Pilgrim Road to Frontier Park:
A despicable section of an otherwise wonderful river on account of its multiple logjams and difficult portaging. While there are some charms to this trip – clear water, a couple rapids, enclosed tree canopies – the cons far outweigh the pros.
Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 27, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Menomonee Falls: ht/ft: 3.7 | cfs: 65
Menomonee Falls: ht/ft: 3.27 | cfs: 18.6
This is the recommended minimum level. Then again, we strongly don’t recommend this trip whatsoever!
Time: Put in at 2:20p. Out at 5:20p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Painted turtles, muskrats, great blue herons, hawks, turkey vultures and deer.
7 miles by car, mostly interstate. 5.8 miles by bicycle.
Earlier in the month we took our first splashy plunge in the beguiling Menomonee River, starting where this trip ends and finishing in Wauwatosa. We had such a great time (well, after the first three miles of portaging around/over/on top of/and through some epic logjams) that it was only natural to wonder, well, what’s it like upstream? Further feeding our curiosity were two encouraging bits: a sweet looking rapid ledge about 70 yards directly upstream from the pedestrian bridge at Frontier Park in Butler, and the still lively current coming from below the crazy whitewater gorge in Menomonee Falls at Pilgrim Road. (I’ve been to the gorge several times – anytime if I’m in the area, it’s a really cool spot to visit – thrilling to conceptualize paddling – and I liked what I saw at Pilgrim Road.) Ergo, this trip was put on the map and in the hopper.
From a bird’s eye view (i.e., Google Maps), the two trips look kind of identical. Both start east, then head south, then east again, coursing through suburban backyards, wetlands, meadows, woods and loud highways. Both start off really well, then get crappy and complicated to a degree, then improve at the end. But whereas our first trip had only three logjams and one low-clearance bridge that required portaging (all of which are in between miles 1-3 of a 9-mile trip), this trip is laden with logjams from miles 2-6. How many? At least fifteen. Yes, 15. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This trip begins where the Menomonee is pretty narrow and briskly flows alongside a bike-pedestrian trail, the Menomonee River Parkway. Convenient parking is located across the street at a park. Accessing the river from here is OK, but hardly elegant. Riffles and little ledges make for a promising beginning, as does the clear water. The river crosses under two attractive pedestrian bridges as it passes a city park and open greenway. A mix of weeping willows and deciduous trees adds to the pleasant beginning.
The surroundings will narrow and the tree canopy shall become thicker as you enter Rivers Edge Park. It could be called Hope’s Edge Park, because after this, things really turn south (and not just directionally). Expect some downed trees here, some of which can be negotiated by ducking under or riding over. It’s just a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Mercifully, the overhead opens up again thanks to a golf course. Mercy comes brief, however. The river traipses through the links for only a couple hundred yards at best, then heads into a woods the way that a poor schmuck about to get mugged heads down a dark alley. The mugging – just one cluster of logjams after another – is intermittent at first. The river will breathe for a moment as it staggers parallel to a highway exchange with brief glimpses of corporate office buildings. This is followed by a pleasant tranquil stretch past more billowy willows and greenway. Again, briefly.
Below so-called Good Hope Road (brazenly inaccurately named!) the logjams are at their ugliest and most unforgiving. It’s just one after another, and portaging around them is taxing and difficult, due to the high banks, mud and tall weeds. Eventually, however, you’ll pass through a cool railroad tunnel bridge, the remnants of a former bridge, and then the glowing-white twin bridges of Silver Spring Road. Here, the river becomes fun again. The current picks up, and the surroundings become wooded with steep banks. There are still obstacles to dodge, to be sure, but no more logjams. There are two fun Class I+ rapids before the pedestrian bridge at Frontier Park. There’s no designated launch at the park, but taking out on the left, downstream from the pedestrian bridge, near the parking lot, is a piece of cake due to the lax current and flat banks.
What we liked:
While the put-in is a little rogue and rugged (see below), the first couple miles of paddling were delightful. The water is quite clear (not crystal, but impressively clear enough given the urban surroundings), the bottom a mix of sand and gravel. A couple small boulders in cahoots with a gradient approximately 4 feet per mile (again, just in the beginning) create a peppy current. While you’re never far from civilization – indeed, you’ll hear traffic and the din of roadways for this entire trip – the immediate scenery is undeveloped and natural. Tallgrass and billowy willows sweep in the breeze as little riffles whisk you along the creek-like current. The width of the Menomonee here is maybe 15′. It’s all darling and intimate. At first…
You’ll pass under a generous handful of handsome pedestrian bridges – some in public parks, others in a golf course – a few of which feature easy but still fun little ledges below them.
You may wish to take this with a grain of salt, but if you can look past all the disgusting and challenging logjams, some of the stretches in the middle section of this trip are truly wild and beautiful. To be sure, you’re in suburban Waukesha County, pretty much the opposite of “wild.” But by just the look of some of the landscape environments, particularly the wetlands and woods, you’d swear you were somewhere far away, somewhere primitive or preserved.
The final mile of this arduous trip rewards the intrepid paddler with a stately railroad tunnel bridge (and some rather luridly cool graffiti), a couple steep banks, a woodsy bluff, and then a short but much welcome run of Class I rapids as you approach Frontier Park. Speaking of Frontier Park, it’s a great little place that you’d never know existed unless you were deliberately looking for it. There’s no designated boat launch or anything, but the banks here are grassy, low, and flat, so getting in or out is a piece of cake. Also, the river is right next to the parking lot, making for a neat and tidy ending to what will have been a workout.
What we didn’t like:
A quick word about the put-in. I chose Pilgrim Road, because the options upstream are strictly limited to Arthur Avenue, where there’s nowhere to park, or running the gorge in downtown Menomonee Falls (which will happen some day, but that’s a whole different kind of paddling trip; a half-mile run of Class III-IV rapids). By contrast, Pilgrim Road crosses the river at a public park and where the Menomonee River Parkway path runs parallel to the river. So there’s plenty of parking and there are no trespassing issues with putting-in. The question remains, where precisely do you launch a boat? Totally up to you, dear paddler. The banks are about 2′ high and sheer, so seal launching is not an option. Your best bet is just to lower your boat onto the water while standing in the river. It’s none too deep and not at all dangerous.
For point of reference, this is the north bank of the river at Pilgrim Road. I didn’t think to check it out, but you could probably launch from the south bank as well.
Depending on your outlook on life, and maybe your sense of charity, you might find the sheer amount of logjams on this 7.5-mile stretch of river impressive – impressive that Mother Nature could so engineer a clogged, nay constipated, series of dead tree pileups. You know how in futuristic movies you’ll sometimes see some post-apocalyptic landscape of strewn ruins – bombed out buildings, smash-demolished cars all piled on top of one another, burning oil drums, etc? This stretch of the Menomonee River is the eco-corridor equivalent of that. How such a stream can have so many logjam pileups seriously is pretty impressive. It’s also pretty frustrating.
I counted a total of 18 portages, 15 of them being around these fugly logjams. I’m talking bank-to-bank clusters with no way through, under, or over. Getting around them is the only option, and doing so was not always the simplest matter. Getting in and out of my boat a gazillion times got me pretty muddy. And sweaty. And a hot commodity for thirsty mosquitoes. Then there was dragging my boat through chest-high weeds through clumps of mud, more downed trees, scratchy branches, brambles, god knows what else. And then getting back in my boat and onto the water again where the river is considerably deep.
It just sucked.
Over and over. And over again. Fifteen times. Oftentimes back-to-back, five or so in a row of a couple hundred yards. Eventually you do pretty much acclimate to how much it all sucks and stop thinking about how much it all sucks. But man oh man, does it ever suck!
Is it impressive just how awful it is? Sure, but that’s hardly any consolation. Is it remarkable that Mother Nature so construed these blights on the river? I guess, but again, you have to be quite a Pollyanna paddler to swallow such a poison pill with good cheer and aplomb. The more sensible person would just as soon dynamite the damn river.
And may I just go on record here and now and coin a new term: clogjam?
If we did this trip again:
Hell to the emphatic no! Even if all of the logjams were cleared out – which would take a concerted effort the likes of the Panama Canal, moon landing, or 5,000-year-flood – even then, it would be a hard sale to do this trip again. Frankly, it’s a little too suburban and loud for our taste without enough fun (rapids, scenery, etc) to countervail the development. But if we did do this again, we’d take along a large sack to collect the countless plastic bottles and balls – basketballs, rubber balls, softballs, footballs, volleyballs – go back home and then recycle all the plastic at five cents a pop, sell all the balls, and use the money to buy a chainsaw and a couple dozen sticks of dynamite to clear up the clogjams.
Failing that, we’ll probably just stick to the Wauwatosa section of the Menomonee River next time.