Kayakers paddle on the Milwaukee River in downtown Milwaukee.

Kayakers paddle on the Milwaukee River in downtown Milwaukee. Photo By Chelsey Lewis

Kayaking offers different perspective on downtown Milwaukee

Light current makes for easy paddle on Milwaukee River


What: Kayaking the Milwaukee River.

You don't have to leave the city for an adventure on the water. Less than a century ago, the Milwaukee River was a leisure destination for city folks looking to cool off during hot summers. By the 1940s, however, pollution from area factories closed many of the swimming schools, bathhouses and beaches along the river, and few ventured into its murky waters.

Today, while it is still unsafe for swimming, the river's pollution levels are slowly improving, thanks to efforts by the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, which includes the nonprofit Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The group works with volunteers and state and local government to clean up Milwaukee's water sources.

"I think in general over the last 20 years, the water quality has improved pretty dramatically," said Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper for Milwaukee Riverkeeper. "If we look at a lot of the indicators of stream health, we're doing OK in a lot of areas."

These efforts have revitalized an interest in recreation on the river, including kayaking.

This year a new business is providing people with an easy way to give urban paddling a try. Milwaukee Kayak Co. rents kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards from a location on S. Water St., along the Milwaukee River near its confluence with the Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers.

Beth Handle started the company when Laacke & Joys, which rents kayaks out of its downtown location along N. Water St., announced it would be closing that location in 2014. Handle had worked as the marketing manager for Laacke & Joys for six years.

"I didn't want the opportunity to get out on the water taken away," she said.

What you'll need: A kayak, of course. Launch your own from public access points along the river or rent from Milwaukee Kayak Co. or Laacke & Joys.

Download and print the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail map from Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The detailed map provides information on parking, access points, portages and restaurants, in addition to mileage and detailed descriptions of stretches of the Milwaukee River from Mequon to the Kinnickinnic River.

Route: From the Milwaukee Kayak Co.'s location on S. Water St., paddle northwest to where the Milwaukee meets the Menomonee. Stay to the right and continue paddling north through downtown Milwaukee. This is one of Handle's favorite stretches.

"Going through that Milwaukee River corridor is beautiful," she said. She's right: It's a unique perspective of downtown Milwaukee, with Milwaukee landmarks looming on either side (the Usinger's building, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Bronze Fonz), bridges crossing overhead, and people walking along the RiverWalk.

The current is calm, and it's easy enough to paddle up to the rapids at the pedestrian bridge near North Ave., then turn around and retrace your route in about an hour.

From your starting point, you can paddle a short distance west along the Menomonee to see the Harley-Davidson Museum, or paddle south through a more industrial landscape along the Kinnickinnic.

Difficulty level: Easy. Under normal conditions the current on the Milwaukee River is negligible, making for an easy paddle both up and down the river. Watch for debris (logs, trash) and other boats (both motorized and nonmotorized), especially on warm weekends.

When to go: When the weather allows. Early morning and weekdays are best if you want to avoid crowds, but the river is beautiful at night when lights along the RiverWalk and bridges light your path.

While the river is getting cleaner, bacteria can still be a concern, especially after a large rainfall when storm drains dump water into the river. Nenn recommends being cautious for a few days after a heavy rain.

"In general, if it hasn't rained in a few days, I would say river quality tends to be pretty good for people who are paddling," she said.

While you're there: Stop for a cold brew at the new-and-improved patio of The Harp Irish Pub, just south of the Juneau Ave. bridge. The bar also added a new, lower dock this year, making for easy tie-ups for paddlers.

Other patios worth tying up to include the Milwaukee Ale House in the Third Ward, and Horny Goat Hideaway, along the Kinnickinnic in Walker's Point.

How much it will set you back: Kayak rentals are $25 for four hours.

Getting there: Milwaukee Kayak Co. is at 318 S. Water St., across from Next Act Theatre.

More info: (414) 301-2240, milwaukeekayak.com

Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.

3 Comments for "Kayaking offers different perspective on downtown Milwaukee"

  1. If the water is not safe to swim in, it's not safe to kayak or canoe in. Do you think you're not going to be splashed? How are you going to get your craft in and out of the water without wading into it up to your knees? :(

    MilwaukeeWoman1 Jun 29, 2013 3:47 PM

  2. @MilwaukeeWoman1 - The difference is that you do not immerse your face in the water while canoeing. Well, at least I don't very often. There's no much chance of getting a mouthfull, unlike swimming.

    driranek Jul 01, 2013 11:41 AM

  3. [quote=MilwaukeeWoman1]If the water is not safe to swim in, it's not safe to kayak or canoe in. Do you think you're not going to be splashed? How are you going to get your craft in and out of the water without wading into it up to your knees? :([/quote]

    Even if you have to go up to your knees (there are plenty of ways to get in without getting wet at all), you're going to be fine. You can't tell the difference between swimming and wading or just getting splashed? I feel sorry for the germophobes like you, living in fear. You and your ilk are causing the allergy rates to skyrocket in recent times. Plus, I wonder if you even care about the types of chemicals in the foods you eat. You have more to worry about from that than the river.

    :D :P

    JHOFF1 Mar 26, 2014 2:03 PM

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