Finding solitude in a surprisingly remote ribbon of green winding through urban Milwaukee
I expected an adventure. But I had thought I knew the Menomonee River well enough that it would hold no new surprises. How very wrong I was!
One of us got a dunking right off the bat. Even before we’d launched our kayaks, the slippery bank where we put in exacted its toll. “Well, at least that’s out of the way!” was the cheerful response to an undignified baptism. We settled into our low-slung fiberglass hulls and pushed off, immediately sliding under the Highway 100 overpass.
We’d parked our cars in the vacant lot of an abandoned beauty school. Little did we know then that, except for a couple bridges, that unfortunate structure was the last of civilization we would see for several hours.
After we paddled no more than a hundred yards, the first of many logjams blocked our passage. Staying dry was never an option. I did try to avoid the suction of fetid muck as I clambered over or around logs, dragging my kayak behind.
The Little Menomonee soon merged with the wider Menomonee River. Clear water rushed over gravelly shallows. I was reminded that several miles of the Little Menomonee once had been biologically dead, its reconstruction the subject of a Superfund project over a decade ago. For much of the 20th century, a wood preservative factory had dumped toxic waste into the water. I wondered: How much of that chemical stew lingered in the stream banks and sediments of the revived river?
Passing the concrete pillars of the Hampton Avenue Bridge, we drifted peacefully into an intensely green world that suddenly seemed remarkably remote. Even the air seemed richer, redolent of freshly unfurled foliage and ancient forests. I felt transported to a simpler, more native time and place. Enchanted, I floated with the current in quiet contemplation.
The Menomonee threads its way through the most densely populated region of Wisconsin. Like so many urban rivers, historically it has been intensively used, sorely abused and thoroughly altered. Why had we chosen this river for our little adventure and what might there be left to discover here?
Our motivations reflected our varied backgrounds. Kurt Chandler, former editor of Milwaukee Magazine and the instigator of our outing, said “I’ve lived within 200 yards of the Menomonee for nearly 16 years. I’ve hiked its banks, crossed its bridges, and seen it flood and freeze over. But I’d never been on its waters until now. I don’t know why it took so long.”
As Milwaukee’s official Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn had the most pragmatic reasons for joining the team. Caring for the condition of the rivers is literally part of her job description and “there is no better way to assess threats to water quality and wildlife than to get in the water and paddle downstream.” She also told us that “the Menomonee is undergoing a renaissance of sorts” and to keep an eye out for restoration projects as well as the charismatic fauna that have returned to the watershed: mink, otter and beaver.
Another seasoned professional: Denny Caneff is executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin. Denny is “always interested in good paddling trips” and is particularly fond of urban streams, which, he said, “are almost always better than people expect.” But Denny also came with a specific and admittedly quirky agenda. “I’m keeping track of the rivers I’ve paddled in Wisconsin,” he said, “and this year my goal is to hit rivers with the same name. For example, there are three White Rivers, two Blacks, two Reds, three Yellows and four Pines as well as the Menomonee, the Menominee, and the Menomonie.”
And me? This was a journey delayed far too long. Nearly 20 years ago I began a six-year process of exploring the Menomonee watershed, a project that culminated with the publication in 2008 of my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed. Like Kurt, I live near the river and have spent countless hours communing with it without ever getting in a boat and running it. To paraphrase Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers), the river is a constant lure, as it flows by my door, to enterprise and adventure. I was ecstatic, floating in more ways than one.
A mountainous logjam brought me back to earth. Or rather to the water’s surface, which was filthy with backed up scum and flotsam. The others were already pulling kayaks up a nearby bank. We dragged them along a riverside trail and slid them back into the water.
Hours passed in this fashion: periods of calm, drifting beneath a high, arching canopy, scanning for wildlife, alternated with brief struggles to get over, under or around logjams of various proportions. In that time we saw exactly two other people: the mountain biker who was merely a flash of colorful spandexin the foliage and a man on the grassy bank watching his dog frolic in the stream.
“You could fool people into thinking we’re in a wilderness,” said Denny. Indeed. It’s what I like to do. But it’s not a deception to identify and celebrate the wildness in our midst.
Thoreau’s famous dictum, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” was parsed by author David Gessner in a book about his own urban river voyage, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. “While wilderness might be untrammeled land along the Alaskan coast,” Gessner wrote, “wildness can happen anywhere…. It can happen…on a city river.” His conclusion resonates as I duck my head and glide my kayak under a particularly hoary tangle of brush: “It is of vital importance that we not define this wildness as wilderness, that we not construct intellectual walls between the natural and the human.”
That the natural coexists with the human and we can enjoy it in a city represents a fairly recent but essential shift in ecological consciousness.
We emerged from the Capitol Drive overpass, abruptly confronted with open, sun-drenched sky and the highly civilized landscape of Currie Park Golf Course. Two golfers in spotless whites waiting to tee off waved as we paddled by. We drifted past gently rolling fairways carpeted with closely cropped lawns running down to the river’s edge. The next obstacle to our progress wasn’t another logjam but the concrete slab of a golf cart crossing.
We stopped there for water and granola bars. Cheryl told us that Milwaukee Riverkeeper had lobbied to have the dam-like structure replaced with a more fish-friendly one. But some higher-up determined that it didn’t impede fish migration enough to warrant the cost. The recommendation was ignored.
From previous experience I had been certain that Currie Park would be a pivotal point beyond which our reverie would become increasingly marred by intrusive signs of our urban circumstances. The moment we disembarked from the concrete slab, however, I was dealt another pleasant surprise. Like Alice falling down a rabbit-hole in a suburban hedge, we plunged again into unanticipated wilds. The golf course surrounding us vanished completely, marvelously. The wild river carried us on.
And so it went for the rest of the day. After all the exploring I had done before and all my research about the Menomonee River, nothing had prepared me for being on the river like this. An hour or more would go by between bridges. We caught occasional glimpses of people walking or cycling beside the river. The gothic tower of Mount Mary University loomed briefly in the distance. Mostly we drifted in peaceful solitude. The gurgling on a rocky decline and cheerful birdsong grew louder than the sound of traffic.
Only on the final leg of the journey did I begin to feel like we were returning to civilization. Houses were built into a steep bluff to exploit the view. After the tunnel-like North Avenue Bridge, when I felt something whizz by over my head I ducked instinctively. Thwack! A golf ball smacked the shallow water inches from the end of my paddle. A dangerously eroded bank hid the golfer from view.
More erosion revealed a bank failure caused by the recent addition of a multi-use path alongside the newly redesigned andrebuilt Menomonee River Parkway. As a cyclist, I am among multitudes grateful for the new off-road path on this busy stretch of roadway. But Cheryl makes note of the problem still to be addressed.
The Parkway became Hoyt Park and after that Hart Park in the Village area of Wauwatosa, the most intensively used segments of the Menomonee River. More houses, bridges and people came into view. But once again I was surprised to find the experience at water level hardly less invigorating than it was upstream.
It was in Hoyt where we saw the most obvious evidence of restoration. Looking decidedly unnatural, gleaming white limestone riprap adorned the banks at several places. Wide breaks in the riparian tree cover had been cut to allow heavy equipment access to the water. In 2015 four long-abandoned sewer crossings that had acted like dams were removed to improve fish passage.
I ran the newly freed rapids with satisfaction. Here, where the damaged condition of the river is most visible, we also find the most hopeful signs. We have become a society that has begun to make an effort to repair the ecological damage done by previous generations. Healing the river is a necessary prerequisite to healing our relationship to nature and natural processes. Our future and our children’s future depend on this.
Kurt and I both live next to Hoyt Park. It is as familiar as a backyard and yet, even here, the kayak affords an experience both unprecedented and unpredictable. Denny’s prediction proved true: It was better than expected. Summing up the expedition, he said, “As for an urban amenity, I found it surprisingly appealing—a blue and green ribbon winding through a densely settled urban area, a place that feels remote and removed even though the city thrums nearby.” After a somewhat arduous six hours on the river, when we finally pulled the kayaks out at Jacobus Park, everyone agreed they were ready to repeat the adventure – the river already was luring us back.
Editor’s note: This essay appeared earlier on the website humansandnature.org. All photos by Eddee Daniel. To see more photos, visit Daniel’s Flickr album.