West Bend to Newburg:
One of the funnest sections on the mighty Milwaukee River, this trip begins and ends with Class I rapids surrounded by parcels of development as well as wild corridors in between. Notoriously shallow, you’ll want to save this trip for when the river is high enough to avoid scrapes and bumps. But it’s absolutely worth the wait.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 29, 2016
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
4′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 7.1 | cfs: 800
Cedarburg: ht/ft: 5.68 | cfs: 204
We recommend this level. But for point of reference, the river was pretty high.
Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 3:20p.
Total Time: 3h 10m
Miles Paddled: 13
Great blue herons, wood ducks, deer, ducks, geese, egrets, turtles, kingfishers and hawks.
7.3 miles by car, all along Highway 33. The bike shuttle is two miles longer, as you don’t want to ride on Highway 33 – there’s no shoulder, no sharing the road. On the plus side, there is a fun and pretty bike/pedestrian path through Riverside Park that crosses the river a few times and allows you a great opportunity to scout the best rapid on this trip.
For all intents and purposes, this stretch of the Milwaukee River was our last section to explore before completing our circuit.* Coincidentally, this is the first Milwaukee River trip in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin. So, why did we do it last? And why did it take four years after our first time anywhere on the Milwaukee River to check it out – which actually began where this trip ends? Well, no reason really. Sometimes that’s just how the kayak crumbles.
* For point of reference, there’s a fair amount of unexplored river still both upstream of Kewaskum, although it gets pretty dicey up there nearer the headwaters, not to mention the compromised and uncompelling segments from Thiensville to Estabrook Park on Milwaukee’s northside.
It’s worth pointing out right away that since Svob’s paddling bible were published, the former dam in Newburg has been removed. The very first time we paddled the Milwaukee River, putting-in at Newburg, removal of the dam was already underway. When we returned two years later the project was completed. Just another example of river trips always being different, even if it’s the same segment of a river. Anyway, if you’re following at home and consulting Svob’s “Milwaukee River 1” trip, just keep in mind that there’s no more dam in Newburg.
Also, Svob’s trip begins in Riverside Park, about a mile downstream from the dam in downtown West Bend. We scouted that put-in ahead of time, but the access leaves much to be desired. For one, the dock is uncomfortably high for kayakers slipping into a cockpit; it’s more suitable for canoes. Secondly, there’s a solid Class I+ rapid immediately below the put-in, and the current itself is pretty strong (or at least it was at the admittedly high water level when we were here). But moreover, why not just put in right below the dam itself? That mile between the dam and Svob’s put-in at Riverside Park is just one riffle and light rapid after another past fun bridges and a brief swath of urban downtown. Why forfeit those? Why forfeit those for a much worse access?
So, that’s why we started where we did, and it was awesome!
What we liked:
What’s there not to like about beginning a trip – any trip, but especially a brand new one you’ve never done before – with one mile of riffles and light rapids? We still don’t understand why Svob doesn’t have this trip begin below the dam. It’s scenic, engaging, and as good as if not better than the Riverside Park access. Road bridges, pedestrian bridges, old railroad bridges, you’ll paddle beneath them all one after another in this first mile. You’ll even catch a quick glimpse of the stately court house in West Bend, not to mention poshy Bauhaus-esque condos and apartment buildings.
After the bridge at Indiana Avenue the landscape will open up dramatically. This is Riverside Park, a site that recovered from a dam removal in 1988. (For more on that, see here.) The river is very narrow and meandering here, and the current frisky and brisk, but the landscape is grassy and flat with nary a tree to worry about obstructing. The best rapid on this trip is found in a straightaway. Depending on the water level it will be a solid Class I or even II. There’s nothing technically challenging about it – it’s just a groovy wavy train – but don’t be surprised to get a kiss or two of water.
The rapids will tail off into delightful riffles as you approach the first of several wide-spanning pedestrian bridges. Both sides of the river here are part of a public park; you’ll probably see disc golfers out there. The environment remains shrubby and marshy, but don’t be surprised to encounter another short round of light rapids here and there. Soon, woods enclose and add a sense of intimacy to the landscape and the paddling experience. On your right, immediately upstream of the next road bridge (County Road G, aka River Road), there is an alternate access for putting-in or taking-out. As you cross beneath the bridge, be sure to check out the beautiful hummingbird painting on the right wall.
How’s that for a trip’s first 2 miles?
Much of the rest of the trip will have banks flanked with tree canopy, and you’ll encounter an obstacle or two to maneuver around, paddle under, or glide over. There was nothing so formidable as to cause us to portage, but the river was high at the time; at lower levels it might be trickier… Whatever the level, you’ll come upon at least a dozen small to mid-size islands during this trip, each one creating narrow side channels to explore, which is always fun.
In short order you’ll pass a wastewater treatment plant on the left followed by another pedestrian bridge (this time to a different trail in a different park) On the right is a small boardwalk and an alternate access. A mile or so later you’ll paddle past the West Bend Municipal Airport is on the river-left. As far as airports go, it’s pretty modest and unopposing. We neither saw nor heard a single plane during this trip…
Long, broad corridors follow, tree-lined and relaxing. You will see a house here and there, not to mention an extensive fence on the left by a golf course, but these are few and far between. Dazzling trees and beguiling bottomlands will continue to distract you from the trappings of civilization. And the river itself will alternate between bulging wide and tapering narrow, lending even more diversity to this trip. In the shallows you’ll appreciate the clarity of the water, too – often root beer-hued, with either a sandy or rocky bottom. The current will pick up again as you approach the bridge at County Road M, and you’ll be teasingly whisked by almost forgotten riffles. On the downstream side of the County Road M bridge, on the left, is an inconspicuous access at Goeden Park.
In the final two miles you’ll paddle under the Highway 33 bridge, another island that divides the river in two channels, some lovely weeping willows, a few houses, some power lines and one more marshy section. But then a modest ridge with tall conifers rises on the left bank as the river swings to the right. As it does so, riffles pick up again in earnest and will only intensify as you head into Newburg. Here too the landscape is recovering from a removed dam in 2013, discernible in the strangely flat, grassy left side that had been underwater for decades. Lively rapids engage you towards and below the Main Street (aka County Road MY) bridge. There is a dedicated access on the upstream side of the bridge, on river-right, but why would you want to forfeit that last huzzah of rapids? We continued on and just ran aground in the grass on the right bank, below the bridges, after the current subsided.
It’s worth reflecting a moment and giving thanks that here’s a trip where not one, but two dams on the river have been removed in the span of 25 years. There are several more yet, just on the Milwaukee River alone, but restorative justice sometimes takes a generation.
What we didn’t like:
Make no mistake about it: you’re never far from civilization (or its discontents) while on the water. Highways, houses, municipal buildings, an airport, a golf course – they’re all there. But the river is cleverly enclosed within a tree-lined corridor for most of this trip, which provides pleasant coverage from the real world. Purists are welcome to pooh-pooh this as a little fake or call it “silicone nature,” but you do still feel like you’re away from it all on many miles of this trip. In this part of the state, it’s always a balancing act between development and ecology.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again – probably exactly as we did it. There really wasn’t anything we disliked. In the interest of being as circumspect as possible, we’d want to do it at a lower water level next time, just to get a baseline for what’s too low. Otherwise, we totally recommend this trip.
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 VI: Fredonia to Grafton
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River