We put in, as usual, next to the concrete fishing pier in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park. About 40 people, in 15 canoes and a handful of kayaks, pick up their paddles and leave the city behind. Immediately the natural world surrounds us. Three painted turtles drop off a log as a kayak veers toward them. A great blue heron looks up from its catch in the shallows, then erupts into flight. A dense wall of foliage lines the banks of the impounded lake.
After we portage around the dam and wade into the rocky backwaters there are fewer and fewer signs of the city. Enormous black willows and cottonwoods lean over and nearly cover the two narrow channels. All of the canoes and most of the kayaks portage the four-foot tumbling falls that come next. A few daring kayakers take the plunge.
A trio of radio towers briefly reminds us we are not nearly as isolated as we’ve come to believe. Then, below the Capitol Drive Bridge, the wooded riverside bluffs become steeper and higher, and again we are free to imagine ourselves anywhere but in a densely populated city. We scrape the river bottom, push on to deeper pools and watch the fish alongside. An angler in hip boots knows his secluded spot has been compromised; he casts idly, waiting for our flotilla to pass.
We proceed, running gentle rapids, trying to identify birds and wildflowers, soaking up sunshine; until, three hours later, we shoot the flume where the North Avenue dam was removed. Then, catching our breaths, we stare at the canyon of condominiums ahead, suddenly confronting a cacophony of construction noise. The contrast is stunning. For several miles, only the occasional bridge and a couple of tall buildings had broken our spell. And although it has been an almost magical interlude, it is no trick, the feeling of having had a wilderness experience in the middle of the city. Milwaukeeans love living here for many reasons; one of mine is the Milwaukee River with its Greenway and National Urban Water Trail.