Photo by Peter DiAntoni No expert would ever call Milwaukee the epicenter of rock climbing. Most backpackers could easily list 50 hiking trails more scenic than those in town. And if you’re seeking a kayaker’s paradise, Beer City wouldn’t spring to mind. Yet even though Milwaukee isn’t a destination for any single outdoor activity, what’s […]
Photo by Peter DiAntoni
No expert would ever call Milwaukee the epicenter of rock climbing. Most backpackers could easily list 50 hiking trails more scenic than those in town. And if you’re seeking a kayaker’s paradise, Beer City wouldn’t spring to mind.
Yet even though Milwaukee isn’t a destination for any single outdoor activity, what’s remarkable is that you can partake in so many adventures here – fun activities that can easily absorb all your free time.
In short, you needn’t take long trips to get your thrills. Milwaukee is the perfect place for a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none outdoor adventurer like me – with the right combination of geography, climate and expert help. These adventures can be conveniently enjoyed right in the city – after work or on weekends. And since summer in Wisconsin is too precious to squander, it’s worth consulting our list now.
Sea kayaking on Lake Michigan can be stirring and calming all in the same outing. There’s the thrill of paddling outside the breakwater in waves so tall you lose sight of anyone even a few feet away. There’s the rush of hurtling toward Bradford Beach as you ride the breaking surf. But perhaps most memorable are the quiet moments. Seeing the three-masted schooner Denis Sullivan glide back to its mooring at Discovery World. Watching the sun set behind the Downtown skyline as it reflects on glassy-smooth waters. Even hearing the patrons on passing pontoon boats shout to “get a motor.” A joke that never seems to die.
Though there’s lots to enjoy when sea kayaking, there are safety concerns. A sea kayak is quite different than a recreational kayak. Recreational kayaks are those 8- to 12-foot-long bathtub-like plastic boats made to be paddled in warm weather on an inland lake or river. If you accidentally tip one, it will nearly submerge because of its huge cockpit and no built-in flotation, but that’s no problem if you’re on a warm, inland lake: You just swim and pull your boat to shore and dump out the water.
A sea kayak, by contrast, is designed to offer some protection even if it capsizes: Because of its watertight compartments, a capsized sea kayak has enough buoyancy to allow you to crawl back in. But the challenge is coping with the cold weather and water of Lake Michigan. You’ll need the right training and the right gear. Kayaking instructors call it “dressing for immersion.” It means wearing a wetsuit or drysuit to protect yourself from cold water. Fortunately, there are a number of certified sea kayak instructors in the area who train groups and individuals. A good place to start is sherrikayaks.com.
This may come as a surprise, but some serious whitewater kayaking goes on in the area. One hot spot is the Milwaukee River downstream from the Estabrook Park dam to the North Avenue bridge. The removal of the North Avenue dam in 1997 created new opportunities. The Web site geocities.com/midwestrivers/WIS-Milwaukee-Milwaukee lists the most popular whitewater rapids along this stretch of the river, assigning them such names as U-Park and Play, Shadow, Homeless, Typewriter and Showboat. For the most convenient public access, take Estabrook Parkway south from Hampton Avenue and turn on a one-lane road under the bike path bridge that leads to the dam in Estabrook Park.
Another popular whitewater kayaking location is Racine’s Root River. When the Root current reaches at least 250 cubic feet per second (stream conditions for Wisconsin rivers is available at waterdata.usgs.gov/wi/nwis/rt), there’s a 500-yard stretch between the Horlick Dam and Quarry Park that offers two or three very fun waves.
To the north, a two-mile section of Cedar Creek starting in Cedarburg’s Cedar Creek Park has some Class II and III rapids.
If you lack equipment or training for a true whitewater experience but want something more challenging than flat water, try the Milwaukee River in Grafton. Put in at Lime Kiln Park. During spring and early summer, the first two miles of this stretch provide some fun – a bumpy current that recreational kayakers and canoeists should be able to handle except during flood conditions. To extend your trip to a 10-miler, paddle down to the takeout at Thiensville Village Park.
A confession: When it comes to scuba diving, I haven’t yet followed my advice about discovering what’s in our own backyard. I’m a certified diver, but all my dives have been in Caribbean waters. It turns out I’m missing something special.
Experts say Lake Michigan, and in particular the waters near Milwaukee, hold some of the world’s top freshwater dive sites. That’s because the cold, clean water helps preserve shipwrecks. And because the ongoing zebra mussel invasion offers at least one redeeming value: Those little critters filter the water, providing excellent visibility.
One thing worth seeing is the 258-foot Prins Willem V, a Dutch ship that sank in 1954 and is the area’s most popular shipwreck. The Willie sits in 90 feet of water about three miles east of Milwaukee’s harbor. She offers something for divers of all skill levels.
“It’s a giant underwater playhouse for us, a great place to work on skills,” says Mike Kron, a computer systems manager who apparently dives the remainder of his waking hours. I base this on the fact that he has made about 600 dives in the past five years, with 100 of those on the Willie.
Michael Haynes, a dive instructor with Underwater Connection, says the Willie and another popular shipwreck, the car ferry Milwaukee (which sank in 1929 and now lies in 80 to 120 feet of water three miles east of Capitol Drive), both offer lots of nooks and crannies to explore. To try it, you’ll need the basic “open water” training and certification required of all scuba divers. You’ll likely also want additional training in how to penetrate a wreck and how to use a drysuit to stay warm. Yes, Lake Michigan is cold.
Several different charter boats are used by area dive shops, and they dock at locations on the Milwaukee River south of Downtown. Charters to area shipwreck sites depart several times per week during the summer, with some available year-round. They typically cost $60 to $90 (extra for equipment rental) – a bargain compared to travel and lodging costs for Grand Cayman.
Talk to a pilot about skydiving and you’re likely to hear this comment: “Why would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” Skydivers like to reply: “If being in an airplane is flying, then riding in a boat is swimming.”
Skydiving can be an ecstatic experience. And while there’s nothing about Milwaukee’s geography that makes it ideal for skydiving, our lack of mountains and alligator-infested swamps does assure you of many accessible landing sites.
You have two options for your first dive: tandem or static line. On a tandem skydive, you’re harnessed to the front of a jumpmaster, so you’re basically a passenger along for the ride. Your training consists of watching a video and practicing the basic motions you’ll need for the jump: exit, freefall and landing. Then it’s a plane ride up, followed by your brief-but-thrilling tandem freefall and scenic parachute ride back down.
For my first jump I chose static line because I wanted to operate the chute myself. My day with the Sky Knights Club at the East Troy Airport began with a four-hour training class in which we worked on exit technique, canopy control and landings. After a ride to our jump altitude, my rip cord was connected to the aircraft by a bundled static line. I climbed out onto a step, grasped the wing strut while looking over at my jumpmaster and waited for her signal to release. I fell away from the airplane, assuming the proper outstretched position as I waited for the parachute to deploy. To my relief, the static line tugged and it opened.
For the next few minutes, I enjoyed the thrill of the view as the ground slowly approached. Via a one-way radio connection, my ground-based Sky Knights guide provided instructions for using my canopy toggles to steer to a relatively soft landing.
For more information, go to the Web site skydivemilwaukee.com.
The off-road bike trails on both sides of the Milwaukee River are among the best single-track trails in southern Wisconsin.
On the west side between North and Hampton avenues, you’ll find trails that most novice mountain bikers can negotiate, though a few spots may have you off your bike. The east bank is more challenging. You’ll find lots of routes to explore with man-made stunts for your bunny hops and wheelie jumps. One note of caution: Online postings warn that solo bikers have been robbed of their bikes along these trails, so you may want to bring along a friend or two.
Some of my favorite spots for fat-tire adventures a little further from Downtown are Lapham Peak State Park near Delafield and the John Muir and Emma Carlin trails, both in the Southern Kettle Moraine Forest. You’ll need a state Department of Natural Resources sticker to park and a separate trail pass, which can be obtained on-site.
Our city is still not as bike-friendly as places like Minneapolis, Madison and Portland, Ore., but we’re making progress. Milwaukee cyclists now have a network of 65 miles of bike lanes and 75 miles of bike routes. Maps are available at milwaukee.gov/maps4460.htm.
If casual recreational biking is what you want, the Oak Leaf Trail (county.milwaukee.gov/oakleaftrail8289.htm) connects some of the city’s most beautiful parks via 100 miles of marked city streets and paved trails. If you want to avoid high-traffic streets (and want a workout), try a ride that takes you around Pewaukee Lake or Holy Hill.
Back in the early days of geocaching, whenever I told someone about my newfound outdoor hobby, the typical response was “Geo what?” Today, this high-tech treasure hunting is mainstream. Nearly 800,000 geocaches are hidden around the world; more than 3,000 within 25 miles of Milwaukee.
The idea behind this strangely addictive activity is to find a container (a “cache”), such as a Tupperware box or a surplus ammo can, that someone has hidden in the woods under a pile of sticks or in a city park under a bench. To locate the hiding spot, you look up its GPS coordinates on geocaching.com and enter them into a hand-held GPS receiver. Depending on how well it’s hidden, the geocache may be easy to find or darn near impossible. If you do manage to find a geocache, don’t take it home with you. Instead, open the container, sign the enclosed log book to prove you found it, and then return it to its hiding spot so the next geocacher can discover it all over again. You can also return to the Web site to write a note about your experience so your fellow geocachers can read about it.
All you need to get started are a handheld GPS receiver, an Internet connection for looking up geocache coordinates, and a pair of shoes you don’t mind getting dirty.
As recently as eight years ago, I was perhaps the only geocacher in Wisconsin. I know this because in February 2001, I happened to find a fledgling Web site (geocaching.com) that led me to my first geocache in Illinois, and the Web site showed Wisconsin was still virgin territory for the game. A few days later, I hid what is now Wisconsin’s oldest geocache – in Pike Lake State Park near Hartford. The following year, I was co-founder and first president of the Wisconsin Geocaching Association
Why do it? Think of it as hiking with a purpose. Geocaching can lead you to places you would never otherwise discover – scenic hiking trails in the woods, little-known historic landmarks, even public places where the object is to find the geocache without drawing attention to yourself. If you don’t mind the geek factor, it can be a lot of fun.
Surely the easiest urban activity to take up. The only essential gear is a good pair of running shoes. You can pursue any number of runs, from leisurely jogs along Milwaukee’s naturally air-conditioned lakefront to intensive training for half and full marathons. And at the über end of the scale are Iron Man and ultramarathon running events. I’ll stick to the 5K and 10K distances, thank you.
We’ve all seen photos of rock climbers hanging perilously by their fingers above a river gorge. If that looks a little daunting, well, not everyone is cut out to be an extreme climber. It helps to have the power-to-weight ratio of a spider. But as any motivational speaker worth his per diem will say, you never know what your limits are until you try. And maybe it doesn’t have to be that extreme.
Rock climbing is a sport that gives people of all ages an immediate sense of accomplishment. And it needn’t be competitive; it’s just you against a steep surface.
I made my first outdoor climb 12 years ago (after an introductory course at my local YMCA) on a 60-foot cliff in Devil’s Lake State Park. I was nervous and unsure as I made my way up. When I got back down, I was flush with excitement and ready to go again. Since then, I’ve climbed many times at the park, at the Black Hills of South Dakota and Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon, but I never became one of those shirtless, toned models for inspirational posters. For me, it’s been enough to climb occasionally while enjoying the camaraderie of friends.
Today, when I watch first-timers take their first steps above the ground, it’s wonderful to see their “yes I can” expressions of joy. Many soon want to sharpen their skills and move on to greater challenges, continuing to amaze themselves.
In Milwaukee, a good place to get started is the Urban Ecology Center at 1500 E. Park Pl. The center has a 45-foot climbing wall on the side of an observation tower. The great thing about it is that it’s outdoors, just like “real” rock climbing. The center provides everything you need to get started: harness, helmet and belayer (the person who holds your safety rope). Groups can reserve the wall through Chad Thomack, urban adventures coordinator, at urbanecologycenter.org. Open climbs are held Tuesdays 4-6 p.m. and Sundays 2:30-4:30 p.m.: $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers; $8 and $12 for children. Membership also gets you discounts for other programs and free use of gear, including canoes, kayaks, bikes and garden tools.
To take your climbing skills higher, check out Adventure Rock in Brookfield (adventurerock.com). Instructors lead personal and group instruction, and they organize outings to places like Devil’s Lake.
While most often associated with wilderness settings, there are some fine backpack campsites in the Northern and Southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest that give you a near-wilderness experience. To the north, backpack shelters are available year-round along the Ice Age Trail and Zillmer Trail. In the Southern unit, three lean-to shelters with dirt floors are located along the Ice Age Trail. Shelter No. 2 at the end of the Stony Ridge segment is a favorite cozy overnight camping spot. Reserve the shelters by calling 888-947-2757.n
Ken Braband is a freelance writer and an outdoor enthusiast. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gathering Waters Festival
Try several outdoor urban adventures in one day at the Gathering Waters Festival, scheduled for June 13 at Milwaukee’s Lakeshore State Park, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This free event will include rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, bicycling, geocaching (I’ll be assisting at the Wisconsin Geocaching Association tent), plus music, food and beverages. More information is at gatheringwatersfest.org.