Milwaukee River: East Branch III
Dundee to Mauthe Lake
☆ ☆ ☆
A roguish trip by and by, one with several moments of knock-your-socks beauty and unique features in a mostly undeveloped corridor in the gorgeous Kettle Moraine State Forest, alas the overwhelming obstructions and obstacles outweigh the charms.
September 27, 2016
2.5′ per mile for the first mile, the marshy flatwater
Gauge note: The former gauge in Kewaskum is no longer in operation.
We’re reluctant to even recommend this trip in the first place, but you’ll want to do this in spring or after a hard rain, as the river is far upstream and very shallow just below the put-in.
Dundee dam off County Road F, Dundee, Wisconsin
Mauthe Lake off County Road GGG
Time: Put in at 9:10a. Out at 12:00p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 6.75
Wildlife: Great blue herons, wood ducks, turkey vultures, hawks, deer, fish
Time worth driving to: 30 minutes.
In June of 2015 we began exploring the allures of the little-known East Branch of the Milwaukee River, all of which is enclosed within the beautiful confines of the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, a truly enchanting environment of rolling hills and sunken hollows, kettle lakes, swamps, bogs, woodsy ridges and lots of public land. Our first trip started at County Road SS to County Road S, followed by our second trip from County Road S to Oak Drive. This left unfinished the short stretch upstream of County Road SS, which has since been on our to-do list. We really liked the two trips we first paddled, and satellite images of the upstream portion held great potential as the river meanders through the Milwaukee River Tamarack Lowlands and Dundee Kame State Natural Area. It was high time to complete this triathlon, now on the hinge of autumn.
This trip begins at a picturesque location below the historic dam in Dundee. There’s no official access to launch a boat – in fact, it’s a little bit inaccessible, but totally doable if you don’t mind the inconvenience. The water is gorgeously crystal clear, the bottom sandy and rocky. The first half-mile or so is simply fabulous. Undeveloped and downright wild-feeling, the river here is swift and intimate as it flows past a rugged landscape of hardwoods and boulders. There are several small riffles and shallow shoals. Unfortunately, there are some downed trees as well, some of which will require portaging around or over; others can be ducked under or ridden over, depending on water levels.
Then things will slow down, the river widens and the landscape expands. Now you’re in the marshy section, which comprises approximately half of this trip. Here the river zigzags west and east and left to right, back and again, over and over. The views are lovely and unspoiled, as there is no sight of development anywhere. You will see Dundee “Mountain” – a prominent hill that in glacial glossary is called a “kame” – several times, calling to mind the hilarious moment in European Vacation when Clark Griswald keeps saying “Hey kids, there’s Big Ben… Parliament.”
Eventually the river will turn south, narrow again, and have a current. You’ll pass beneath a few farm bridges as well as farms, followed by a couple houses, the back of a supper club and a couple actual road bridges. You’re now in the quaint hamlet of New Prospect. What isn’t so quaint are the few obstructions you’ll encounter along the way, not to mention the ugly hell of a mess that lies like a posse of thugs ready to mug you downstream of County Road SS. Indeed, just below County Road SS is a quarter-mile or so of awful logjams and downed trees, the concentration of which in such a short stretch may well constitute the single largest logjam area per capita on any river we’ve paddled – which is saying something. But mercifully this too shall pass, and the rest of the trip is really pretty, as you enter the hardwoods and shaggy tamaracks area before emptying into Mauthe Lake.
What we liked:
There are moments on this trip, however short-lived, that are wild and gorgeous. The peppy current and couple little riffles and ledges in the very beginning, the crystal-clear water from a former glacial stream, the hardwood forest and sense of escape, the unspoiled landscape of rolling hills and tamaracks – these are some of the best reasons why we love paddling in the first place and finding such treasures! These are some of the reasons why we’re willing to drive hours from our homes, despite the time and distance. These are some of the reasons why we’re eager to explore the obscure, even though it’s always a gamble, even though it’s more likely to be a bust than one of the best. There’s never a promise, but often there’s at least a premise of great potential. And when you’re a quixotic fool like us, that’s all you need sometimes.
The Kettle Moraine is just exquisite. It’s probably overlooked due to its proximity to the major metropolitan area of Milwaukee and the surrounding suburban counties, the single most population-dense part of the state. And, sure, today the intact contiguous parcels of land in the forest are an emaciatedly slim fraction of what it all once was. But what remains is jaw-dropping just the same. It’s very diverse and contains a unique display of opposites in the sense of tall hills and sunken depressions, dry ridges scorched by the sun and murky swamps where it’s dark as dusk even at summertime noon.
But the Kettle Moraine is more a land resource than a river one, a special place for hiking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing. That the East Branch of the Milwaukee River courses through the very heart of it is an exception-to-the-rule gift for paddlers. As short as this branch of the Milwaukee River is, less than 20 miles overall (and yes there is a west and north branch of the Milwaukee River as well), we were happy to do this trip and complete our total recon of this stream’s profile.
What we didn’t like:
At the time of this writing, a paddler can expect to encounter at least a dozen portages on this short trip. In our opinion, two portages per mile on average is a bit excessive and begs asking whether the good outweighs the bad. In other words, is the paddling trip overall worth these annoyances and impediments? That’s a subjective question, of course, because we all have our own limits. But we think it’s safe to generalize that encountering 8-10 portages within a ¼ mile is enough straw to break any camel’s back! That’s what lies below County Road SS. It’s just a hideous tangle down there, a mausoleum where trees go to die. We first encountered this death cluster only 18 months ago, noting that we’d return, fully prepared to clean it out and clear it up as best as we could. But this time around, well, A) there were way more down trees in the first place and B) they were far beyond our humble tools of handsaws and clippers. Frankly, without chainsaws and patience, this section is hopeless.
The other significant detriment to this trip is the slow torpor of the marsh section. The meandering nature is one thing, but this was a couple miles of choked lily pads, water plants and weeds, with no current. And god help you if you were against the wind! It was windy, and overcast, and only 50 degrees when we did paddle this, yet slogging through this section – the paddling equivalent of jogging through sand – caused us to sweat like beasts and actually have to change our funk-soaked clothes midway through, it was such a workout. Needless to say, it wasn’t fun. It became one of those times you just batten down and endure, paddling out of spite, not enjoyment.
If we did this trip again:
We’d consider redoing this trip earlier in the season, before the bombshell bloom of aquatic plant life in the marshy section takes hold and chokes the river. If this were more open and less frustrating, it would be very pretty and fun. Also, we’d be sure to take out in New Prospect and skip the portage horror show below County Road SS. Paddlers who are curious about the segment of river between SS and Mauthe Lake can easily begin at the lake and go upstream as far as the first logjam since there’s essentially no current at that point.
Milwaukee River East Branch I: New Prospect to New Fane
Milwaukee River East Branch II: New Fane to Kewaskum
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
4.5 miles by bike, about 5 miles by car. There are two trails at Mauthe Lake: the “Tamarack Nature Trail,” which goes around the lake itself and the “Lake to Lake Bike Trail,” which links Mauthe Lake and Long Lake, in Dundee, where there is another state forest campground. Saying nothing of the always welcome and appreciated convenience of bike-shuttling on a dedicated trail, these two are really quite beautiful, particularly the Tamarack Nature Trail around Mauthe Lake. It’s not for nothing that our favorite part of this whole trip was the actual bike shuttle!