Location: Downtown Cedarburg to east edge of town.
Character: An oxbow in the creek allows paddling 2.3 miles with only a 0.8 mile shuttle! Bedrock ledges and low-angle slides provide an assortment of interesting play before gradient peters out in rubble-field shoals. Two dams and their backwaters unfortunately lock up considerable gradient which otherwise could add to this run.
All Boaters of this creek should be aware there is a regular (nearly constant) problem with deadfall blocking passage at various places on this run. Location and seriousness of the hazard changes randomly from time to time. The difficulty/class/rating listed is for if/when things are clear, which they SELDOM are! The steep banks and swift current (virtually everywhere other than the two impoundments behind two dams) make getting out of the river (to scout, to portage, or to recover self and gear in the event of an out-of-boat experience) EXTREMELY difficult to nearly impossible in many places! As a result, it is strongly advised that:
#1) You should realize that while inexperienced, unprepared, novice boaters may make a trip down this, without mishap when all goes well, the bigger issue is being prepared and knowing what to do if and when things go amiss!
#2) Therefore, it would be VERY wise to have a group of at least 2-3 separate boats and boaters for safety and recovery in the event of a mishap, AND to have exposure to, knowledge of, and experience with Swiftwater Rescue techniques and equipment (throw ropes, extraction and recovery techniques, etc).
#3) Because of the somewhat tricky nature of the two portages, and the areas of the run which require skilled maneuvering at almost all flows, it can be VERY helpful to have at least one person in the group who has done this run at least once before (to help guide folks new-to-the-run, and warn/suggest skills and techniques needed in those tricky areas).
Historic Cedarburg boasts a fun little run, with two short, but rather wicked portages (dropping ~12' and ~18-20') around dams. Mountain goat agility or ropes will help, especially for early season (ice), during/immediately after rains (mud), or in fall (leaves obscuring footing). (A rope with 'biner to assist lowering boats and rapelling down the steep rocky bank might be handy, especially for such conditions.)
Main playable drops are: City Park Ledge, Bank Waves, Estate Bridge, and Railroad Ledges.Note: this is one of the later southern Wisconsin streams to 'open up' in spring, due to the ponds (behind the two dams on the run) which do not quickly flush free of ice. Specifically, the second one (above the 'Nail Factory Dam') lies in an East-West stretch of river which tends to be rather sheltered from the sun, so it may remain ice-covered and impassible well after other rivers in the area have flushed free of ice!
While the gauge is located about two miles upstream of the listed put-in, and a pair of dams intervene, they have virtually no 'regulation' on the flow.
This creek had long been a 'hotspot' for PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). A major contributor to the PCB load was in the dam pond just above the put-in of this reach. Remediation efforts were done on 'Ruck Pond' (just above the listed put-in) during 1994-1995, on 'Hamilton Pond' (about a mile downstream of our recommended take-out) during 2000-2001, and what is likely the final remediation took place in 2017 in both the the Columbia Pond and the Nail Factory Pond (the two 'ponds' backed up by the two dams normally portaged when doing this run). As a result, there should now be very little concern regarding PCB levels anywhere on this run.
Headwaters of Cedar Creek are Big Cedar Lake and Little Cedar Lake (in Washington County, just north of Slinger, just southwest of West Bend). Most of its upstream drainage is farmlands and marshes and bogs. As a result, it tends to take somewhat longer to rise and is rather slower to fall-off than many other area runs.
Park on the street and carry upstream to put in behind Landmark Feed Seed & Supply (the historic Cedarburg Mill), and adjacent to the patio area for Rebellion Brewing.
A small ledge/wave midstream can provide some minor entertainment (surfing and attainments) before heading down the first drop.
Some folks may 'eye' the dam just upstream. While I am aware of at least one claim of having run it (supposedly 'accidentally', though that's hard to imagine), it cannot be recommended. The 'landing zone' contains shallow rock/bedrock (at least in most places), making boat damage and injury likely. Unless you are very skilled and confident of nailing a boof, or unless you have 'plumbed' the base of the drop (by going in there at minimal flows and walking/swimming the base of the dam), we strongly recommend that you should not attempt running this dam. (Besides, it is so much easier to put in below it than above it.).
A set of ledges (maybe 3-4' of drop in 15' or so of river) provide a somewhat exciting start to the run. Minor play is possible here at certain levels, though always rather limited by shallowness and vertical stone walls constricting the stream.
Sloping bedrock and minor ledges create a short sequence of wave/holes which can allow some minor play at low-to-moderate levels. There are usually one or two catch-on-the-fly upper waves, then a wider bottom wave with good river-left eddy for repeat play. At moderate to higher flows there may be an additional 'secondary' wave or two.
At levels from 600-1600+ cfs, these build up quite nicely to provide really nice surfs, though increasingly it takes strong paddling to regain the river-left eddy as you come off the wave. The current heads quickly into a brushy shore as the river bends to the right into the pool above the next dam. There is a river-right eddy here, but you cannot access the final Bank Wave from here. Rather, you would need to ferry back over to the river-left eddy.
Somewhere about 2000 cfs and higher, the Bank Waves almost totally wash out. At such flows there is little reason to do the whole run, as it will be nothing more than a dangerous, uncontrolled, freight-train of a ride. (If this creek is flowing that high, there are better, safer things to paddle in the area.)
While this has been run (I believe nearly always at lower water levels, around 300 cfs, +/-), most boaters will opt to portage, river-right. Pause to have a look at the dam (and it's boil line!), then carry downstream to carefully make your way down a steep bank to get back on stream. For a number of years there had been a knotted rope tied to a tree, with a carabiner at the loose end. You could haul up the rope, affix it to you boat to lower it, then make your way down (using the knotted rope or on your own skills). That rope has disappeared, so you are on your own to negotiate this steep slope. It can be done carrying your boat, without ropes, if you are very sure-footed and careful. Otherwise, if you have a throw-bag with you, it could be worth deploying it here to assist safe descent to the stream.
FOR SAFETY OF ALL IN YOUR GROUP: No one should begin the climb down while someone else is still making their way down! If the upper person were to lose footing and slide down, they would wipe-out the prior paddler downslope, likely causing serious injury.
At moderate-to-high flows, finding a convenient place to re-launch can be a challenge.
For anyone considering running the dam, be aware that the right bank angles in considerably, so you want to be at least 10-15' off the right flank of the dam to avoid a hard piton landing. Rescue would be difficult here since it is not easy for anyone to get near the river at the base of the dam. Anyone caught in the boil-line (at higher flows) would be in serious trouble. A very shallow boulder-field backs up the pool, and sometimes catches wood and debris.
Putting in as far upstream as possible (at the base of the climb down) will allow strong confident paddlers a chance to make a ferry across strong currents to catch an eddy behind a cement wall (at least, at flows up to 400-500 cfs ... above that, water overtops the wall and increasingly washes through the eddy). From this river-left eddy, it can be very interesting to paddle through one of two archways to go under the Nail Factory building and look at the huge timbers which support it, as well as seeing the base of the turbine which turned shafts and gears to power the whole operation.
Immediately after putting in below the Nail Factory Dam (or after 'touring' the underpinnings of the Nail Factory building), you peel out into the strong flows coming down the rock/rubble field below the dam. This flow tends to head toward the vertical rock wall of the lower dells. At good flows, the water hitting this wall forms a little dish of a wave which can be surfed, and (diving the nose of your boat into the trough) will allow fine little enders (if you have the skill and interest to do so when you are 'Up Against the Wall'). A slackwater (not quite an eddy) at river-right allows repeat play, if so inclined, before continuing downstream.
The outrun below the boulder-field creates some strong currents down through a vertical walled dells.
Just as the dells walls recede, and before the Estate Bridge is visible downstream, a couple minor waves occur (at least, at some flows). These allow some smooth easy surfs.
Increasing gradient leads down to a bridge-pier which constricts the creek, and a wave forms alongside. Boaters need to have good skills (particularly as flow increases) to catch a river-left eddy under the bridge to do any repeat play here. Minor play is available as low as 100 cfs (though all else will be extremely boney). Play increases as levels rise, and sweet surfs are available on a powerful fast wave from 600-1600+ cfs, though it will never really allow much for the 'rodeo boater' crowd, as it seldom (if ever) really develops a foam-pile, thus is not retentive for linking vertical or aerial moves.
A small ledge creates a minor wave here at many flows. Minor surfing play is possible.
Just beyond the railroad, look for a bit of rocky outcropping on the left shore, where a few rocks and bedrock in the creek make (at some flows) a small, sometimes surfable wave tight to river-left. This is pretty much the 'last hurrah' -- the final whitewater feature. From here down, the creek is pretty much just splishy-splash shoals and swiftwater. Do not let down your guard, however, as there will still be some technical maneuvering needed to safely negotiate narrow twists and blind turns, as well as deadfall and overhanging trees and branches.
A private bridge spans the river at this point. At lower flows boaters will encounter shallow shoals through this area. At some flow (above 'maximum recommended flow') this bridge may become a hazard (too low to the water). The bridge pier/support left-of-center can catch whole trees and other woody debris, though most times I've run it, this has not been a problem. It has (more than once!) 'collected' canoes and recreational kayaks, wrapped and folded in half around its leading edge. (I suspect many inadequately skilled novice boaters, having little or no idea what they were getting into, have suffered the 'walk of shame' after losing their canoe(s) or kayak(s), clothes soaking wet, having to find their way out to the road and back to their vehicle.)
As an aside, just downstream of here (but still before the island), Cedar Creek is within 1/3 mile of the Milwaukee River (at Grafton Dells, not far downstream of the launch/landing site in Grafton Lime Kiln Park). However, the creek meanders another 3.3 miles before its confluence with the Milwaukee River, downstream of CTH.C.
A large island (for such a relatively small creek) splits the flow.
The left channel is often blocked off immediately at the start. Even if accessible, it generally contains additional deadfall or overhanging branches downstream which require significant skill and maneuvering to avoid problems. There is no real gradient (no rapids), and since this route is (just a bit) longer and so prone to snags, this left channel is NOT RECOMMENDED (even if you can get to/through it).
The right channel is the preferred route as it is shorter and somewhat less prone to snags. The initial move into it is a bit tricky. A sharp right-turn (to enter this channel) leads to strong current heading straight toward shore (undercutting the right streambank) before being diverted 90-degrees left. Keep to the left, or (better yet) set an upstream-ferry-angle to keep from being pushed into the undercut bank. Downstream, numerous sharp twists and turns and overhanging trees will keep you scrambling. Again, generally you want to keep to the inside around bends to be out of the strongest current headed into the outside bank (and often into trees). You will often need to paddle hard and fast to avoid disaster!
In the 'flow shadow' of a private island (with foot-bridge from private yard), there is generally sufficient depth and some fairly interesting currents (at higher water levels) to allow some playing with stern-squirts and bow-stalls.
While one could proceed downstream, the gradient has largely petered-out at this point. And, it's tough to beat a 2.2-2.3 mile run, with only a 0.8 mile shuttle.
Paddlers wishing a longer trip may extend their outing by nearly a mile, taking out in the quaint little burg of Hamilton. This yields a trip nearly 3.2 miles in length, with a shuttle of only 1.3 miles.
There will be very little actual whitewater in this extra distance, though there may be swiftwater and shoals. The main 'benefit' will be seeing a bit more of this area. Hamilton has a good number of historic stone buildings (houses and businesses).
A longer trip might continue all the way to the mouth of Cedar Creek, and its confluence with the Milwaukee River. Again, precious little actual whitewater would be found (both on Cedar Creek and on the Milwaukee River), though the current will generally be swift at any 'recommended' paddleable flows.
This confluence lies just 0.43 mile downstream of Lakefield Road (CTH.T), which would make for a very simple straight-line shuttle back to the put-in, but paddling that distance upstream on the Milwaukee River would be arduous. Instead, paddlers are more likely to paddle 1.32 miles downstream to exit at Pioneer Road (CTH.C).
This would make a total very near 5.9 river miles, and a shuttle of 3.0 miles.
A detailed review of Cedar Creek was recently posted to: https://www.wisconsinrivertrips.com/segments/cedar-creek-cedarburg . That trip was done at 36 CFS which was too low. There are several logjams at the top of the first island.
1 month ago
Gauge is a few miles upstream of this reach. While dams intervene, all are top-spill 'non-regulated' dams which effectively pass all water through.
Gauge/flow analysis (based on gauge data for years 1930 through 2010):
Drainage area at gauge: 120 sq.mi.
Minimum mean daily flow during gauge period: 0.2 cfs ( 1936.08.09)
90% of time flow during gauge period exceeds: 8 cfs
10% of time flow during gauge period exceeds: 180 cfs
Maximum mean daily flow during gauge period: 3,320 cfs ( 1952.03.20)
10/90 ratio: 22.5 ('flashy-ness') during gauge period (under 3 is fairly steady, over 10 is quite 'flashy')
Average days per year during gauge period over recommended 'low' threshold (100 cfs): 79
Average days per year during gauge period over recommended 'high' threshold (600 cfs): 5
The 'minimum recommended flow' (100 cfs) is certain to be questioned by many boaters. Indeed, it will have parts of the run be a bit of a scrape, but reasonable whitewater play will be possible at a couple spots. The run has been floated at levels below this, but is not recommended. The 'maximum recommended flow' (600 cfs) is only set as an indicator of levels 'above the norm'. The river is runnable much higher, and, in fact, many experienced boaters will prefer levels above this value, indeed using it as almost their 'minimum'!
Permits are not required for this reach.
This run on Cedar Creek has a marvelously short shuttle since the river does a big ox-bow loop. Some boaters may opt for other put-in locations, forgoing the short ledge-drop in the city park, to avoid the flatwater paddle and first awkward portage.
In fact, one could get the best action (in ~0.53 miles) of this run going 'bank to bank' -- that is, from the BMO Harris Bank (Columbia Road at Highland Drive) to the North Shore Bank - Grafton ('NSB', at Columbia Road at 1st Street), though doing so would involve trespass (to carry in from the street or sidewalk to put in below the dam at Highland, and to carry out at the railroad trestle, across NSB property to get back to Columbia Road).
Deadfall above Estate Bridge
Looking upstream to Nail Factory Dam
Highland Drive Dam
Zach surfs Estate Bridge
Estate Bridge play spot
City Park Ledge
History of Cedar Creek
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