Paddle your Way


Leea Glasheen  and her daughter Jasmine, kayak a river near Sheboygan that leads into Lake Michigan.

Leea Glasheen and her daughter Jasmine, kayak a river near Sheboygan that leads into Lake Michigan.

As the academic year draws to a close and the Milwaukee lakes and rivers begin to warm, consider filling your extra time kayaking on local waterways.

In addition to the benefit of exercise, kayaking allows you to see nature and animal life from your kayak that you cannot view anywhere else.
One student in Mount Mary University’s English graduate program, Madelyn Herbert, looks forward to the spring thaw because “kayaking gives you that up-close and personal experience with the water.”


Joel Smith, the assistant manager of Erehwon, a retail store for outdoor gear at Bayshore Town Center in Glendale, Wisconsin lists what you need to get started:

  • kayak
  • life preserver
  • paddle
    There are plenty of accessories for sale, but those are the basics.

For excursions onto Lake Michigan, you should also have a wetsuit or drysuit, according to Sherri Mertz of Sherrikayaks, a kayaking instruction and tour company in Wind Lake, Wisconsin.

Because Lake Michigan waters can get choppy and are generally more difficult to navigate, Beth Handler, owner of Milwaukee Kayak Company, said “you should have a buddy, a spray skirt and a bilge pump.”

A spray skirt helps prevent water from entering the boat, while a bilge pump allows you to remove unwanted water from a boat.
Prices for kayaking gear vary greatly, so be sure to shop around to get the price and level of quality that you need.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune and have a big expensive motor yacht in order to get out and enjoy the great lakes,” Merz said. “It’s within the reach of the average person.”


There are many places to kayak in the Milwaukee area.

Only 4.5 miles away from Mount Mary is the Urban Ecology Center’s closest location; it also has two other locations in the city. Student memberships are $30 for one year. Students can launch right into a lagoon or river, or borrow a kayak or canoe for up to three days to take to a different location. You are required to take a free water safety course to participate in the program.

Sherrikayaks offers training on inland lakes in the middle of May and on Lake Michigan starting mid- to late June. The cost is $60 for a three-hour training and tour.
Mertz said the area behind the breakwater at South Shore Park is a good place to start if you want to try Lake Michigan because you are protected from the waves, and it tends to be warmer than the open lake.

Milwaukee Kayak Company, located on the Milwaukee River in the Walker’s Point neighborhood rents the following:

  • kayaks
  • paddle boards
  • tandem kayaks
  • canoe

You launch from its dock and return to its dock at the cost of $25 for four hours. It also offers guided tours every Wednesday night from the middle of June through the end of August starting at 5 p.m. for a cost of $20.

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Leea Glasheen kayaks in Lake Michigan within the breakwater at South Shore Park.

Handler said Milwaukee offers a unique opportunity to get out of a kayak and enjoy what the downtown has to offer.

“On the Milwaukee River, there are lots of public docks and restaurant docks, and we instruct people how to tie up boats, so if people want to stop at a restaurant, we encourage that,” Handler said.

Lake Michigan is a formidable feature of the Milwaukee landscape that attracts kayakers. According to Mertz, it is possible for an experienced kayaker to cross the lake in a kayak – though it might take up to 30 hours!

“With the right equipment and skills, it is safe to kayak in Lake Michigan,” Mertz said.



Mertz cautioned that there have been many tragedies in Lake Michigan, citing cold water as one of the biggest risks because the big lake does not warm up as much as smaller lakes and rivers. Hypothermia and cold shock are potential dangers.

“If you fall in water that is less than 70 degrees, you can have an involuntary gasp reflex … and you can drown instantly,” Mertz said.

The danger zone for wind speed differs based on the person and his or her skill level, but Mertz suggests that you do not kayak in winds of more than 15 miles per hour.

The wind direction is also important because easterly winds can pick up big waves on their way to the Lake Michigan shore in the Milwaukee area. Meanwhile, even if there are no waves, a westerly wind can push you into the middle of the lake, and wind and thunderstorms can suddenly overtake kayakers.

According to Terrance Davis, visitor services specialist at the Urban Ecology Center, regardless of where you are kayaking, you should take into consideration the air and water temperature to avoid hypothermia.

“The guideline is that the air temperature and water temperature combined have to be 110 degrees if there is a building within 20 feet so [the kayaker] can warm up if they fall in and 120 degrees if there isn’t,” Davis said.


Dr. Colleen Conway, chemistry professor at Mount Mary, said the number one rule of water safety is never to do anything in or around the water by yourself.

Conway suggested that canoeing might be a better option if you are venturing out alone unless you receive specific training in kayaking and are a strong swimmer because kayaks can flip over and cause drowning.

“You should tell someone else where you’re going and when you’re coming back in case you don’t come back, and they need to call the Coast Guard,” Conway said.

She also urged that you stay close to the shore.

Mertz said that wearing a life jacket any time you are in cold water is the number one thing you can do to increase safety. Using the right kayak is also important.

“Recreational kayaks, which you can pick up at the local hardware store, are stable on the smaller lakes but are not stable on Lake Michigan, and you can’t use the same techniques to get back in them,” Mertz said.

Smith said that on Lake Michigan, “the longer and more streamlined your boat is, the better off you are. You need at least a 14-foot boat if you are going to go out to tackle the big lake.”

You also don’t want to go out on Lake Michigan in a boat that is not tested for the type of kayaking you plan to do.

“You can make an empty cup float on the water, but that doesn’t mean you want to get into it,” Smith said.

It is also important to check the weather.

“Once you are on the water, pay attention and keep looking off to the west so you can see the clouds building and you can get off the water,” Mertz said.

Handler recommended kayaking the Milwaukee rivers, but explained that even on the rivers, keep an eye on the wind and the weather.

“We can put people out in a light drizzle, but we pay attention to the National Weather Service and the U.S. Coast Guard,” Handler said.



When you focus on all of these precautions and potential for danger, you might wonder if it is worth it to kayak at all. Wind, waves and water temperature notwithstanding, Davis said that each individual person will take something different from kayaking.

“When you are sitting on the water and the wind is blowing, it can be quite therapeutic,” Davis said.

Smith said that “when you get out on that water and feel that freedom and you are able to cruise around on that water with the breeze in your face, it’s a passion of love.”

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