By Tom Held Special to Published Jun 01, 2013 at 1:04 PM

From a small, wooden pier, along a brushy riverbank on the Milwaukee River, Beth Handle is opening a watery passage to unexplored parts of Milwaukee.

It’s the backside of the city, the walkways and facades that face the water, not the street: along the Milwaukee River from the Historic Third Ward to the Lakefront Brewery and beyond; along the Menomonee from the Harley Davidson Museum to Miller Park, and along the Kinnickinnic to Barnacle Bud’s and Baran Park.

Starting Saturday morning, Handle’s Milwaukee Kayak Co. will rent canoes and kayaks for paddling excursions on the city’s rivers. A kayak rental will cost $25 for four hours. A canoe goes for $35. Add $10 for each additional hour.

It’s a business start-up in pure form.

Handle saved her pennies from a six-year stint as marketing manager at Laacke & Joy’s to buy 15 kayaks, two canoes and two stand-up paddleboards.

They’re available for rent from a small bit of space Handle leases in Jerry’s Docks, a marina in the 300 block of S. Water St.

Follow the gravel drive across from the Next Act Theatre and you’ll find the Milwaukee Kayak Co. - Handle and the boats and personal flotation devices. A small shed for the business was still a work in progress on Thursday.

"It’s going to be an organic experience," said the 38-year-old from Bay View.

Handle began pursuing her business plan over the winter, when Laacke & Joy’s announced that it would close its downtown store in 2014. Without the shop on the Milwaukee River, the downtown area would be surrounded by water, but with no easy access for people who wanted to rent a canoe or kayak.

"My main goal is to keep people on the water in Milwaukee," Handle said. "I’m excited to share my passion for paddle sports. On the water, you’re interacting with nature and the city on a different level."

During her time at Laacke & Joy’s, Handle paddled the local rivers three times a week. Those trips and her new business are extensions of the enjoyment she found on the water as a young girl, during family trips to Crivitz. The days in a canoe were the best days of the summer.

Juli Kaufmann, owner of Fix Development LLC and developer of the Clock Shadow Building in Walker’s Point, also believes the Milwaukee Kayak Co. fills a gap in the city’s recreational pursuits.

"Exploring the City of Milwaukee by boat is an exceptional experience and, unfortunately exceptionally rare," Kaufmann said. "I am amazed at how few people have taken the opportunity to travel by river through downtown.

"The addition of Milwaukee Kayak Co. will hopefully change this by making the river more affordable and easily accessible to many," she said.

"Much like riding a bike transforms your experiences of a city by shifting scale and site lines, traveling by kayak through Milwaukee is really also a transformative experience. The encounters with unexpected natural beauty are surprising and the views of the "backsides" of many landmarks is wonderful to take in."

Kaufmann also embraces Handle’s start-up as a perfect fit for the Walker’s Point and Historic Third Ward neighborhoods, where small entrepreneurs are rebuilding a business hub.

"It’s really exciting to see another Milwaukee entrepreneur taking the leap to launch (pun intended) a business she believes in that will make Milwaukee a better, more sustainable place," Kaufmann said. "These are exactly the kinds of businesses Milwaukee needs - ones that marry our environmental and cultural assets to economic impact. The kayaks will be enjoyed by residents right in the city and will also attract those visiting - whether from suburbs or afar. There are opportunities to paddle up and down the River, making stops at other businesses along the ride - contributing a greater economic ripple to businesses along our amazing Riverwalk."

The Milwaukee Kayak Co. will be open Wednesday through Sunday.

Need to know: Canoes and kayaks, with paddles and PDFs, will be available for rent from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Renters must be 18 or older. Other rental times can be arranged. Check out the web site to make reservations.

Tom Held Special to

Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.

He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.

Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.