Milwaukee River: East Branch II
New Fane to Kewaskum
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
An exceptionally pretty section of the awesome East Branch of the Milwaukee River, this trip picks up where the last one left off. It has less swift water and less of a rugged feel, but is more intimate and just delightful in its own right.
June 16, 2015
1-2′ per mile (approx.)
Kewaskum: ht/ft: 3.20 | cfs: 80
Gauge note: This is on the West Branch of the Milwaukee River in nearby Kewaskum. Correlating the two precisely is imperfect but it’s better than nothing (alas, there used to be a gauge on the East Branch 1.5 miles from this trip’s takeout, but budget cuts have led to its desuetude).
80-100 cfs is perfect. This trip can be paddled as low as 40 cfs but you’ll scrape a lot the first 1/2 mile. Adequate water volume should not be a problem after that as the river deepens towards its confluence with the main branch of the Milwaukee River.
County Road S, New Fane, Wisconsin
Oak Drive, Kewaskum, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:20p. Out at 5:20p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Wildlife: Owls, sleeping deer, mergansers, softshell turtle, a bevy of singbirds, bald eagles and blue herons.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours.
So enamored with the previous trip down the East Branch of the Milwaukee, I decided to come back and begin the final segment of the river by putting in where I had taken out before. As such, this trip begins with delicious riffles that will continue for about half a mile or so. Unlike upstream, there are no notable rapids per se, but you’ll still be treated to several moments of sheer fun.
What this trip capitalizes on is lush tranquility, first as the river cuts through meadowy sections of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, later through a floodplain forest – both wonderfully bereft of development. Another distinction of this trip is its intimacy. At times, the river is mistakable for a creek with its width only twelve feet in places. Despite that, the stream is predominantly obstruction-free. There are lots of obstacles but almost all of them can be negotiated by ducking under or riding over trees. On a relatively obscure river for over six miles I had only one necessary portage and an easy one at that in the final mile. There’s plenty of evidence of sawed trees from past paddlers, whose efforts are ever appreciated and to which I was happy to contribute (and so I’ll note: this trip should ordinarily take only 3 hours. It took me 5 because I cleared up a lot of clutter to make this more accessible). You should paddle this trip! That’s why we do this stuff.
What we liked:
Beginning a trip with swift riffles is simply a beautiful thing! There’s more tree canopy below County Road S than above it, which means a little more tree debris inevitably. But this section is essentially clear and is a nice introduction to moving water and reading a river for beginners without any serious hazards.
The water clarity is just terrific. Amber-hued with hints of red ale, the bottom sandy and plants-flowing for most of this trip – it’s a real gem. Because the river is so narrow for most of this trip – again, it has both the look and feel of a creek – the paddling experience is akin to sneaking behind someone’s backyard. The height of the banks enhances this sensation, together with a more meandering nature than upstream.
Constantly alluring, you’re continually curious about what’s around the bend. This is why we love rivers, whereas a lake – never less than a fine prospect in its own staid manner – just gives it all away as soon as you start. It’s a lake, there it is. Any questions? You already know what to expect for the most part; you end where you begin and you can basically see all there is to see as soon as you’re on the water. But a narrow meandering stream positively beguiles. So many mysteries, so much intrigue.
By the time you approach and pass under Highway 28 the river will begin to widen, but gradually. That’s a little past the halfway point. Eventually the mesic forests and pine plantations will give way to floodplain bottomlands, a wild area of haunting beauty. On a sunny day the thick shade provides heat relief, and you’ll find kaleidoscopic flickers of light on the water surface in contrast with cool pools of shadows. On an overcast day or even a light drizzle, this swamp-like environment would be melancholy in the most romantic way.
Admittedly less hilly than the previous trip, you’ll be treated to a couple sweet views of kames (glacial mounds) towards the end of the trip.
Except for occasional glances of an encroached subdivision on river-left for the first couples minutes after putting-in, you’ll pass only three other signs of development: a farm directly upstream of Highway 28 and one directly below it and then finally another farm across from the takeout. That’s it. That’s a whole lot of not much for a trip over six miles just east of a major town (Kewaskum). Indeed, downstream from Highway 28 the river courses through not one but two protected state natural areas: Kewaskum Maple-Oak Woods and the Milwaukee River Floodplain Forest. It’s at the southern boundary of the latter where the East Branch meets the main trunk of the Milwaukee River; it’s always a fun novelty to paddle into a confluence.
The takeout, while not an actual landing, is very convenient. There’s a tall bank that tapers directly to the water, so getting out of your boat onto terra firma is quite easy. You’ll then have to schlep your boat up a small hill,but there’s a cleared walking path leading from the river to the road (Oak Drive). To that point, the takeout for this trip is not at the actual County Road H bridge but rather the road perpendicular to County Road H just to the east. You don’t want to take out at County Road H; there’s no good access and the road itself is very busy. By contrast, Oak Drive offers two pullouts for convenient parking and the aforementioned trail to the water.
Also, for me personally, there was a small wink of nostalgia once I paddled into the main trunk of the Milwaukee River and looked behind me to the east branch I’d just left. I paddled from Kewaskum to Barton last summer and remember noting the confluence. All these rivers and tributaries, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle to see how they all fit and the spectacular picture they make at the end.
What we didn’t like:
As mentioned in the previous trip, County Road S isn’t the best access point. The slope from the road to the river is steep and overgrown with grass and weeds. But it’s not much of a nuisance. I personally didn’t much care for the amount of tree debris I felt obliged to clear out, but it would’ve been rather naïve of me to think it would’ve been cleared magically. I didn’t like that it took me five hours to paddle 6.6 miles but it was totally worth it.
The only thing that truly stands out as somewhat unlikable on this trip is a mild sense of disorientation once you’re in the thick of the floodplain. The current is very slow, there are pools of water everywhere and clusters of obstruction will inspire you to paddle alternate channels that may or may not be the main channel or lead back to it. It’s not a big deal and it’s kind of fun feeling a little lost and having to use your wits, so long as it’s not 9:00 at night!
If we did this trip again:
Oh, I will! But next time I’d start at Youth Camp Road, a mile and change upstream of County Road S. It’s an easier access, for one, but more important you’d get the very best of swift water riffle rapids this way.
This is the second exploratory trip of the Milwaukee River’s east branch. Next on deck is the segment from Dundee to New Prospect. I can hardly wait!
Milwaukee River East Branch I: New Prospect to New Fane
Milwaukee River East Branch III: Dundee to Mauthe Lake
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
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
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Map: UW Extension
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River