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Loew Lake by Kayak—at Last!

July 20, 2022  |  Topics: Places, Stories

Story and photos by Eddee Daniel

We arrive at the boat ramp at rush hour. Apparently. A gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July, not too hot, popcorn clouds adding drama to the scenery in every direction. Long lines of parked cars bearing kayak racks line both sides of the road leading up to the County Q bridge crossing the Oconomowoc River. And a flotilla of kayaks—plus a canoe or two—precede us upstream.

A flotilla of kayaks setting out from the boat launch.
A flotilla of kayaks setting out from the boat launch.

However, by the time we push off—unfolding our new “origami” kayak still takes longer, after only one previous outing, than the instructions promise—we have the river to ourselves. At least as far as we can see. One of our two goals is to reach Loew Lake, namesake of the unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in which it is found. It is our third attempt. We didn’t make it to the lake either of our first two, our first goal having given way to our second: to have a peaceful, relaxing, unstrenuous time on the water.

An idyllic afternoon on the Oconomowoc River!

No telling if we’ll make it on the third try. But, as we forge our way upstream, the current is not as strong as I remember it, which bodes well for the effort. A single house facing the river is visible on private land immediately north of the bridge. The next two hours of paddling up the river, though, is like going back in time to a period before European colonists dotted surrounding Washington County with farms and settlements.

Water Lily Blossom

Refreshingly, the seemingly wild territory into which we are paddling belies the fact that the several State Forest parcels that make up the Loew Lake Unit are segmented by private properties. The differences in ownership are indistinguishable from the water. At only one other point do we get a glimpse of another house—although, at the far end of a narrow channel cut through the cattails you could easily miss it if you don’t turn your head just then.

River reflections.
Upturned root ball at river’s edge.

We reach a wooden footbridge so low above the water that on our first expedition up the river we turned back instead of portaging across the small embankment leading up to it. On our second previous attempt we discovered a crowd of revelers atop the bridge. We made the portage that time, only to tire out battling the current a half mile or so farther upstream. This time as we approach we see one young couple on the bridge, their canoe pulled up on the embankment. But, to our surprise, we find that by bending forward into the well of our kayaks, we can slide underneath the bridge, pushing ourselves along with the steel beams overhead.

Revelers on the low bridge. Photo from 2020.

Most of the rest of our journey is uneventful—if you don’t count seeing turtles basking on submerged logs, wildflowers decorating the marshy banks, great blue herons rising at regular intervals ahead of us, and the endless, everchanging drama in the sky. As well as passing other boaters now and then. We’re well past the point where we’d turned back the last time when we ask a couple coming towards us how far it is to the lake. “Not far,” they assure us, smiling, with no further specificity for encouragement.

Passing paddlers in a hurry!

We pass through a long section of the river lined with vast stretches of dead trees. If you were superstitious you might take it as an omen. But the sun remains brilliant, the clouds magnificent, and the current manageable. We persevere. After a while we ask again. This time we are assured the lake is “just ahead.” With a smile one in the company of four kayaks adds, “You’ve come this far; this is no time to turn back!” So we don’t.

A forest of tree skeletons.
Trail bridge crossing the river.

A long steel bridge appears in the distance and then looms as we get closer and closer. We see people walking across it in both directions as we approach. Still rush hour, I guess, on the trail as well as the water. Beyond that the river widens and the hills on either side shrink down to a low point on the horizon. And then, without fanfare, we are at the lake. It is wide and—except for the sparkles on the wind-corrugated surface and the still spectacular sky—unremarkable. We pause, watching a pair of coupled kayaks outfitted with an impressive array of fishing paraphernalia (including fish-finding sonar) being pulled out across the lake by a trolling motor at the front of the lead kayak. The mystique extinguished, we bask for a moment in the satisfaction of success—and the serenity of a genial wilderness. Then we turn around.

Loew Lake
Loew Lake at last!

After the exertion of paddling upstream for two hours, we drift with the languorous current, soaking up the late afternoon sun now full on our faces. I take off my sandals and rest my legs on the deck of the kayak, float…

Floating downstream at ease!

I’ve been to the Loew Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in other seasons. Not solely to kayak, either. While not as highly developed as most of the other units of the KM State Forest—it is a day-use park without camping or built structures—the Ice Age Trail runs through it, as well as a bridle trail. Other than hiking and horseback riding, hunting, fishing and kayaking are the main activities here.

Kettle Moraine State Forest – Loew Lake Unit in autumn, 2018.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail at Loew Lake Unit, 2018.

Our tranquil slide downstream is suddenly marred by the pop, pop, pop of distant gunfire. The disturbance grows louder as we proceed, paddling now to move along faster. And louder. And louder. After a momentary pause it resumes with a crescendo, a veritable fusillade that seems to go on and on relentlessly, its source invisible, its audible impact penetrating.  As they pass by in the other direction, we hear a family with three young children in their own kayaks commenting on the unsettling barrage as well. The volume gradually diminishes but for most of an hour this piercing reminder of the outside world follows us all the way back to our car.


Our expected three-hour excursion ended up being closer to four. We took the boats out, folded up the origami and racked the other kayak on top of the car. Tired from the effort and refreshed by the almost complete immersion in nature in equal measures.

Water lilies

Adventures like this and many others await you in our Wealth of Nature here in Southeastern Wisconsin. Find a place to explore with our Find-a-Park map. Just type in your address and start exploring!

For more information about Kettle Moraine State Forest – Loew Lake Unit go to our Find-a-Park page.

Note: all photos from July, 2022, except as noted. The featured photo at the top is from 2020. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks.