Kinnickinnic River – Milwaukee County
If you’re expecting a review of a river with pristine water quality, a paddling experience shrouded by natural beauty and steeped in silence, you should not continue to read this review.
If you want to learn about how to enjoy the flowing waters of Wisconsin’s biggest city – and be Lake Michigan-adjacent – or that Milwaukee’s rivers can be enjoyed at all, do read on!
First, some river lexicon: this Kinnickinnic River is part of the Milwaukee Harbor. Its nickname locally is the “KK,” and it is pronounced “ke-NIK-kinik.” This stream is not to be confused with
its counterpart on the opposite side of the state with the same spelling, but not the same pronunciation and nickname.
The other Kinnickinnic River flows through St. Croix County and the city of River Falls, and spills into the St. Croix a few miles above the latter’s confluence with the Mississippi, at Prescott.
That stream’s local nickname is the “Kinni” and it’s pronounced “Kinnie-ke-NICK.” You will be corrected in either location if you get the local usages wrong! And I’ve found that each location
is unaware of the existence of the other Kinnnickinnic River.
I also found that the KK offers a unique and fascinating paddling excursion, quite unlike any other paddling trip in Wisconsin (other than in the other two Milwaukee rivers, but more on
I had a gorgeous November day to explore the KK. “Exploring the KK” at the Milwaukee Harbor actually means you’re exploring an incursion of Lake Michigan into the former estuary/marsh
that was dredged, dug, ditched and otherwise heavily manipulated to create the harbor. The actual KK River’s watershed is entirely within Milwaukee County. Its headwaters seem to
originate inside the confines of Mitchell International Airport.
The national river advocacy group American Rivers has this informative summary about the KK.
The KK is therefore only navigable for canoes and kayaks from the harbor upstream to South 6th Street, on Milwaukee’s South Side. It feels much like a big lake paddle until a quite surprising
end near South 6th Street.
At your put-in at Riverfront Public Launch (a Milwaukee County park), you’ll see the blue expanse of Lake Michigan to the east, framed by the Hoan Bridge. (No parking in the actual
park except for boat trailers, but free and easy street parking nearby.) Across the water on what is the right bank of the KK, you’ll see and definitely hear the massive facility of an
organization with huge and positive influence on all of Milwaukee’s waters – the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District.
The industrial hum of MMSD’s Jones Island plant is one song in a chorus of urban industrial sounds on the KK — enhanced, as all sound is, by the total absence of anything blocking it over
water. There’s the metallic crunch of the scrap metal yard; the thump and thud of huge rocks getting dropped into barges; the zing and bang emanating from construction sites on both sides
of the river.
I got the impression that the KK’s banks are a destination for new corporate and residential development. The construction firm Michels Corp. is very present, building a corporate office
building and apartment houses along the KK. There’s still plenty of gritty old industrial presence balancing the shiny newness of the Michels projects. The KK ‘s banks are a long way
from being gentrified.
I saw very little actual harbor activity in the KK arm of Milwaukee Harbor this day – just one lake boat loading what seemed to be cement. There are clearly more recreational than industrial or
shipping boats in the KK harbor. (I saw only one other boat on the KK.)
I continued upstream under several drawbridges. The narrowing river and the fact that the Becher St. bridge is not a drawbridge signals the end of the harbor. While this narrower KK
appears more natural than its harbor version, “natural looking” is relative. It was under the next bridge, for East Lincoln Ave., that I encountered a raft of flotsam bobbing on the surface –
the usual junk you see in an urban river. Surprisingly, to me at least, that is all the junk I’d encountered. There must have been a big storm sewer outlet somewhere near here.
Farther upstream, things got even more intriguing. You are now clearly out of lake water and strictly paddling on river water. Things get shallower and narrower. You pass under both lanes
of the I-43/94 bridges high overhead; their piers framing the final scene of this excursion. Here the KK is clearly a river, flowing quite swiftly. It then becomes too shallow and rocky to proceed
The water was surprisingly clear here – clear enough to see the bottom, which was littered with what I figured were dead lake salmon. But it wasn’t only dead fish I saw – I spotted what I
believe to be two lake trout coming to this dead end for them. One got spooked merely by the shadow of my boat.
One more phenomenon that deserves comment. On my return trip downstream, I saw debris (natural and otherwise) floating on the surface, and moving upstream. Within minutes, it was
moving slowly downstream, and then it stopped. Up until then, I’d detected absolutely no current. What?!
I encountered two guys in a small john boat surveying the river for a proposed river debris trap. They told me the device, a project of the sewage district and the Milwaukee Harbor, would be
installed by 2023. They pointed out to me a natural phenomenon on the Great Lakes that I’d encountered before but forgot about: that moving water was due to a “seiche,” a sort of Great
Lakes tide caused by a change in atmospheric pressure and winds. It was just one more bit of intrigue on an already very satisfying outing on the KK. I returned to the put-in at the boat
launch with a stiffening Lake Michigan breeze in my face.
There’s a lot of water to explore in Milwaukee. From the same starting point, you could expand an outing on the KK by heading out to the lake (watch out for big winds), or heading upstream
on the Milwaukee River, from which you can access any number of eating and drinking establishments from the water. The city’s other urban stream, the Menomonee, is likely
navigable upstream from the harbor, for a while, before you’d encounter current. It definitely is navigable farther upstream; I’ve paddled it within the Menomonee River Parkway
There’s a great resource from Milwaukee Riverkeeper for paddling in the Milwaukee area. (Curiously, the trip you just read about is not included on their map.)
Addendum from the Webmaster:
I really appreciate the review Denny! I will have to check out this river in the future, but maybe find a way to more of the rocky parts upstream of where you turned around.
WisconsinRiverTrips.com is always very appreciative of guest reviews, and if you the reader is ever interested in submitting one, you can use this online form.