Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The constant lure of adventure: Kayaking a surprisingly wild urban river

I expected adventure, but no new surprises. For several perfectly rational and utterly absurd reasons I thought I knew the Menomonee River—my river—too well for that. How very wrong I was!

Little Menomonee River

One of our small company gets a dunking right off the bat. Even before we’ve launched our kayaks, the slippery bank where we put in exacts a toll. “Well, at least that’s out of the way!” is the cheerful response to the undignified baptism. We settle into our low-slung fiberglass hulls and push off, immediately sliding beneath the Highway 100 overpass.

We’d parked our cars in the vacant lot of an abandoned Beauty School. Little did we know then that, except for a couple bridges, that unfortunate structure was the last of civilization we would see for several hours. We had embarked on our journey for the very purpose—to escape civilization and our quotidian lives for a little while. The first surprise was how quickly and thoroughly the river obliged.

After paddling no more than a hundred yards the first of many logjams blocks our passage. Staying dry was never an option. I do try to avoid the suction of fetid muck as I clamber over and around logs, dragging my kayak behind.

The confluence of the Little Menomonee with the Menomonee

We’d put in on the Little Menomonee River, a narrow tributary of the Menomonee proper. At the confluence with the wider river clear water rushes over gravelly shallows. I am reminded that several miles of the Little Menomonee once had been biologically dead, its reconstruction the subject of a federal Superfund clean up project over a decade ago. For much of the Twentieth Century a wood preservative factory had dumped toxic waste into the water. I wonder how much of that chemical stew lingers in the stream banks and sediments of the revived river?

“Restoration is about accepting the brokenness of things,” wrote author and bioregionalist Stephanie Mills, and “reinhabiting exploited and abandoned places.”1 When is restoration complete, I wonder? And yet here we are, kayaking a once abandoned stream.

Drifting peacefully

Passing the concrete pillars of the Hampton Avenue Bridge we drift peacefully into an intensely green world that suddenly seems remarkably remote. The very air has a richer sensation, redolent of freshly unfurled foliage and ancient forests. I feel transported to a simpler, more native time and place. Trees toppled with the unmistakable marks of beaver prove that more than adventurous humans have reinhabited this river. Enchanted, I float with the current in quiet contemplation.

The Menomonee threads its way through the most densely populated region of Wisconsin. Like so many urban rivers, historically it has been intensively used, sorely abused and thoroughly altered. Why have we chosen this river for our little adventure? Our motivations reflect varied backgrounds.

Kurt Chandler

Kurt Chandler, former editor of Milwaukee Magazine and instigator of our outing, told me “I’ve lived within 200 yards of the Menomonee for nearly 16 years. I’ve hiked its banks, crossed its bridges, and seen it flood and freeze over. But I’d never been on its waters until now. I don’t know why it took so long.”

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper

As Milwaukee’s official Riverkeeper,* Cheryl Nenn has the most pragmatic reasons for joining the team. Caring for the condition of the rivers is literally part of her job description and “there is no better way to assess threats to water quality and wildlife than to get in the water and paddle downstream.” She also tells us that “the Menomonee is undergoing a renaissance of sorts” and to keep an eye out for recent restoration projects.

Denny Caneff, Executive Director, River Alliance of Wisconsin

Another seasoned professional; Denny Caneff is Executive Director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.** Denny is “always interested in good paddling trips” and is particularly fond of urban streams, which, he says, “are almost always better than people expect.” But Denny also came with a specific and admittedly quirky agenda. “I'm keeping track of the rivers I've paddled in Wisconsin,” he says, “and this year my goal is to hit rivers with the same name. For example, there are three White Rivers, two Blacks, two Reds, three Yellows and four Pines as well as the Menomonee, the Menominee, and the Menomonie.”

And me? This is a journey delayed far too long. Nearly 20 years ago I began a six-year process of exploring the Menomonee watershed, a project that culminated with the publication in 2008 of my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed. Like Kurt, I live near the river and have spent countless hours communing with it without ever getting in a boat and running it. To paraphrase Thoreau, the river is a constant lure, as it flows by my door, to enterprise and adventure.2 Finally in a kayak, I am ecstatic, floating in more ways than one.

Flotsam backed up behind a logjam

A mountainous logjam brings me back to earth. Or rather to the water’s surface, which is filthy with backed up scum and flotsam. The others are already pulling kayaks up a nearby bank. We drag them along a riverside trail and slide them back in the water.

Hours pass in this fashion: periods of calm, drifting beneath a high, arching canopy, scanning for wildlife, alternate with brief struggles to get over, under or around logjams of various proportions. In that time we see exactly two other people: the mountain biker who is merely a flash of colorful spandex in the foliage and a man on the grassy bank watching his dog frolic in the stream. We don’t catch a glimpse of the elusive beaver, nor of mink or otter, which Cheryl assures us also have reinhabited the watershed. But there are birds aplenty, plying the riverside as well as enlivening the nearly unbroken canopy overhead.

Great blue heron

“You could fool people into thinking we’re in a wilderness,” says Denny. Indeed. That’s been a major part of my mission as a photographer. But it’s not a deception to identify and celebrate the wildness in our midst.

Thoreau’s famous dictum, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” was parsed by author David Gessner in a book about his own urban river voyage. “While wilderness might be untrammeled land along the Alaskan coast,” Gessner wrote, “wildness can happen anywhere…. It can happen…on a city river.” His conclusion resonates as I duck my head and guide my kayak under a particularly hoary tangle of brush: “It is of vital importance that we not define this wildness as wilderness, that we not construct intellectual walls between the natural and the human.”3

That the natural coexists with the human and we can enjoy it in a city represents a fairly recent, but essential shift in ecological consciousness. In a dramatic and welcome break with conventional civic promotion—traditionally the province of Chambers of Commerce—cities now vie for the title of “greenest” and tout sustainability, parks and bike lanes. Long-established natural areas like the Menomonee River Parkway, irreplaceable assets that they are, now compete with exciting, new and reimagined urban spaces like New York’s High Line and Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Currie Park Golf Course

We emerge from the Capitol Drive overpass, abruptly confronted with open, sun-drenched sky and the highly civilized landscape of Currie Park Golf Course. Two golfers in spotless whites waiting to tee off wave as we paddle by. We drift past gently rolling fairways carpeted with closely cropped lawns running down to the river’s edge. The next obstacle to our progress isn’t another logjam but the concrete slab of a golf cart crossing.

We stop there for water and granola bars. Cheryl explains that Milwaukee Riverkeeper had lobbied to have the dam-like structure replaced with a more fish-friendly one. But some higher-up determined that it didn’t impede fish migration enough to warrant the cost. The recommendation was ignored.

From previous experience I had been certain that Currie Park would be a pivotal point beyond which our reverie would become increasingly marred by intrusive signs of our urban circumstances. The moment we disembark from the concrete slab, however, I am dealt another pleasant surprise. Like Alice falling down a rabbit-hole in a suburban hedge, we plunge again into unanticipated wilds. The golf course surrounding us vanishes completely, marvelously. The wild river carries us on.

 Currie Park

And so it goes for the rest of the day. After all the exploring I have done before and all my research about the Menomonee River, nothing has prepared me for being on the river like this. An hour or more goes by between bridges. We catch occasional glimpses of people walking or cycling beside the river. The gothic tower of Mount Mary University looms briefly in the distance. Mostly we drift in peaceful solitude. The gurgling on a rocky decline and cheerful birdsong grow louder than the sound of traffic.

While there are far fewer obstructions and no more logjams on this middle leg of the route, we now contend with low water and a rocky bottom. I get out and walk several times to avoid scraping the kayak. Denny says that after a rainfall, with sufficient water in the river, some of these riffles could be considered Class II rapids (which means gentle rapids with smaller waves, clear channels that are obvious without scouting, possibly requiring some maneuvering.4) Not bad for a modest urban waterway.

On the final leg of the journey I begin to feel like we are returning to civilization. Through the trees on a steep bluff we can easily see the picture windows of houses situated to exploit the view. After passing through the tunnel-like North Avenue Bridge, I feel something whizz by just over my head and duck instinctively. Thwaackk! A golf ball smacks the shallow water and ricochets off a rock inches from the end of my paddle. A dangerously eroded bank hides the golfer from view. As I speed down the rapids another ball bounces silently on the green across the river.

Bank erosion at Hanson Golf Course

More erosion reveals a bank failure caused by the recent addition of a multi-use path alongside the newly redesigned and rebuilt Menomonee River Parkway road. Being a cyclist myself, I am among multitudes grateful for the new off-road path on this busy stretch of roadway. However, this represents an unusual dispute that erupted among normally allied environmental groups about how to improve the parkway. Safety and cycling, rather than riverbank stability won the day. None of the improvements are visible from the river, however, and Cheryl makes note of the problem still to be addressed.

The Parkway becomes Hoyt Park and after that Hart Park in the Village of Wauwatosa, the most intensively used segments of the Menomonee River. More houses, bridges and people come into view. We endure the roar and screech of a freight train where tracks run next to the river. Despite it all, however, once again I am surprised to find the experience at water level hardly less wild and invigorating than it was upstream.

Hoyt Park suspension bridge

It is in Hoyt Park where we see the most obvious evidence of restoration efforts. Looking decidedly unnatural, gleaming white limestone riprap adorned the banks at several places. We notice also wide breaks in the riparian woodland that were cut to allow heavy equipment access to the water. In 2015 four long-abandoned sewer crossings that had acted like dams were removed to improve fish passage.

I run the newly freed rapids with satisfaction. Here, where the damaged condition of the river is most visible, we also find the most hopeful signs. We have become a society that cares enough to repair the ecological damage done by previous generations. Healing the river is a necessary prerequisite to healing our relationship to nature and natural processes. Our future and our children’s future depend on this.


Kurt and I both live next to Hoyt Park. It is as familiar as a backyard and yet, even here, the kayak affords an experience both unprecedented and unforeseen. Denny’s prediction proved true: it was better than expected. Summing up the expedition, he says, “For an urban amenity I found it surprisingly appealing—a blue and green ribbon winding through a densely settled urban area, a place that feels remote and removed even though the city thrums nearby.” After a somewhat arduous six hours on the river, when we finally pull the kayaks out at Jacobus Park, everyone agrees they’re ready to repeat the adventure—the river already is luring us back.

Go to my Flickr album to see additional photos relating to this story. 

*Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization, associated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, whose mission is to protect, improve and advocate for water quality, riparian wildlife habitat, and sound land management in the Milwaukee area watersheds.
**The River Alliance of Wisconsin is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advocate for the protection, enhancement and restoration of Wisconsin's rivers and watersheds.

1.Mills, Stephanie. In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land. Beacon Press, Boston. 1995. p.2.
2. Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Princeton University Press. 2004 (originally 1849)
[Rivers] are a constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure….
3. Gessner, David. My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. Milkweed Editions, 2011. pg. 110.

This story first appeared in City Creatures blog at the Center for Humans and Nature, posted on July 11, 2016.

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