Paddle Our Waterways for New Perspectives
Story and Photography by Jen Ede
At the last working boatyard in downtown Milwaukee, the Edible Milwaukee team lowers ourselves into brightly-colored kayaks, testing our balance and learning proper paddling techniques. We life jacket up, hang our cameras around our necks and hope to hell we don’t capsize. We are kindly offered dry bags in which to stash our valuables. If Fox 6 can do it with TV cameras, we tell ourselves, we can totally manage with a few DSLRs.
The season hasn’t quite started yet, but there’s a freshness and hope hanging in the air—like we’re about to discover something new in the middle of a city we think we’ve already seen in every possible way. Beth Handle, owner of Milwaukee Kayak Company, is our guide along downtown’s waterways, which we’ve previously only seen from vehicles not requiring extensive use of the arms. We push off, dipping our paddle on one side of the kayak then the other, and quickly find a rhythm to glide ourselves along. It’s already fun and we haven’t “seen” anything yet.
Handle clearly feels at home on the water. Her parents owned a cabin up North and every summer, packed her and her siblings into a van to spend a couple of months. This early passion for a healthy lifestyle, kayaking, water skiing and a lot of time spent outdoors might have predicted Handle’s future. A degree in business management and marketing, along with a class at WWBIC, solidified the vision to devote her business to it.
When her previous employer, an outdoor equipment company, closed their downtown location, she saw her chance to put philosophies into practice. Handle spent almost six years at her old job and had the opportunity to take people on the water. “Once people got out, it was one of the most fun activities they did during the spring and summer months. For tourists, it’s a great way to see the city. Even right now, half our customers are from out of town. They’re here for a Brewers game or a weekend trip. They’re excited to do something different. Kayaking the Milwaukee River is a unique urban experience and not many cities have this same opportunity. We’re really lucky!”
We find ourselves agreeing with that feeling more and more, in full view of the Hoan Bridge and Allen-Bradley Clock Tower—that we do sit in the middle of an impressive watershed and that you never miss the water til the well runs dry. We are the Fresh Coast, definitely, but the more minor waterways are wonderful and worthy of our care too. The Milwaukee River watershed runs through downtown, up north through Ozaukee and Sheboygan County and spills into Lake Michigan. We have the Menomonee River, flowing west past Miller Park through Tosa and beyond, and the KK River heading south. Like many Milwaukeeans, we drive over bridges and past the lakefront day after day, but to look at the city literally from the water lends us new eyes.
“So many people are afraid to touch the Milwaukee River,” remarks Handle. “Quite honestly, those who go out and come back don’t have that fear anymore. They see the river from a different viewpoint and start to care about it. They tell their friends about their kayaking experience, start participating in river cleanups and advocate for it by volunteering with local nonprofits to clean and maintain it.”
Milwaukee Kayak Company kicks off their third season this year and invites you to kayak, paddleboard or canoe with them on the water.
Milwaukee Kayak Company
318 S. Water St.
Jen Ede is a native Milwaukeean, who returned to her home city after a decade away to launch Edible Milwaukee. She is a lover of all things cured, a pickle fiend, and has always been interested in learning about other cultures, most often through the lens of food.