Location: A mile north of Thiensville, 3.3 miles south of Cedarburg.
Shuttle Length: 2.2 miles. (See details in "Directions" Tab.)
Character: Tiny creek, deadfalls and snags, shallow braided channels, impassible culverts (and some passable ones), electric fences, bedrock slides. Recommended only for true masochists with solid boating skills.
Put-in is approximately 792' elevation.
Take-out is approximately 669' elevation.
Thus total elevation change is approximately 123'.General Overview
I will be first to confess this one lies most solidly in the vein of 'micro creeks', novelty runs, and 'stupid boater tricks'. That is to say, this is likely to test the limits on how small a creek (and how many hassles with deadfall, portages and fences) you are willing to try to run. This is emphatically not the place for any novice boater in a recreational kayak, without significant skills and critical judgement to assess potential dangers and quickly manuever their craft. You have to be able to keep your composure as you encounter strainers and sweepers (overhanging trees and shrubs) tangling up your paddle! You have to be able to look ahead, anticipate problems, and to get ashore and get out of your boat (often without a real eddy) to get around various obstacles.
A couple spots can offer some decent play (surfs and spins -- not enough depth to go vertical or aerial), and there are no major exciting/hairy/scary drops. It has a few interesting bedrock slides and a one tree-root pour-over. While the gradient pushes near (or above) some other area runs (Sauk Creek, Menomonee Falls, Cedar Creek), it is just such a smaller stream, and it manages to disperse the gradient without creating anything overly interesting. That said, I find a fondness for the contrary nature of trying to catch something a bit different than most boaters will ever subject themselves to, so have run it about once a year. The few other boaters whom I've shared this run with have seemed not completely disgusted with the experience! However, I suspect there are many who may do it once just to see it and add it to their tally of streams they've run, but will not subject themselves to it a second time (and I totally understand such a choice).
Technically, I must confess most of the run is not even on Pigeon Creek proper, but on an essentially unnamed (as far as I've been able to determine) tributary! (While it has always appeared a much smaller flow, a stream which crosses Wauwatosa Road 0.2 mile south of the stream described here is marked as Pigeon Creek on all maps I can find. These streams join in the 'Disenchanting Forest' before the first good surfable ledge/wave.) Maps also show another unnamed branch coming in just above Hawthorne Road which crosses upstream near the corner of Bonniwell Road at Wauwatosa Road. It is not advised due to no good parking/access, the fact that this is a smaller branch, is prone (in summer) to be almost totally obscured by grass and weeds, and it contains a footbridge (just before the confluence) which is totally impassable at virtually any flow. Of course, that is just one portage (versus a minimum of two, and far more likely 3, 4, 5 or more on the 'recommended' (listed) route), so the non-existence of any available parking is the primary overriding concern negating that option. (It might work if you have a shuttle bunny/buddy who could drop you off so you wouldn't need to leave a vehicle parked there.) You would miss the two small runnable dams, but you'd also skip four or more portages. The put-in branch as listed here is decently sized (well, relatively -- bigger than a road-ditch). Expect significant deadfall. You may be able to get over/under/around some of it (you get a bit creative), but sometimes you just have to get out and portage. In this early stretch, there are no notable rapids, but there are a few good riffles and swifts.
There are two impoundments where property owners have dammed the creek. Both dams (just a couple feet in height) are runnable, the first having a decent 'tongue' (and no play when I've seen it), the second being a bit more of a uniform pour-over (which could create a problematic reversal at some flows, and can provide some play at moderate flows). Coming into the first pond (first dam), there is first a driveway with low culverts. This may be possible to paddle through at low water, not likely at high water. Very shortly downstream, a low footbridge lies across the creek. At low flows, it may be limbo-able, but be careful of numerous bolts hanging below the I-beams. At best flows, this will not allow passage, and must be portaged. (The aforementioned culvert and footbridge will be passed in one portage.) Downstream of this first pond and dam, there are two driveways with totally impassable low culverts, mandating portages at all but the lowest of flows and getting out before them may be a bit tricky! A bit futher down this area (immediately beyond a home quite near the stream) another footbridge spans the creek. As of spring, 2013, this one has been rebuilt and appears to hang a bit lower to the stream than it had before. Passage is a tight squeeze limbo even at relatively lower flows, so mandatory portage when the creek is high. Current is quite swift heading into this bridge, so you'll be in trouble quickly if you have not looked ahead and assessed your options.
All this might lead one to conclude there is precious little reason to use the upper access (as listed) on this branch, which is mostly true, save for the fact that parking (with owners permission) is available right near the creek (in a secondary, gravel drive), and not at someone's home in their (main) driveway. I have never investigated the possibility of accessing the river from any property along Hawthorne Road in this stretch of the stream. Doing so would certainly eliminate a lot of hassle, but (1) there are no shoulders on the road, so street-side parking is NOT remotely possible (and Mequon has signs posted quite prominently saying it is illegal to park along the road -- you are very likely to be ticketed, and possibly towed -- passing drivers have stopped to notify of this when I have just stepped out of the car briefly to LOOK at the creek!), therefore (2) it would be necessary to drive up someone's driveway, hope someone was home, ask for permission to leave a car in their driveway (while you ran the river), and ask permission to carry across their yard to the creek.
Just before Hawthorne Road you'll encounter the second pond and dam. The dam lies immediately beyond the downstream side of a driveway bridge. At high water, you'll have to duck to make it under the bridge, then immediately be ready to hit the drop. The dam slopes/slides into a short pool, and (at some flows) may allow some play, though it may get a bit retentive at high flows. Just downstream the gradient picks up a bit, leading down to the Hawthorne Road culverts. This area has been prone to snags and sweepers (overhead hanging branches), which complicate the approach to the culverts. Current is pretty swift heading toward them (and through them!), so be very careful here! You need to make sure there are no snags on/in the culverts, and line up very carefully to drop through the culverts! Generally the best approach is to charge into a river-right (creek-right) eddy to kill your momentum, then peel-out to line-up and drop into the culvert.
The second half of the run (from Hawthorne Road) starts with some boulderbed rips through heavily wooded area (which has a couple of large lots and expensive homes). Rounding the first sweeping left-hand bend (if you are VERY observant) you may see a small bit of dells (short rocky outcrop on either shore) and what appears may be remnants of a long-defunct dam. A large tree (to river-right) and some smaller ones accumulate a pile of strainers. Passage is usually possible off to the left. However, just downstream lies a wide-open cow-pasture area, and you'll encounter a smooth-strand fence across the creek. Generally I've found best choice is to the right (likely carefully pushing over/through random wood/debris, dropping over the root ball, then either in your boat ducking under the fence, or portaging). Be aware (whether trying to boat under or portage) that the fence may be electrified! If it's in the water, or if a branch lays against it, it may be 'shorted out'. (I do not mean to 'recommend' it, but if you are inclined to test it, extend your paddle underneath it, then lift the paddle to touch the wire. Regardless the composition of your paddle, it is likely to be more than wet enough to conduct the electricity to your hand. You'll likely get a quite significant tingle/shock, but generally not so much as to cause any real harm.)
Swiftwater and low banks through the pasture lead to the bridge at Wauwatosa Road (CTH.N/Hwy.181), where there is another triple-smooth-strand fence (the other end of this first pasture), again, likely electrified. I've been able to lift a wire enough (when it was not electrified) to lay back and squeeze under, but when I heard it crackling with electricity (or performed the paddle-touch test and got the jolt/tingle), I opted to carefully get out, thread myself and my boat under or through the fence without touching it, and portage the highway. Occasionally, after high-water, the bottom strand may be snapped (by wood catching and straining it), allowing limbo passage under the higher strands. Another pasture lies beyond the road. At the end of this pasture, look for the third (final, possibly electrified) fence as the creek enters a woodland with massive deadfall. (Note: as of spring, 2013, this fence seemed absent. It is possible this lower pasture is no longer being used, or it may just be the fence is in temporary disrepair.) In the woods below, the massive deadfalls (in conjunction with the low banks) has caused the creek to split into a multitude of braided obstructed channels. The far-left channel seems to have been cleared in recent years. Well, 'cleared' is a relative term -- expect some very slalom-like moves to negotiate the meanders between trees, and be aware that this ends in a few major snags which will have to be portaged. Good luck!
Immediately after the channels rejoin (and the 'real' Pigeon Creek has joined), there's a clearing in the woods (a paved driveway off to river-left), and you'll find a few easy, fun bedrock slides which may actually offer some repeat play (at good flows). A short ways downstream, the creek passes a driveway bridge (plenty of clearance to paddle through), and enters another heavily wooded area (again with low riverbanks). Unfortunately, there's some new deadfall (huge tree-trunks) blocking the whole creek. As you portage those (recommended on river-left), you'll reach a clearing for high tension power lines. Immediately downstream, the creek encounters the final sweet sloping bedrock rapids. While it is not all that long or difficult, scouting is virtually mandatory due to the likelihood of snags or strainers midway down this drop. The creek zigs and zags, so you can't see top-to-bottom, and there are no eddies, so you need to know that it is clear before you proceed!
After the zig-zag, as the creek bends to the right, a short (~1') ledge/wave is encountered. For years, the next section of creekbed was piled (deep and long) with snags accumulated over years and years, and the creek braided out to flood a significant amount of floodplain area. As of spring, 2011, it appears someone has done some major chainsawing/clearing (probably DNR/fishing-groups), and you can stay in the creek channel (for now -- I expect wood may likely start to re-accumulate). As soon as you exit the woods you encounter the railroad tracks, another power-line right-of-way, and a bike path. At best boatable flows, the railroad bridge will not allow passage under. There MAY be enough water in side ditches of the railroad to paddle south (out of the main flow), but current may be swift trying to take you under the RR bridge -- be prepared to scramble! It is likely you will have to carry out toward Highland Road, using the paved bike path.
On the rare occasion that this run is paddled, it is likely to be paired with Cedar Creek (only about 3.5 miles away), or with the run at Menomonee Falls (about 10 miles away) or other area runs.
If you aren't comfortable passing through this culvert at the put-in, don't even think of running the rest of this creek! (If the water is high enough that you can't make it through, there are a number of spots which will be VERY dicey, and you really shouldn't be on the run!)
Drainage at this point is only ~3.5 square miles!
As you approach a private estate, you will encounter a set of culverts for a driveway, followed shortly by a small low footbridge. At low flows it may be possible to boat through the culvert and duck under the footbridge. At moderate to higher flows, it will be necessary to portage. Carry as quickly and discretely as possible, portaging both at once. Putting in immediately after the footbridge, you will have a (very short) rocky rips before you enter a pond in the yard of this estate. Please be careful to skirt wide around their ironwork sculptures in the pond as you head to the short dam which is the outlet for the pond.
A minor rocky rapids leads to a pond backed up by a small dam (just a foot or so effective drop) in their large yard. The dam has a bit of a 'notch' in the center which generally forms a good runnable chute. Don't run (or get pushed) too far left here, as there are some shallow rocks you are likely to broach upon. before passing under the driveway bridge which follows immediately.
FWIW, drainage at this point has increased to ~5 square miles.
This is the first of two driveways which have sets of culverts which are way too small to paddle through. It will be necessary to carefully get ashore, portage the driveway, and put in on the other side to continue downstream of both of these spots.
This is the second of two driveways in this area which have sets of culverts which are way too small to paddle through. It will be necessary to carefully get ashore, portage the driveway, and put in on the other side to continue downstream of both of these spots.
As you pass a fine home, the creek takes an "S" bend and passes under a footbridge. At low-to-moderate flows, it should cause no concern at all. At higher flows, it must be approached with caution, as you will probably need to duck considerably to make it under. (I think the right side may be a bit better as you will be in slower current.)
This is the second 'private dam' on the creek. It creates a fine little pond on a private property. The dam lies immediately beyond a driveway bridge. Good boaters should be able to approach with caution, back-paddling or doing an upstream ferry, staying to one side (probably the right) of the pool above the dam, carefully drifting back under the driveway bridge to 'boat scout' to check how grabby or sticky the reversal below looks.
At high flows, (if you have to really duck or limbo to get under the bridge), it tends to 'wash out' into a wave. At moderate flows, this can form a playable (if sometimes a bit 'sticky') hole, with fairly decent eddy service. At lower boatable flows, it will just be a sucky pourover. Make certain to paddle THROUGH the boil.
I have never intentionally sought out contact with the home-owner, nor have I ever 'unintentionally' encountered them, so I don't know how 'boater friendly' they may be. It may be possible to seek their permission to use their driveway to leave a shuttle vehicle (somewhere out of their way) to start your run here, avoiding the mostly uneventful access paddle down to this point, and avoiding the two mandatory portages in the farm/estate upstream.
Upstream of Hawthorne Road, the gradient starts to pick up nicely. This means there is strong current heading toward and through the culvert. Any deadfall or snags upstream, or blocking the culverts, will be very difficult to negotiate or avoid. (And, specifically to the point, there has been a blockage of the stream shortly upstream of the culvert the past few times I've done this creek. It is best to scout this area (as well as you can -- there are no shoulders on the road here to park on) before putting in anywhere upstream.
Drainage at this point is up to ~6.8 square miles.
As you see a small dells (rock outcropping on right bank), you'll see a large tree river-right, and likely a good-sized pile of dead wood (snags) blocking the right side. If you can get through, you'll drop over the roots of the tree (about a 3' drop, as shown in the photo). Immediately downstream, there's a smooth-strand fence surrounding a pasture. It may be possible to slip under the fence (as long as flow is not too high), best will be tight to right shore, if you can get over/through the snags which may be blocking that slot (between the tree and right shore). If passage in boat is impossible, portage is likely to be almost as awkward.
Generally it is not an option to stay to the left (in the main flow here), because current is swift, taking you into the (likely electrified) fence spanning the creek. On very rare occasions the bottom strand may be broken out, leaving enough clearance for you to pass, but be very wary and cautious to be certain before staying in the main flow here!
Right as you prepare to enter the culverts under Hwy.181/Wauwatosa Road, another triple-wire smooth-strand fence (possibly electrified) will block your way. Again, portage will be difficult. I have been able to lift the bottom wire (when not electrified!) and squeeze under.
At the end of the cow pasture, you'll encounter a fence (possibly electrified!) and the creek enters a heavily wooded area. Over the years, multitudes of deadfall have blocked the stream causing it to repeatedly seek to find new ways to continue downstream. This has split the already small creek into braided channels. In the past, I had found best passage by going as far right as conceivably possible before slipping through/under the fence. Unfortunately, it now seems as much of a snagfest as other routes I have tried. Good luck!
(Because of how frustrated you are likely to be after finding your way through, I like to call this the Disenchanted Forest.)
After slogging your way through the "Disenchanting Forest", you'll pick up some gradient. As you start seeing mowed lawn (to the left, along a long estate driveway) the sloping bedrock creates a fun little wave. At good flows this has a pretty fair pool/eddy below, and will allow surfs and spins (too shallow for anything vertical). At moderate-to-high flows, it will actually get a little bit sticky!
Drainage has increased to a whopping ~8.5 square miles. Wahoo!
After passing through a box-culvert (under a driveway), the creek re-enters a wooded area. As you reach a clearing for powerlines overhead, take-out immediately to scout (river-left is probably best). The next stretch of creek slips and slides and bends and twists down some nice bedrock. The rapids are not overly difficult for a reasonably skilled boater, but you cannot see far enough ahead to 'boat scout', and the area is very prone to holding snags and deadfall. There are no eddies, so once you pass the power-lines, you are pretty much committed to what is going to happen. Any snag or deadfall in here would be serious trouble. So, while the rapids really barely rate class II (maybe up to II+), and it may seem a hassle to have to get out and scout, failure to do so would represent a serious lack of concern about safety.
For a reliable boater's gauge, from the upstream-right (NorthWest) edge of bridge deck at the Highland Road take-out, measure down to the water from the lower edge of the bevel. Subtract your measurement from 90" and record that value.
Fascinating. I spent part of my childhood close to Pigeon Creek and once walked its bed from its mouth at the Milwaukee River to its sources above Hawthorne Road, springs in a meadow. as I recall. I knew, still know, stretches of it well from fishing, seining, and spearing in the 1970s and -80s.
In spring 1983, when snow melt had raised the creek to about as high as it ever gets, flooding the neighboring woods and part of downtown Thiensville, I put in a two-man rubber raft at the Highland Road bridge and floated, paddled, and dragged down to the Seminary pond (recently removed). A light snow was falling on a gloomy day, but it was fun. I saw the creek and the woods from a perspective that I had not enjoyed before or since.
Thanks for writing up your ride.
*Cited USGS reference gauge is for the Menomonee River in Menomonee Falls. Pigeon Creek is a much smaller watershed, thus is likely rise and fall more quickly than the cited gauge. Correlation of flows is not assured, and listed recommended flows are similarly only a rough guess.
This little creek will be runnable a few days in spring or within a few hours or a day or two of heavy rains. Visual inspection of the creek at the take-out should have it well up in the trees upstream, and relatively low (or no) clearance under the railroad and bike-path bridges.
Visual inspection of the creek where it crosses Hwy.181 (Wauwatosa Road) should have it looking 'reasonably boatable'. And finally, there should be enough clearance to run the culverts on Highland Road and Hawthorne Road without having to duck. Higher flows than that will mean portaging those roads, and will make two private footbridges impassable.
Regardless what put-in is being used, visual inspection should be made of the Hawthorne Road culvert. Make certain the area upstream of the culverts, as well as the entrance and exits of the culverts, is free of snags. The creek is small enough and the flow will be swift enough here that it may be tough to catch an eddy and exit the stream if you need to get out to avoid a strainer! Therefore, best to scout this area before putting in above it! If you wish to have a consistent accurate reading (for future reference and comparison), you may wish to measure down to the water from the lower edge of the bevel on the bridge deck at the Highland Road take-out. Subtract your measurement from 90" and record that value. (And, we'd appreciate posting a comment or report of level and your assessment of boatability. We have no measurement readings at present.)
Permits are not required for this reach.
Doing the 'full run' (as listed here) starts off with almost a mile of relatively lower gradient tiny creek running which will contain much deadfall to hazard your way over, under, around, or through.
It may be possible to shorten the run if permission can be obtained to park in one of a couple of private driveways north of Hawthorne Road, just west of the creek crossing. Two homeowners have dams which back up ponds on their property. The first (a farmstead) also has two driveways with small culverts which are impassible by any person/kayak. The only thing of any 'significance' you'd miss by putting in downstream of these culverts would be running a small dam on that farmstead property. I have never attempted to talk with either property owner to see how 'friendly' they may be about this possibility.
Rather, I have felt it far less intrusive to use the listed put-in location, since one can park off the road on a small lane alongside the creek on the north side of the road (under the crackle of the high-tension lines). I have always knocked on the door of the adjacent home just East of the creek (the property holder of the lane) and have always found them quite agreeable to allowing a vehicle to be parked for the short time it takes to run this little creek.
Similarly, at the take-out, parking is limited. Do not park in or near gravel drive (posted no trespassing) near the tracks and bike path. However, I have been told folks have parked on either side of Highland Road at the bridge (to walk dogs or access the bike path) and not had their cars ticketed or towed.
The other possibility might be to have a 'shuttle bunny/buddy' -- someone who is not paddling, but will drop you at your put-in (either leaving your vehicle at the take-out or biding their time, reading a magazine or something to pick you up at the take-out).
Slip and Slide
Root Ball Drop (3-4')
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