Oconomowoc River III
Monches to Okauchee Lake
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A wild and wooly trip that offers a wonderful diversity of paddling platforms from boulder gardens, glacial moraines, wooded forest, floodplains, rapids and lakes, this is an awesome but little known segment of the Oconomowoc River! The two downsides are that low water will usually be problematic, and this trip is not fit for beginner paddlers or canoeists due to the constant obstacle course of downed trees and hairpin turns in rapids. But if the water is high enough, and your skills adequate, this is a great trip.
June 4, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈6′ per mile
Nagawicka Road: ht/ft: 12.9 | cfs: 53
Gauge notes: This is a correlative gauge, since there is no gauge for the Oconomowoc River. The Bark and Oconomowoc Rivers are very comparable in many ways, not least of which is geographical proximity. You’d do best by visually scouting the river at County Road K, just before the river enters Okauchee Lake. There are riffles and light rapids there. If they look runnable, everything else will be as well. If not, you’ll scrape in the shallow sections.
While a little low, we recommend this level – but with a couple caveats. We scraped in the shallows and boulder gardens here and there, but there was enough water to float unscathed, by and by. In higher water, the rapids would be more fun – but veering on the dangerous side due to the many obstructions one must maneuver around. Plus some of the low-clearance trees would need to be portaged.
The dam at County Road E (aka Kettle Moraine Scenic Dr), Monches, Wisconsin
Guest dock at Hollywood’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill on Okauchee Lake, off County Road C, Nashota, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7
Turtles, frogs, unidentified fish, cranes, geese, deer, ducks, great blue and green herons and turkey vultures.
7.1 miles. Uncannily as long as the paddling mileage, the shuttle route is pretty simple, if a little indirect. It’s not unsafe for bicycling, although there’s little to no shoulder area on the roads (as often is the case in Waukesha County).
Years ago, before I’d traded my boots for boats, I used to do a lot of hiking. One memorable occasion was a there-and-back walk along the Ice Age Trail to Holy Hill, beginning in the wee hamlet of Monches (pronounced MON-chez). This is neither the time nor place to regale that story, but suffice it to say that I (Timothy) was literally crawling on my hands and knees through the pitch-black woods at night, all but lost. That left an impression on me, to say the least!
Several years later, I returned to paddle the Loew Lake portion of the Oconomowoc River that happens to run along this segment of the Ice Age Trail. The Loew Lake trip begins above the dam in Monches and actually goes upstream (there’s practically no current). For years I’d been incurably curious about what the river is like below the dam and before it goes through the chain of lakes in the Oconomowoc area. I remember scouting a bridge or two once and finding the whole premise unwelcoming and impractical, between bad accesses, shallow water and No Trespassing signs. However, that was totally upturned when we received a comment from a fan of the site in response to our previous trip on the Oconomowoc River that stated precisely where one could paddle in between Monches and the chain of lakes and what to expect along the way (thanks again Dev for the awesome intel!). My curiosity and yearning to explore the obscure were re-ignited!
For this trip, I chose to begin right at the Monches dam, in part out of my own nostalgia, and in part out of our OCD river completism. It was a total gamble, as we only had information on the segment of river from the East Killbourne Road bridge to Okauchee Lake, about 3.5 miles downstream from Monches, making for a pretty skimpy trip of only 4 miles total. But the area by the dam looked inviting enough to try my luck. That said, this trip can be easily split in two halves: Monches dam to North Lake, and North Lake to Okauchee Lake. While all but nobody knew about the first half (at least upstream of East Kilbourne Road), I discovered to my surprise and delight that the second half from lake to lake is rather popular with locals.
As far as ending this impromptu trip, my first idea was the bridge at County Road K, as that is the last bridge over the river before the big lake (Okauchee is huge, and its public accesses are few and far between – all on the southern end of the lake at that; the river’s inlet is at the north). I didn’t want to paddle this lake, in part because this trip already requires a 1-mile paddle across a different lake.
The bridge at County Roa K is doable, but not ideal. There are light rapids leading to and directly following the bridge, and access to dry land is difficult and dirty. But I was resolved to do it… until I saw that County Road C, a stone’s throw away from the bridge at County Road K, runs north-south and parallel the lake’s east shore. On a lark I drove down it to see if there might be anywhere to take-out there instead. The only prospect that wasn’t a private home was Hollywood’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill, a biker bar on a tall bank overlooking the water where there is a guest dock. I asked a bartender inside if I could use the dock to end my day-paddle, and she said “sure thing” without blinking an eye. It would be a much better access and allow me to get the best of both worlds of paddling into the lake without really having to paddle across the lake.
Right off the bat, riffles greet the paddler at the put-in. (Actually, there are two places to launch a boat below the dam. The first is off of some rock rubble right next to the County Road E bridge, which is what we did. You’ll want to be mindful of the loose footing, but it’s nothing treacherous. A swift current will steer you towards a strainer, so you’ll want to be careful of that, too. The other is via a feint path to a quieter backwater slough that connects to the main channel. The latter is a little muddy and rutty, but is an easier launch and avoids the fast current and strainers.)
The current catches its breath and slows down to a crawl only moments later, as you enter a pretty, peaceful marsh. It was a hot, sunny summer weekend day, but the only other (human) soul out there was a guy in a Jon boat bow-hunting carp. I thanked him for his service. The first mile of the trip is completely wild and devoid of development. There, you are in crystal clear water, the bottom of the river alternating between sand and rocks, both banks flanked in woods. And here and there the river constricts to little drop rapids – nothing dangerous, just delightful and fun. After that, the current will calm down again, allowing you to soak up the serene scenery in long straightaways.
The river will make a quick left-right meander as it goes under an impressive wooden bridge along the Ice Age Trail. (For better photos than I took as well as a narrative about hiking along that segment of the trail, see here.) It’s a tricky turn due to the current, so approach it cautiously. Following it is a whole lotta deadfall, but all of it was paddleable without having to portage, as long as you were willing to turn and pivot and twist and crouch. Even trees that looked like they were non-negotiable offered a sliver of space to slip through.
A boulder garden comes up next, something straight out of what you find in Central Wisconsin, but almost never down here in the south. In the relatively low water level we paddled this at, the boulders squatted stout above the surface, presenting an obstacle course. In higher water, this stretch would make for a wild “lightwater” ride. Improbably embedded in the boulder garden was a patio swing – and even more improbable than it merely being there in the first place was that it was upright, as though nothing could be more normal than to have your swing sitting in the middle of a river and not a yard. It was truly surreal.
After the boulder garden is a long, lanky straightaway of mostly flatwater. It’s a pleasant stretch to relax, kick up your feet and float for a spell. Prior to 1992, this stretch had been a lake called Funks Millpond, created by a dam near Laskin and East Kilbourne roads. Interestingly, even though it’s been a quarter of a century since the DNR removed the dam, its name still appears on Google Maps… The landscape has mostly recovered and been restored, but it still feels like its heaving a huge sigh of relief.
The river will narrow again, then take a bend to the left back into the woods. A sharp right-hand turn follows, as do the first real rapids of the day. Indeed, from here to Highway 89 – a stretch of a little more than half a mile – the river is pretty frisky and should be paddled only by those with experience. It’s not that it’s technically demanding in terms of reading the river so much as it is the paddler needs to have precise boat control to avoid being swept into trees. The current is very strong and there are many hair-pinned turns. It’s really fun though. Strong riffles whisk you towards the three culverts at East Kilbourne Road. See below for this. Immediately on the other side of the road is a super-tall railroad tunnel bridge looking incongruously out of place in the landscape (but really cool on account of its incongruity). This is a strange spot of city planning in that you have a river here, a road, a railroad bridge, and the Ice Age Trail, all four converging at this one place.
A paddler could easily begin (or end) a trip here, as there’s good parking along the road and easy access to the water at the railroad tunnel, below the culverts, on river-left. Briefly, the river catches its breath again through a landscape of woods and lush greenery. Along the banks are several natural springs, too, which were a welcome surprise. A series of power lines precedes another strangely tall bridge along the Bugline Trail, an east-west Waukesha County trail used mainly for bicyclists. Soon you’ll see a series of wing dams composed of tall trees and rocks. While paddling, I recognized these for what they were, but didn’t know why they were there. Keeping the current chugging along? Trout habitat? To skip ahead for a moment, after I was done paddling and then pedaling my bike shuttle I had lunch at Hollywood’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill, this trip’s ad hoc take-out. While there, I met and had a delightful chat with the only other non-bikers at the bar, a retired couple who live nearby and knew a lot about the area, especially in terms of recreation. Turns out that one of the couple was instrumental in creating the wing dams along this section of the Oconomowoc River. The back-story is this section – immediately upstream of Highway 89 – is prone to flooding (it does have the look and feel of a floodplain forest). So the wing dams, created entirely in situ, help prevent the river from spreading out into the woods. Pretty cool.
You’ll pass a couple houses – the first on this trip so far – and a low-clearance footbridge before the river slips back into the hidden woods. You’ll hear the sound of rapids again, these ones even bigger than the previous, the turns still hairpin. It’s a fun run, but be mindful. You’ll go underneath the drab concrete bridge at Highway 89 before you know it. Shortly after it, on river-left, is an inconspicuous boat launch that I had no idea existed until I passed two teenagers in kayaks paddle upstream to it. This is the launch for getting out onto North Lake, if that’s your thing (or if you want to paddle a lake-river-lake segment of the Oconomowoc). Again, you’ll pass more houses now, on the right, leading to the inlet of North Lake.
It was a pleasant day to be out on the lake briefly. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of development along the lake, and you’ll have plenty of company on the lake, usually those involving motors. That said, we did pass two other kayakers and two groups on S.U.P.s. Locating the outlet on North Lake was easier than I thought, and all in all, it’s only about a mile of lake paddling. You’ll paddle due west, however, so wind could be an issue (but it wasn’t on this day). The half-mile from the outlet to the next bridge at West Shore Drive is quiet and pretty. There are some houses, but the clarity of the water is just breathtaking and the current is gentle.
But not for long. Below West Shore Drive the river will drop again in another beautiful, undeveloped stretch. Asides from being very pretty, the rapids here are totally safe: the river is wider than before, and there were fewer tree obstacles to worry about or work around than in the rapids upstream. The river here is really shallow and rocky, however – the shallowest anywhere on this trip. Running aground, fishtailing sideways, and finding your boat fill up with water could be problematic at low levels. Still though, these are Class I rapids, nothing crazy. All in all, it’s about ¾ mile of fast fun! (That said, you could skip this by taking out at West Shore Drive).
Shortly after the last bridge, at County Road K, the current slackens as you enter a marshy stretch that leads to the inlet to Okauchee Lake. There’s not much to see here, as it’s plenty developed. Fortunately, it’s a very brief stretch to the guest dock, on the left, at the biker bar. Also, when you go to the bar for a beer or bite to eat – which you should since their food is as good as their generosity is for letting a paddler use their dock – see if one of the few tables on the back patio is open. It overlooks the river from high above and makes for a great post-trip experience.
What we liked:
We here at Miles Paddled are pretty obsessed with spending time on water. Big rivers, narrow creeks, trout streams, lakes Great and small. Hell, we’d paddle a drainage ditch if there were a reason to – or we lost a bet. As far as obsessions go, this one is rather benign (and beneficial to others). While we go out of our way to prevent this obsession from skewing our objectivity, there are some things we take for granted on which normal people might have a different perspective. For example, we forget that not everyone wants to paddle twelve miles total or spend three-to-four hours on a body of water. And not everyone, beginners especially, can casually look past whatever monotony there may be on a certain trip in between the really cool, beautiful spots.
I mention all this because this trip on the upper Oconomowoc packs as much punch in a 7-mile stretch as a paddler could ask for. The landscape changes every half-mile or so from fast to slow, steep to flat, open and secluded. Over and over, back and forth. So, if you find yourself bored, then you shouldn’t be in a boat in the first place.
The scenery alongside the Ice Age Trail is gorgeous, the boulder garden awesome, the rapids fun and engaging. Even entering and then exiting the lake was a fun novelty. There’s just so much diversity on this short trip!
While paddling past the aforementioned wingdams upstream of Highway 89, I recognized these for what they were, but didn’t know why they were there. Keeping the current chugging along? Trout habitat? I happened to resolve the mystery after this trip, when I had lunch at Hollywood’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill (aka this trip’s ad hoc take-out). While there, I met and had a delightful chat with the only other non-bikers at the bar, a retired couple who live nearby and knew a lot about the area, especially in terms of recreation. Turns out that one of the couple was instrumental in creating the wing dams along this section of the Oconomowoc River. The back-story is this section – immediately upstream of Highway 89 – is prone to flooding (it does have the look and feel of a floodplain forest). So the wing dams, created entirely in situ, help prevent the river from spreading out into the woods. Pretty cool.
While still on the subject of Hollywood’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill, their veggie burger is out of this world! I’m kidding; there is no veggie burger – it’s a bike bar! But the bison burger seriously is outstanding (and locally sourced).
Also worth mentioning, the cool couple I met and with whom I chatted at the bar mentioned a land trust program in Waukesha County called Tall Pines Conservancy. I’d never heard of it, but I did see a couple signs along pieces of property during the bike shuttle. The mission statement of the conservancy is “to preserve our rural heritage by protecting remaining farmland, water resources, natural areas and open spaces.” They have an entire protection program dedicated to the Oconomowoc River alone! How awesome is that?
What we didn’t like:
The put-in below the Monches dam is not for everyone – or every car. Immediately west of the dam is a dirt path off County Road E that steeply leads to a flat parking area on the grass. I was feeling very cute and cool in my new (re: 2007) Subaru Outback with its AWD and high ground clearance, so such a rugged access was exactly what I was looking for! But my old car – rest in peace, good buddy! – would’ve had a hell of a time with this. Alternatively, you could just leave your car on the road, a side street, or a park nearby with a real parking lot.
(And just so you don’t think I’m bragging, my “new” car started to smoke exactly one week after owning it. Eat that, ego! Don’t ever – EVER! — buy a car from a used lot whose first name is Extreme, second name is Auto, and is located in Wautoma, Wisconsin.)
There’s a lot of deadfall on this trip, most if not all of it from the put-in to North Lake, which is to say the first half. Except for one giant tree that spanned both banks and had zero clearance beneath it or ability to ride over it – the only portage of this trip – all the deadfall could be negotiated by nimbly dodging around, over, and under the many obstacles. I didn’t really mind this, as it was a good exercise in maneuvering and boat control. But I’m a weirdo, and I recognize others would feel frustrated by these impediments or get caught in or on them.
(Incidentally, that giant tree is just upstream of the powerlines that are just downstream from East Kilbourne Road. You can see the damn thing from the satellite map!)
As mentioned above, water levels will be tricky to catch at a happy medium where the river is high enough to avoid scraping/taking your boat for a walk but still low enough that it’s not unsafe through the squirrely rapids.
As you approach East Kilbourne Road you’ll see three culverts – there’s no bridge. Prior to putting-in, I did scout these to make sure at least one was clear. Clear of debris, yes, but all three are festooned with spider webs. Not just webs, but big black ugly dots dangling on the webs that even in the dim lit of a culvert tunnel I could easily discern for the disgusting menaces they were. (Sorry, arachnophiles, but I don’t do spiders – big ones especially.) The trouble is A) there’s really no good place to get out on the upstream side of the culverts in order to portage around this trifecta of spidery ambush and B) the riffly current is very strong here as well. I knew that I really, really didn’t want to go through any of them – each one is grossly decked out like the last Halloween of all time – but there just wasn’t a practical way to portage ahead of time. So I went through crouched as low to my boat as I could get, inducing a small-level anxiety attack all the while (no, I’m not exaggerating). On the other side, I got out immediately, shaking everything off my body and out of my boat like an epileptic fit. I found one bastard on the bow of my boat and took a photo of it for the sake of documentation. I believe it was a False Black Widow. And just so we’re clear, even looking up this type of spider on the web (trust me: no pun intended!) gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t care that it’s a “false” black widow. Like that’s any comfort?! It has the words “black” and “widow” in its damn name!
It’s unfortunate that there’s no really good place to take-out. To be fair, the guest dock at the biker bar is awesome and couldn’t be more convenient from the perspective of getting off the water. But from there you’ll still have to schlep your boat and gear up a steep, long staircase. And, of course, you’ll need to ask permission to do this first. Normally, I’m an advocate of the whole “ask forgiveness before permission” philosophy, but not when it comes to a biker bar. Just saying. (That said, the staff there were really nice and totally friendly. Maybe amused by my bicycling/kayaking -self, skinny as a rail, solo, sans tattoos and jotting notes in a notebook.)
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again. Next time though, with others – others who have clippers, handsaws, sawzalls and a blowtorch/flamethrower for the spider culverts. Seriously though, this trip deserves a good grooming, and next time that’s what we’ll be up to. If anyone with an actual chainsaw wants to join us, it would be awesome to take out the big tree just below East Kilbourne Road…
Oconomowoc River I: S. Concord Road to County Road P
Oconomowoc River II: Wisconsin Avenue to Fowler Lake Park
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinal
Map: Mid-Kettle Moraine