Milwaukee River: East Branch I
New Prospect to New Fane
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A smorgasbord of a paddle featuring a variety of landscapes in less than eight miles. Ranging from woods to meadows to lake to swamp to rugged hills and rapids, this outstanding trip does have a few obstructions and thus is recommended only for intermediate paddlers or beginners who don’t mind a nuisance or two – for the payoff is totally worth it.
June 3, 2015
< 3′ per mile (final mile, 8′ per mile)
Kewaskum: ht/ft: 3.31 | cfs: 70
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 considerably. 100 cfs or above will be a wild ride in the rapids but dangerous due to occasional obstructions.
County Road SS, New Prospect, Wisconsin
County Road S, New Fane, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 4:20p.
Total Time: 3h 20m
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Wildlife: Bald eagle, great blue herons, crawfish, pike, deer and owls.
I first heard of this trip in Frank Piraino’s Small River Canoe Adventures of Wisconsin a year or two ago and it’s been simmering on the back burner of my to-do list since. I didn’t know what to expect with water levels, access or obstructions but it was a beautiful day in the beginning of June and I thought I’d take a chance. I hadn’t been in this part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in several years (and then only in winter, to cross-country ski) and I was eager to explore somewhere new and different than the usual south-central terrain.
Initally, it had all the makings of an outstanding trip. I’d first left my bicycle at the takeout at County Road S, below which is a Class I-II rapid was frothy with root beer-hued water. The put-in at County Road SS also was quite promising (same beautiful water, plenty deep, good flow, etc) and it even appeared that there was designated access to the water (in retrospect, this is inaccurate; what looked like a cleared out boat launch actually is trampled down either by equestrian traffic or the local farmer on a tractor).
Unfortunately, upon putting-in, there’s a tangled mess of strainers, vines, logs, obstacles and bank-to-bank trees in the first half-mile. You’ll have to portage a couple times here but it’s worth the effort – don’t give up!
Soon after, the river widens and slows and peacefully courses through a stunningly picturesque landscape of alders and conifers in what is technically a swamp – to wit, the Milwaukee River and Swamp State Natural Area (SNA) – but one that is wide open with no overhead tree canopy. There’s no development and the look and feel is truly northwoods-esque.
After passing a handsome pedestrian bridge along the Ice Age Trail, the river flows into Mauthe Lake, where even on a windy Wednesday afternoon there were a couple other paddlers afloat. The kettle lake itself is pretty and surrounded by gentle hills, and the only real development is a beach and campground (Mauthe Lake is part of the State Parks system). For those of us for whom lake paddling is a means to an end, (or more or less, cheerily put up with) will be glad to know that it’s only 0.4 mile from the inlet to the outlet where the river resumes. There’s no dam but a curiously low bridge allows for no safe clearance under, so you’ll have to portage right-right. It’s easy and well marked.
Alternatively, you can put-in at the actual boat launch at Mauthe Lake (you’ll need a State Park admission sticker) and either skip all the upstream section (not recommended; it’s too pretty!) or simply paddle upstream the inlet as far as you want to go and back down to the lake (it’s easy since the current is next to nonexistent).
The single-most uniform portion of the trip follows below the low-clearance bridge at the outlet. For the next four miles and change, the river takes its time meandering about the awesome Swamp State Natural Area that begins as dense shrub and becomes a rich lowland forest. Off to the mysterious east (river-left) a beguiling conifer swamp catches the eye, up to and including an actual peat bog – everything here created in the wake of receding glaciers some 13,000 years ago.
The wildlife sightings here were outstanding. I saw a bald eagle get picked on (and pecked at) by fearless redwing blackbirds, while great blue herons squawked in protest of my approach. I rousted deer resting in glades along the banks and spooked haunting owls flying in swooped arcs across the river. The foreground in indeed scrubby and sometimes barren but glacial moraines (long, tall ridges) frame the backdrop. The paddling here is slow and relaxed and you’ll feel like you’re in the backcountry.
Alas, there are some obstructions towards the end. I paddled this at a medium-low water level, which meant I had to portage over, not around, two large downed trees that straddled both banks (in lower levels you should be able to duck beneath at least one if not both of these – but I don’t recommend paddling this lower than what I did it at). Meaning, I climbed onto the tree, pulled my boat onto and over it and got back in.
This is always a dodgy enterprise, as you might slip on the tree or simply lose your balance and fall into the water. Pulling a boat up-and-over does require some upper-body strength, agility and there’s a risk of either losing your boat downstream or re-entering clumsily and tipping. But such variables are part of the ticket price of paddling obscure streams. Again, the payoff on this particular trip is absolutely worth it. There is evidence of sawed off tree limbs here and there, so someone’s been through here in the past and took the time to make the section more accessible. But that could’ve been five years ago, a decade ago, who knows…
Soon the river will widen once more, tamaracks will reach skyward on the left and you can relax again, soaking up the splendor. You’ll see what appears to be a huge backyard on your right, but is in fact a former Boy Scout camp. The river will begin narrowing and the current will begin to pep up. As you approach Youth Camp Road, small boulders will dot the riverbed, creating riffles and then the gradient will begin to drop in earnest.
The next mile and change is a totally different experience than everything upstream. Here, it’s all riffles and light rapids, mostly in long straightaway sections – which is nice and less dangerous than sudden bends and squirrelly eddies. However, you’ll be constantly maneuvering around the boulders and the occasional stray branch will snag your attention (and hopefully nothing more!). This section is an absolute blast. The fun of the actual paddling in swift water simply enhanced by the gorgeous surroundings of tall conifers atop hilly banks. You’ll swear this is somewhere more exotic and wild up north.
There are two drops of note, both approximately 18” with fun wave trains that follow. The first is beneath a wooden pedestrian bridge shortly downstream from Youth Camp Road and the second is beneath the take-out bridge at County Road S. Neither of these is difficult or dangerous.
However, there is a separate wooden bridge shortly below the aforementioned one that is tricky and requires caution. At this bridge there’s an unfortunate combination of three factors that makes it a little unsafe: the current is quite swift, the bridge itself is low clearance to begin with, and on the underneath side of the bridge are exposed pieces of metal (long bolts) to the left and middle. You do not want to bump your head on one of these! For real, you will injure yourself in a very potentially serious way. Thus, as you approach this bridge you’ll want to scoot over to the right immediately and go as slowly underneath as possible to allow for safe passage.
I purposefully ran aground to the shallowest part so that I could nudge my way forward on the right side. I paddled this at 70 cfs but I actually recommend this trip between 60-100 cfs, which means that anything higher than 70 cfs will require even more caution. There are a couple more objects to dodge in between Mill Road and County Road S, but I myself, cleared out the worst to allow for total passage, so this should remain open for a while.
What we liked:
The water clarity is terrific, ranging from amber to ruddy to root beer-hued. In the beginning and at the end, the streambed is gravelly, with occasional long stalks of grass wavy and willowy in the current. The visual effects of this are like a tonic for the soul too often used to boring brown muddy waters.
For almost an 8-mile trip, there’s hardly any development and what little there is tends to be tasteful and not incongruous. The wildlife was wonderful, and the wild sections above and below Mauthe Lake are outstanding. I was truly taken away by the overpowering beauty and smiling ear to ear.
And then the rapids! You could just run the 1.3 miles between Youth Camp Road and County Road S alone as it’s own little romp as long as the water levels are adequate, but to conclude this varied trip with such a bang snap whoa was awesome! Based on the satellite image on Google maps and the fact that there’s a road named “Mill” (which implies that at one time there was a mill; and where there used to be a mill there’s swift current – it’s what led to a mill having been built at that spot in the first place to take advantage of the hydropower), it was reasonable to expect riffles here but this section was so much prettier, more open and fun than I could have hoped for.
And it was by simple happenstance I drove in from the west via County Road S. My intended takeout was Mill Road because that’s what’s in the guidebook that originally tipped me off about this trip. But I stopped at the County Road S bridge to take a look since I was right there. It looked gorgeous and I was drawn to the alluring sound of rushing water below. I looked at the gazetteer and saw that this bridge was only half a mile from the intended takeout bridge, so I decided just to take out at County Road S, which is a public road anyway. I’m glad I did since it offered another 0.3-mile of beautiful swift water up to and including the best rapid on this trip. I got lucky this time. It was a good lesson though in thinking “outside of the books” and making your own discovery.
No doubt about it, this is my favorite trip so far for 2015!
What we didn’t like:
Currently, this segment of the river has some obstacles – most of them just annoying but some concerning. I didn’t like how badly tangled the very beginning of the trip was. I considered giving up and just starting at Mauthe Lake, but I’m glad I pushed on. No one likes to begin a trip this way; it sets the mood badly (and in this case undeservedly) and it’s a pain in the ass. “At least buy me supper first!” I often mutter under my breath when pioneer paddling and feeling screwed by all the crap immediately encountered.
The couple portages in the second half of the section between Mauthe Lake and Youth Camp Road are regrettable. To clear these out will require chainsaws for sure. Plus the water is deep, making it even more difficult. I already mentioned the low-clearance, metal-exposed footbridge in between Youth Camp and Mill roads. The only other imperfect mention is the take-out itself at County Road S. There, the bank is steep, which makes for pulling/dragging your boat up a little difficult, plus it’s all overgrown grass (Check for ticks!). But this can easily be improved upon with a little basic machete work.
If we did this trip again:
Not if, but when. When I do return, I’ll spend an hour or so cleaning up the half-mile below County Road SS and then do a little more maintenance during the swift water section to better ensure it’s open. As mentioned above, there would need to be a more robust or concerted effort to chainsaw the bigger, thicker obstacles in the mid-section. But this trip so utterly deserves some TLC and attention, because it truly is one of the prettiest trips I’ve ever been on, in southern Wisconsin or anywhere.
Milwaukee River East Branch II: New Fane to Kewaskum
Milwaukee River East Branch III: Dundee to Mauthe Lake
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River
A scenic 5.5-mile drive by vehicle – and you can bike this route too, but the roads are narrow and winding, and cars do like to joy ride them pretty fast. A better (and safer) bike alternative is to enter the State Park at Mauthe Lake (no one’s gonna flag you down for a parks pass sticker if you’re just on a bicycle!) and turn left onto the Lake-to-Lake Trail that effectively runs west then north to County Road SS. You do, however, need a trail pass for this ($20 annual, $4 daily).