By Dan Curran   Published Oct 10, 2003 at 5:29 AM

{image1}The paddle dips into the oar one last time. A seagull flies by. Tiny waves from a flock of floating ducks echo toward the craft. The canoeists dock at the shore and disembark to forage for a meal.

Forage for a meal at the Rock Bottom Brewery, that is.

The availability of canoes at several venues north of downtown Milwaukee makes possible what to some seems out-of-place -- people engaging in the traditionally rural pastime of canoeing, in the middle of Wisconsin's largest city. Using canoes or kayaks, paddlers can dock at several spots in downtown to take a break for dining or to explore Milwaukee's expanding Riverwalk District.

A canoe trip through downtown does not offer some of the advantages of a more bucolic setting. The water is far from pristine -- pieces of litter float by, nooks off the shoreline hold collections of floating trash. The sounds of automobile traffic, not nature, dominate the surroundings.

But canoeing or kayaking in this urban environment does have its pluses. It offers people a chance to see downtown architecture from a different perspective. Vistas unique to the river vantage point will impress even the most jaded Milwaukeean.

Dan Gray, who leads canoe trips on the Milwaukee River for the Urban Ecology Center, says most people are impressed by the different view they get of downtown buildings.

"They're used to driving over the river in a car on the bridges, but never seeing what it looks like from the river. (They) have commented that it's really neat to see the bridges from down below and see the buildings from that angle, as well."

A trip on the river can also demonstrate the vigor that new development has brought to Milwaukee's riverfront. Development along the river, which has accelerated in the past five years, includes condominiums, hotels, retail stores and restaurants. Milwaukee's Riverwalk District consists of a walkway, sculptures, pedestrian bridges and several public docks.

The stretch of the Milwaukee River that runs through the Third Ward illustrates the fresh perspective offered by the river.

As you paddle south of the St. Paul Street Bridge, a span of some of the oldest buildings in downtown Milwaukee appears to the east. The buildings sit close to one another. Each is a different color of brick -- red, orange, brown and cream. This vivid assemblage is not as striking when you drive past the same buildings on Water Street.

The red-brick Saddlery Building, built in 1894, is the site of the Milwaukee Ale House, one of the spots where canoeists can dock. On a recent Saturday afternoon diners packed the two-tiered riverfront deck of the Ale House, while others strolled the Riverwalk, recently extended into the Third Ward. One couple perched themselves at the top of a new S-shaped viewing ramp that sits next to the orange-brick structure once known as the Merchandise Building. At the dock in front of the restaurant, a dozen or so passengers unloaded from a pontoon boat operated by Riverwalk Boat Tours.

Several buildings to the south of the Saddlery Building is the Riverwalk Plaza, a development of commercial and residential condos. Flowerpots and lawn chairs sit in the black metal patios that scale the cream-colored brick of the five-story structure. Built in 1886, the building was used for manufacturing for most of its existence. You might not guess that by the bright, clean exterior it now sports.

Outside of the Third Ward neighborhood, a notable sight occurs as you travel south of the State Street Bridge. The copper domes of the Germania building (built in 1896) figure prominently in the skyline as you look south. The Germania is obscured by larger buildings from many vantage points throughout downtown.

Not all stretches of the trip through downtown are visually pleasing. When you travel between the bridges at Michigan Street and Clybourn Street, the Bank One parking structure to the east looks like a black metal cage. On the west side of the river sits a concrete parking structure, with a spiral ramp at the end. North of Juneau Avenue, boaters have to navigate around a freeway support, a vestige of the demolished Park East freeway. At other points of the trip empty lots and industrial buildings surround the river.

The section of the river below Interstate 794, just north of the Third Ward, is Gray's least favorite part of the trip. The freeway is noisy "and there's some kind of blower or fan that's always running," says Gray. "It's really loud. That's really unpleasant."

Another downside to downtown canoeing or kayaking is the lack of easily accessible sites for launching (or "putting in," to use canoeing jargon). Technically the Mason Street Plaza and the Pere Marquette Park are available for putting in. But street parking near these locations is often scarce.

Better alternatives to these downtown sites are the two piers nestled in among the new condominiums on Commerce Street. One pier is at the end of Vine Street, the other at the end of Ship Street, both just east of Commerce Street. Street parking is available close to these piers. Gray says despite the fact that they are not identified as such, these piers are public. A boathouse recently built for the Milwaukee Rowing Club at Pierce and Commerce Streets also has a public launch, according to Gray.

You will definitely see some litter on a canoe trip through downtown. Don Dziatkiewicz manages the downtown Laacke and Joys store, which rents canoes and kayaks for use on the Milwaukee River. "You have to accept that you're in an urban river and if it rains, things wash into it, there is debris," says Dziatkiewicz. "You can't just say 'this is a complete stink hole,' because it's not." Dziatkiewicz says that the downtown portion of the Milwaukee River is considerably cleaner than it used to be due to fewer industrial uses nearby and better sewerage controls.

{image2} In addition to the Milwaukee Ale House, people can dock at the Rock Bottom for dining.

A public dock is located at Mason Street. Riverside dining nearby includes John Hawks Pub and Tula's. One block north a Borders bookstore and a Marriot hotel face the Riverwalk.

Canoeists can also dock at Pere Marquette Park, a short walk to bars and restaurants on Old World Third Street. On Wednesdays in July and August the Urban Ecology Center leads weekly canoe trips to the park to take in River Rhythms, a free live music event.

On the opposite side of the river from Pere Marquette Park is the Performing Arts Center's Peck Pavilion, which hosts the Rainbow Summer live music series on Tuesday evenings during the summer. Kim Kosmitis of Riverwest Outdoor Enterprises leads nighttime trips to Rainbow Summer. "People love to see the lights of the city," says Kosmitis.

Venues for canoeing or kayaking on the Milwaukee River:

  • Riverwest Outdoor Enterprises (414-264-3184) Riverwest does several scheduled canoe trips to downtown every year. Group outings for five to thirteen people can be arranged. Prices vary based on group size according to owner Kim Kosmitis.
  • The Urban Ecology Center (located in Riverside Park, 414-964-8505) The UEC Offers weekly trips to the River Rhythms at Pere Marquette Park. Cost is $15 for members, $20 for non-members. In late July they lead a canoe trip to the Freshwater Festival at Pier Wisconsin for $22 for members, $25 for non-members. A membership in the UEC, which offers a variety of other activities, is $25 annually for an individual, $35 for a family.
  • Laacke and Joys' downtown store (1433 N. Water St., 414-271-7878) Canoes are rented by the day. The smallest canoe, which can accommodate three people, will cost you $25 for a day's worth of paddling on the river. Kayaks are also available, starting at $20 a day for a solo kayak and $35 for a two-person craft.

Safety Tips

Local experts had these safety tips for traveling the Milwaukee River by canoe or kayak:

  • Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD). That goes for anyone, not just beginners says Dan Gray of the Urban Ecology Center. "Even experts can drown. Experts go over."
  • Don't make a trip on the river into your own personal "booze cruise." Kayakers and canoeists should not drink alcohol when they stop at dockside bars and restaurants says Don Dziatkiewicz, manager of the downtown Laacke and Joys store.
  • Try a trip in calmer waters to get a feel for navigating. Gray suggests beginners try out a local lake or pond. The portion of the Milwaukee River in the Estabrook Park area in Glendale is slow moving and more manageable for a first-timer, according to Gray.
  • Stay away from the harbor area and from Lake Michigan. If you are relatively new to canoeing or kayaking, you should only venture into Lake Michigan under the supervision of someone who is experienced. Beginners going solo should avoid both the harbor and the lake. "The water there is inconsistent," says Dziatkiewicz. "You have boat traffic creating wakes, the water is bouncing off of the break-walls, and there are currents moving through." "Even with moderate waves you can easily get swamped," says Gray.
  • Canoe or kayak when the weather is calm. The wind can have a big effect on your paddling, says Gray. Strong winds add to the confusion of a beginner trying to figure out how to paddle. Kim Kosmitis of Riverwest Outdoor Enterprises cautions against going out on the river right after a heavy rain. "You can get flooding and other problems if you try to canoe then."
  • The basic rule of the road for the river: stay to the right. Particularly on the weekends, the Milwaukee River can be busy with power crafts heading to the lake. Use the same rule as driving a car and stay to the right when approaching other boats.
  • Drive defensively. Lack of respect for fellow travelers "can be worse sometimes than drivers on the street," says Gray. "Assume that you're bearing a little more responsibility for not getting run over." Canoeists need to recognize that the river creates tight quarters, and larger crafts can't change directions quickly.