What We Do

Canoeing and Kayaking

canoes and kayaks-webHaving a hard time finding a place to store a canoe? Can't quite justify buying a kayak for the one or two trips you'll make a year? Always wanted to try stand-up paddleboarding? Become a member of the Urban Ecology Center and borrow our watercraft for free! We have a small fleet of canoes, kayaks, tandem kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards available to borrow at our three branch locations. Our watercraft pose a degree of risk, so we have several policies to keep all of our members safe. Please review the information below to learn more about borrowing watercraft at the Urban Ecology Center. 

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Basic Safety Information

  • The watercraft lending period at the Urban Ecology Center lasts from May through mid-October when water levels and temperatures are safe for paddling.
  • There must be at least one adult per boat who has taken the Watercraft Lending Orientation to borrow watercraft.
  • Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) must be worn at all times in and around the water while using Urban Ecology Center watercraft.
  • We highly recommend that helmets be worn by kayakers in rough or shallow water.
  • Members must portage around all dams and waterfalls and should avoid rapids, especially south of the North Avenue dam.
  • Our watercraft are built for use on rivers and small lakes and ponds only. They cannot be used on Lake Michigan under any circumstances.
  • Members borrowing our tandem kayak should be advised that tandems can be tricky to navigate (more difficult than a canoe). We recommend that you get some practice on a regular kayak before trying to tackle the tandem.

Watercraft Lending Orientation (formerly known as "the Water Safety Course")

All members interested in borrowing watercraft must watch the Watercraft Lending Orientation video below and then click the link (top right of the screen) at the end to take the quiz.  Members who passed the Water Safety Test in a previous year DO NOT need to retake the course every year. Once you’ve been "certified" to borrow watercraft you’re certified for life.


At least one adult per boat must have taken and passed the water safety test to borrow watercraft. There are no exceptions to this policy.

Kayaking on the Milwaukee River

Frequently Asked Questions

I have an individual membership with a guest… can we come in and borrow two kayaks?
If your guest has taken the water safety course, then yes! You can borrow 2 single kayaks or one tandem (if you and your guest have taken the Watercraft Lending Orientation). Encourage them to become a member as well!

I’ve been canoeing for years and consider myself a pro, do I really have to take the water safety course?
Yes. We take the safety of our members seriously. The course is a 15-minute video that you need to watch before arriving to pick up their equipment. Members will be asked to rewatch it at the beginning of each summer. The video contains information specific to the Urban Ecology Center and our policies. 

Transporting Watercraft

Please remember that the canoes can weigh 70 lbs and need two strong adults to load and unload. Urban Ecology Center staff and volunteers will not be available to help you load a canoe or kayak on your car or carry it down to the river, so make sure you bring plenty of help.

Canoe & Kayak Carts
The Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park has carts that members can use to transport the canoes and kayaks down to the Milwaukee River. While they certainly help, they are not perfect and the process still requires two fit adults even with the cart.

Transporting watercraft on a Vehicle
The Urban Ecology Center has several tie-down kits for watercraft as part of our Equipment Lending program. The kits come with everything that you will need to tie the boat down on top of your car (including instructions), regardless of whether or not you have a roof rack. When the kit is returned, it is important to double check to verify that it contains all of the pieces.

Members must secure watercraft on top of their car themselves. Insurance will not allow Urban Ecology Center staff or volunteers to help you tie down a boat. If you do not feel comfortable securing the boat and driving with it on top of your car, please consider walking the boat down to the river or using it on the lagoon at Washington Park.

Reminder for members who are using UEC boats on the Milwaukee River! You will have to portage around all dams and waterfalls and should avoid rapids. See the route you will have to take in this map

Water Conditions

The Urban Ecology Center monitors water conditions on the Milwaukee River to ensure safe conditions for paddling. There are times that we will not allow boats on the Milwaukee River because of dangerous conditions due to flooding. Please call the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park at (414) 964-8505 to inquire about whether or not conditions are safe for paddling.

  • Milwaukee River: Urban Ecology Center staff will be monitoring water conditions on the Milwaukee River throughout the summer. We consult the U.S. Geological Survey's real time data on water levels and close the Milwaukee River to lending when the water level exceeds 3 feet or 900 cubic feet per second. Conditions will be reported as follows:
    • Too High: watercraft may NOT be taken onto the Milwaukee River when water levels are Too High.
    • Low: watercraft may be taken on the river when it is low, but members should be advised that they may have to portage around low spots, especially the rapids.
    • Normal: watercraft may be taken out on river.

There are rapids and a dam just south of Riverside Park. To protect the boats from damage on the rocks, we require all boaters to portage around the rapids or avoid them by paddling north.

  • Lake Michigan: Members are NOT allowed to take our watercraft out on Lake Michigan for any reason.
  • Veteran’s Park: Unfortunately, members cannot take boats to the Veterans Park Lagoon due to County Park regulations.
  • Other bodies of water: If members are taking our boats to other bodies of water, we encourage them to check on local conditions of water level for their own safety.

If a member wants to take watercraft out when the river is too high, or they are uncomfortable taking it down to the river, they should take it to a lake or pond where there is still water. The lagoon in Washington Park is a great place to go!

Canoeing and Kayaking in Milwaukee

Kayaking down the Milwaukee RiverWhere would you recommend that I take a canoe or kayak for an enjoyable paddling experience?
Good question! A lot of it depends on what level of experience you have and what kind of a trip you’re looking for. We have put together a document of our favorite places to paddle that you can download here. You can also read this blog by Chad Thomack, our resident paddling expert on staff, for his personal recommendations.

What if I’m a beginner and/or want to go out with my kid?
The lagoon at Washington Park is an excellent place to start. Children must be at least 40 lbs and 4 years old to fit into our life jackets and ride in our canoes. The boats are located right next to the lagoon making it very easy to get in and out. The water is calm, and there is a cool island to explore in the middle of the lagoon. You’ll have a great time, just make sure that you go during public hours at Washington Park and call ahead to make sure boats are available (414) 344-5460. Washington Park Public Hours are Tues & Thurs: Noon-5:30 pm; Saturday: 9 am-2:30 pm.

Is the current too strong to paddle upstream?
Not particularly, but in times of flooding or in rather shallow spots it may be a bit difficult. If you come to a riffle or rapid that you don’t think you can paddle up, simply take the boat to the shore and portage around it. If you’re new to paddling we might recommend heading upstream first so that if you’re a bit tired after paddling for a while you can head downstream on your way home.

Can I take a boat out into the harbor or Lake Michigan?
Unfortunately no, we don’t allow our boats to go out on Lake Michigan. The canoes aren’t built for it and our kayaks are not sea kayaks, so they’re better off used in the rivers or on a smaller, flat body of water.

What if I want to go somewhere else?
You are welcome to borrow our boats, strap them to the top of your car and take them to another body of water. We do recommend that you check local conditions before going out on a river (especially if there’s been rain) and also remember that you can borrow watercraft for up to 6 days.


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