Kayaking a busy seaport deep in the heart of the American Midwest

It was due in part to my overgrown front lawn, and my apparent inability to read a National Weather Service forecast, that I found myself parked at the top of a Milwaukee County public boat landing, a cold and dense drizzle falling from the overcast sky, pondering whether I should even launch my kayak. I had assumed that the storm activity depicted on the NWS website was drifting away on the prevailing westerlies, headed out to the open waters of Lake Michigan, and ushering in clearing skies.

But as I observed now, those multi-colored blobs of weather on the Doppler radar image had in fact been blowing in from the southeast, and visibility was now wavering from a mile to less than a few hundred feet. The air was so supersaturated with moisture that it could no longer hold its water, and it fell from the air in dense waves of mist. But kayaking is a wet pastime, I reminded myself, and mowing a lawn is not. So I unloaded my kayak and gear from the car, and was soon cruising across the fog-enshrouded waters of the Port of Milwaukee harbor.

The city of Milwaukee was founded as a Great Lakes port in the 1830s, for many of the same reasons the native Fox, Mascouten, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk had made their homes here before the arrival of whites: three large streams all emptying into Lake Michigan in one large confluence. Besides offering access to interior lands from the lake, there was abundant food and game here too, hence the Algonquian name, Millioke, most often translated as “good land.”

As I emerged from the mouth of the inner harbor and entered the outer turning basin, the mists parted like a curtain to reveal a glimpse into another century: the three masts of an ethereal, canvas-sailed schooner glided silently across the path of my kayak just ahead. Like a wraith from another century, the S/V Denis Sullivan moved along slowly under light sail.

Back in the day, nearly all Great Lakes traffic traveled by lake schooner, with over two dozen passing through Milwaukee’s port each day. The Sullivan is a replica of such schooners, launched in 2000 and embodying nearly a million hours of volunteer labor. She now berths at the Discovery World museum on Milwaukee’s lakefront, and offers deck tours and day sails. As I paddled closer I saw movement on her decks, and realized the Sullivan was ably crewed by phantom sailors … in colorful plastic rain slickers.

I turned to head to the lighthouse guarding the main entrance to the turning basin, and a moment later my marine VHF radio crackled with a call from the pilot of the John J. Boland, announcing that the bulk lake carrier would be arriving and entering the main gap in fifteen minutes. I hustled out of the way and waited just outside the ‘gate’ of the breakwall, floating off at a safe distance.

As ship traffic to Milwaukee increased in the 1800s, the city’s prominence as a grain port grew, and by the early 1860s it was the largest shipper of wheat in the world. The harbor was deepened and expanded, docks and piers constructed, and railroad connections built. By the turn of the century, industrial manufacturing had become Milwaukee’s mainstay, and the city produced steam engines, mining shovels, automobile frames, and all manner of heavy machinery. Even today, a thriving heavy-manufacturing industry relies on a large commercial and industrial harbor development, handling millions of tons of commerce annually.

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I could plainly hear the Boland’s fog horn, sounding every two minutes, and soon heard her twin 3,600 HP diesel engines thrumming somewhere out there in the mists. I finally detected the quiet hiss of a slow bow wake and soon the great hulking vessel emerged from the gray wall of fog like an apparition.

Her nearly seven-hundred-foot length majestically glided through the main gap, moving at a stately six knots only ten boat-lengths off my bow, her seven stories of welded steel hull towering over me. As the ship finally cleared the gap, I saw a lone human figure leaning on a rail at her stern, and the freshwater sailor raised a hand to wave at me briefly before the entire vessel once again disappeared into the mists, nearly as silently and swiftly as she had emerged. I would later find the Boland in the inner harbor, eased up tight and gently chafing against the dock like an elephant rubbing her haunches on a fence, her 250-foot boom conveyor extended as she unloaded over 30,000 tons of coal. I paddled out and crossed the gap to the lighthouse, a swath of gently roiling water the only remaining evidence of the freighter’s passing.

The Milwaukee breakwater light was constructed in 1926, and was one of the last to be built on the Great Lakes. Being entirely isolated from the shore, and connected only to one end of the freestanding breakwall, the light is sturdily built to withstand Lake Michigan’s harsh winter storms. With quarter-inch steel-plate sheathing, and half-inch-thick windows, she towers over fifty feet above the water, guiding sailors and fishermen safely in and out of Milwaukee’s freshwater port.

I proceeded out the harbor entrance again but this time headed north. The fog grew denser again, and I was soon so enshrouded by the mist that all I could see was comprised of a hundred-yard hemisphere of gray above and spiky black water below, my only landmark the foghorn from the lighthouse, sounding three times every minute. I paddled along like this for over a mile, seemingly carrying my little world along with me like a turtle with his shell, getting only rare glimpses of the Milwaukee skyline behind the undulating banks of fog, until the north gap appeared.

I scuttled back inside the harbor and swung south again, turning toward the warmth and dryness of the car. The fog thickened again and descended upon me like the heavy gray curtain of sleep, completely obscuring the cool and misty realm I had just visited. I paddled along in silence, wondering which world was real and which only a dream …

Jeffrey Lee paddles and writes in the Upper Great Lakes region.

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