Quick FactsLocation: Glendale/Milwaukee, starting about 4.5 miles north of downtown Milwaukee, ending 2 miles northeast of downtown.
Shuttle Length: 3.7 miles / ~10 minutes
Character: A relatively deep, tree-surrounded river-corridor creates a green oasis in the city. Rocky shoals, bedrock ledges, an old timber dam, and paver-block remediation create areas of riffles, rips, and minor rapids on an otherwise flatwater river.- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Drainage Area: 696 square milesArea whitewater Rivers with most Similar Drainage Area: Baraboo (609 sq.mi.), S.Fk.Flambeau (609 sq.mi.), Eau Claire (Little Falls to Big Falls, 760 sq.mi.), Fox (Rochester Dam, 767 sq.mi.)Nearest whitewater runs (alternatives/'daily doubles'): MenTosa, Honey Creek, Underwood Creek, Fox (IL) at Rochester- - - - - - - - - - - - -
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Put-in is approximately 610' elevation.
Take-out is approximately 580' elevation.
Thus total elevation change is approximately 30'.
While there will be reminders that you are in the city (radio towers, three well-overhead bridges you'll pass under, occasional houses, highrises, and factories visible from the river), the river sits in a relatively deep, tree-lined valley, making it a pleasant escape from (and almost possible to forget) the bustle of the city surrounding the river. Indeed, much of the run has an almost 'up North', 'wilderness' feel to it! Since the river is one of the larger watersheds in the area (at 696 square miles), it will generally retain adequate flow after other rivers in the area are too low to boat.
Whitewater play-boaters often eliminate the need for a shuttle and just 'park-and-play' at some of the main sites which can offer tame play even down to fairly low summer flows. Similarly, they may opt to paddle a short-shuttle or upstream paddle and portage section. (All features occur where they can be accessed from convenient parking.)
Both the Timber Dam / Locust Street location and North Avenue location allow boating after sunset, by street lights on the bridges as well as the general glow of the city. Disclaimer: both locations are in what may be somewhat questionable neighborhoods (though with UW-Milwaukee dorms now flanking the river at North Avenue, and condos lining N.Riverboat Road, this area is much improved). I have boated both locations a good number of times after sunset with no problems or concerns arising (though I won't guarantee that to always be the case).
The North Avenue location will sometimes allow winter paddling, as it can remain (or flush) free of ice. Extreme caution is urged for those who opt to boat this in winter months. Rip-rap rocks on shore will often be icy, and the river just downstream of this stretch will be frozen over. Mis-steps and miscalculations (or swims) will be punished (perhaps with your life if you flush under the ice). Make certain you check the ability to get out (especially if there are ice-shelves from shore) before putting in! It is strongly recommended (for winter paddling, when ice is present on shore) to get out at the pool either above or immediately below the rubble rips, as exit from the river downstream (nearer the pedestrian bridge spanning the flanks of the former dam) is generally much more difficult and potentially treacherous!
If you're an avid off-road cyclist, bring your mountain bike along. There are challenging (unofficial) single-track trails each side of the river from North Avenue to Capitol Drive, complete with a few 'stunts' (if that's your thing). My subjective evaluation (with a disclaimer that I'm, at best, a novice off-road biker):
river-right (west bank) (north or south): novice, ** NOTE: parts of this trail are on private property, so technically you are trespassing
river-left (east bank) north (upriver): high-intermediate,
river-left (east bank) south (downriver): expert.
====================================================================Additional ReferencesMilwaukee Riverkeeper provides a fine map which covers this section of river.
*** THIS 'FEATURE' IS NOT ON THE LISTED RUN, BUT WELL UPSTREAM (AS INDICATED BY THE "-3.62 MILE" RIVER DISTANCE) ***
There is an artificial ledge (dam) in Kletzsch Park (between Silver Spring and Good Hope Road, just north of Bender Road). It is a serpentine structure of quarried rock, capped with concrete. The structure is so old, and was made in such a fashion, that it almost looks like a natural ledge, with much variation in the face across the width of the river. The serpentine shape means there are many 'smily faces' and many 'frowny faces' (properly experienced whitewater boaters should know what those terms mean). So, there are a handful of places which (at certain flows) could be run, and at least an equal number of places which would be extremely dangerous to run (at a great many flows). In addition, much of it has very little depth at the base (meaning a very likely piton, unless you hit one of the 'auto-boof' spots, or are good enough to launch a successful boof elsewhere).
Far more to the point, over many years, I have looked at this location at a great many flows, and can't say I have ever seen any good or reasonable play-potential sufficient to entice me to bother to 'suit up' and take the plunge here. Additionally, it is a very popular spot for fishermen (either wading in the river at low-to-moderate flows, or casting from shore at any/all flows), so I have generally opted to leave this area to them.
This is a very solitary feature -- there is virtually nothing of significant interest to a true whitewater boater for many miles upstream (until Ozaukee County), and over 3.5 miles downstream until our listed put-in. So ... if you feel like sightseeing, maybe it's worth a drive. Maybe your parameters are different from mine, and you'll decide to suit up and huck it. (If you are paddling a recreational kayak or canoe, please don't think about doing this without full knowledge about hydraulics and boil lines and safety & rescue procedures, and awareness of what the measured flow is and how it affects this particular location!)
Those wishing a longer outing (generally canoeists, recreational kayers, and anyone wanting more 'warm up' paddling before hitting Estabrook Park Ledge) may wish to put in from the northern end of the island in Lincoln Park. Roadway parking is available (just south of the bridge at the northern end of the island), and it's a short carry to the water.
Boaters who are more intent on the whitewater will find little reason to add the extra length (both on water and on the shuttle).
In 2017, a long-running dispute regarding the Estabrook Park Dam was finally resolved, and (as of spring, 2018) the dam has been removed. Removal of the dam did not result in any whitewater opportunities. (It was not replaced by any 'rock-arch rapids' to maintain any pool height and expressly provide whitewater opportunities, as has been done in numerous cases (notably in Iowa) and the area formerly inundated had no interesting gradient or geology of interest to whitewater boaters.)
Many people ask whether this has any effect on flow of the river. Even when fully operative, the dam had precious little effect on flow. It was very seldom 'regulated' or adjusted (other than gates being wide open all winter and closed late spring through fall). Its removal merely eliminated the pond above. The river above and below will always be subject to natural flow levels (exactly as it has been for the prior 8-10 years while the dam had been inoperative). Thus, the only impact will be for any novice recreational paddlers who opt for a longer trip (starting further upstream, like Lincoln Park), who will no longer have to portage around the dam.
This stretch of river gets a (largely unfair) bad reputation regarding water quality due to media harping on the MMSD any time there is a CSO (Combined-Sewer Overflow). At times of unusually heavy rain, in spite of the 'deep tunnel project', millions of gallons of untreated mixed rainwater and sewage may be dumped into area rivers to prevent storm sewers from backing-up into people's basements. At one site alone, there are pumps capable of contributing 250 cfs (~6.73 million gallons per hour!) into this river via Lincoln Creek (not far upstream of our listed put-ins).
It is important to note that even absent a CSO, street and lawn runoff (especially after a significant period without rain) contain extremely high levels of contaminants, which can be at least as bad as untreated sewage. For this reason, it is generally advisable to avoid this reach during and immediately after any heavy rains. In general, the bulk of contamination will pass one-or-two days (24-48 hours) after any rain-event. (At times of heavy rains, info about whether and where rivers are affected by CSOs will be posted on the MMSD Overflow Advisory website.)
At all other times, this river actually is far cleaner and clearer than many Wisconsin streams! During lighter rains, I would posit that this river is actually cleaner specifically because of the combined sewers! Absent a CSO, any lawn and street runoff (with all its pet wastes, fertilizers, chemicals and contaminants) which does enter the sanitation system is kept out of the rivers and treated before entering the lake! (Without combined sewers, none of that runoff would ever be treated!)
This stretch of river has been identified as a hotspot for PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). A major 'contributor' to the PCB load was located on Lincoln Creek. A remediation of the river at that confluence took place spring/summer 2015, and subsequently from there down to the Estabrook Dam. Newspaper articles during Spring, 2017 mentioned sampling which has been done in this stretch (Estabrook Dam to North Avenue Dam) to quantify the extent of the problem here, and to map the most significant areas of concern.
The media incorrectly hyped this as a "new problem found". (It is a long-known problem!) Rather, the true take-away from those studies should have been that the problem here is orders of magnitude LESS than in those upper stretches, and that there will be a forthcoming remediation down this stretch of river.
Until that happens, all dirt/mud bottom areas on this run should be considered contaminated. The best information I can find suggests that PCBs primarily bond with soil and are NOT generally water soluble. This would suggest that as long as you stay in your boat, and avoid stirring up any muddy areas, your risk of any PCB contact should be minimal. Similarly, areas of bedrock would not harbor significant contamination.
Put-in used to be from a riverside parking lot at the site of the Estabrook Park Dam. A single-lane road headed downslope, under a bike-path bridge, to this parking lot. With completion of the dam removal, this road has been (apparently permanently) gated off, and the parking area is being reverted to grass, with a gravel foot/bike-trail passing through.
It is all pretty-much just as well. With removal of the dam (and the 'Shark Teeth' debris catchers), there is absolutely no whitewater interest remaining at this location. Canoeists and recreational kayakers who are looking for longer trips on the river may wish to put in from the islands (from the parkway road) In Lincoln Park, and will then paddle down through this area.
Our recommended put-in for whitewater boaters is from parking in the northernmost lot on the parkway road. At the southern end of this lot there is a ball diamond, Beer Garden, and children's playground area. There is also an overlook and stairs down to river level to view the Estabrook Park Ledge. Boat access to the river from those stairs (to put-in above the 'falls') would be very awkward due to vertical stone walled shore. One could carry up along shore, but at times of rains and high water the path will be very muddy and slick, and you have to carry nearly the length of a football field to find a good spot to put in. So, while you may wish to park in the south end of the lot to walk down and scout the drop, it will be far more convenient to access the river if you then move your vehicles to the NorthWest end of the lot.
Carry your boat(s) back on a paved path toward the tree line, bear right onto the paved bike path, crossing a small bridge over a wooded ravine, then look to the left for a set of uneven stone steps to head down to the riverbank. (Or, alternatively, carry acroos the grass (to the north of the paved path and aforementioned ravine) to head more directly to the flight of stairs.) Immediately at the bottom of those stairs you'll find a clearing on shore with low banks to put-in, and you'll have a short paddle (with plenty of time to get to river-right shore to scout the ledge if you did not previously do so from the south end of the parking lot).
First off, a little explanation: those of us who frequent this river tend to just initialize each of the main drops and playspots. Thus, you will notice these initializations in parenthesis on the headers and in the descriptions of this feature and most which follow.
This location can be done as a park-and-play (PnP), parking in the Beer Garden lot, carrying down (as previously described), running the drop (multiple times, carrying up river-right), then coming ashore river-left at the end of the boardwalk, to carry back up the steps to the parking lot. Boaters also sometimes do a short shuttle (or boat down/carry-up+paddle-up) to catch this ledge and the next one in a short (0.8 mile) run).
The river here is quite wide and drops across a ledge. (It's just a couple feet of drop, but that's a pretty good drop for S.E.Wisconsin!) Paddlers in canoes, recreational kayaks or sea kayaks are likely to go ashore (river-right) to portage around this drop. Various options are available for the more skilled or adventurous to run the drop. Depending upon water level, almost anywhere across the breadth of this drop will work (though many lines will be grungy at common flows).
As flows rise above 1000 cfs or so, the reversal at the base of the drop becomes more problematic. At such flows, avoid the hydraulic on the right half by running the left line. At levels somewhere above 3000-4000 cfs, the whole ledge is 'swallowed up' by high water in the 'pool' below, and a river-wide assortment of green (brown) waves and holes (really more wave-like, but with smooth breaking pile) start to appear. At some elevated levels (6000-9000 cfs) shoreline eddies may allow paddling upstream far enough to regain the waves for repeat play. Be advised that when the river is on the rise into these levels, likelihood of CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) is high, and (even absent a CSO) water quality is likely to be nasty with all the urban runoff contaminant. The overall volume means the contaminants will be diluted, but you have to decide your comfort level for exposure to the possible risks. A day or two after the rain event, the worst of such contaminants are likely to have passed (but, then, the flows will likely also have dropped to less than the 3000+ cfs territory).
At flows from ~200-1200, I generally prefer a route about 1/3 off the river-right bank. A short upper ledge forms a funky upper wave/hole. A line which 'lips' the right edge of that wave/hole, angling hard toward center stream, will take the paddler off a point on the ledge which juts furthest downstream, allowing a clean ' boof ' into the mush-pile below. Well-experienced or more gutsy paddlers may want to do a button-hook move, lipping the river-right end of the upper ledge/hole, ferrying across its boil, to surf a little horseshoe pocket to its left (surfers-right), and (if more daring) venture into the main part of this pocket for surfs and pushed-spins in its narrow crease (best at levels ~200-800 cfs). I call this whole upper-right pocket/ledge "Big Dog", in reference to the fenced in, off-leash, dog-walk area in Estabrook Park, which is separated into an area for bigger dogs and an area for smaller dogs.
The other 'preferred line' is down sloping chute at far river-left. This is likely to be the 'line of choice' for more timid paddlers (as well as offering some interesting options for more experienced paddlers). At lower summer flows, canoes and recreation kayaks are likely to 'grunge out' a bit in the chute or encounter shallow rock in the pool below the chute (likely to significantly dent or puncture inexpensive recreational kayaks, thereby making the aforementioned portage their better choice). Boaters who do not aim for this river-left line on their first run may carry-up the river-right shore, put-in above the ledge, and make a ferry across the width of the river to align for this route (a surprisingly easy ferry at flows from 200 to perhaps 1000-1200 cfs).
There are a couple of little riffles at the head of this river-left chute which (while often barely perceptible) can actually be surfed and spun on! Since they are such tiny riffles, I call them the "Micro Waves". Midway down the chute, just a touch to the right of the main flow, a small wave/curler/crease forms at flows ~400-1000. Skilled boaters can catch this for surfs and spins as a fun little 'guts surf' here. I call this feature "Little Dog" (as the counterpoint analogy to the "Big Dog" upper pocket ledge previously described).
Coming off "Little Dog" (or just running down the main flow from above the chute), either stay centered in the main flow down the tongue, or angle to either side for a short boof off the bottom ledge. There is a narrow playable crease (hole) between the flatter tongue/chute and shore. This has been best at flows from 400-1100 cfs or so, and can provide the best play in the Estabrook Ledge area. However, you will quickly be aware that almost everywhere across the base of the main ledge) is very shallow and rocky. If you capsize and have to roll or swim, you will almost certainly be bashed upon rocks! Unless you are a very skilled boater, confident of being able to surf without capsizing and having to roll, you are not likely to want to attempt play here. (I call this line and this area the "Beer Garden Chute", in honor of the Hofbrauhaus beer garden at top of the stone stairs here.)
By the way, fishermen frequent both shores this area, as fish congregate in the pools below. Strong sport fish (salmon, trout) can make the leap to get above the ledge in spring and fall, but (to my knowledge, anyway) most other varieties are stymied by the ledge, making this rather like shooting fish in a barrel. My experience has been that summer fishermen (for panfish and bass) tend to be fairly amused by and tolerant of our presence, whereas (with unfortunate regularity) the spring and fall sport fishermen (for trout and salmon) more often tend to be less tolerant, less willing to share the river. We've been told (by fishermen) that WE are breaking the law by "interfering" with their fishing, threatened with calling the cops or DNR-wardens, been intentionally cast-at with fishing hooks, and had rocks thrown at us. (I'm not saying every sport fisherman is so belligerent, just that some are.) It should go without saying to try your best to be observant of their lines and avoid interference as much as reasonably possible. Often if you calmly and politely talk with them and 'negotiate' a bit, they'll (willingly, or begrudgingly) share the river. If/when you encounter someone fishing, who seems less willing to share, it may be best to just move on rather than pushing the issue into further conflict and potentially making matters worse, not only for yourself, but for ALL PADDLERS.
Most of the width across the base of the ledge has such a uniform crease and boil-line that any attempts to play will likely suck you in sideways, be difficult to escape, and not really offer any meaningful play, but rather leave you struggling to keep from being 'window-shaded' (leading me to call it 'park-and-flail' boating). So, other than the previously mentioned specific locations and flows, most boaters, at most flows, are best advised not to attempt play across other areas of this bottom ledge.
A (non-boating) video showcases many views (both wide-angle and more close up) of this ledge. While we previously were able to embed such videos, it appears (in the new release of this website) we can only post the URL for you to find and watch the video from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MT04mNo27Bg
Beginning about 0.5 - 0.6 miles from your put-in, as the river-right bank clears, becoming an open grassy slope, you should see the lightposts high on river-right in the U-Park (UW-Milwaukee park-and-ride lot). A boulderbed shoals (class I riffles and rips) leads around a sweeping right-hand bend for roughly 1/4 mile. As soon as large trees populate the river-right bank, you want to be center-to-center-right for this double-ledge (bedrock intrusion) in the right half of the river. (You'll miss any chance at catching it if you are left of center heading into this area!)
At flows in the 400-1000 range, very sweet beginner/intermediate play is possible here. Front surfs, side surfs, and flatspins may be practiced to your heart's content. Better playboaters may also manage some backsurfs and blasts. A sweet attainment move is possible, coming off the lower (main) wave to 'surfers right' (toward center-river), ferrying across a bit of current, paddling up a break (slackwater) to another minor diagonal ledge/wave, surfing it to the upstream/left (toward river-right), and paddling up slackwater to regain an upper wave.
At higher flows (above 1000 and into 2000-3000 cfs) this location develops waves (often with sweet soft foam-pile). Surfing will be marvelous, but mostly 'catch-on-the-fly'. It may be possible to regain the bottom wave/hole by paddling tight to river-right banks, but more likely any repeat play will be by going ashore to carry back above the waves, severly limiting most boaters' interests.
The next features downstream ('Timber Dam' and 'The Plague at Locust') are generally pretty lame when flows provide best play at EPL/UPL/N.Ave., so boaters may wish to maximize play (and cut out the nearly 2.5 miles of mostly uninteresting paddle between here and North Avenue) by doing a short shuttle to run just these two features (Estabrook Park Ledge and U-Park Ledge), or (having done so) then driving down check out North Avenue.
This area is easily accessable as a park-and-play by taking Capital Drive then heading north on the dead-end-stub of Humboldt Boulevard. During the UW-Milwaukee school year, I have never had any problem parking in the front edge of their lot, but signage indicates the lot is closed when school is not in full session. At those times, about half-way back toward that lot, there is a short graveled stub to the left (and up a bit of a slope -- next to an old sign about some dog center) which similarly has never been a problem for parking. Just carry across that grassy area, cross the road, look for a break in the woods next to a bit of a stonework drainage/draw, and carry upriver on the informal path until you are just upstream of the U-Park Wave.
ADDENDUM: Amending the prior statement about parking on the "short graveled stub". Arriving there on recent attempt to park-and-play UPL, a squad car was parked on the gravel stub. As I pulled in, i stopped and rolled down my window to greet the officer, to casually inform him of my plans, and ask if there was any problem with parking my vehicle there while on the river. He informed me this area was private property of the TV station, and that they would have my vehicle ticketed and towed, and suggested I park in the UPark lot instead. I mentioned to him that there was very specific signage indicating that on days when the shuttle buses are not running (weekends and all summer) it is illegal to park in that lot. He then suggested I park on the road heading in/out of that lot. Amazed, I expressed that while there are no signs specifically saying "No Parking", neither are there any marked parking spaces, thus I would expect my vehicle to be ticketed for being parked (and 'abandoned') in a traffic lane. In reply, he suggested that I could drive passenger-side wheels over the curb and onto the grass, to park driver-side wheels as close to the curb as possible (which I subsequently thanked him and did). The entire exchange was courteous and noncontentious (though more than a bit perplexing). So ... it leaves me in a bit of a quandry. I've never had a problem parking in the lot when shuttles are running, and never had a problem (other than this single encounter) parking on the gravel stub when the lot is closed. Armed with that info, you are each on your own to choose your option if/when you decide to access the river at this location!
The first of three road bridges you'll pass under on the full run is Capitol Drive. A shallow, rocky shoals (at least, at low-to-moderate flows) will be encountered. Best depth is generally off to river-left. At higher flows (above 500 cfs), these shoals are fairly well covered (no special 'line' or maneuvering is needed), and (most generally) no playable features occur. (Though I have had one boater claim surfing some feature here!)
An old timber dam was used by the breweries to harvest ice from the river in the days before modern refrigeration. Remnants of it extend from river-left (and, to a much lesser extent, from river-right), blocking nearly three-fourths the width of the river at flows under 800 cfs. A small, smooth wave forms in the gap, generally being better the lower the flow goes (all the way down to minimal summer flows!). At those low flows, very well-defined eddy-lines are present in the deep pool below the flanks of the timber dam. This spot can offer great opportunities for bow stalls and stern squirts, as well as 'old-school' pirouettes.
Beginners may practice river-running skills such as peel-outs, eddy turns and ferrying. A great training exercise is doing 'figure eights': peeling out of one eddy, crossing the current, catching the other eddy, paddling up it a bit, then repeating the process coming back to complete the '8'. It's great beginners practice for working on boat-leans and carving turns. Since there is great depth here (at all flows), a relatively strong current, relatively strong eddylines, and a huge 'recovery area' downstream, this is a great low-consequence spot to practice 'combat rolls' (rolling your boat in something other than the dead-calm water of a pool or lake).
As levels exceed 600-800 cfs, water increasingly flows over the remnants of the dam (I.E., the entire width of the river), the eddy lines diminish, and there is minimal whitewater interest here as a result.
Note: this site may be done as a 'park-and-play'. Driving on Humboldt Boulevard until just a bit north of Locust Street, turning East on E.Chambers Street. Proceed to near the end of this dead-end for street parking, then carry down the pavement (to the left of the gate and fence around the pumping station), stepping over or going around a chain strung between posts (stopping vehicular traffic on this stub), and continuing to walk straight down the grassy area to the river.
Increasingly (since Spring of 2013) time has been unkind to us. High water and ice-outs continue to knock out old timbers from the dam. As a result, the dynamics and play potential of this spot have been reduced. Water is not funneled as narrowly as before, and the eddy lines are not as well-defined until flows drop under 300-400 cfs. (Still playable, just not as good as previously.)
Directly under the Locust Street bridge, the main channel (to the right of the bridge pier) contains rocky rubble (including cement and rebar) which creates a short rocky pitch.
At levels somewhere above 500 cfs most of the debris is covered, and there is little more than splishy-splash rips. (Perhaps a couple of barely surfable waves.)
At lower summer levels this area actually becomes more interesting (I.E., potentially more treacherous to beginners or non-whitewater paddlers, potentially marinally more interesting for whitewater paddlers). At these lower flows, piles of rubble create more constricted flow. Canoeists may be best advised to kneel into the bottom of the canoe: getting your weight off the seats, lowering the center-of-gravity, and increasing your stability. Do NOT raise your arms and your paddle high overhead! Keep paddling!! (Or, consider portaging, keeping in mind, however, that any wet rocks on or near shore will be very slick! Watch your footing!).
Boaters who flip or swim are warned that there is a great deal of shallow coarse cement rubble in the main outflow in the pool below the main pitch. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO STAND while in the swift current! Attempting to stand (or to swim head-forward/face-down) in shallow, swift moving water is VERY likely to result in bruised and scraped up knees and shins! Instead, assume the 'swimmer's position'! (Floating as near the surface as possible, face up, feet downstream.) You WILL encounter rocks and cement with your shoes, your butt, and your (PFD protected) back. Wait until you are downstream in the calmer water in the pool before you even think about trying to find bottom, stand up, and collect your boat and gear.
There is a much smaller channel to the left of the bridge pier which has far less rubble and debris in the flow. At low flows (120-250 cfs) when the main channel can be most treacherous for beginners and non-whitewater paddlers, this less obvious channel is unlikely to be a viable alternative to the main channel. (At low summer flows, shallow sandbars in the pool below may 'ground out' your boat.) At flows in the 120-500 cfs range, there may form a minor playable wave here, which I call Garbage Falls. This is not nearly so much a name for the feature as it is a warning about what happens here. All manner of debris is (rarely, but . . .) randomly dumped into the river from the bridge overhead -- garbage bags, shopping carts, bicycles, defunct electronics (TVs, radios), et cetera. So . . . remember . . . "Garbage Falls" (from overhead). Pedestrians on the bridge overhead may consider you a fun target for tossing trash, knowing they can be long gone before you could catch them.
NOTE: The river-left shore of this left channel suffers more erosion each year. As of 2019, trees which had dropped into this channel (formerly complicating passage) have now flushed downstream, leaving this area quite clear and easy passage!
After Locust Street (with its generally minor features), you'll have very nearly a mile of flatwater paddling. As you approach the North Avenue Bridge, you encounter the start of ~300 yards of swift water and waves, leading to the remnants of the North Avenue dam, now spanned by a pedestrian bridge.
A 'fault' in the paver-block bottom creates a surfable/spinnable wave which (for much of the year) literally sits in the shadow of the North Avenue bridge (hence the name of the wave). Whitewater kayakers ('play boaters') will find entertainment here at levels from about 300 to 1000 cfs. Somewhere above that level, while the wave/hole may still exist, it will be difficult to regain as the river-lft eddy will more-and-more disappear (or, at least, be much harder to catch and to then paddle up to and onto what little 'dish' there is to the wave at those higher flows).
Increasingly, winter freeze-and-thaw heaving has torn-up and pushed around some of the paver-block 'bedrock', causing very unfortunate changes to this feature (and elsewhere down this stretch). While 'Shadow' used to have a sweet pocket and pile, it is now more often only a green (brown) wave. Tight to river-left, what used to be a sweet surfing/spinning pocket-wave is now virtually gone and barely allows decent access to surf across to the main/center wave for repeat play there. The main/center wave still allows sweet front-surfs and spins, but is more challenging to get to (from the river-left eddy) at nearly all boatable flows. This means (for many paddlers, at many flows) that Shadow will likely be a catch-on-the-fly, one-and-done ride.
**Changed in winter of 2017/2018, and again winter 2018/2019!**
Immediately after the bridge-piers on river-right (fairly tight toward shore), a 'heave' in the paver blocks will rake/scrape the bottom of your boat (or will be completely exposed) at flows up to 600 cfs, somewhat blocking access to the river-right eddy immediately downstream of the bridge. As flows go above 1000 cfs, this may create a surfable wave.
Also at some finite range of flows (perhaps around 900-1100) a smooth, surfable wave will exist in the 'right-center' 1/4th of the width of the river. When present, it is totally catch-on-the-fly, one-and-done, leading to the name "Homeless" (as in, there is no eddy from which to do repeat play, and also as a reference to how many homeless individuals used to stow their stash of sleeping bags/blankets and the like up under both ends of the North Avenue bridge in the years before the UW-Milwaukee dorms were built on both sides of the river here, resulting in increased traffic and patrol of these areas, displacing the homeless to other less travelled locales.)
A sweet wave/hole forms center-river, but time of year matters here! Nearly all the waves down this stretch tend to be 'broken' most of the summer, not forming well at flows which they'd be great in late-fall, and most of the spring. So, all the descriptions of features below (and water levels when they're 'in') are for non-summer situation! They may appear in summer, but at much different flows!
At flows between 600 and 1600 cfs. Experienced whitewater playboaters will be able to get surfs and (when it is at its best) flatspins and slightly elevated spins. (It never develops enough size, retentiveness, or depth for fully vertical or aerial maneuvers to be advisable or likely.)
A great shoreline 'escalator eddy' on river-right (extending well-down this area) allows easy repeat play.
High water levels spring and summer of 2008 caused changes to this feature. Originally, this was a 'diagonal wave' which looked like it would 'typewriter' you off to river-left. However, that diagonal nature no longer exists, and now (when it is 'in') it is a narrower wave or breaking wave/hole, pretty much in center-river.
The name of this feature (and those which follow) pays homage to the fact that in the 1870's, Christopher Latham Sholes (spending some years of his life in Milwaukee) is credited with substantial improvements (building on earlier efforts of others) and a number of patents which led to the first commercially viable typewriter.
At some flows (mostly in the 800-1600 range) a sweet wave forms very near the river-left shore, just a wee bit behind Typewriter Wave (TW). It has no eddy, so the only way to catch it is coming off the 'surfers-right' shoulder of TW, in control, to charge/slide across onto Backspace. While I've never been able to pull any moves in it, it is a sweet surf, and sets you up for the next feature.
Just downstream behind Backspace lies another wave. This one is usually a bit deeper and better-formed, often having a fine breaking pile. At good flows (1000-1600 cfs), it offers front-surfs, side-surfs, and spins.
There can be at least three ways of catching this wave! First: dropping back into it after playing TW and BS. Second: coming up the river-left eddy as far as possible paddling, then 'knuckle walking', 'poling' with your paddle, and (very likely) using 'veggie grips' (grabbing onto shrub willow and such growing up through the pavers on shore), to 'attain' your way up shore to midway between the Backspace wave and the Carriage Return wave, then doing your best to scramble/paddle out to stall on the wave. Or ... third, and amazingly the easiest, when it is all well-formed: paddle up the river-left eddy to immediately alongside the wave. A shallow-dished wave closer to shore and slightly downstream of the main wave can very easily be slid out onto. Once there, watch and wait for the best timing (a slight ripple/fence rises and falls between the shallow-dished wave and the main wave), then lean forward and carve your boat to surfers-left to actually slide upriver into the main wave! SWEET!!!
To explain (especially for our younger readers): In the years before computers, typewriters had a 'platen' on a 'carriage' which held the sheet of paper, and which moved to the left as one typed. When electric typewriters took over, some models no longer had a platen that moved left and right, but the there was a type-ball on a 'carriage' which traversed the page (which no longer needed to move left and right). The keyboards on all typewriters had a 'carriage return' key (where the 'Enter' key is on modern keyboards) to reposition the 'carriage' to the left margin of the paper and move the paper up just slightly so the typist could type the next line. This wave is named to honor that history.
Shifting more toward center-river (below Carriage Return), a few wider wave/troughs often form (generally at levels 800-1600 cfs). Some of them tend to surge, cresting and flattening out (at least at some flows), which can make them difficult to catch and ride. If your timing is right, they make a great challenge to see how long you can ride a constantly-changing wave!
And, I will confess these may be bending and stretching the analogy just a bit. On the typewriter/keyboard, the "Shift" keys are positioned at lower-left and lower-right, while these waves form pretty much dead-center-river. However, I liked keeping with the 'special-function' keys rather than naming them "V", "B", or "N" waves (after the letter-keys more lower-center on the keyboard, especially since "N-Wave" has been the chosen name for a playspot up in Neenah, at a pipe-outflow/bypass at the dam forming Lake Winnebago.)
The final fault in the paver-block/'bedrock' at center-river causes a surfable wave, perhaps best at flows of 900-1200 cfs. At both higher and lower flows, it may be a barely noticeable trough, or may appear and disappear (surging), thus it may be possible to catch a surf for a bit, but it is likely to dump you from your surf before long.
It should be noted that (in the pool downstream) rocks have shifted and at least one boater has had a 'close encounter of the worst kind' with a rock in the main flow just downstream of this wave. (Fortunately, he 'tagged' it with his back and shoulder, not his helmet/head.) There are also many shallow rocks in the eddies to both sides, as well as further downstream (closer to the next very rocky pitch). All of which is to say, this is not a good place to play if you are not confident of staying upright, or if your roll is not quick and sure.
On the river-left shore, there had been areas of 'gabions' (think wire/chain-link-fence baskets filled with rocks) and other wire-mesh containment which had failed. Of recent, I no longer find evidence of the snarled wire. What remains are ~3" wooden 'pegs' (which formerly held the wire in place) cemented into the paver-blocks in the river-left eddy.
Reiterating a prior point, a great aspect of this North Avenue stretch is that a river-right shoreline eddy allows you (as long as you eddy-out before dropping into the Rubble Field) to paddle back upstream to above the Typewriter Wave, to enjoy repeat play to your heart's content on all of the best features. A river-left eddy allows repeat access for waves from "Return Key" through "Space Bar". As a result, whitewater play-boaters often skip any shuttle and opt to just do this as the best park-and-play on the river (when flows are best and all features are 'in' -- usually at least 600 cfs, and best from about 900-1400 cfs).
Canoeists and novice swiftwater paddlers are likely to find this stretch of splishy-splash water rather exciting. (Or, a PITA when summer flows fall under 200 cfs, and even worse when it falls under 100 during more significant periods of drought.) Whitewater boaters may find a bit of minor play (especially as levels go under 600 cfs) playing a wave or two which can form river-right (and sometimes center and left) at lower water levels (often better/best under 300 cfs).
At levels over 400 cfs or so, all rocks should be adequately covered to allow passage most anywhere. As levels drop, however, boats are likely to grunge-out on shallow rock. Anyone upside-down (in a kayak) or out of their boat will likely be bruised and battered on the large rock rubble which lies under water, lining the entire riverbed in this stretch. If you are out of your boat in the river here, you will need to be very careful getting ashore. Footing will be very trecherous on the quarried rock in the river and on shore. In the river, float on you back if you can (if it is deep enough), or crawl (on hands and knees) so you don't slip and fall and bash a knee, shins, or your wrists/hands/elbows!
Be very aware of the dangers of foot entrapment in the large quarried rock! And be aware that any wet rock is likely to be extremely slippery!
NOTE: Rapids in this final stretch of rubble are very dependent upon water levels of Lake Michigan, since by the time you pass under the pedestrian bridge (spanning the flanks of the old dam), you are essentially at Lake Michigan water level! One media article read: "In 2013, Big Lake water levels hit their lowest in recorded history. But now, just four years later, they’re the highest they’ve been since 1997 – rising four feet in just that time." As a result, this final rubble field (and minor features it occasionally offered) is mostly 'swallowed up' by the presently 'high' backwater of the lake.
There are a few different options for your take-out.
1) Take out halfway between North Avenue and the footbridge (spanning the flanks of the old dam) before you float down a shallow rubble shoals and the last half of this stretch. Footing to exit the river is easy if you take out from this pool. (NOTE: the sediment containment paver-blocks which line the riverbanks are likely to be slippery (in the water, or if wet on shore), but at least they provide a smooth, stable walking surface.)
Playboaters interested in carrying up for additional surfs of 'Shadow' (et.al.) may find it easiest (and most advantageous) to use this exit-option, since there is generally no additional 'play' down the remaining half of this stretch except at lowest flows, and going any further down just nearly doubles your walk back up!
2) If you proceed down the final rocky pitch, the right shore will be lined (initially) fairly solid with trees and shrubs. A bit more than midway down (to the flanks of the dam and the pedestrian bridge), there's a clearing, then one final good-sized willow (prior to passing under the footbridge). This location will require that you exit your boat from a somewhat precarious eddy, carefully step out onto quarry rock (which is likely to be VERY SLIPPERY in/near the water! BE VERY CAREFUL!). You'll have a couple of steps to carry your boat across very irregular quarry-rock, but will then have good footing on gabions (wire baskets filled with rock) and then firm land. Again, from here you can either carry upriver for another run/play of this stretch, or carry to your vehicle. (NOTE: This is my preferred take-out point, since it entails the least-steep carry up to street level.)
3) Float beyond the pedestrian footbridge which now spans the shoulders of the former dam. NOTE, however, that when the river runs high (above 1000-2000 cfs) there may be DYNAMIC swirls and boils (even small whirlpools which form randomly!) as the fast water meets the flat water below the dam. Above 2000-3000 cfs, this area can get downright wicked looking, filled with all manner of floating debris! At all flows above 2000 cfs, I strongly recommend walking to the center of the pedestrian bridge before running this stretch, to make sure you are prepared for what awaits you here!
So, a number of options exist below the pedestrian-bridge/former-dam:
3A) As you head toward/under the pedestrian bridge, stay far RIVER-RIGHT, then IMMEDIATELY head to the right bank, take out VERY NEAR the dam, then hike up a very steep, rocky embankment. Unfortunately, rocks have shifted/slid in recent years, and this is now an extremely awkward and inconvenient climb (recommended only for the most long-legged, strong, and stubborn of boaters).
3B) As you head toward/under the pedestrian bridge, stay center-to-left of flow, then head to the right bank well-downstream of the dam. DO NOT USE 'UNIMPROVED' areas of shore (where they are 'revegetating' shoreline)! Find any of two-or-three locations where there are Lannon-stone steps at shore. It will be best if you do NOT use the first spot you come to, since it will only mean a longer walk/carry to find a place to get up to street level. Instead, wait until about the second or third, where you can see steps running up the high embankment to street level.
3C) The final option is: As you pass under the footbridge and flanks of the old dam stay in the current heading toward left shore (which is vertical steel plate). (Keep to river-left or you'll actually be paddling against the eddy current below the dam!) Do not head to river-right until you can see the Humboldt Avenue bridge and buildings on river-right shore. There is an obvious improved landing with huge quarry-rock steps (as shown in the photo above) or . . . very immediately past that, there is now a more convenient gravel landing for kayaks. (Depending on river/lake height, it can be extremely awkward climbing out of a kayak to the high quarry-rock/step, so you may wish to take advantage of the gravelled landing!) A fairly steep gravel trail leads upslope to Riverboat Road right alongside a former single-family home (now offices for a river-related non-profit).
Drainage area at gauge: 696 sq.mi.
Minimum mean daily flow during stated period: 48 cfs (2005.09.06)
90% of time flow exceeds: 130 cfs
10% of time flow exceeds: 1,130 cfs
Maximum mean daily flow during stated period: 8,970 cfs (1997.06.21)
10/90 ratio ('flashy-ness'): 8.69 (under 3 is fairly steady, over 10 is quite 'flashy')
Average days per year over recommended 'low' threshold: 272
Average days per year over recommended 'high' threshold: 30
Offseason ("Ice") gauge conversions:
----------- Virtual --- Approx.
USGS -- Gauge -- CFS
4.18 ----- 4.96 ----- 2080
4.00 ----- 4.60 ----- 1800
3.78 ----- 4.16 ----- 1560
3.50 ----- 3.60 ----- 1280 ('recommended max')
3.00 ----- 2.60 ----- 863
2.75 ----- 2.10 ----- 658
2.50 ----- 1.60 ----- 480
2.25 ----- 1.10 ----- 329
2.00 ----- 0.60 ----- 205
Permits are not required for this reach.
The recommended put-in is from the Beer Garden and ballfield parking lot in Estabrook Park, in the NORTHWEST end of the lot (away from the ballfield and Beer Garden). Carry (either on a paved path or across grass) to a flight of uneven stonework stairs down to the river.
1) Head SW on Riverboat Road 0.2 mile
2) Turn right, then right again to double-back on Commerce Street.
3) Turn left (North) on Humboldt Boulevard for 1.1 miles (past North Ave, and two blocks past Locust Street).
4) Turn right (East) on E.Chambers Street 0.1 mile, parking on street, then carry straight down to the river (starting on paved path/road outside the Pumping Station fence).
Riverboat Road Improved Take-out
Riverboat Road Take-out
North Avenue, Pedestrian Bridge
North Avenue, full view
U-Park Ledge (lower wave)
U-Park Ledge (upper wave)
Estabrook Park Ledge
Close-up of center waves at U-Park Ledge
Overview of U-Park Ledge
Downstream/river-left at Estabrook Park Ledge
Upstream/river-left at Estabrook Park Ledge
Overhead view of Estabrook Park Ledge
Rob on 'Typewriter' (5)
Rob on 'Typewriter' (4)
Rob on 'Typewriter' (3)
Rob on 'Typewriter' (2)
Rob on 'Typewriter' (1)
Rob on 'Homeless', Mike on 'Typewriter'
Mike Croak on Typewriter
Plague at Locust (2)
Plague at Locust (1)
Timber Dam (2)
Timber Dam (1)
U-Park Ledges (3)
U-Park Ledges (2)
U-Park Ledges (1)
Milw: North Avenue
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