Oconomowoc River II
Wisconsin Avenue to Fowler Lake Park
☆ ☆ ☆
A pleasant, alebeit short trip, that goes river-lake-river-lake along stunningly clear water in a mix of opulent development and natural wetlands. Dams and additional lake paddling prevent adding to this trip upstream or downstream for most practical reasons, and there’s a pricey fee to use the boat launch at the put-in, but otherwise it’s a pretty charming paddle.
April 8, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈2′ per mile
Gauge notes: There is no gauge for the Oconomowoc River, but even if there were, this trip begins below a major dam that regulates water flow. That said, there should always be enough water to paddle it. If uncertain, you can visually gauge the water level below the dam at the put-in.
There should always be enough water to paddle this.
Village of Oconomowoc Lake Public Boat Launch off Wisconsin Avenue/County Road P
Fowler Lake Park, off North Oakwood Avenue, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 3:00p.
Total Time: 1h 45m
Miles Paddled: 3.75
Wildlife: Koots, unidentified fish, cranes, mallards and Canada geese.
Several years ago we happened upon an online a pamphlet that listed recreational opportunities for the mid-section of the Kettle Moraine, which noted paddling a short segment of the Oconomowoc River between all the lakes about which we’d never even heard, let alone considered. We were delighted to learn of a quiet and inconspicuous portion of the river between the Chain O’Lakes and wanted to check it out. (Thanks UW Extension!)
At the forefront, kindly bear in mind at least two disclaimers about this trip: it’s really short (not even 4 miles – half of which is flatwater lake paddling), and it’s plumb in between the most developed area of the state (southeastern Wisconsin). For some paddlers, all of that’s a deal breaker dead on arrival. For others, it’s a perfect persuader to be on the water when they might not otherwise. Either way, there is nothing exotic about this peculiar little trip. However, it’s a delightful novelty – a quintessential example of a backyard adventure hidden in plain sight.
Let’s shed a little light on all things Oconomowoc River. It’s not that long a stream to begin with – only 40ish miles, much of which is in the form of a lake. And for at least paddling purposes, it can be divided into northern and southern halves: the north, which runs through very pretty swaths of the Kettle Moraine and Ice Age Trail, is often far too narrow and shallow to even consider paddling; and the south, which essentially begins below the last of the dozen+ lakes in the Oconomowoc Chain O’Lakes area before entering the Rock River. With the notable exception of the Loew Lake trip in the hamlet of Monches, there really is no paddleable portion for all practical purposes in the upper stretches of the river. And then there are the lakes. Whole lotta lakes, whole lotta motorboats, whole lotta ritzy development. If that’s your jam, then you’ll be happy as a clam. But for us lovers of rivers, the Oconomowoc simply means the final miles before its confluence at the Rock (which we first paddled in 2011).
This trip begins on the downstream side of a giant dam that creates or at least maintains water levels for the ginormous Okauchee Lake. The water level here is crystal clear. The river briefly heads south, then mainly west for half a mile before entering the next lake, Oconomowoc Lake. Turn right and head west along the north shore of the lake to find the outlet. The outlet itself is in the far northwestern corner of the lake. There’s a small bridge with a small sign that says “Dam.” All things considered, it’s a ridiculous, dinky dam – literally in someone’s backyard – but portaging around it (on the right) is like going around a beaver’s dam.
The next mile and change is the “wildest” portion of this trip, where the river flows in a slow straightaway through a marshy wetlands complex. After crossing under Highway 67 – or is it Highway 16? or both? – for the first or second or third time (don’t ask me!), you’ll enter another residential area before the river flows into Lake Fowler. Once you’re on the lake proper, turn right again (north) and hug the right shore to find Fowler Park. There are some pretty buildings in downtown Oconomowoc in the backdrop off to the left. There is no official access at Fowler Park, even though there is a dock on the water. But the shoreline itself next to the dock is plenty accessible in its own right. There’s plenty of parking here as well as full facilities.
What we liked:
Putting-in at the public boat launch is as easy as it gets, since it’s a concrete ramp. The water spilling over the dam provides a visually unusual backdrop – hardly a true waterfall, but a unique optic just the same. In front of you lies another unique optic: five bridges in a row in a span of 400′. The coolest of these is a brick-and-cement railroad arch bridge, which is strikingly aesthetic and harkens back to a bygone day.
On this section of the river, and at this time of the year especially (i.e., spring, before the algae blooms and motor pollution of summer), the water clarity is quite spectacular. Even when you’re on the deeper lake sections, the water is still clear, the effect of which is shimmering enchantment. That alone may well be the price of admission. (Note: while we usually use the phrase “price of admission” rather whimsically, since 99% of the time paddling is free – as it ought to be – there is actually an associated fee for this trip, alas. More on that below.)
After this the river meanders around a couple steepish bends, where a row of houses will appear on the right bank, as will a charming and surprisingly large island. An attractive and quite tall footbridge connects the two. On the other side of the island you’ll come upon the inlet to Oconomowoc Lake, which has no fewer than zero public accesses on it. What it does have, however, are some of the most ginormous McMansions along shoreline property you ever done see. There’s plenty of lake paddling to do, if you like, but you as a riff-raff paddler might get the stink-eye from the “have-mores” on their “private” lake. The wind was kicking it up at 20-25 mph on this day, straight out of the south, which meant a sluggish but fun mile of 1.5′ waves to bob up and down (and was a welcome distraction from the lavish extravagance).
Not to sound macabre or anything, but as you approach the inlet to Lake Fowler there’s a large cemetery on the raised left bank leading to the inlet that was interesting to paddle alongside since some of the tombs were elaborate and large.
What we didn’t like:
Good luck finding Fowler Park! See “Shuttle” info below.
Let’s spend a moment on the boat launch fee at the put-in. The cost is a considerable $8.25 to launch a kayak or canoe, compared to $10 for motorized boats when there’s no attendant present or even $11.75 when there is. We’ve already gone on a soapbox about Waukesha County and boat launch fees (to wit, only the day before on the nearby Bark River). But the shorthand rant goes like this: expecting paddlers to pay a fee to share a body of water with motorboats and Jet-Skis is asinine. Keeping lake water-levels high enough via artificial damming of a river – that paddlers have to portage around – is a privilege for the combustible engine crowd. No paddler is asking for that, only the motorized folks. We came to paddle the Oconomowoc River, not the overpopulated lakes; but in order to do that you have to pay a fee. Because there is no public access at Lake Oconomowoc itself, the only way to get there is via the Wisconsin Avenue boat launch. Thus, paddlers who just want to do the river and have to paddle into the lake and then portage at the rinky-dink dam also get stuck with this fee, which is kind of insulting.
Also, this fee is the most expensive we’ve seen – and for the shortest trip at that. True, we kind of found the added quarter to be quaint – not a flat $8, but $8.25 – until we saw the $11.75 remainder fee and associated the two. These are expensive rates, period. How much of the cost has to do with paying some poor high school kid to attend the launch as opposed to just being ritzy Oconomowoc, we have no idea. Either way, it’s BS.
Also, we had an actual run-in with the police while portaging around the dam that keeps the water levels on Lake Oconomowoc up for the rich. Allow me to set up the scene in order to underscore the oddity of this. As the photos will illustrate, this dam really is on someone’s backyard. And a cop just happens to be there at the exact same moment we are…? Call me a paranoid Madison liberal, but this is just a bit too incredible a coincidence. To be fair, he was a nice guy. But he kept asking us where we started from, where we were headed to, what kind of car we drove, license plates and all. Supposedly, “a blue Subaru” had knocked down a sign or something at the boat launch put-in. Who knows. But considering that this run-in was 24 hours after the Hartland PD put a sticker on my car really did nothing to improve my opinions about being in Waukesha County.
Finally, but unsurprisingly, there was a lot of pollution in and on the water – plastic bottles, aluminum cans, Styrofoam, plastic bags, etc. We hauled what we could.
If we did this trip again:
Highly unlikely. We’re glad we did it – it’s not without its charms. But between the boat launch cost, the distance from Madison, the short overall length of the trip, the lake paddling, all the development and the garbage, this will remain a one-and-done trip. The curious itch has been scratched.
2.7 miles – but expect to double that when you inevitably get lost (unless you have GPS). I always – and I mean always – get confused in this area, as there seems to be at least two separate (but coequal?) branches of Highway 67 and Highway 16. Normally, 67 is a north-south road, except that out here it doubles up east-west with Highway 16. That is, when it doesn’t split apart from itself only to rejoin later. As for Highway 16, one version of it is the plain Jane highway it always is, while the other is some super-fast overpass autobahn. As for finding Fowler Park itself, unless you’re familiar with the area, we wish you the very best of luck finding this Batcave!
For what it’s worth, I (Timothy) had written down the shuttle directions ahead of time, as I don’t own a smart phone or GPS and predicted that it would be disorienting in real time once I was out there. (And as incredible as it may sound, the guy who drove the shuttle with me also doesn’t own either device). Great idea, but the directions – which always look so simple on a satellite map via a desktop at home – became obsolete within half a mile of starting the shuttle. The other problem is one’s standard state atlas & gazetteer is useless for details in highly developed suburbs such as, well, anywhere in Waukesha County, Oconomowoc in particular. You’d really need a town or county map for all the roads out this way.
Needless to say, this was the longest 2.7-mile shuttle in the history of paddling. And yes, even during the return shuttle at the take-out, we got turned around again.