★ ★

Pewaukee River

Koepp Park to Bluemound Road:
Here’s an example of a one-star paddle that’s given leniency only because of its potential (you’re about to hear that word a lot in this report), and because it was written up in a guidebook by another Miles Paddler (well, and first-hand accounts from other folks who love it). A month into the season, all correlative gauges signaled the right time to paddle the Pewaukee, but it was ultimately half weed-choked, and the other half, water-choked.

If you, like many others, enjoy this river, I’m guessing you probably live nearby and know when it’s up and enjoyable. But I personally wouldn’t travel too far out of your way expecting it to all just work out, because it didn’t for us. In fact, if you like or (especially) love this section of the Pewaukee, you might as well hit the back button now, because you’re not going to enjoy this report (and that way, we can all still remain friends).

Pewaukee RiverRating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 16, 2019

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty:
Riffles (Class I)

~1-3′ per mile, and 10′ per mile between Pewaukee Road and Bedford Boulevard

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Delafield (Bark River): ht/ft: 12.8 | cfs: 43
Waukesha (Fox River): ht/ft: 3.2 | cfs: 100
Gauge note: These gauges are no good even as correlative gauges. For posterity, I’m posting them but they do not help indicate whether there is enough water to actually paddle it. As proof of concept, this was last paddled by Timothy on September 19th, 2014 for his guidebook and they read 17 and 54 cfs respectively. Those levels were even lower than today’s readings, but he had a great paddle then and encountered none of the issues described below which results in us surmising that there’s just no reliable way to gauge this river. That said, the annual Pewaukee River Run was held weeks earlier and the gauges read much higher at 12.97 and 4.63 ht/ft, and 59 and 400 cfs respectively – alluding to the idea that earlier in the season is better to catch this but not that those levels mean anything to this specific river. Watching them spike is usually a good sign but it didn’t do us any good. It’s probably best to just use the eye test. If it looks low, it is.

Current Levels:
Delafield (Bark River): ht/ft: 12.51 | cfs: 22.3
Waukesha (Fox River): ht/ft: 3.09 | cfs: 86.6

Recommended Levels:
We do not recommend these levels. Paddle this trip only after a good rain. Levels are probably best in spring or autumn to avoid all the speed-bump weeds. Most importantly, scout the river at the Pewaukee Road/County Road J bridge to determine if it’s got water. If it looks shallow, find something else to do.

Koepp Park, Pewaukee, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.08352, -88.26193
Below Bluemound Road/County Road JJ via Wonderland Tap Parking lot, Waukesha, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.03804, -88.21234

Time: Put in at 2:25p. Out at 5:40p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 6.75

Muskie (at least three), various fish, cranes, geese, ducks, turtles, ducklings, ducks and (almost crushed-by-Chaco while walking the river) crawfish.


We don’t often believe everything we read when it comes to guidebooks, message boards, forums, groups or even (maybe, especially?) paddling blogs – as things change constantly when it comes to when or where to paddle. Nor do we play the blame game when things don’t work out all that well – I mean, we’re talking paddling here – Mother Nature changes the game every week (though we do not forgive bad info – we question incorrect information all the time because bad info is just unsafe and inexcusable). Which makes this an awkward report to write, because it contradicts Timothy Bauer’s own account of this river, purely by being included in his book. But that’s not to say it couldn’t be awesome. I can see the potential, but again, we’re talking potential. 

The Pewaukee River is not one that’s ever been on my radar until Kark mentioned it in his ridiculous pdf paddle guide, and then when Timothy wrote about it in his awesome (but unwieldy-titled) guide, Canoeing and Kayaking South Central Wisconsin, 60 Paddling Adventures Within 60 Miles of Madison. Timothy had a solid experience back in 2014, whereas Kark, spent 25 minutes (about a mile) on the river like most of his write-ups (hardly worth the read, his write, and our mention).

But the main problem with this stretch? There’s no definitive gauge and other gauges in the area offer no correlation which makes it a guessing game as when to paddle it at the right time. And if it’s a guessing game, then it becomes a Goldie Locks stream. But even a Goldie Locks stream has to provide more bang for the wait, and I’m not convinced that the mile-and-a-half of riffles around the contour of a Steinhafels furniture store between a web of highways and busy roads is even that appealing. Even for that urban paddling fix.

Now, sure, it’d be easy to pin a bad paddle on your friend who wrote a paddling guidebook about this exact trip, but A) I’d be a shitty friend for doing so and B) how many of you are actually friends with a paddling guidebook writer? No, he didn’t know – there was no way to know – all gauges and recent rain meant we should have had the all clear. No, this is one of those abnormalities that are becoming more reality these days, because neither of us was expecting it to be as low as it was until we got there.

Coincidentally, the Pewaukee Kiwanis hold a race called the RiverRun on the Pewaukee every year, and they just completed their 46th race event, four weeks prior to our arrival. The whole idea of a race being held on this river is really hard to believe in hindsight considering the width of the river, but anyway… the community event hosts hundreds of paddlers and it benefits the Pewaukee food pantry. It starts at Koepp Park and ends at Frame Park. Knowing the event just happened, we also knew it would be free and clear with regards to deadfall, and that much was true.

With that in mind, we visited/re-visited the Pewaukee River, but here we tailored/altered Timothy’s own trip report in the guide to include more upstream, remove some downstream with the option to visit some waves downstream if we were so inclined after our trip (Spoiler: we weren’t – that never happened).

Long story short, there’s nothing magical about this stretch. There just happens to be a short segment of (what might be fun) riffles or rapids (even sited on American Whitewater and Riverfacts, amazingly enough) that uniquely (or awkwardly) flows around around the large furniture store housing a tone of sectionals and tucked in an armpit of Highway 94. On this day, the problem were weeds for half and lack of water the other half.

Timothy’s description of the trip in his book is still entirely accurate regarding access points and surroundings, but here’s what you’ll encounter in low water conditions…

We put-in in downtown Pewaukee at Koepp Park where the Kiwanis race starts. The park is easy to find, has plenty of parking but no facilities. There’s an obvious, albeit modest launch point at the bottom of the decorative covered bridge ramp. 

Now, if the water here looks low – save this for another day. Just after I seal-launched, I asked if this was low in a “should we be doing this sort of way?” and was met with a “we’ve come this far” kind of non-response, so we threw caution to the wind since technically my boat was afloat. So we carried on downstream – though there were multiple puzzling looks at each other within the next mile where we still questioned our decision (and there would certainly be more even after the paddle).

From the put-in at Koepp to Watertown Road, you’ll pass between backyards cozied up to the banks. Canoes and kayaks were seen leaning against garages and sheds, which is always a good sign. We passed a couple backyard parties – it was Father’s Day after all. After about a mile and a quarter, the houses are sparse and then essentially disappear. At the last house we passed, we encountered a sandhill crane and her juveniles. Kind of a cool site, maybe the highlight of the whole trip.

The next three and quarter miles you’ll find yourself paddling alongside the Pewaukee River Parkway where you’ll actually forget that you’re even within the city limits, save for some distant traffic/train sounds. The water is clear and there are many straightaways, but in general it has a true marsh-like feel and it reminded me very much of Cherokee Marsh in Madison. This whole stretch is half the entire trip, so if marsh/lake-like paddling is not for you, best to take a pass. Especially because the entire stretch from the put-in to this point – is full of weed beds. Not just weed beds but mats of weeds stretching for yards and yards, slowing down every stroke. It was like paddling through ramen with very little broth.

In some of the larger and wider bends, we had to pull our paddles apart and use them to scoot through the muddy shallow areas to get over the beds. The floor was incredibly soft and muddy and the blades would sink a couple feet, which resulted in unleashing a monster stench. It wasn’t pleasant.

We were surprised by the amount of weeds this early in the season, especially since it’s been a wild start to Wisconsin’s climate this year, with an unusually late cold stretch and unseasonably cooler temperatures up until a couple weeks prior to this trip. But there they were and there were us in our boats acting like weedcutters in the arctic weeds. For what it’s worth, when Timothy did this trip in September of 2014, he has no recollection of weeds being any sort of issue. Maybe many had died or maybe the water was just higher and more forgiving.

Soon, the interstate appears and as noted in Tim’s book, it’s rather low-clearance. Fortunately/unfortunately, that was not an issue on this day, but I could see how this and a few other bridges could provide some tight quarters (specifically the train trestle immediately after the Redford Boulevard bridge and right before the confluence). No, for us, it was low and passable but for some reason, it too smelled horrible – like that earlier muck – but beneath the bridge.

Just past the interstate, the office buildings begin to come into view, the highway gets louder and the stream completely changes its complexion – almost completely on a dime on the the downstream side of Pewaukee Road. This is where the potential fun/unique stretch begins, in that for the next one and a half miles, you navigate around a large Steinhafels furniture store and offices, all the while fenced in by busy roads like Pewaukee Road to your west, the interstate to your north and Redford Boulevard to your east.

The river after Pewaukee Road becomes very visually appealing, dotted with small boulders, narrow passages and more wooded canopy than upstream. The floor is suddenly more gravel-based than sand and parts of it reminded me of the upper Yahara River. 

For us, this was where the battle began. It got bad. And it ended up reminding me much more of Six Mile Creek in Waunakee, which too has a ton of potential but holds a lot of frustration at low levels. It was as if someone pulled the plug from the river drain directly at the moment we went under the Pewaukee Road bridge, and we spent much of the next mile-and-a-half taking our kayaks for a walk like a dog on a leash. In fact, the last time I walked this much was when I “paddled” the Peshekee River in Upper Michigan. That was a walk-fest but at least we were surrounded by gorgeous surroundings (which come to think of it, probably should’ve been rated lower based on the experience and not the potential).

But these levels were a disaster and the water was so low that we ended up walking more than paddling. Every ten yards, it made more sense to just get out and walk than return to our boats for a couple paddle strokes. The scrape, crutch, exit-boat, walk, re-boat, scrape, crutch, exit-boat, walk, re-boat, repeat, was getting a bit too repetitive and tiresome. This new stretch just had me wishing I was paddling through weeds again.

So, though we experienced none of the fun riffles or rapids, I do trust that it’s a lot of fun in higher water, but as it were, that stretch was a terrible way to spend an afternoon. To cap off that section was the encounter with the Redford Boulevard bridge which became the first bridge I ever came across that was too low to paddle through. No, we each took an opening and walked our boats over an inch of water. In the darkness, I scraped my paddle in front of me in a side-to-side motion along the concrete floor to avoid whatever may be in my path, but mainly trying to avoid any booby traps (ya know, because I may suddenly fall into a random bridge hole?), all the while staying directly in the center so as to avoid the 45-degree angled cobwebs that reached to the absolute centerpoint of the concrete ceiling. It was like a creepy runway for a Tim Burton wedding, and quite the cherry on top of this paddle.

Just beyond Redford bridge is a short quarter-mile to the take-out, but first you’ll meet the confluence of the Fox River (IL). Thankfully, it’s a bit deeper and wider. From there, its just a short stretch to the Bluemond Road/County Road JJ bridge which was also our take-out.

We had considered taking-out at Frame Park (where the boat race ends) further downstream but Timothy knew it was channelized and more lake-like than anything (and you know our feelings on lake-like-anything). We backed the car up and took-out below the tall County Road JJ bridge, accessed by the Wonderland Tap parking lot with the bartender’s OK. It’s always proper to ask if you’re trying to access water on private property even if you’ve heard it’s OK. They were totally accommodating anticipating a slow Father’s Day Sunday (Why would it be slow? Why would you not take your Dad to the bar folks?!).

If we had gotten done early, we had the idea of hitting some rapids further downstream as mentioned in Timothy’s book. Below the dam there’s a half-mile of fun riffles/rapids through downtown Waukesha. But that never happened, because well, this was a long day. So there’s your fudge. But these are the facts: The water was too low. And this is the flavor: it tasted horrible.

What we liked:
Not a thing. This was a hard fought 6.75 miles.

What we didn’t like:
This is the kind of trip that would dissuade any beginner from ever getting in a kayak again. It was that bad. I was sore for days after this. That means I used muscles (I still have a few) that only hurt when desperate paddlers use odd motions in a seated position just to continue downstream. The weed issue was tolerable but the low water wasn’t. But it’s a lesson – if there’s not a gauge on a stream – there are no guarantees, ya know, like in life?

Also of note, it took us 3 hours and 15 minutes for 6.75 miles. Now, for what it’s worth, the winner of the Pewaukee River Run finished this and a bit more in 1 hour and 32 minutes and that was just four weeks earlier. Amazing, really.

If we did this trip again:
Some say (hell, I’ve even said) that “a day on the water is better than none at all”, but that’s kinda horseshit. It’s one of those self-help things you say when you’ve been defeated on a river or creek (Mormon Creek, I’m looking at you….).

Was this a good paddle? No. Could it be a great paddle? Sure – any stream can be great at the right time. But it’s not reliable. Not without a gauge and not a river that resides in a watershed that is as hard to figure out as this one. Is it worth seeking out? Maybe if you live within twenty minutes of it because there’s nothing that would indicate you should travel very far for it unless you know it’s “running” as they say. But we have a lot of place like this in Southern Wisconsin – never running steady but can be delightful when at the right levels, like the Beaver Dam or Fond Du Lac rivers.

I know that there are people that absolutely love this trip. I mean, Timothy paddled it, wrote about it, he even spoke about it and that specific Steinhafel’s corner in his I-94 talk at Canoecopia. Heck, there’s even that annual paddle race held there (which is also why it’s maintained – big props to those volunteers). I guess we just caught each other on a bad day, a bad-level day, because it just went from bad (weeds) to worse (no water) for me.

Finally, why is this not a 1-star paddle? Well, only because of the paragraph above. And because I trust Timothy’s knowledge of a good paddle when he sees and writes about one. But he also handed me the reigns to this report, so I guarantee he knows there’s no blame, I mean, he unfortunately had to “paddle” this too.

Related Information:
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Pewaukee River Partnership

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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