★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River II

Estabrook Park to Bruce Street:
A return to one of our favorite river trips, this final section of the Milwaukee River offers a unique mix of environmental and urban with sights natural and human-made along the way. The higher the water level, the better the rapids, which made this redux trip even more fun than the first time!

Milwaukee River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 2, 2017

Skill Level: Beginners would be OK with this whole trip at lower levels (re: 200-400 cfs) and definitely fine with the second half of this trip (i.e., downtown Milwaukee). At levels above 800 cfs, the paddler would do well to have some basic experience handling moving water first.
Class Difficulty: Class I-II

Gradient:
8′ per mile first half of trip, <1′ per mile second half

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Milwaukee: ht/ft: 3.05 | cfs: 900

Current Levels:
Milwaukee: ht/ft: 2.02 | cfs: 245

Recommended Levels:
We absolutely recommend this level. Though for point of reference, we’ve paddled this trip at 200 cfs, which was fine, too – just not as much fun!

Put-In:
Estabrook Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.09944, -87.90763
Take-Out:
Bruce Street Boat Launch
GPS: 43.02503, -87.90403

Time: Put in at 11:50a. Out at 2:25p.
Total Time: 2h 35m
Miles Paddled: 6.25

Alternate Trip Ideas:
Estabrook Park to Discovery World (7.75 Miles)

Wildlife:
Great blue herons, geese, ducks, seagulls and fish.

Shuttle Information:
6.3 miles for a great bike shuttle along the Oak Leaf Trail – (here’s a map). 7.8 miles for a car shuttle.


Background:

I first did this trip four years ago, almost to the day. Then, I’d taken my friend Chris along for a fact-finding junket that was part paddling novelty and part bachelor party recon. I was his best man, but prior to the wedding, his bachelor party began with paddling down the Milwaukee River with a dozen or so friends, stopping off for beers and brewery tours along the way. (Hello Milwaukee!) To see if this was even feasible, he and I first paddled it a few weeks beforehand. We had such a fun time and were so pleasantly surprised by the diversity of environments that we had all the confidence we needed to go ahead and do this again as a group. Except that, unlike our first trip, we took out at Bruce Street Boat Landing for the bachelor party, instead of heading out to Lake Michigan. Chris and I dabbled in the breakwater of the big lake and took out kind of commando at Discovery World, which worked for just the two of us, but was infeasible for a party of twelve. (Plus, there were adult beverages involved – it was a bachelor party… in Wisconsin – and no way were we entertaining Lake Michigan at that stage!)

Since then, I’ve wanted to return to this trip. It’s just uniquely cool in its own right, the second half through downtown Milwaukee, and it really does make for great paddling, thanks to the rapids and natural setting of the first half. To make a long story short, my girlfriend and I were in Milwaukee the first weekend of July, and it seemed like a great time to paddle the river again. She grew up 20 minutes west of the city, so for her, being in a kayak on the river was especially meaningful and nostalgic. For me, it was a pleasure and a privilege to introduce her to the river from this perspective. Plus it’s always fun to see someone else do something for the first time and relive the experience through their wonderstruck eyes.

The forecast for the day was a far cry from perfect, with a 40% chance of thunderstorms and rain starting around 3pm. No problem, we thought. We’d definitely be off the water by then! (Spoiler alert: a rogue thunderstorm rolled in around 1pm, sneaking up behind us from the north and poured torrential showers on us. The rain came on like a flick of a switch. We bee-lined to the shore to find skimpy protection beneath tree-leaf canopy, but it was barely effective. Fortunately, there was no lightning, and the whole thing only lasted 30 minutes. But that hard rain was cold!) Regardless, we reasoned it would be best to stay off Lake Michigan in the event of a storm – plus I was paddling my 10′ crossover kayak, which is as unseaworthy as a boat can be. So instead we opted for Bruce Street boat launch as our take-out to play it safe.

Overview:
No other trip in Wisconsin rivals this one for sheer novelty of combining a beautiful natural setting with lively rapids and skyscrapers in a major metropolitan city. Indeed, at Estabrook Park lies a dolomite rock ledge that is rare and rugged (found nowhere else in fact on the glacier-created Milwaukee River). Towards the end of the trip, you’ll pass by the Bronze Fonz statue downtown. There’ll be steep wooded bluffs and then a flat industrial corridor leading to the harbor and Lake Michigan. The unique juxtaposition of such contrasts is as magnificent as it is sheer fun!

The first half of this trip has wonderfully fun (and potentially rowdy) rapids. In lower levels the first half felt like a classic riffle-pool, riffle-pool pattern: there’s a small splash of rapids, then quietwater, then another small splash or rapids, etc. But at higher levels you’re engaged most of the time. The only stretch of rapids here to be careful of are at North Avenue – also the last set of rapids on the Milwaukee River. It’s not a complicated run by any means; but expect to get a little wet, especially at higher water levels.

After passing under the interstate bridges you’ll enter first the Third Ward, then the industrial corridor where the Menomonee River comes in on your right underneath a classic rusty truss bridge for railroads. Huge factories and loft buildings abound. You’ll still share the river with other boats, big and small, but the no-wake zone remains in effect. The river will hook to the left (east) to its mouth at Lake Michigan. Immediately on the right will be the inconspicuous Bruce Street boat launch. It’s a really easy, convenient place to end a wonderful trip. And there’s even an outhouse there.

What we liked:
Even if you’re not German, or drink beer, or care one way or another about urban planning, there’s something very cool about Estabrook Park on Milwaukee’s north side. But if you are any of these things, then Estabrook is an especially inspiring place. That there’s a unique dolomite ledge on the Milwaukee River right at this spot, the only such drop anywhere in its 100 miles from a small marsh to Lake Michigan – the roar of whitewater totally audible from the biergarten some 60′ tall up the bluff – is a cherry on top. It might be an exaggeration to call it a “waterfall” – the ledge is only about 4′ high – but it’s impressive at least by southern Wisconsin standards. It’s a rugged spot in and of itself. That it’s plumb in the maw of a major city is a juxtaposition of both worlds’ best!

The first time I was here I ran the ledge in my 15′-long rec kayak. The water was on the low side (although normal for the time of year), at 200 cfs. The only reasonable place along the wide ledge to run it then was on the far left, which I did while scraping. This time around, the river was at 900 cfs – check out the photos below for the difference between the two. (Also, the river was at 2000 cfs only two days before we did our trip!) The ledge now was a real whitewater spot… and a little intimidating, I don’t mind saying. Since we put-in on the downstream side of the ledge, we paddled to the portage path on the west bank, where it’s flat and there’s an eddy. After scouting the ledge, I felt it was safest to run it on the far right this time, partly to avoid the queue of folks fishing on the east bank and partly to avoid the backrollers at the base of the drop.

Here’s a video of other paddlers running the Estabrook ledge.

For what it’s worth, about 5 minutes after I ran this two other paddlers came from upstream and ran the ledge right in the middle, not scouting whatsoever. The first guy nailed it like a pro without seeming even to try, but the next guy flipped over and went for a swim. Also, full disclaimer: I myself ate it the first time I ran the ledge. But I try-tried again and landed it the second time. I boofed after I biffed.

I cannot recommend strongly enough catching the Milwaukee River at higher levels. The first half of this trip has wonderfully rowdy rapids. In lower levels the first half felt like a classic riffle-pool-riffle-pool pattern: there’s a small splash of rapids, then quietwater, then another small splash or rapids, etc. But at higher levels you’re engaged most of the time. The only stretch of rapids here to be careful of are at North Avenue – also the last set of rapids on the Milwaukee River. At 900 cfs there were definitely Class II standing waves. Considerably higher than 900 cfs, this stretch would be even more rambunctious. The river is still wide here, with no obstacles or obstructions to worry about; so running the rapids shouldn’t be too complicated. Just paddle forward, be calm and don’t be surprised to get a lapful of water!

We paddled this on a Sunday afternoon in between thunderstorms and downpours, and yet there were dozens of other paddlers on the water downtown – something distinctly different from our first time around four years ago. In other words, paddling the Milwaukee River downtown has become a popular pastime – and rightly so.

What we didn’t like:
While Estabrook Park itself is a real gem of urban planning, and the “falls” ledge in the river is uniquely cool, launching a boat from here is either tricky, confusing, or requires schlepping your boat(s)/gear. Actually, it’s all of the above. There is no official designated boat launch or landing. Moreover, the park itself is pretty big; if you’ve never been there before, it might seem bewildering. So, for all intents and purposes, let the biergarten be the reference point for paddling.

There are three options, basically, all on the east side of the river.

  • The first is an access road that leads to the water, north of the biergarten. That’s probably the best option in terms of ease. Note: there’s a low-clearance bridge you must drive under, which should be fine for most vehicles other than trucks with tall roof racks!
  • The second is via the northwest corner of the biergarten parking lot. I’ve done this twice now, and while it’s a short walk, it’s pretty easy.

Both of those options are on the upstream side of the “falls” ledge. In other words, you have either to run the ledge itself or portage around it on the right side – there’s a sign that marks the portage. It’s a simple, easy matter, but you have to get right out of your boat only a minute or two after first putting-in.

  • The third option is putting-in below the “falls” ledge itself. To do so, you’ll have to schlep your boat(s)/gear past the biergarten and down a series of steepish steps. It’s a little awkward, especially with kayaks/canoes of any length, and there always are people fishing here or just checking out the river, which makes things a little awkward as well. But it’s totally doable. In fact, it’s what we did this time around. There’s a path parallel to the river, and the banks here are low and flat, making it easy to launch a boat.

The only other thing worth mentioning for this trip is the take-out. The Bruce Street boat launch is about as easy a place to miss as possible. The only way to access it is via Water Street. (Bruce Street is interrupted by railroad tracks and industrial buildings, so you can’t simply come in from the west.) The boat launch itself is composed of a tiny enclosed booth, a parking lot, and a ramp. Surrounded by factories in an industrial corridor, you’d never know this place existed unless you were looking for it deliberately.

Furthermore, there may be a fee associated with Bruce Street boat launch. This was my second time here, but the first time I didn’t see any signs of an attendant in a booth. (The booth itself has all sorts of overwhelming info about boating rules, regulations, seasonal schedules, licensing, fees, etc.) We went there first to drop off and lock our bicycles for the shuttle after paddling the river, our kayaks still on the car. The lot attendant came up to me and kindly inquired what we had in mind. I explained that we were gonna start our trip upriver, and his enthusiastic response was something about being smart. I interpreted this as follows: the boat launch fee applies only if A) you’re a motorboat or B) you start your trip from Bruce Street, not end it. Or maybe the fee applies if you leave a vehicle in the lot… I mention the latter point because I noticed a couple other cars with telltale kayak roof racks parked on the street right outside the parking lot’s perimeter.

To be fair, I can be totally wrong about this. But as we’ve said on many occasions, we prefer to ask forgiveness than permission. And there’s plenty of plausible deniability here, too! Also to be fair, if we really were supposed to pay, the attendant would’ve enforced that. Cool as he was, it’s not like he gave us a break just for fun. Either way, his shift must have ended or maybe he was on break, maybe he was taking a nap, I have no clue, but neither he nor any attendant was there once we returned with the car after paddling and shuttling, so I didn’t have an opportunity to learn what the deal was with associated fees using Brice Street boat launch. Caveat lector.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again! This one’s truly one of our faves. Next time, we’d take out either at Discovery World again, as we did in our first trip, or better still – paddle down to McKinley or Bradley Beaches for the full threefold effect of woodsy corridor with rapids, downtown big city and sea kayaking. We just didn’t have enough time, or the right boats, to head out onto Lake Michigan for this trip.

***************
Related Information:
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River III: Lime Kiln Park to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VI: Fredonia to Grafton
Milwaukee River VII: West Bend to Newburg
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River

Photo Gallery:

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Alternate Trip Report: Longer Paddle (7.75 Miles)
Estabrook Park to Discovery World
July 20, 2013
☆ ☆

Beginning with an exhilarating three-foot-high ledge, followed by super-fun (and safe) Class I rapids, minnowy riffles and nothing but protected green space surrounding you, to the unique experience of urban paddling through downtown Milwaukee and its iconic “cream city” architecture towering above to finishing with a mile of sea kayaking on Lake Michigan with splashy, billowy waves rollicking you this way and that, for sheer diversity, this trip can’t be beat.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Milwaukee: ht/ft: 2.00 | cfs: 200

Current Levels:
Milwaukee: ht/ft: 2.02 | cfs: 245

Put-In:
Estabrook Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.09944, -87.90763
Take-Out:
Lake Michigan Harbor at Discovery World
GPS: 43.03731, -87.89454

Time: Put in at 3:15p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Wildlife:
A great blue heron, a green heron, a couple flopping carp and flocks of seagulls.

 

What we liked:
This trip has been on my to-do list for a couple years now and the experience was even better than I had been hoping it would be. Really, this trip can be broken down to three parts: rapids and riffles in protected greenway, downtown and Lake Michigan.

To begin with, the ledge at Estabrook Park is a thrill. The water level was low when we did this, which limited running this to one reasonable slot that flowed down the ledge diagonally. Everywhere else it was a right-angle drop, which could probably have been an option if I were in a whitewater or creek boat going at a good clip but I was in a 15’ kayak, so such a precipitous drop would likely have pitilessly pinned me on the falls. Anyway, the one open slot was doable and I did it without much ado despite the unwelcome drama of fishermen and families hanging out watching the crazy guy. It’s easy to portage on river-right a good 20 yards or so upstream of the ledge/falls.

For the next two miles the river runs straight South and along a protected green corridor flanked by tree-canopied high banks. Except for the occasional bridge high above the water, you’d never think you’re in a major metropolitan city. Underneath the Locust Street and then North Avenue bridges you will encounter the only other real rapids of the trip. The first one at Locust consists of a drop, well, two actually. You have a choice between running it river-right, where there it’s a notable 1.5’-high ledge with a slot that is easy to detect, or running it river-left where there are two more modest drops with a couple tight turns to manage. Both are easy and fun but both can easily be portaged, too. The rapids downstream of North Ave are classic Class I. There are no specific slots to pick out, just splashy fun that you don’t even need a spray skirt for.

Immediately downstream of this bridge is the remnant of the last dam on the Milwaukee River, below which the river bulges out considerably. You are now downtown, and the urban sightseeing doesn’t quit! (Note: in high water, this dam remnant, where there is a pedestrian bridge that spans the whole river, gets crazy volatile. Back in April after we had two weeks of nonstop rain, the rapids here were utterly and literally awesome, including a couple of 8’ waves that made you queasy just looking at them!)

Paddling the river through downtown Milwaukee is a unique and captivating experience. Yes, the river here is just about unfathomably deep and you do have to keep your eyes out for (and keep a wide berth from) powerboats (lifejackets are not the worst thing to consider, especially if your swimming skills are in doubt). The wake is only 5 mph, so I didn’t find the current pushy in the least. Plus, there are piers galore, many of them public, (some private) so there’s always a nearby place to pause, take-out or swim to if you get into trouble. And there is no shortage of fun stops along the way, whether it’s a bar or a place to grab a bite to eat. True, the piers are more designed with powerboats in mind but two people in kayaks or canoes should be able to assist one another easily enough without either getting wet. If people-watching is as much your thing as the novelty of paddling below towering skyscrapers and iconic cream city architecture, then you will love this.

Finally, after the I-94/794 bridges and not long after you pass the Milwaukee Ale House on river-left, (a great place for a drink and with a pier right on the river with access to it) the river swells even wider and the powerboats become more of an issue. This section, essentially in the historic Third Ward section of the city, is where the Menomonee River (not to be confused with the far more notorious Menominee up by the U.P.) empties into the Milwaukee River just before the latter ends its journey into Lake Michigan.

Where you see an opening on the left for that great lake out there in distant, there is a boat ramp on the river-right at Bruce Street where you can take-out in order to avoid paddling the Lake. I absolutely loved paddling on the Lake though! The wind was whipping and there were boats all about, which contributed to big billowy waves we bobbed on, over and through as we hugged the seawall.

This isn’t a section for beginner paddlers but if you have a good amount of experience paddling in general, you should be able to handle this part of the Lake pretty easily. In fact, this section is still tucked into the breakwater so, arguably you’re not even into the Lake yet at this point. Nonetheless, open water and rollicking waves are still very present and spectacular! I didn’t feel all that safe with my camera around my neck and I was also concerned about how quickly I could remove it, thrust it into my drybag, roll and seal it all up and get back to paddling, all without a wave capsizing me hence the lack of photos during this segment (hence too the one bad shot I did take with the bead of water on the lens!). Our chosen take-out had us paddling only a mile and change into the Lake.

You could easily lengthen the experience by continuing on to the McKinley Park marina. We took out behind Discovery World, along a manmade walkout pier shored up by some huge limestone boulders. It’s not the easiest takeout, for sure but quite doable. The other benefit to taking out here is the lack of traffic. The definite downside to taking out here is if you shuttle by car, there is no parking nearby and the only distant parking is in a paid lot.

What we didn’t like:
That we did this paddle on a Saturday, when two days later, after a good torrent of rain, the water level shot up a couple inches. Timing really is everything. Otherwise, this was one of the funnest paddles I’ve ever done.

If we did this trip again:
Sure will! But next time I’d likely put in further upstream, say around Kletsch Park. A paddle trip of under eight miles is short for my druthers under most circumstances, especially if it takes more than an hour to drive there.

Photo Gallery:

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4 Comments

  • Reply
    JT
    August 1, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I love the site, been reading it for quite some time. No sure what you are taking pictures with? You should look at one of the "ruggedized" point an shoot cameras. I have a Panasonic TS3 that I love. Waterproof to 40ft, shock and cold proof. Also has Geotagging built in. Great quality, better than camera phones and you don't have to worry about spray, waves or dumping it.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    August 6, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Thanks for the tip JT! We both use different things for shooting photos. I personally default to my iphone now that I capture trips on my GoPro too. Great suggestion and glad you like the site!

  • Reply
    Kristy McCardle
    May 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I love THIS site. California dreamer enjoying ALL your great river trips! Kristine

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    May 19, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the Cali love and glad you're enjoying the site Kristy!

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