It is not the Namekagon River, which joins the St. Croix as part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Nor is it anything like the many moods of the Flambeau or any its branches. Both rivers offer a variety of paddling experiences, plus wilderness campsites on their shores. Certainly, it is not the Wolf or Peshtigo with their whitewater challenges. But the Milwaukee River in southeastern Wisconsin is a great waterway to lose yourself on any given day from April through October.
As it weaves through four counties - Fond du Lac, Washington, Ozaukee and Milwaukee - the Milwaukee River passes farmland, woodlots, grasslands, marshes and small villages, finally ending in the center of the state's largest metropolis and the river's namesake.
The entire basin encompasses seven counties with six individual watersheds. Depending on where you do your research, that equates to somewhere between 800 to 900 square miles. Think you can find a place to paddle there? Probably.
Officially, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources deems the main river beginning at the confluence of the East-West and North Branch watersheds. In the Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer, however, you can trace the main stream to a small wetland some 10 to 15 miles further north of that juncture. Granted, it is not much of a river there, but it is named on the map.
It is not my intent to guide you through the entire basin. I will tell you that all of the individual watersheds - Milwaukee River North, Milwaukee River East-West, Milwaukee River South, Cedar Creek, Menomonee River and the Kinnickinnic River - have enjoyable waters to explore, from the Northern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest to the estuary of Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee.
Instead my intent is to introduce you to the waters of Ozaukee County, with all of its features designed to help make your experiences there more pleasurable.
Since 2000, Ozaukee County, with funds from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the WDNR has removed three dams: The Chair Factory Dam in 2000, the Waubeka Dam in 2003 and the Lime Kiln Dam in 2010. And they're not done yet. There is a dam just over the countyline in Newburg slated for removal this year which will open up approximately 13 additional miles of uninhibited river travel, plus an additional 33 miles of tributary water for the critters who live in the river.
Ozaukee has also installed new launch sites. Now you can plan one-way trips that can be as short as five miles, such as from Waubedonia Park to the landing at Tendick Nature Park, or you can run the whole 40 miles.
From the Riveredge Nature Center
We start our trip at Riveredge Nature Center. The launch and parking area at the nonprofit center is along County Highway Y about a half mile from Newburg. Look for the Riveredge sign along the highway. There is no sign directing you to the launch area, but if you follow a grass path off the left corner of the parking lot, a carry of less than 100 yards will bring you to the river.
This is a rustic put-in. You'll get your feet wet unless, like me, hip boots are part of your standard exploring gear. The launch is open to the public and registration at the center is not required. If you would rather not portage your boat or get your feet wet, put in at the park in Newburg.
It is 10 river miles from RNC to Waubedonia Park in the village of Fredonia. There are times paddling this section that you may think you are on the Kickapoo because of all the twists and turns.
Six miles south, in a more direct line, you come to a launch site on the right at Tendick Nature Park. Here too, ample parking is found. And if you pack your bow, you can do some target practicing at the range a quarter mile up the drive.
Ehlers County Park is right around the corner. It has no launch site, unless you don't mind the river bank. Another five miles south, just beyond Saukville, is Grafton's canoe and kayak launch. Yes, there's parking there too.
Getting out in Grafton
Four more miles and you're in Grafton. Here is where you will be leaving the water. As you float into the village, you'll notice a bridge. That is State Highway 60. A block below that bridge is the Bridge Street Dam. You'll want to get out above the bridge. You can land at Veteran's Memorial Park using the riverbank on the right or the landing site on the left. Both have street parking.
Prior to this point there is no part of the river that anyone with previous paddling experience can't do. There is a small riffle or two and some rocks here and there, but the river is not difficult.
No matter what your experience, I strongly recommend you put your canoe/kayak on top of your vehicle and skip the next mile of river. Look at it, for sure, but I do not recommend running it.
Once you have your craft on your vehicle, go to the west side of the Highway 60 bridge and follow the river south via village streets. Your first stop will be the Bridge Street dam, the beginning of a section of water that compresses, speeds up and drops approximately 24 feet within the next mile. Notice the 13 foot cascade over the dam and no way of going around it. Depending on the water level, it might be roaring now.
Continue to follow the river by car. Stop at the next bridge, Falls Road, and check out the river from the sidewalk. Note the rock slide directly below. In low water, 70 to 80 percent of those rocks are dry. Look upriver and enjoy the view of the sandstone walls and small caves.
Now drive south into Lime Kiln Park. Go for a walk. Check out the flow to and around the island. Notice there is a launch site about midway through the park. This is where you go to continue your trip.
In again at Lime Kiln Park
Presuming you are now back in your canoe or kayak, you will find a series of small, fast runs but nothing serious. After that, down to the Thiensville Dam, it is smooth sailing again. If you are paddling in low water, then you may have to get out and push in a few places. There is a takeout site at Garrison Glen, on the downstream side of the County Highway C bridge, with some parking.
As you near Thiensville, you may have to compete with powerboats. The dam there forms an impoundment which is deep and wide enough for larger boats. They will become evident several miles above the dam. This is the only part of the entire trip where you will encounter powerboats.
You would do well to end your trip at Thiensville. It has good parking with easy access to the loading/unloading site. Or you can make an easy carry around the dam to continue. If you do portage, you have only three miles to the final Ozaukee County launch and landing site at River Barn Park. From there you enter Milwaukee County.
The take-out spot at the park is small. Look for a sign behind a pair of low-hung trees (presuming they have not been cut or fallen) and a gravel path. The parking lot is up the path and between the two baseball diamonds about 100 yards distant.
Most of this trip is through urban wilderness. You will drift by homes and cottages, even some estates. If you are a fisherperson, I strongly suggest you bring your fishing pole. The Milwaukee River contains abundant smallmouth bass.
And do not forget your camera. What will you photograph? How about great blue herons, osprey, eagles and a variety of waterfowl and songbirds. Deer? Of course. Bear? You could be first. Coyotes, although reluctant to be seen in the daylight, might strike a pose.
If you want to stop for lunch, I suggest you do so in Grafton or Thiensville, with the first choice being Grafton because the restaurants are closer to the river. Veteran's Memorial Park is just a block or two away from several eating places. You can land, load and chow down without moving your vehicle.
You may have picked up the fact that the water level is important on this river. I guess that depends on what you are looking for. I have watched several paddlers in summer having a ball dragging their crafts over sand while splashing each other. Naturally, when it is hot the cool water feels good.
If you are looking for a trip during which you don't have to drag your vessel, I suggest you go to the USGS site listed in the sidebar and click on the Milwaukee River at Cedarburg. If the cubic feet per second (CFPS) is 800 or better and the gauge height is 7.5 or better, you'll enjoy the ride.
Jerry Kiesow enjoys all aspects of the outdoors and shares them in many ways through his photos, words, and workshops. Check them all out, and where he will be doing what and when, at his new website www.jerrykiesowoc.com.
Helpful websites for paddling the Milwaukee River
Mostly accurate, needs to be updated: wipaddle.com/2011/03/milwaukee-river-paddling/
Good reading if you plan to continue on into Milwaukee County: www.mkeriverkeeper.org/content/milwaukee-urban-water-trail
From the following site, scroll down to Milwaukee and Cedarburg. Good stuff: waterdata.usgs.gov/wi/nwis/current?type=flow&group_key=NONE