Although the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail is not as “wild” or unpopulated as many popular water trail routes, the power and unpredictability of our rivers should never be underestimated! It is important to plan properly before any river excursion to ensure that a safe and fun time is had by all. Before setting out, it is important to acquaint yourself with your desired route using the Route Description on the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail map and other maps, and to choose a distance and degree of difficulty that is comfortable for you. Keep in mind that most people paddle two to three river miles per hour, and that water levels can speed up or slow down your trip. It is advisable to always travel with a companion or group, to carry maps with you, and to advise someone of your plans before you go. Be aware of water levels, potential hazards, and required and recommended portages.

Water levels and hazards: Water levels and flow can vary greatly with rainfall, affecting safety both on the land and in the water. Children should be warned to stay away from the rivers during times of high and fast water (usually during spring flood events). Higher water, while making some shallow rivers more accessible, generally increases level of difficulty due to increased hazards such as low bridges, snags, concealed boulders, and low hanging trees. Paddling in high water should be exercised with extreme caution.

Real-time water levels of our local rivers can be found on the USGS website at: Natural features of the stream bed such as rocky boulder beds, mud, sand, and gravel vary throughout the length of the rivers, and can be difficult and challenging to beginning boaters. There are two required portages around natural falls in Kletsch and Estabrook Parks; one portage around Estabrook Dam (in Estabrook Park upstream of the natural falls) requires portaging during most of the summer when the dam is closed; and an optional portage bypassing the North Avenue rapids upstream of the former dam/pedestrian bridge (recommended during very high or very low water).

To report hazards or obstructions on the rivers, please, call FMR at (414) 287-0207.

General safety tips:

  • Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved Personal Flotation Device (PFD)—a PFD is legally required for each person onboard and can save your life!
  • Don’t be left up the creek without a paddle—always bring an extra one along.
  • Consider seeking formal boating instruction, attending a boating safety class, and/or practicing paddling/rescue skills before your trip.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather and anticipate weather changes, especially when paddling in cold water (use of dry suit or wet suit recommended); it is always a good idea to bring extra dry clothes with you and keep them stored in a waterproof bag.
  • Wear brightly colored clothing, especially if in a low-riding boat such as a sea kayak (kayaks are not easily seen by motorized boaters, especially when gray or blue in color).
  • Remember to review your exit points and portages before embarking on your trip, and be aware of any hazards.
  • When paddling along the Milwaukee Estuary, inner harbor, Port of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Mooring Basin, exercise extreme caution and stay in marked channels to ensure your safety and to minimize conflicts with motorized boats, barges, and ships. Milwaukee has an operating port, and paddling in the Port area and Municipal mooring basin is a potential hazard.
  • Make sure you bring adequate drinking water and more than enough provisions for your trip.
  • Extra safety equipment may include a first aid kit, insect repellent, sunscreen, rain gear, extra lashing line, and dry bags or storage containers.
  • Do not paddle under the influence. Breweries should be a “take-out” and not “put-in” access point! In a recent report by the American Canoe Association, alcohol was found to be a causal factor in 25% of canoeing deaths and 9% of kayaking fatalities from 1996-2002.

For more safety information, please check out the following websites:

For information on local weather conditions, please check out the following websites

Canoe Rentals and Trip Providers

In case of emergency, please contact the U.S. Coast Guard at (800) 321-4400 or (414) 747-7181 or hail them or other nearby boaters on channel 16 of your marine VHF radio.