Milwaukee River IX
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!
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
8′ per mile first half of trip, <1′ per mile second half
Milwaukee River: ht/ft: 3.05 | cfs: 900
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!
Estabrook Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Bruce Street Boat Launch
Time: Put in at 11:50a. Out at 2:25p.
Total Time: 2h 35m
Miles Paddled: 6.25
Wildlife: Great blue herons, geese, ducks, seagulls and fish.
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.
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.
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Discovery World
Milwaukee River III: Grafton to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River VI: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VII: Fredonia to Grafton
Milwaukee River VIII: West Bend to Newburg
Miles Paddled Video: Newburg to Fredonia
Miles Paddled Video: Grafton to County Highway T
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River