Paddling Wisconsin: The Wild Side of the Milwaukee River


We did the urban Milwaukee paddle already, through the amazing green corridor on the north side of the City of Milwaukee, and then into downtown where there are a number of good places to hop out and eat, drink, or tour a brewery. But we wanted to include another couple canoeing rivers near Milwaukee (a good market for the Wisconsin paddling book, after all). So we headed to the Sheboygan River, but found the river way too low for paddling, despite the wet summer we’ve had. But Plan B was an upper stretch of the Milwaukee River. Starting in Newburg we paddled 11 miles to a county park near Fredonia.


It was also just a tad low; even a couple inches higher and it could have changed everything. Right at the beginning we were scraping, and within a mile of our put in at Fireman’s Park we were faced with three paths. Two around an island in the stream, and one narrow one right through it but without enough water to even cover all the gravel and stones. To the left was a massive block of deadfall, and to the right… well… this was a pivotal point in the journey. Quit and head back, or get the non-exit deadfall portage work out. We chose the latter. We managed to scoot under the biggest dead tree by getting down into the canoe to make the clearance. Lots of scraping, but we were stubborn and made it through to deeper water about 75 feet later, without stepping out of the canoe. Is this fun? My friend Erica thought so (about an hour later anyway with some positive mental attitude).


But beyond that we had a mix of beautiful clear water (1-3 feet deep), wide patches with rocks to put some river cred scratches on my canoe, and grassy areas that allowed passage but made us work a bit harder for it. The river is generally too wide to be affected much by the deadfall, except for that noted narrow channel around the island and a few others along the way.

This is one of 40 Wisconsin canoe trips detailed in my book Paddling Wisconsin:

But what made me want to keep this in the book is the incredible wildlife experience we had. We saw not a single human being on the river, and only a few houses (plus a few hundred feet of development near Waubeka. That’s it. We stopped counting blue herons at 30. Kingfishers, waxwings, pileated woodpeckers, some shore birds, a hawk, and…


Two bald eagles, the second of which we came upon dragging its dinner out of the water onto shore. It didn’t seem too concerned about our presence. (Ha, maybe it could see we’d have to drag our canoe on the rocks to get to it.)


We got within about 30 feet of the eagle as it tore into its meal (carp, I believe). We could hear it tearing the flesh and the beak scraping against bone. Pity I only had a little point and shoot camera.


We saw several luckier carp, their bright colored fins swirling in the clear shallow water just a paddle length away. And as we came around another bend, a deer offered a clear image of just how shallow the water was at the center of the river. We held for a while until the deer spooked and made an impressive, splashing exit stage left.

With a bit more rain or earlier in the season, the Milwaukee River is a nice paddle trip with a lot of riffles but no rapids, and an impressive sheltered corridor of wildlife.

Are you a Milwaukee hiker? Check out my Milwaukee hiking book: Best Hikes Near Milwaukee

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

4 thoughts on “Paddling Wisconsin: The Wild Side of the Milwaukee River

  • Wow, who would have thought you would have such a wilderness experience just outside of Milwaukee. Readers of your guide will be pleased with this tip as long as there is enough water in the river. Strange as it may seem, I don’t think Milwaukee has got as much rain as the central and southeastern parts of the state. Seems those bands of thunderstorms seem to like the Lower Dells Area 🙂

    • Yeah, it’s weird how the water levels in some rivers never went up and others seems still swollen from a month ago.

  • Nice to know about the wildlife corridor! Who would have thought……..

    • It’s pretty amazing to be that close to major metropolitan areas and seeing such rich wildlife. But be sure the water is high enough or it’s mostly them watching you struggle across the rocks. 🙂


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