction, so scouting should be easy.

Related Information:
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Discovery World
Milwaukee River III: Grafton to Thiensville
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: Newburg to Fredonia
Miles Paddled Video: Grafton to County Highway T
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Overview: Kettle Moraine Canoe Routes
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River


Shuttle Information:

Six skimpy miles, every foot of it along a designated state trail (where a railroad used to be).

Photo Gallery:


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