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The Milwaukee River: Have You Met Your Neighbor?

“I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water…has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.” — Roderick Haig-Brown

The Milwaukee River is different things to different people. It has steel and concrete banks; it is bounded by grassy banks. It means slipping through the weeds in a kayak and watching great blue herons silently snatching darting fish; it means bobbing soda bottles and alewives floating belly up. It is a group of teens canoeing for the first time. It means motoring up to the dock at the Milwaukee Ale House for a sandwich and a beer. It’s a place to run the dog; to hook a smallmouth bass; to spot migrating warblers. It provides a place to row a 10-person racing hull. It means hearing the rattling call of a belted kingfisher, and watching the first leaves of autumn drift away. It’s a place where grade school students collect and study mayfly larvae, damselfly nymphs, and water pennies. These meanings are based upon each individual’s own experiences of the river. How a person describes or responds to the river can give us clues about how others might experience the natural resources in our community. “You can’t even tell you’re in the city!” Many people have uttered this sentiment while canoeing the Milwaukee River between Estabrook Park and the North Avenue bridge. Except for sounds of vehicle traffic, a few bridges, and one very tall apartment building, this stretch feels very rural, particularly in the summer months when the leaves are out. In addition to the foliage, the ducks, geese, herons, hawks, and the occasional deer further obscure the fact that one is floating through one of the most densely populated areas in Wisconsin. “I’ve never seen the city from this perspective before!” Canoeing through downtown is an experience that few people have and casts a new light on our city. During its final miles the Milwaukee is a very urban river, cutting through the heart of the city and emptying into Lake Michigan. In fact, the city grew where it is because of the river, and it serves as a reminder of our natural and historical roots. Rail lines, highways, and airports have displaced waterways as the dominant mode of transportation. For many drivers the river has become merely an obstacle between them and their destination. Slowing down to canoe-speed unlocks new ways of experiencing a familiar place. “I’ve lived in Milwaukee for ten years and never knew there were trails along the river.” The natural splendors of urban Wisconsin riverways can also be experienced and explored on foot. Trails line both sides of the Milwaukee River in many places. These can be accessed from Gordon, Kern, Riverside, or any of the other parks that are near the river. You are likely to come across jewelweed, purple loosestrife, smartweed, and dozens of other native and exotic species of plant. Numerous birds and mammals can be observed any time of the year. Even if you have known about the trails for years and have walked them once or twice, it is worth it to do it again. You never know what you may encounter. Reading about the environment, or trying to soak it in through a car window as one crosses the Locust Street bridge, is only preparation for immersing oneself in the outdoors. If only for a few minutes at a time, you can experience the woods and water that help make this a healthier and more interesting place to live. So, if you haven’t met your “neighbor” yet, take a stroll along or paddle down the river to get (re)acquainted.