Milwaukee River III
Grafton to Thiensville
☆ ☆ ☆
An exhilarating start with riffles and a Class I drop beside a rock wall that remains intimate and pretty for the next few miles before becoming a much deeper, wider and slower river with development and powerboats.
July 27, 2013
Riffles + Class I
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 5.75 | cfs: 260
We recommend this level.
Lime Kiln Park, Grafton, Wisconsin
Villa Grove Park, Thiensville, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8.75
Wildlife: A ton of great blue herons, one lone green heron, lots of kingfishers and a flurry of starlings swooping around me in one magic moment of a spot.
What we liked:
For better and maybe worse, the highlight of this trip begins before anything else. Lime Kiln Park is pretty dang cool and fascinating. By the turn of the century (the last one!) Wisconsin was a major player in the lime industry game and the huge kilns at this park were at the forefront of it all. Today three of the former five stand a little bit like ruins but the more beautiful because of it, at least if you’re even half the romantic that I am. (Thus it’s a little unsettling that this park gets trampled by birthday parties, family reunions and disc golfers. What could be the awe-inspiring Stonehenge of Ozaukee County instead gets crowded out by toddlers, horribly bad dance music blaring from someone’s radio and all the trappings of festive bunting and balloons. No, instead of Stonehenge, there are stoned teens whipping Frisbees. See how I can go from romantic to cynic in 17 seconds?)
Anyway, there are two options for putting in at Lime Kiln Park. The easier and safer (but less fun) one is at a dock located down the main hill from the kilns, pavilion area and the fishing ledge. The other is back up the hill, down a grassy slope, just upstream of the fishing ledge. Here you must make a quick choice to either go left or right of a large island. If you go left, there are fun riffles, a tight turn and a rock wall running the whole length. If you go right, you hit the Class I drop. Both options are good ones but I don’t recommend either for beginner paddlers because you need to have good boat control, especially with the quick current and potential strainers from overhead trees.
Immediately after this are a few more nice exposed rock outcroppings. The river continues (very shallowly) in a peaceful and scenic setting for another couple miles around a few more islands (one of which is so huge you begin to fear that perhaps you got diverted to a different river altogether). After you pass the first bridge (County T) you will come upon the mouth of Cedar Creek on the river-right. The setting here is as pretty as it gets. Indeed, Cedar Creek looks wonderful and is definitely on my future to-do list. At the mouth there’s a deep hole and I’m told the trout fishing is excellent.
After that, there is one more spot of effortless riffles (or scraping, depending on the water level), around the same area of some attractive high banks (called “tall wooded bluffs” by Meister Mike Svob, but I personally find that description a bit misleading, you be the judge by the photos below). I ended up following a flock of five blue herons whom I spooked at least five times as I kept paddling downstream.
The river gradually widens and begins to get deep. Past the Pioneer Road bridge (aka County C) at the 3.5 mile mark, you can expect to see powerboats. Those I past were all fishing and stationary but don’t expect isolation from this point forward. In fact, from here on, expect more boats and people-stuff along the way all the way to the takeout. True, there are some protected green spaces toward the end of the trip, namely Shoreland Nature Preserve and River Forest Nature Preserve but the full effect of these is not so much a sense of wildness as it is a buttress against more big house development or golf courses.
What we didn’t like:
The water was low and I got cranky at spots. Bear in mind two things: this neck of the Milwaukee River woods is considered upper, therefore it is more prone to being shallow this late in the summer without recent sustained rainfall. Also, the gauge needs to be taken in context. Except for a couple gauges on the West Branch of the Milwaukee River, there is nothing upstream of the one at Pioneer Road to help you assess where the river’s at. The best one can do, if not a local, is guesstimate. When I did this, the gauge was at 5.75’. Further upstream, the river could be as low as 8”! So in order to avoid a whole lot of scraping, as well as get the most rapid bang for your riffle buck, I would do this segment only if the gauge at Pioneer Road was around 6’. You can always consult this gauge but it’s not always as reliably updated.
And then are the powerboats. One in particular was at least briefly on my wish list for instant death. Or at least spontaneous boils and sores. Operated by teenagers pulling behind a showoff water-skier, the boat would floor it back and forth and back again a good ten times in a stretch of water no more than half a mile long, each time sending a wake of waves my way that I had to swerve directly into lest I get swamped. I’m not that much a young curmudgeon to expect teens to have better river etiquette (although I did want to brandish my paddle in as pitilessly menacing a manner as an old codger shaking his cane in the air shouting something incoherent about good for nothing troublemakers). I did get a good bucketful of river water at one point because I didn’t turn into the wake fast enough, giving me an unwelcome air of swampass for the rest of my paddle.
If we did this trip again:
Ideally, I wanted to put in below the dam in downtown Grafton. I don’t know if that’s even doable but it would be worth looking into. The reason for this is the beguiling small falls at the removed dam by the former Chair Factory in downtown Grafton, immediately upstream of the Falls Road bridge (see this page for additional info).
I was running late though, so I thought it prudent to shave off a mile both at the put-in and take-out. I completely forgot about the rapids only half a mile upstream of Lime Kiln Park (possibly the result of nursing a tiny hangover after a bachelor party the day and night before). This foamy ledge looks intriguing, though potentially pocked by debris remaining from the removed dam, to wit rebar (metal bar remnants) that would just suck something God-awful if when running this rapid you tipped and went for a swim and encountered.
A mile and change more paddling downstream of Villa Grove Park can be had until you reach the Village Park Boat Landing where there’s a prominent dam. The only things you’ll miss by taking out earlier are more houses and powerboats.
If I did this paddle again I would put-in below the dam in downtown Grafton and take-out at Pioneer Road for a total of 4.75 miles or so. I would also tack this trip onto a half-day’s segment of the enchanting Cedar Creek (where upstream of downtown Cedarburg lies Wisconsin’s oldest and only-original covered bridge).
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Discovery World
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VI: Fredonia to Grafton
Milwaukee River VII: West Bend to Newburg
Milwaukee River VIII: Estabrook to Bruce Street
Miles Paddled Video: Newburg to Fredonia
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River
Miles Paddled Video: