Menomonee River I
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!
July 3, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
≈6-7′ per mile
Wauwatosa: ht/ft: 2.8 | cfs: 250
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
Charles C. Jacobus Park off Honey Creek Parkway, at the removed bridge pilings (near Picnic Area #2), Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:40p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 3h 5m
Miles Paddled: 8.25
Wildlife: Soft-shell turtles, snapping turtle and great blue herons.
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