Waterford to Burlington:
A suburban paddle by and by, surrounded by highways, bridges, backyards, big box stores, a golf course, and a couple dams, there’s little charm to this section of the Fox River in southeastern Wisconsin but for one lovely public park. You may well not want to paddle this trip at all, but do not even think about it when the wind is from the south.
Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 15, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈ 1′ per mile
Rochester: ht/ft: 4.1 | cfs: n/a
We recommend this level. Below 4′ you can expect to scrape and/or have to walk your boat in some of the shallow areas, but otherwise water levels are usually reliable.
Village Hall Park, Waterford, Wisconsin
Riverside Park, Burlington, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 8
Lots of ducks and geese, one kingfisher, one great blue heron, and a dozen dazzling white bass jumping out of the water.
7.2 miles by car, all of it highway. 8.7 miles by bike, almost all of it on a dedicated bike trail. (Or, if you’re like me, 12+ miles by bike due to taking wrong turns due to no signage.)
I should’ve looked at the calendar. I should’ve paid better attention to the wind direction. I should’ve known that paddling on the Ides of March on a south-flowing river against a 15-20 mph wind from the south on a river 80 minutes away was a really dumb idea. But I’ve had this trip on the “other” Fox River in mind for years, especially a solo paddle with a bike shuttle on a dedicated trail. And sometimes you just want to get something like that over and done with to stop wondering about. (Although, in retrospect, it was still a really dumb idea, as the paddling was constant work and no play, and I got lost twice on the bike shuttle, and then got rained on.)
Speaking of feeling spun about, we should clarify that this Fox River is the one in southeastern Wisconsin that flows south past the state line and into the Illinois River eventually, and then onwards to the Mississippi. Not to be confused with the more historic Fox River that flows north from the Pardeeville-Portage area up to Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Sometimes called the “Illinois” Fox or “Little” Fox, let’s just set those monikers aside, diminutives both. At 200 miles long, there’s nothing “little” about this Fox River. (Technically, it’s just a bit longer than the northward Fox.) Secondly, it’s bad enough that obnoxious Cubs fans consider Miller Park “Wrigley North,” so we’ll have none of this appellation appropriation about rivers, thank you very much. While it might not be overly imaginative to have two rivers in one state named Fox, especially since neither is remotely fox-like (or vulpine, if you prefer), the menagerie is what it is and that’s that.
(For what it’s worth, I’d rename the northerly Fox the Heron or Cattail River, as it’s predominantly marshy, and then redub the southerly Fox the Labradoodle or the Cul-de-Sac, as it’s surrounded by wealthy suburbs on both sides of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, but nobody’s actually asked me…)
It should come as no surprise then that a river that’s 200 miles long has a variety of attributes and environments. For the Fox, that variety (predominantly) is found in urban-suburban development, dam impoundments, and wetlands (with one extraordinary exception to that rule down in the Serena-Wedron area of Illinois where the river is bejeweled with stunning sandstone rock outcrops comparable to Wisconsin Dells). To date, there are 16 total dams clogging the Fox’s flow – 13 of which are in Illinois. What purpose these concrete walls purportedly serve, we can’t say. Fake lakes for wealthy property owners is one guess. Because they’ve always been there, is another. But per capita, that’s more dams than even the Wisconsin River (26 for 430 miles).
Meister Mike Svob, guidebook scribe extraordinaire, lays out three recommended trips on the southeastern Fox River in his classic, Paddling Southern Wisconsin: Mukwonago to Tichigan Lake; Waterford to Burlington; and Burlington to Wilmot. I was drawn to the middle trip because we’ve spent a bit of time in Burlington throughout the years, where three waters converge: Honey Creek, the White River and the Fox River. And I wanted to take advantage of shuttling along the Seven Waters Bike Trail.
This trip begins and ends at public parks along the river, with ample parking and porta-potties. Neither has a dedicated landing for paddlers, but riprap along the river-right banks at each park provides for essentially easy and mud-free access. The put-in is located directly below the dam in Waterford, which is a popular place for fishing. For the first 30 yards or so the river is rocky and shallow, creating a swift current and fun riffles, but that will immediately peter before crossing under the bridge at Main Street.
There’s not much to write home about from here to the next landmarks – the bridge at Main Street in Rochester (aka County Highway D) followed by an old decrepit dam; both banks are lined with houses for 2.5 miles without a break. Moreover, on account of the dam, the current here is flat and slack. It feels more like a long, skinny lake than a river. (Woe to you if the wind is from the south!) Prior to this trip I had never actually seen or been to the Rochester dam. I knew of its existence, and from the satellite map I’d hoped I could either run it on far river-left, where it looked like there was a break in the concrete rubble, or that it could be a really easy portage. First off, it can’t be run. Secondly, it’s an even more popular fishing spot than the park below the dam in Waterford. So, what in theory could’ve been a relatively simple affair of not so much portaging but a quick getting-out-and-dragging-the-boat like 6′ was kibboshed by fishing line. Instead, I exited stage-left and portaged around the dam, a distance of 300′. Not a big deal by any means, but still a nuisance (especially in a canoe loaded with gear that I couldn’t just drag since the portage path is dirt-gravel, not grass). And all for what? What purpose does this dumb dam serve?
For all practicality, this trip really begins below the Rochester dam. (Why on earth Svob recommends beginning in Waterford is just lost on me. I personally see zero redeeming value in the 2.5 miles from Waterford to Rochester.) Fun riffles and shallow shoals are found on the downstream side of the dam for about 30 yards. So too are more folks fishing. Here and along both banks of the river for another quarter-mile. If for nothing else, the river is known for its white bass. (How do I, a guy who doesn’t fish, know this? I asked – that’s how.) Of more interest to the paddler, however, is the lovely hill that suddenly appears downstream. Two more private residences lie high above on the right bank, at the base of which the river bends left, then right, then left again in a broad but still elegant S-curve past woods and fun riffles. It is both the most scenic part of the trip and the most interesting paddling portion, too. That said, in lower water conditions, you’d be scraping and/or walking your boat here, as it’s super-shallow. Incidentally, the woods here, along with the lovely pedestrian bridge that spans both banks, are part of Case Eagle Park.
Like the ridiculous following the sublime, on your left you’ll soon see a wastewater treatment plant and its telltale buildings. Fortunately, on the right is another patch of attractive woods called Saller Woods. (More on Saller and Case Eagle below.) Alas, this too shall pass, followed by the first of several big, loud highway bridges. This one is Highway 36, which after crossing the river will then be on your right for half a mile until the next set of big, loud highway bridges (Highway 83). The river will begin bending to the west here, surrounded by farm fields, low banks, and scrubby woods. Browns Lake Drive crosses over the river next, on the downstream side of which, if you squint, you might just see the backside of the lumberyard of Menards, a breathtaking sight to behold this time of year.
The main commercial drag of Burlington, Milwaukee Road, parallels the river for the next half-mile. Eventually, on the left you’ll start seeing a golf course and then further downstream a quaint bridge to a segregated hole on river-right. These two stretches comprise a mile or so, all of it a long, wide straightaway. Generally speaking, both banks are wooded, but neither provides much insulation from the hustle and bustle of suburban Burlington. At this time of year at least, there was a neat floodplains feel to these woods; but, again, the reality of development surrounds you and challenges the imagination to pretend you’re anywhere remotely more interesting than where you actually are.
The river then bends to the right past a cluster of woods on the right. A quarter-mile-long straightaway takes you to Riverside Park. Here too, like at the put-in, there is no designated launching area. Rather, it’s a riprap-lined bank on the right, but it’s an easy and clean access regardless. Where precisely you choose to exit is up to you, depending on where you left your vehicle or bicycle, but generally it will be upstream of another pedestrian bridge that’s part of the park. There are facilities located here.
What we liked:
Past the Rochester dam, for a mile and some, this trip is truly lovely. Attractive woods flank both banks, with a modest but notable upland lift on the right, and the river itself sparkles with little riffles, clearish water, and rocky shoals on the bottom. If more of this trip were like the section between the dam and Highway 36, it would make for a great destination. Alas, it’s less than 1.5 miles long; and while the river is more interesting (in sections) downstream of Highway 36 than upstream the Rochester dam, one’s enthusiasm for such rationalizations can be sustained only so long before attenuating. Especially in light of how many other alternative rivers are nearby, which offer more of the good stuff and less of the bad that paddlers are looking for.
One shout-out that I’ll happily provide goes out to all of the frisky fish that continually jumped out of the water suddenly throughout this trip. The folks fishing were not joking about the white bass! Of course, I wasn’t lucky enough to “catch” any of their acrobatic flops on camera, but it’s still a real treat even to hear the sound of those random acts – let alone see them with one’s own eyes.
What we didn’t like:
In a word, everything. That may sound unduly harsh, but this section of river does very little to inspire admiration. In order of first impression – which is also to say last or lasting impression, as I’m writing this report now a full month after paddling this trip, and distance has not made my heart grow fonder! – you’re surrounded by residential backyards for the majority of the trip. Who drives 80 minutes one-way to seek out that kind of landscape? And when not residential backyards, it’s suburban highways. And when not backyards or highways, it’s strip malls where from the water one can clearly see the Menards, the Wal-Mart, the Dollar General – the Anywhere, USA. In short, a “blandscape.”
Secondly, the Fox here is wide and slow, with only a handful of very brief riffles. Worse still, there are a couple sections where it’s actually quite shallow (and would be un-navigable at average/low water levels). And, good lord, if you’re a hapless masochist like me and paddle this boring, slow trip against a stiff wind the entire time, then it’s all work, no play, and no payoff. It’s often said that even a bad day on the water is still better than a good day at [full in the blank]. Honestly, after this trip, at least for my sake, I can say with full confidence that No, that is not true. I think I’d actually rather be audited by the IRS or have a cavity filled by a dentist than waste a perfectly sunny day in early spring in the homogenous monotony of Racine County on an industrialized river against the wind for 8 torturous miles. My wrists were still sore for a couple days after this trip from the constant, deep-dug paddling.
(On the upstream side of the first major highway overpass bridges is an exit sign that reads “Burlington 1/4 Mile.” River-wise, this comes at the halfway point of the paddle, but I remember thinking God, I wish Burlington were only a quarter-mile away!)
Lastly, there was the bike shuttle. For starters, it’s unclear where the official trail is at Riverside Park and the take-out. So, naturally I went the wrong way a couple times before I found it (much to the amusement of onlookers, who were already amused by a guy riding his bike with a canoe paddle hanging off the end). The really annoying part, however, comes right after the trail courses through the heart of the Saller Woods section – which is very pretty and otherwise a highlight. The trail comes to a dead-end stop at N. Browns Lake Drive, a residential street. Now, you’d think that a dedicated trail that’s been lauded for its recreational draw would have a sign – any kind of sign (show me a sign!) at such an intersection. You can’t go straight, so it’s either left or right. I went left, because (well, yes, that’s generally how I lean in life, but that’s neither here nor there) before I got to Saller Woods the river was on my right, I was pedaling back to the put-in (i.e., upstream), and I hadn’t crossed over the river yet. My inner compass said Go Left, Young Man. It was a 50/50 shot, so I went with it. And was dead wrong! The funny thing (well, later that night; at the time I was near foaming at the mouth) is by going left the road take me full circle back to where I came, now pedaling against the wind, back to a highway in between Riverside Park and Saller Woods, a detour that added another 3 miles to the shuttle.
Distraught and angsty from the harangue, I did what I almost never do: asked for help – from three teenage girls out for a little jaunt on their bikes, braces and selfie shots and everything. They cheerfully clarified that indeed, yes, at the N. Browns Lake Drive intersection one turns right, goes down a ¼ mile, then turns right again back onto the trail through the Case Eagle section. And sure enough, of course they were right (Right!). But, why in the world would there be no sign telling you so?
If we did this trip again:
How do we say this delicately? Hell to the no. If we did this trip again, it would be sometime between none too soon and never again.
The only/best thing we can say about this trip is the segment from below the Rochester dam to the bridge at Highway 36. Not surprisingly, it’s the only truly undeveloped part of the trip (well, mostly) and has the only hills. Throw in some riffles, clear water, and an impressive pedestrian/bike trail bridge, and it’s actually quite lovely. But it’s only 1.2 miles long. Hardly worth mentioning. But I suppose if we lived real close and wanted to combine the very best paddling and pedaling of this trip for a cocktail hour trip, then we’d definitely re-do this portion.
Where Burlington is situated is a fairly fascinating place, as three separate rivers all converge at its helm – Sugar Creek from the west, Honey Creek from the northwest, and the Fox River from the north. The effect of this is best appreciated on a map, as the present day layout belies this riverine trinity, thanks to a bittersweet dam downtown that impounds the confluent flow of Sugar and Honey Creeks.
Maybe I’m biased because my soul animal is a red fox, or perhaps it’s with a subtle nostalgia for New England names (Waterford, Rochester, Burlington), but I felt an uncertain yen for this trip. Yet it was an ill-fated matchup. I have no problem with urban/suburban paddle trips. Indeed, “finding adventure in your own backyard” has become a token mantra of mine and was the guiding philosophy behind my own guidebook that I began working on back in 2014. But a stream surrounded by development needs to possess a modicum of charm and character to allure a paddler – a couple fun rapids, a natural spring, beautiful masonry in an old railroad bridge, etc. To be fair, the upper Fox is endowed with such charisma – for example, the mile-long stretch of rapids through downtown Waukesha and the protected wildlife area of Vernon Marsh just upstream of Mukwonago. But this section of the Fox, alas, is a henhouse of dull monotony and overdeveloped distractions.