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Milwaukee - B) Estabrook Park to North Ave.Dam (PnP or up to 3.8 miles)


Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US

Disclaimer

B) Estabrook Park to North Ave.Dam (PnP or up to 3.8 miles)

Usual Difficulty I-II(III) (varies with level)
Length 3.6 Miles
Avg. Gradient 10 fpm
Max Gradient 10 fpm

Timber Dam (2)


Timber Dam (2)
Photo by Rob Smage taken 04/13/09 @ 540 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
Milwaukee River Winter Gauge
virtual-50980 0.60 - 4.30 ft I-II 00h40m ~ 1.04 ft (running)
Likely low (~200cfs - 600cfs). (On-site inspection may reveal possible play at North Ave. if ice does not interfere.) Winter gauge manipulates USGS stage reading to show *possible* flows. Gauge and runnability/playability may be affected by ice. Check CAREFULLY for safe egress
MILWAUKEE RIVER AT MILWAUKEE, WI
usgs-04087000 120 - 2400 cfs I-II(III) 37d06h38m 511 cfs (running)
Intermediate flow. May be ideal flows for beginner-to-intermediate boaters for full run or PnP at EPL, UPk, TD or North Ave. (See 'Flow Info' tab for details.) Gauge (696 square miles) is essentially at listed put-in, so very accurately portrays actual flow.


River Description

Quick Facts:

Location: Glendale/Milwaukee, starting about 4.5 miles north of downtown Milwaukee, ending 2 miles northeast of downtown.
Shuttle Length: 3.6 miles. (See details in "Directions" Tab.)
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 random areas of riffles, rips, and minor rapids.

Put-in is approximately 610' elevation.
Take-out is approximately 580' elevation.
Thus total elevation change is approximately 30'.
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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!
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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.

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Additional References

Milwaukee Riverkeeper provides a fine map (via GoogleEarth) which covers this reach of river.


StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2018-01-09 15:30:59

Editors


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-0.3*** NEWS (regarding dam) ***N/A
-0.2*** WATER QUALITY ISSUES: CSO ***N/A
-0.2*** WATER QUALITY ISSUE: PCB ***N/A
-0.2Shark's TeethIIAccess Portage Hazard Playspot
-0.2Estabrook Dam - Left Side ("EDL")IHazard
-0.2Estabrook Dam - Right Side ("EDR")IIIPortage Hazard
-0.2Put-inN/APutin
0.0** Recommended Put-in **N/AAccess
0.1Estabrook Park Ledge ("EPL")II+Portage Waterfall Playspot Photo
0.8U-Park riffles and ledge ("UPL")IIAccess Playspot Photo
1.1Capitol Drive shoalsI
2.3Timber Dam ("TD")IPlayspot Photo
2.5The Plague at Locust ("PAL")IIHazard Playspot Photo
3.3Shadow (Wave)IIAccess Playspot Photo
3.3Typewriter (Wave)II+Playspot Photo
3.3Backspace (Wave)IIPlayspot
3.3Carriage Return (Wave)IIPlayspot
3.3Shift Keys (Waves)IIPlayspot
3.3Showboat (Wave/Hole)II+
3.3Rubble FieldIIHazard
3.6Take-outN/ATakeout Photo

Rapid Descriptions

*** NEWS (regarding dam) *** (Class N/A, Mile -0.3)

It appears that the long-running dispute regarding the Estabrook Park Dam finally has been resolved. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article (dated 2017.01.20) stated: "Last month, MMSD ... signed an option to purchase 45.7 acres at Estabrook Park at a cost of $1 ... a deal that requires the district to return most of the property to the county for park use at the time of the sale closing. At closing, the district would hold on to a narrow 3.9-acre parcel along the river on the north end of the dam, and an island at midstream, for equipment access during demolition. Removal of the dam is estimated to cost $1.7 million and work is expected to begin in late 2017. The smaller parcel would be returned to the county for park use when demolition is completed in early 2018, under the land transfer deal."

What this means to whitewater boaters: Frankly, almost nothing. There have only been a few random times (over the course of many years) that there has been anything of real interest at the dam and debris catchers (the so-called "shark's teeth"), and generally there have not been many occasions where running the serpentine right-side of the dam have been possible (due to massive accumulations of wood which have routinely precluded paddling anywhere near the lip). Thus, removal of the dam removes virtually no paddling or play opportunity at that site. It is a virtual certainty that removal of the dam will similarly not result in any (whitewater boating) opportunities at that site. (I.E., there is no plan to replace it with any 'rock-arch rapids' to maintain any pool height and expressly provide whitewater opportunities, as has been done in numerous cases, notably in Iowa.) Moreover, even when fully operative the dam had precious little effect on flow (it was only very randomly ever 'regulated' or adjusted in times of high flows, when they'd open gates to reduce the rise of pond height, I.E., to reduce the negative impact that the dam itself was causing!), so its removal will merely eliminate the pond above, thus eliminating regulation of pond height -- the river above and below will always be at natural flow levels (exactly as it has been for the past 8-10 years while the dam has 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.



*** WATER QUALITY ISSUES: CSO *** (Class N/A, Mile -0.2)

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!)



*** WATER QUALITY ISSUE: PCB *** (Class N/A, Mile -0.2)

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.



Shark's Teeth (Class II, Mile -0.2)

Whitewater paddlers who opt to start from the parking area by the dam might want to carry upstream about 180 yards to put in just above or just below the debris catchers (what folks call the "Shark's Teeth" or "Dragon Teeth"). Tripodal/pyramid structures span from river-left shore to the island to catch large woody debris (an attempt to keep it from accumulating on the dam and plugging-up the gates). County crews periodically use a large crane to remove accumulated wood from these. However, at times when wood is present, sometimes there will be one or two gaps through which water pours into the pool (downstream of the debris catchers, upstream of the dam). At flows above 1000cfs, I have seen an easy sweet playable wave form at a wider center gap. When that is present, well-defined eddy-lines allow for great bowstalls and squirts.

Also quite often one or two of the narrower gaps (usually closest to shore) will be clear when the rest of the 'teeth' are blocked fully by wood. Again, as flows reach into the 1000+ cfs territory, these will create fine little pourovers. While the space is a bit tight for any significant surf to happen, it can be possible to poke your bow into the oncoming flow for a big auto-ender. (I'm guessing loops would be possible (if you are not too intimidated by the proximity of the structures)

Before deciding to put in above the debris catchers, make sure to carefully scout the gaps to be certain of your line, to determine that there are no snags or strainers for you to hang up on, and to be aware of how much current may be sweeping you into this area. Similarly, carefully check which (how many) of the eight lift-gates on the dam are free of debris to allow safe passage.



Estabrook Dam - Left Side ("EDL") (Class I, Mile -0.2)

The river-left side of the dam has eight lift-gates which are fully-open, allowing the river to flow freely through. In summer they used to be closed, to have all the water flow over the serpentine fixed-structure dam (on the right side of the island). There have been problems and controversy regarding the operation of the dam, and the gates have been left wide open year-round for nearly a decade.

At times of increased flow, passing through the open gates, and/or being in the swirls and boils immediately behind the dam can be a bit sketchy (or potentially a bit fun, depending upon your perspective, skill, preparedness, et cetera).

Make certain to carefully scout all eight gates before putting in above! Some wood escapes the "Shark's Teeth" and does end up caught across the gates of the dam, often blocking-off some number of these gates. Look at the dam/gates from downstream (as well as from upstream) to be certain to be aware of any wood which may block passage through any of them. Often wood will be nearly impossible to detect from upstream, lieing right at water-level. By the time you might notice it, it is likely you won't be able to avoid it. Hanging up ('broaching') on such wood could easily cause you to capsize, submerging you and your boat.



Estabrook Dam - Right Side ("EDR") (Class III, Mile -0.2)

The river-right side of the dam is a very interesting serpentine stone structure. Unfortunately, this area tends to accumulate tons of wood, often making it impossible to get anywhere near the dam on this side. This is probably a good thing, because the landing zone for most of the serpentine dam is quite shallow. While it has been run (in proper whitewater kayaks), it is best avoided unless you have scouted it ahead at low water (to know where to be and not to be), and have also scouted it at present water level and time, to know if it is possible to get to your intended route or if it is blocked, and to know how the depth and possible hydraulic may be.

However, for years now, all the I-beams and stop-boards (which formed the near-island/left-side of this part of the dam) have been removed, leaving a much shorter height to the dam. With the left-side floodgates fully open year-round, no water passes over this right-side dam until flows are somewhere above 1000 cfs. For anyone considering running this part of the dam at such times, it would be essential to put in above the "Shark's Teeth", land on the the island to scout the situation below that part of the dam (to be aware whether it is runnable or whether a terminal hydraulic may be present), and to be aware of any problems with wood in the drop or downstream on your chosen line.

The best advice for the vast majority of paddlers is to stay well away from the lip and base of this side of the dam.


View Larger Map



Put-in (Class N/A, Mile -0.2)

Put-in is possible from a 'fishermans access' parking lot on river-left at (just downstream of) the Estabrook Park Dam. From the main parkway road, there is a single-lane road heading downslope, under a bike-path bridge, to this parking lot. It should be noted that this parking area (and the narrow road down to it) is NOT PLOWED in winter, and often remains gated off until April or May (often weeks after all snow is gone). When this lot is gated, use the next listed put-in (our recommended put-in).

A very shallow rocky shoals runs between shore and an island. At flows under 600 cfs there is better passage (better depth of channel) if you ferry across above the shoals to a route near the island before heading downstream. At lower flows, it will be advantageous to put-in from the upstream end of the parking lot (towards the dam) to have decent depth to make the ferry across toward the island and not be swept-into and grunged-out on the shoals immediately.

In recent years, I have tended against using this put-in location (since this is a somewhat secluded spot, and there have been vehicles broken into), preferring the next listed access for put-in.



** Recommended Put-in ** (Class N/A)

Since there are times when the dam parking lot is gated (or otherwise unavailable), we strongly recommend parking in the northernmost lot adjacent to the parkway road. You'll see a ball diamond and Beer Garden at the southern end of this lot, where there is an overlook (and stairs down to river level) to view the Estabrook Park Ledge. Boat access to the river from those stairs would be very awkward due to vertical stone walled shore. 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 park at 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 ravine, then look to the left for a set of uneven stone steps to head down to the riverbank. There should be a fine 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).


View Milwaukee River: "Dam to Dam" in a larger map



Estabrook Park Ledge ("EPL") (Class II+, Mile 0.1)

Overhead view of Estabrook Park Ledge

Overhead view of Estabrook Park Ledge
Photo by Rob Smage taken 04/29/09 @ 3750 cfs

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, use the left half of the drop to avoid the hydraulic which forms across the right half. 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 of these elevated levels, shoreline eddies actually allow paddling upstream far enough to regain the waves for repeat play. Be well 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. While the copious overall volume means the contaminants will be diluted, you will 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 also have dropped quickly 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 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 relatively new 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! 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 dam 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.

Other than the couple limited spots as described above, 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 locations, most boaters, at most flows, are best advised not to attempt play across other areas of this bottom ledge.


The following video (courtesy KBraband, via YouTube) shows the put-in and runs of this ledge.



U-Park riffles and ledge ("UPL") (Class II, Mile 0.8)

U-Park Ledges (3)

U-Park Ledges (3)
Photo by Rob Smage taken 04/13/09 @ 540 cfs

At 0.75 miles from your put-in, as the river-right bank clears, becoming an open grassy slope, you should see the lightposts in the U-Park (UW-Milwaukee park-and-ride lot) high up the bank. 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, get over to river-right, where a minor double-ledge (bedrock intrusion) extends across the right half of the river. At flows in the 400-1000 range, very nice 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 blasting. 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 some very nice 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.

Timber Dam and 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 just doing a short shuttle to run just these two features (Estabrook Park Ledge and U-Park Ledge). This might be done on its own, or then driving down to have whatever fun one can at North Avenue.



Capitol Drive shoals (Class I, Mile 1.1)

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 no playable features occur.



Timber Dam ("TD") (Class I, Mile 2.3)

Timber Dam (2)

Timber Dam (2)
Photo by Rob Smage taken 04/13/09 @ 540 cfs

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!). 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 practice for working on boat-leans and carving turns.

At levels above 800 cfs, water flows over the entire width of the dam/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, turn 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 fence around the pumping station), stepping over or going around a chain strung between posts, and straight down the grassy open area to the river.

Update Spring, 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 are reduced, since water is not funneled as narrowly as before, and the eddy lines are not as well-defined.



The Plague at Locust ("PAL") (Class II, Mile 2.5)

Plague at Locust (2)

Plague at Locust (2)
Photo by Rob Smage taken 04/13/09 @ 540 cfs

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 (and perhaps a couple unsurfable waves) -- barely even a rated rapids!
At lower summer levels this area actually becomes more interesting (I.E., potentially more treacherous to beginners or non-whitewater paddlers, potentially more playable 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!!! 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. Attempting to stand (or swim face forward, face down) in swift moving water is VERY likely to result in bruised and scraped up shins!

There is a much smaller channel to the left of the bridge pier which has far less rubble and debris in the flow. At the low flows (120-250 cfs) at which the main channel is most treacherous for beginners and non-whitewater paddlers, this less obvious channel is unlikely to be a viable alternative to the main channel. (Though at lowest 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 playable wave/hole 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 is suffering terrible erosion. As of 2017, a tree immediately at the 'bottom end' of the bridge is dropping to an angle out over the river in such a way as to make passage very problematic (especially at moderate-to-higher flows).



Shadow (Wave) (Class II, Mile 3.3)

Shadow Wave

Shadow Wave
Photo of Mike Croak, Bob Hannigan by Rob Smage taken 03/26/05 @ 1020 cfs

After the features at Locust Street, 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 the wave).

NOTE: High water levels during spring and summer of 2008 have shifted and torn up some of the paver-block 'bedrock', causing changes to this feature. While it used to 'always' have a sweet pocket and 'pile', it is now often only a green (brown) wave. The river-left pocket-wave is merely a front-surfable wave (no longer allowing dynamic side-surfs and easy spins), and is barely even allowing decent access to surf across for repeat play on the center-river wave. The main/center wave still allows flatspins, front-, and back-surfs, but is more challenging to get to (from the river-left eddy) at nearly all boatable flows.



Typewriter (Wave) (Class II+, Mile 3.3)

Mike Croak on Typewriter

Mike Croak on Typewriter
Photo of Mike Croak by Boris Glick taken 03/26/05 @ 1020

A sweet wave/hole forms at flows between 400 and 1000 cfs. Experienced whitewater playboaters will be able to get surfs and flatspins. A decent shoreline slackwater/eddy on river-right allows repeat play.

NOTE: High water levels spring and summer of 2008 have 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 tends to be just a short wave, or small breaking wave (hole) pretty much in center-river.



Backspace (Wave) (Class II, Mile 3.3)

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.



Carriage Return (Wave) (Class II, Mile 3.3)

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.

To explain 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, the platen and paper (on some models) no longer moved left and right, but the there was a type-ball on a 'carriage' which traversed teh page. Such keyboards had a 'carriage return' key (where the 'Enter' key is on modern keyboards) to reposition the 'carriage' to the left margin of the paper. This wave is named to honor that history.



Shift Keys (Waves) (Class II, Mile 3.3)

Shifting more toward center-river below Enter (Carriage Return), a few wider troughs often form (at least, at levels 1000-1600 cfs). These tend to surge, cresting and falling, 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 changing wave.



Showboat (Wave/Hole) (Class II+, Mile 3.3)

A slip in the paver-block 'bedrock'  center-river causes a series of surfable waves. Rocks have shifted (in flooding June of 2008), and now at least one boater has had a 'close encounter of the worst kind' with a rock in the main flow just downstream of the wave here. (Fortunately, he 'tagged' it with his back and shoulder, not his helmet/head.) There are many shallow rocks to the sides (in the eddies), as well as further downstream closer to the next very rocky pitch.

On the river-left shore there are a number of areas of 'gabions' (think chain link fence baskets filled with rocks) and other wire-mesh which have failed. These are only in the shoreline eddy areas, thus should not cause problems of snagging boaters unless you are out of your boat, swimming toward the left shore. (HINT: Swim to the right shore!)

NOTE: High water levels spring and summer of 2008 caused changes to this feature. At 550-800 cfs, it is a barely noticeable trough, and appears and disappears (surges). It may be possible to catch a surf for a bit, but it will not amuse for very long. The lead-in waves (when they are present) are often a better surf than the (former) main wave here. Perhaps best at flows of 1000-1600 cfs.



Rubble Field (Class II, Mile 3.3)

Canoeists and novice swiftwater paddlers are likely to find this stretch of splishy-splash water rather exciting. Whitewater boaters may find a bit of minor play (especially as levels go under 600 cfs), catching a mid-river eddy (behind a few early rocks) and dropping to one side or the other to play a wave or two which forms here at lower water levels (actually 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 feet/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: This final stretch of rubble is very dependent upon water levels of Lake Michigan! (As soon as you pass under the pedestrian bridge spanning the flanks of the old dam, you are essentially at Lake Michigan water level.) One media article reads, "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 the minor features it occasionally offered) is mostly 'swallowed up' by the high backwater from the lake.



Take-out (Class N/A, Mile 3.6)

Riverboat Road Take-out

Riverboat Road Take-out
Photo by Rob Smage taken 03/19/12

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, which is flanked by quarry-rock shores. 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' 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 doubles your walk back up!

2) If you proceed down the final rocky pitch, the right shore will be lined pretty solid with trees and shrubs. A bit more than midway down, 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 up for another run/play of this stretch, or carry to your vehicle.

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 cfs) there will 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 gets downright wicked looking! 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 much less convenient a climb.

3B) As you head toward/under the pedestrian bridge, stay somewhat right-of-center, then (leisurely, in slackwater/eddy, head to the right bank well downstream of the dam. DO NOT USE 'UNIMPROVED' areas of shore! Look for one 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, but instead wait until about the second or third, where you can see steps leading up the high embankment to return to your car on the street above. (Get out too early and all it does is give you a longer carry on a path by the river to get to these steps!)

3C) The final option is perhaps best all around (at least for all flows under 2000 cfs or so). 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 see the Humbolt Avenue bridge and the 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 tough climbing out of a kayak to a high rock/step.) A gravel trail leads upslope to Riverboat Road right alongside a former single-family home (now offices for a river-related non-profit).




User Comments

Users can submit comments.
November 18 2017 (61 days ago)
According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published Oct.30, 2017, "Demolition of
the deteriorated Estabrook Park dam on the Milwaukee River could begin in late December". This work
will likely put the entire area (immediately around Estabrook Dam) off limits during this work.
Fortunately, it should not affect access from the upper parking area (near the Beer Garden). I
believe I've seen elsewhere, that if conditions this winter are favorable and all goes as planned,
the work *could* be complete by spring, 2018, meaning it would likely be done before 'ice off' and
spring high water. (We'll see!)
June 19 2009 (3135 days ago)
As mentioned in the full write-up, at times of heavy rains, this section of river is VERY LIKELY to
suffer from Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). It is recommended that you check the MMSD website
***************************** http://www.mmsd.com/weather/weather-center *************************
for conditions before running this reach when there have been heavy rains, then decide for yourself
if you wish to risk boating in the (diluted) sewage affecting this river. Areas affected should
generally be clear (of the bulk of that specific contamination) a couple days after the CSO ends.


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