★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River VI

Fredonia to Grafton:
A perfectly pleasant albeit monotonous day trip on a wide river with a mix of natural corridors and development, this stretch of the Milwaukee River offers occasional riffles, one random and fun Class I+ rapid, good wildlife, no obstacles to portage, and several alternate accesses to shorten one’s time on the water.

Milwaukee River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 30, 2016

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles (One Class I ledge)

2′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 6.8 | cfs: 760

Current Levels:
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 5.56 | cfs: 88.1

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. But for point of reference, the river was high.

Waubedonia Park, Fredonia, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.46838, -87.97317
Veterans Park, Grafton, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.32211, -87.94948

Time: Put in at 11:10a. Out at 2:10p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 13.25

Egrets, a gazillion great blue herons, unidentified fish, kingfishers and lots of good looking wood ducks.

Shuttle Information:
12 miles. Due to the non-meandering, north-south nature of this section of the Milwaukee River, the shuttle is as long as the paddle itself (which is notable if bicycling – especially when that’s in a hard, cold rain, the likes of which we pedaled this at 10am). But it’s a safe bike shuttle, by and by, with only a couple mediocre hills. It’s just a long one.


Having paddled the Newburg-to-Fredonia and Grafton-to-Thiensville trips a couple times each, this section of the Milwaukee River had long felt a little neglected and like that patient child at school who fusses not but keeps hoping quietly inside that someone will pick her to play finally. The initial resistance had nothing to do with worrying that it would be boring so much as it was practical logistics and the actuarial disinterest in driving two hours (from Madison) to paddle a relatively monotonous section of a river.

In other words, it was hard to justify the time, cost, and effort to drive four hours roundtrip to paddle in the conservative suburbs of Milwaukee along a big, wide river (as opposed to a meandering intimate creek). But this time we were out in the area already, so the time was right (minus the weather) to check this section out at long last.

For or better or worse (depending on your druthers for feeling oriented), there are many landmarks along this trip to give a sense of location. They are as follows:

  • Large private property island
  • 1st set of power lines
  • Cool railroad bridge
  • 2nd set of power lines
  • Tendick Park alternate access
  • Ehlers Park alternate access
  • Random Class I+ rapid
  • Hwy 33 bridge in Saukville
  • Peninsula Park alternate access off E. Clay Street
  • 3rd set of power lines
  • Town of Grafton non-motorized boat launch alt. access
  • 4th set of power lines
  • Ozaukee Interurban Trail bridge
  • Golf course on left

What we liked:
Lest we cast too unfavorable an opinion on this trip, let it be stated here and now, proudly and loudly, that the first half – from Fredonia to Saukville – is quite lovely and pleasant. There are mile-long stretches here and there without nary a trace of civilization (or its discontents). Moreover, the gradient is at its steepest in this segment as well, and the paddler will be treated to numerous easy (but fun) riffles as well as one exciting (and splashy) Class I+ rapid where there must have been a dam at one point (it’s too random and uniform otherwise).

Shortly after the put-in, the river makes a sharp right-hand bend (one of the few such kinks in this trip), after which riffles and even some very light rapids appear in between lust tree-flanked banks. (Caution: at low water levels this section of the river would be scrape city!) There are hills nearby, particularly to the west (river-right), but the topography is appreciated more in the shuttle than from the perspective of the river. This might be different in early spring or late fall, with the camouflage of foliage. Regardless, the first mile or two is as pretty as any upstream section of the Milwaukee River. And also like the other upstream sections of the river, here there are various islands that create side channels to choose. There’s even a handsome railroad truss bridge the iconoclastic color of rust supported upon limestone block pylons that we never tire of seeing while paddling.

The Tendick Park alternate access comes next, on the right, in turn followed by Ehlers Park on the left. Neither of these is a dedicated boat landing per se; but each allows for easy access to the water. We don’t recommend beginning the trip at either, since doing so would forfeit the pretty stretch(es) below Waubedonia Park. But if you’re simply looking for a short “cocktail hour” paddle after work, or alternatively seeking a little water time early in the morning before the summer heat pours down, then either of these would allow for great mini-trips.

Depending on the direction of the wind, you’ll either see a notable horizon line or hear the sound of rapids after Ehlers Park. This notes the aforementioned “random” Class I+ rapid. It’s not difficult or dangerous, but you should expect to take in a bit of water if you’re in a kayak. We were not anticipating it, so it was a much welcome surprise.

This stretch also allowed us to look past the encroaching development along the banks as you come into Saukville. There’s a decent alternate access in Saukville at Peninsula Park, on river-right, which in retrospect we would have used to make a shorter excursion, as the second of this trip – Saukville to Grafton – offers nothing you haven’t already experienced up to this point, plus it’s more developed. You’ll paddle past a football field on the right, which is an amusing novelty, not to mention the Ozaukee Interurban Trail bridge, some pretty sweeps of weeping willows, and one positively lovely small hill on the left with attractive houses sensibly embedded beneath a mix of trees before you approach the final stretch leading to downtown Grafton. But such modest features may not warrant a paddler adding another 6-ish miles. There is yet another alternate access at the Town of Grafton, (on river-right) that would split the difference and make this a 9-mile trip approximately.

The take-out is at Veterans Park in Grafton, on river-right (west bank), just upstream of the Highway 60 bridge (where the dam is located). There’s a floating pier platform exclusively designed for canoes and kayaks to slip into and out of. Moreover, there are running rails that are intended for handicap paddlers to use to get into and out of the boat/wheelchair. We’d never seen such a construction before and were totally impressed to come upon it. Way to go, Grafton! Seriously, the thoughtfulness behind such a design cannot be understated. Also, there are full facilities at Veterans Park, just as there are at Waubedonia Park. It’s street parking here though, so there will be a short schlep from the water back to your transportation.

Unrelated to the river itself, there were several notable mentions we liked during the shuttle. In spite of the gazillion Trump, Glenn Grothman and Ron Johnson yard signs (reminding us that we’re not in Kansas/Madison/Dane County anymore, Toto; nope, we were in the “WOW” counties – Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, the trifecta conservative bastion of the state), our spirits were lightened by the following roadside attractions:

  • We were amused to see the front-gated entrance to a huge house that had those ostentatious lions one sees – as though the property owners were landed aristocracy in European fiefdoms, and not an American McMansion – except that here each lion was adorned with a silly hat, perfectly offsetting any such pretence to being taken seriously or coming off as pompous!
  • We were impressed to find a dedicated and public-friendly Blue Heron Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • And we were intrigued to pass the Ozaukee County Pioneer Village, featuring many preserved buildings from the 19th Century….

What we didn’t like:
There’s nothing whatsoever “wrong” with this trip. Indeed, on the surface alone it has most of the best criteria one can only hope for when river-paddling: good accesses, no obstructions, engaging current up to and including one set of lively rapids, good wildlife, sections of abandon, alternate accesses to shorten the trip, etc.

So, what’s not to like? Well, it’s just kind of boring, frankly. Redundant. Monotonous. Once you round the best at Waubedonia Park, and then again at Peninsula Park in Saukville, this entire stretch of the Milwaukee River simply flows southward. You can practically set a rudder down and let your boat drift on auto-pilot the whole time, it’s this straight. So much of river-paddling is not knowing what’s around the next bend, but wondering all the while; of the alluring and eye-catching curiosity that belies straight lines. A curved line is always more interesting than a straight one. Landscapers create curved beds for a reason: they’re simply more esthetic than straight-line rows.

(Being a family-friendly website, we’ll refrain from any overtly sexual or sensual nuances having to do with curves here…)

This straight vs. curved aversion is true for all river environments. We expressed as much in our review of the otherwise fabulous Flambeau River, for the record. But when a straight river such as this section of the Milwaukee is flanked not by national forest land or a sense of being up north, but instead tracts of highways, golf courses, and houses in the congested Milwaukee suburbs, then one’s initial enthusiasm for paddling the unknown is even further subdued. Downstream from Saukville, the river is never far away from Highway 57 or I-43, the loud din of which will be discernible and distracting all the way to Grafton.

Again, this is not to say that there’s anything “wrong” with this trip. Rather, it’s simply to say that it’s not really worth going out of one’s way to do. Furthermore, the sections of the river upstream of here (the two day trips from West Bend to Newburg and Newburg to Fredonia) as well as downstream (the Grafton Dells and/or Lime Kiln Park to County Road C) are prettier and more engaging; each does justify going out of one’s way to travel to. But if you’re already in the area, then this trip does make for a perfectly pleasant day on the water – which, really, is so much of what paddling is about anyway, is it not?

If we did this trip again:
The best segment of this trip is from Waubedonia Park to Saukville. It offers the least developed, most natural setting, more riffles, the one random rapids, and none of the backwater impoundment from the dam in Grafton. That makes for a 6ish-mile trip, which is relatively short – especially if one is driving any considerable distance to the river. But for those already in this part of the state, the Fredonia-to-Saukville segment would make for a truly pleasant outing.

Related Information:
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Bruce Street
Milwaukee River III: Lime Kiln Park to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VII: West Bend to Newburg
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River

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