River Road to Kewaunee:
An off the beaten path slog over downed trees and waterless riffles, this trip offers very few redeeming qualities. After the dam at the Kewaunee Fisheries Facility, the river is wide, flooded, deep and slow. By current measures, the Kewaunee would be best avoided unless you have a masochistic streak paired with a very a high tolerance for misery.
By Trevor Bellrichard
Voyager/Explorer/Pisces/Some Guy/Miles Paddler since 2017
Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 3, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈4′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Kewaunee: ht/ft: 9.07 | cfs: 47.5
Kewaunee: ht/ft: 9.76 | cfs: 193
We do not recommend these levels. This gauge is below the dam and doesn’t reflect conditions on the upper portion of the river. If the upper section is possible at all, it would only be in flood conditions – which when flooded, can be dangerous. Below the dam, there should always be enough water to paddle.
River Road, Luxemburg, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.57429, -87.68472
Harbor Park, Kewaunee, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.45891, -87.49861
Time: Put in at 10:35a. Out at 6:05p.
Total Time: 7h 30m
Miles Paddled: 20.25
Countless deer, two great horned owls, two great blue herons, one red-tailed hawk, lots of wood ducks, four king fisher, one snapping turtle, thousands of crawfish, some tiny trout, cormorants, terns, seagulls and nine tires.
We are lucky enough to have family just south of Door County and are able to visit the area often, but I noticed paddle reports in this area of the state are lacking, so I thought I would start with the Kewaunee River. Known for its great runs of salmon and trout in spring and fall, I haven’t met anyone who knows what the river is like north of the Kewaunee Fisheries Facility for paddling. “Is it possible that I have discovered a hidden gem?”, I thought to myself. No dear reader, the answer is no.
After some scouting, I determined that accessing the river at River Road in Luxemburg was as close to the source of the Kewaunee as I could get. To get your boat in the river, you’ll need to carry or drag your stuff over a rip rap embankment and down to the water. I carried my boat because I didn’t want to scratch the hull any more than it already was… haha, oh how naïve I was.
The Kewaunee is probably 24′ wide here, with what appeared like plenty of water. Not so. As I turned only the second corner, the river narrowed to the point where I could touch both banks with my paddle at the same time. Still within sight of the bridge, the deadfall started and didn’t stop for two miles. I’m positive I walked more of this than I paddled – dragging my boat through the mud, longing for a section of paddlable water longer than forty yards. After those mind-numbing two miles, which took two hours, I could hear moving water ahead. It was exciting since I’ve paid for this trip in sweat early and it would be smooth sailing from here! Nope. What followed was ten miles of unrunnable riffles punctuated by sections of almost stagnant brown water.
You can tell by my tone that I’m a little bitter.
I am and it’s two fold. First, I still hold a tiny sliver of hope that this river could be really fun during spring run-off or after a strong rain. Though, I’m upset that I still hold that hope after what this river did to me. Second, this could have been so cool. It’s very clear that no one paddles this section of the Kewaunee, (for good reason as you now know) but there were wonderful moments. When I was in the boat, wildlife was everywhere, on all banks and around every corner. There were times when it was so quiet I could hardly believe it. I had some really amazing moments that were suddenly ruined by having to drag my boat 300 yards over water-challenged riffles. Seriously, there were several areas of rock gardens and riffles in excess of 300 yards. Can you imagine how fun that would be if there was water in the river? But, dashing my hopes again, I would come to some very low bridges on private property or deadfall that would be downright dangerous in the kind of water required to make this section worth paddling.
Eventually somehow, I paddle-walked my boat to the dam at the Kewaunee Fisheries Facility. There was no discernable path from the river around the facility, so I beached my boat in the mud near the facilities barb-wire topped fence and drug it up and out of the river. Upon seeing me emerge from the woods, an employee approached and told me there was a portage trail on the river-left side. Of course there was. But already here, I drug my boat a quarter-mile around the facility and then back down a steep, rocky and then muddy embankment, back into the river.
Below the dam there are a few runnable Class 1 rapids that could be rowdy during high water. Asking around town, I heard that more than a few people have flipped their boats through here in the spring. After that brief excitement, the Kewaunee shifts gears to wide and slow. Becoming an estuary, the river meanders slowly toward Lake Michigan with not much current at all. I did this section during a head wind of less than 10 mph and would lose progress when I stopped paddling – that’s how slow the current is. Due to high water, I was able to cut a few of the largest corners off by paddling over flooded dry land, trying my best to end this trip as quickly as possible.
Having been bitten by black flies for six hours and out of drinking water, I wanted to be done. Luckily for me, under the Highway E bridge, two kayakers who were escaping the sun, very kindly gave me a bottle of water. That saved me. Whoever you were, thank-you. If you read this, please try to contact us so I can properly repay you. I don’t think I would have made it to the end without you.
There isn’t much else to say about the paddle from here on out. The river eventually makes its way to Lake Michigan but takes its time doing so. I wouldn’t recommend this section on its own merits for paddlers because it’s just boring and tedious. Finally, when I arrived in the flooded town of Kewaunee, I noticed that many of the riverside businesses have lost back decks and parking lots. The main boat launch has been under three feet of water for years now as Lake Michigan has been at historically high levels. On the upside, the high water made it very easy to get out of my kayak at the wall at Harbor Park.
From there, I drug my boat to the truck and wondered what higher power would have allowed me to experience such anguish and woe for 7.5 hours.
What we liked:
If there’s a silver-lining to hold onto, the Kewaunee Fisheries Facility is definitely something worth checking out in spring and fall. This is the final point that spawning salmon and trout can reach, coming up the river from Lake Michigan. There are viewing windows on the side of the dam where you can see some real giants moving up the fish ladder. Once the fish get up the fish ladder, they are immediately in pens where DNR staff remove their eggs or sperm. Then, they are released to swim back down-river to Lake Michigan. This is a place worth visiting in spring or fall. As it was, the pens were empty and water low when I visited in July, not worth seeing.
Also, there were some very memorable moments while on the most remote parts of the river, but it was most gratifying to complete a trip that hasn’t been covered on this site – for better or worse. I enjoy filling in blank spots on maps.
What we didn’t like:
I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the lack of water. There just wasn’t enough to make the trip enjoyable and then there was too much after the fishery. Maybe it would be worth trying during high water… maaaayyyybbbbeeeee? Though, dragging my kayak for miles and being attacked by biting flies again isn’t high on my list.
If we did this trip again:
I won’t and you shouldn’t, either. This area of Wisconsin is too beautiful to waste a day here. If you’re still considering paddling the Kewaunee after reading this, please for the love of God, seek professional help… or call me, I’ll go with you 😉
Wait, what am I saying?
Wikipedia: Kewaunee River
AMApril 29, 2022 at 9:39 pm
This is really interesting to read because I am very familiar with the Kewaunee River, but have never attempted to kayak the first part of your journey up to the fisheries. I have walked and biked the path along the river MANY times and can picture the misery you are describing. I find my favorite place to kayak is in the harbor in Kewaunee where I can see boats coming and going and get up close to the lighthouse by water. Thanks for the fun read.
Adam PerontoDecember 23, 2022 at 12:58 pm
I grew up paddling the Kewaunee River and still venture back for spring trips. It’s a fantastic paddle IF you time your trip correctly. Early spring to early May is about the only time the Kewaunee is worth your time. The best put in spot is off of the Rockledge Rd. bridge near Casco – you avoid the worst of the deadfall. There’s a private property bridge that is VERY dangerous midway through the trip. The story of the Kewaunee River is a sad story. The river use to be teeming with Northerns and other fish – now those species don’t exist in the Kewaunee River. There’s a huge problem in Kewaunee County with farm runoff and largest waterway in the county takes the burnt of it. The river is very brown and you can often smell the manure in the water while paddling. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of brilliant wildlife moments and sightings. It makes one wonder what could be if river was restored to its natural state.