Frontier Park to Jacobus Park:
A unique urban paddling trip that is surprisingly natural and preserved, featuring a ton of riffles and Class I rapids. There are several caveats, however – notoriously low water levels, two of the most horrific logjams we’ve ever encountered and a hard-to-locate and hard-to-access take-out being some of them. That said, catching the river at the right level, putting up with a couple crappy portages, and making do with the imperfect, this trip down the Menomonee will be a blast!
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 3, 2017
Skill Level: Experienced
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
≈6-7′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wauwatosa: ht/ft: 2.8 | cfs: 250
Wauwatosa: ht/ft: 1.64 | cfs: 13.2
We strongly recommend this level. Notably lower than this, you’ll be scraping and/or walking your boat in the shallows.
Frontier Park off Custer Avenue/Park Road, Butler, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.11344, -88.06993
Charles C. Jacobus Park off Honey Creek Parkway, at the removed bridge pilings (near Picnic Area #2), Wauwatosa
GPS: 43.04257, -87.99237
Time: Put in at 12:40p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 3h 5m
Miles Paddled: 8.25
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Mayfair Road to Jacobus Park (5 Miles)
Soft-shell turtles, snapping turtle and great blue herons.
8.6 miles by car, mostly interstate. 7.8 miles by bike, mostly the Menomonee River Parkway or the Oak Leaf Trail.
First off, a little distinction. There are three rivers in Wisconsin called “Men-AH-miny” – all pronounced the same, each with a slightly different end spelling: -inee, -onie, and –onee. The most famous is the Menominee in northeastern Wisco that forms the natural border with the U.P. and is the ancestral home of the Menominee, the first people ever to call Wisconsin home. The most obscure is the Menomonie, which we honestly don’t know where it is but assume somewhere near the city of Menomonie, in northwestern Wisco, home of the Red Cedar River. This trip is the Menomonee, an urban river through the most densely populated part of Wisco, the Milwaukee suburbs.
It intones almost like a chant: Inee…Onie…Onee…
Anyway, we’ve become big fans of urban rivers over the years, and the Menomonee in southeastern Wisconsin has caught our curiosity more than many. Maybe it’s the crazy whitewater gorge in Menomonee Falls upstream, or maybe it’s the curious dolomite bedrock in the shadow of Miller Park, or maybe it’s the flat canal-like channel through Milwaukee’s industrial corridor and shipyards. Actually, it’s all of those things, plus the Calvin and Hobbes-esque conceit of paddling down a preserved parkway in the heart of development, hidden in plain sight. And when such a preserved parkway tumbles down a series of seemingly endless Class I rapids, well then, say no more!
We’d like to mention also that earlier this year we happened upon a great article in Milwaukee Magazine (featuring our comrade and commodore – and former executive director of the River Alliance – Denny Caneff) about paddling the Menomonee River that further inspired us. (And confirmed that the river is even paddleable in the first place!) It’s a good read that captures much of what we ourselves experienced while on the water.
This trip begins at Frontier Park. There’s no designated boat launch area, but river access is neat and tidy. Curiously, the river here is wide, but it will taper to its normal skinniness of 30′ wide just downstream. Also just downstream is the first set of riffles/light rapids. Right after the first bridge at 124th St you’ll paddle under a cool railroad bridge tunnel. The graffiti on the left wall is pretty dazzling – and all the more impressive since this is a river, i.e., not terra firma! Shortly after this is the bridge at I-41.
The stretch of river between the I-41 bridge and Capitol Drive is a classic floodplain forest. It’s sandwiched in between highways, so it’s hardly quiet or primeval, but leaving aside the din of modernity, it retains at least a visual sense of its former self. Alas, it also retains the effects of flooding – and contains three quite awful logjams, the first of which is the largest we’ve ever encountered (more on these below). After Capitol the dense overhead canopy of trees opens up and gives way to a golf course. There’s an easy-to-portage low-clearance bridge right in the beginning. As often is the case through golf courses, the current picks up again at last. There are some fun riffles and little ledges here; it’s a welcome splash to wash the sweat off your brow from all the portaging atop, over, and around the previous logjams, not to mention to rinse your boat of all that godawful debris!
Mayfair Avenue is the next bridge, and there the forest returns. This time, however, the river is clear of debris and rapids are aplenty. At shallow water levels, this stretch would be quite unforgiving, but for us, it was just so much fun. Rapids continue past the intriguingly green Burleigh Street bridge as well. And once again, woods enclose, this time with a subtle but noticeable rise of the right bank. Only near/in Wauwatosa do you get anything close to bluffs or ridges, the effect of which is a bit subdued by housing development; but we always appreciate hills of any size.
North Avenue is the next bridge on deck, uniquely attractive and handsomely rugged in limestone (unlike all the other bridges which are concrete and steel). Here, the river skirts another golf course, but only briefly. Rapids and riffles continue, sometimes at notable tight curves where the river has scoured the outside bank. The bridge at Swan Boulevard follows, and here the river drops again; the runs of rapids and rips are continuous and exhilarating! Again, at lower levels it would be scrape city, and “exhilarating” may be synonymous with exasperating. On your right is Hoyt Park, where one could either begin or end a trip on the Menomonee. There’s no designated landing or launch, but there is access to the river. (There’s also a biergarten here, just saying…)
One of the highlights on this trip, at least visually, is a huge pedestrian bridge in the park. Featuring two limestone arches and wooden planks, it looks medieval and part of a castle.
Tall banks and rapids continue upon the approach to downtown ‘Tosa. Here and there will be some obstacles to dodge – trees, boulders, oil barrels (sigh, yes) – but nothing requiring an additional portage. Another attractive but less stately pedestrian bridge spans the river, this one part of the Menomonee River Parkway (mentioned below).
In addition, while it’s very brief, there’s an aesthetic charm to paddling into the city: first you’ll pass the three-story brick building (all the taller as it sits atop concrete piers) that is Café Bavaria adjacent to which is an arch pedestrian bridge, where in warmer weather there are cafe tables for folks going al fresco; right after this is the stately Café Hollander, which then is followed by a rusty truss railroad bridge and then another Menomonee River Parkway bridge. It’s quite a lively urban frieze, a unique experience from the vantage of paddling the river below all these sights. (Also, both of those cafes offer good food, great beer – especially if you like authentic Germans and Belgians – and ambiance.) Oh, and did I forget to mention that the river is all riffles and light rapids here, adding to the fun?
In the final mile-and-change the river continues to tumble over bedrock and boulders as it sweeps past a steep bluff on the right. You’ll pass under one more pedestrian/bike bridge and then two more road bridges. Along the way the right bank will be lined by a concrete wall, which further accelerates the already peppy current. Meanwhile, the left side of the river is wide open. The bank here is tall and brushy enough to block the view, which is fine since it’s nothing more than a couple playgrounds, parks, and businesses. Where it’s not grassy, ginormous limestone blocks line the left side.
The take-out is totally makeshift and kinda commando. After the second road bridge (N. 68th Street, for those keeping score at home) you’ll hear before you see a new set of rapids. As you get closer, the view of abandoned bridge pylons comes into focus. Comprising clusters of limestone blocks and probably trapping some tree debris on the upstream side, you really can’t miss it. We chose the far left channel, as it was the only one open (and the safest path to take). We then went clockwise 180 degrees to the base of the right-most pylon on the downstream side where there’s a little eddy leading to the bank where it’s flat and relatively easy to take-out. The rapids are easy to run, and paddling back up to the pylon is simple enough. There’s still some current to face at the bank where we took out and the water is quite deep all the way to the bank, so be mindful. A worn footpath leads from the river to the top of the bank and the road (Honey Creek Parkway) beyond where we parked. It’s a short schlep that isn’t at all taxing or difficult.
For clarity’s sake, on the other side (south) of Honey Creek Parkway is Charles Jacobus Park. It’s more of a nature conservancy than a park, but it’s rather lovely in its own right.
What we liked:
The put-in at Frontier Park is pretty much perfect. The river is right next to the parking lot, and launching is simple since the banks are low and flat. Just below the put-in, we had the good timing to catch a train passing overhead just as we were going through the railroad tunnel, which was pretty cool.
From the first golf course (after Capitol Drive) onwards, the river just sizzles with riffles and “lightwater” Class I rapids. Nothing was unsafe or tricky; it was just supremely fun and engaging. What the surrounding landscape might lack in terms of escapism, the river itself, at the right level, will win your heart twice over.
On a purely personal note, I first scouted the Menomonee in downtown ‘Tosa back in January. The river then was very low and partly frozen. But I could still get a feel for what it would be like in warmer weather. The exposed bedrock then fed my imagination for higher water levels later in the year and the rapids they’d produce. And while it all passes by in a flash, paddling the short stretch into downtown beneath the bridges and past the fancy al fresco stuff above is an amusing novelty every bit as enjoyable as I’d imagined it to be back in January.
Separate from the paddling experience, but still part of the overall trip, the Menomonee River Parkway runs parallel to the river for all but the first mile-and-change. Even on a Monday afternoon in July we encountered scores of bicyclists, joggers, dog walkers, even a couple groups of kids with camp counselors exploring the woods and river environs. It was all a very heartening reminder that, while the Menomonee is unmistakably an urban river, it’s quite embraced by many and is exemplified as a great place to escape into nature via your own back yard. Also, it would make for a great bike shuttle.
What we didn’t like:
The first third of this trip rhymes with “shortage.” No, not mortgage – portage. There were four minimum during our trip, and short of something truly divine or catastrophic, there always will be a minimum of four. After cruising under the I-41 bridges and past a line of spindly trees on the left growing right out of the water you’ll come upon a logjam so large, vast, and intricate, it really ought to have its own zip code. I’m not kidding. It’s clearly discernible from the satellite map, so huge is its ugliness. Not only does it span bank-to-bank, the pile-up is a couple feet high off the water! It’s well over 200′ long, too. Seriously. It’s truly a cluster-[fill in the blank]. We portaged on the left, but it truly sucked. Not only was it a long schlep, but also it was over tree stumps, under tree branches, on top of questionably stable floating logs. Seriously, it was ludicrous. I don’t know if it would’ve been better to have gone right…? It’s hard to imagine it being worse than going left!
In retrospect, this tenement building of dead wood and debris can be avoided by putting in on the Little Menomonee River (yes, there is such a stream), which feeds the “big” Menomonee just downstream from here. Indeed, that’s what the folks from the magazine article did – somewhere near the intersection of Hampton Road and Highway 100 (it’s just upstream from the West Hampton bridge which also looked to be accessible off the Oak Leaf Trail). We’ve marked it on the map below for reference.
In between the next two bridges – Hampton and Capitol – you’ll encounter the next two logjams. One of these the author of the magazine article likened to “mountainous” and “filthy with backed up scum and flotsam.” True that, but still nowhere as large or gnarly as the first one, upstream of the Little Menomonee’s confluence. The first of these two is worse than the second. Barry sensibly portaged on the right, where there was a defined path from past paddlers. I, on the other hand, thought that I could just go over the clumpy barge. I’ve done this before in nasty logjams, where I literally stood and walked on top of the pile, pulling my boat over it, rather than go around it. Well, this cluster was not as supportive, and I kerplunked into the fetid drink in one felled swoop, up to my chest. Smooth…
The third portage was much easier to negotiate. I went left and it was a simple affair to go around and get back on the water. Barry went right and faced a longer schlep along another defined trail. The fourth (and last, at least on this trip) portage was at a low-clearance bridge at a golf course just after the Capitol Drive bridge. This was a piece of cake on the left.
To skip all these headaches, we recommend instead putting in at Mayfair Avenue. There’s plenty of parking, since there’s a dog park near the road and river. It’s not a great access, but it sure as hell beats the miserable portage-fest upstream!
We should note, too, that catching the Menomonee River with enough water to avoid scraping or walking will be tricky. Most of the time it’s too low. Not only would it be frustrating in such occasions, but it would probably spoil one’s perception. Since this was our first paddle on it, we don’t know what too low is; but it’s reasonable that anything below 100 cfs should be out of the question.
Also, when writing this up, it came to our attention that since our trip conditions have already changed on the river – and not favorably. See the most recent user comments on American Whitewater.
The only other matter worth mentioning during our trip is the take-out. There is no designated location in Jacobus Park. Indeed, the true park itself is separate from the river. The only thing that tipped us off about where even to try to take out here was the sound of the rapids at the bridge pylons. We were curious as it was, and that led us to discerning a feint but noticeable path that led to the water from the woods – at best a walk of 25 yards from the road (Honey Creek Parkway). It’s not a great access point by any means. The river-right bank is low and dry, which is nice, but there’s still a decent current coming from the rapids at the pylons, making things a little dicey. It wasn’t difficult, but it was hardly ideal. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to take out at the next bridge downstream. Also, even upstream of the pylons there really isn’t anywhere great to take out. Some of the large limestone blocks lining the left bank could work for getting out, but then you’d have to schlep your boat and gear a considerable distance to the nearest parking area.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again! But next time we’d probably forfeit the ease and convenience of putting in at Frontier Park in order to avoid the ginormous monstrosity of that first logjam and start the trip instead on the Little Menomonee River. As for taking-out, Jacobus Park admittedly is not the most ideal locale. The next bridge down (Hawley Road) is a no-go (we scouted it beforehand), but there may be viable options shortly downstream from there near Monarch Place or Wisconsin Avenue. Past those bridges the river becomes channelized as it enters the city of Milwaukee.
Menomonee River II: Pilgrim Road to Frontier Park
Article: Milwaukee Magazine
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Menomonee River
Miles Paddled Video:
Alternate Trip Report: Shorter Paddle (5 Miles)
Mayfair Road to Jacobus Park
September 8, 2018
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Menomonee River seldom runs high enough for paddling, but after plentiful rains it served up perfect conditions. Riffles, wave trains, a bit of flatwater, enough obstacles to make it interesting, and a few moments needing technical skills made for a very pleasant outing. At this level, the river rewards those with good maneuvering skills but won’t trash a less-experienced paddler; that said, it isn’t for beginners. This trip, for this canoeist, was perfect.
By Dave Birren
A Miles Paddled contributor
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wauwatosa: ht/ft: 3.20 | cfs: 375
Gauge note: Given that the river was running at 375 cfs when I was on it, and that seemed just about perfect to me, I’d say the maximum flow rate for reasonably safe paddling would be about 600 cfs. I’ve watched the river as it came down from over 2,000 cfs, and it still seemed too fast at 1,000. It might be OK at 800, but I might hesitate to paddle it solo. I’d want someone on hand in case of a dump.
Wauwatosa: ht/ft: 1.64 | cfs: 13.2
It was at 375 cfs, which I thought was just perfect. Only a few places were shallow enough to scrape my 52″ paddle. According to the other trip report for this river, 250 cfs is the minimum level.
East of Mayfair Road, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.08477, -88.04743
Charles C. Jacobus Park off Honey Creek Parkway, at the removed bridge pilings (near Picnic Area #2), Wauwatosa
GPS: 43.04257, -87.99237
Time: Put in at 2:55p. Out at 4:15p.
Total Time: 1h 20m
Miles Paddled: 5
Great blue heron, green heron and several flocks of mixed mallards.
I’m a dedicated river paddler and a former canoeing instructor, so I’m just naturally drawn to moving water. I moved to Wauwatosa a few months ago and discovered this cute little stream 1/4 mile from my new house. It’s paddleable only after a rain, so I’ve been keeping tabs on it. On this day, it had drained enough from the past few weeks’ flooding that I thought it would be a good level to try, and it was. Thanks to the previous trip report for this river, I knew not to try it below 250 cfs. From what I saw, I’d say that’s good advice.
At this flow level, the Menomonee River is arguably a Class II stream. It has many stretches of whitewater, by which I mean standing waves of a foot or more, with one short stretch of two-footers below a two-foot drop. I was expecting a lot of deadfall, and there was (as the pictures show), but I was surprised that there were no sweepers or strainers that required either pulling over or portaging.
Though I believe this is best for the experienced canoeist, a tandem team with one experienced and one intermediate canoeist would probably do OK. Definitely not beginner level. If paddling tandem, the bow person needs solid draws and cross-draws, as well as sweeps and back strokes. The stern person needs to know how to follow the bow, i.e., whether to sideslip or turn. At least one of them should have good river-reading skills. And they definitely need to be able to execute a reliable backferry. Anyone paddling solo needs a full suite of well-practiced strokes and maneuvers, especially sideslips and backferries. Some whitewater experience would be good.
The previous trip report described in lurid detail a series of logjams upstream from Mayfair Road, so I opted to avoid those killer logjams (thank you to whomever wrote that report) since I’m not into that kind of fun so I put-in just east of Mayfair Road. Parking is on either the Menomonee River Parkway or one of the adjoining side streets. Also, that report described a “commando” take-out at a set of three old bridge abutments. That would have been possible, but there is a large river-wide sweeper just upstream that I don’t think could be passed by a solo paddler. So I found a spot further upstream, which involved dragging up a short, steep, overgrown bank – much easier than the old bridge take-out.
The pictures pretty much tell the story. The put-in was somewhat flooded, just dry enough to be walkable but wet enough to be messy. As soon as I was afloat, I was swept along in the 3-4 mph current. The river alternates among stretches of flatwater, riffles and rapids. It isn’t particularly twisty, like the Mecan River or Badfish Creek (my two favorites), but with a fast current and a lot of obstacles partly blocking the river, I needed good maneuvering skills. I used to tell my canoeing students that the backferry is the most important tool in the paddler’s toolbox, and this river proved me right, as others have in the past. I employed that maneuver at least a dozen times, one of which saved me from crashing into a rocky bank with a big snag in it.
I rate the river at Class II at this flow rate because of many standing waves requiring a high brace, many places requiring good maneuvering skills (to avoid obstacles), and many opportunities to execute a backferry. There are few places to eddy out, but because the river was unobstructed, they weren’t needed. In case of a capsize, rescue could be difficult because of the speed of the current. Paddling solo, self-rescue could be particularly difficult. I suspect a high risk of foot entrapment due to the many rocks along the entire length of the river. All of these factors contribute to my rating.
The previous report described the river environs, so I won’t go into that.
What I liked:
It was a blast! Standing waves, maneuvering around obstacles, seeing wildlife, a partly sunny day in the low 70s – what’s not to like? The river was quite lively – fast but not pushy. I was fully occupied the whole time, except in a few quiet places where I could drift long enough to get a drink of water.
One thing that was really fun to see from the water was the outdoor restaurant seating area where I had dinner with a friend a few weeks earlier in Tosa Village. There are several very nice restaurants that can be accessed from the base of the bridge. On the right bank, just upstream from the bridge, is a set of concrete stairs that lead up to street level. If you can tether your boat, it would make a nice stop in the trip. Speaking of which, another local point of interest is the Hoyt Park beer garden. Drinking and boating of any kind don’t mix, but it’s a nice spot to socialize and get a bite to eat. However, I don’t know of a way to access it from the water.
Lastly, several times while on the river I recalled the previous trip report’s mention of odd smells, something I’d read about earlier from others. However, as much as I sniffed around for anything industrial or otherwise pollutant, I found nothing.
What I didn’t like:
I can’t say I disliked any aspect of the trip. I knew to expect an urban environment, so seeing houses, people and some occasional trash didn’t surprise or particularly concern me. Because I have good paddling skills the river didn’t present any particular challenge except for the emergency backferry to avoid the rocky bank in the S-turn. But even that was fun, though a bit hair-raising. The golf ball that landed about 10 yards in front of me, just before the hairy S-turn, was a surprise. I guess I didn’t much like the possibilities around that.
There’s one aspect of this river that calls for caution: there are few places to eddy out in case of a problem. By that, I mean that although variations in width create a lot of standing waves, they don’t provide many eddies to take refuge in. I can easily imagine obstacles that could require scouting, and the lack of eddies means there’s no place to do that from. Also, in many places there are stone walls instead of riverbanks, and with a fast current you need to be careful to look well ahead for obstacles. On the other hand, these factors preclude the development of cross-currents, which appear in only a few places that call for backferrying.
If I did this trip again:
I would do this trip again, with no changes. It was pretty near perfect. I guess I’d have taken a little less mud at the put-in so I could change out of my biking shoes without getting the canoe dirty.