People will pack Milwaukee’s lakefront Wednesday evening for the annual July 3rd fireworks extravaganza. Another crowded place will be the city’s waterways - if the weather cooperates.
By most accounts, more boaters are recreating here in summer– both on Milwaukee’s three connecting rivers and its inner harbor.
'It’s like camping on water' - four friends from Brookfield settle on that description of boating. They’re sitting on the dock outside Barnacle Buds on the K.K River. Their boat is tethered.
“It’s nice to just come down and sit here and enjoy the restaurant and enjoy the music they have."
"We try to get down here every weekend. Sometimes we’ll go out early in the morning and go fishing.”
“I don’t fish, but I just love the sunrise. It’s beautiful.”
The two couples are Leann and Dale Meyer and Keith and Marcia Rosynek. They say they bought their boat on a whim a few years ago. The farthest they’ve traveled on Lake Michigan is Oak Creek. Usually, they motor up and down Milwaukee’s rivers.
“The river cruise is just phenomenal - all the boats, all the people. The restaurants you go by, people just wave at you. There are so many restaurants,” Keith Rosynek says.
Ever since the city built river walks in the 1990s, adjacent restaurants have added patios and docks, and the boats have come. “We get a big crowd from Chicago, actually,” according to Nathan Konsitzke, manager of Rock Bottom Café. It serves customers who dock alongside. Konsitzke says boaters are big business, but 100-percent weather-related. Last summer was hot and dry - and therefore lucrative but, "it's been down a bit this year, because we haven’t had the weather cooperate,” he says.
Sailboats here often head beyond Milwaukee’s breakwater – searching for good wind on Lake Michigan, according to Eric Lesch. However, he says most motor boaters remain on the rivers or this side of the break wall. “They are somewhat afraid of the lake – it does get rough,” Lesch says.
Lesch manages McKinley Marina. A huge parking lot sits on one side. People pull their boats here and launch them in Lake Michigan. On the other side, beyond gates, owners have moored hundreds of big boats to Milwaukee’s floating docks. Lesch says some people are living aboard. “This becomes their residence for the summer. There’s a guy who goes to Mexico to live for winter, but comes here for summer,” Lesch says.
The marina provides services, from fuel to showers.
A few anglers have just gotten off the water nearby and are cleaning their fish. Terri and Mary Schreifels lugged their boat here from Minnesota. “We are here to try to catch shennook salmon, because we got a lot last year...the quality of fish (is) better here,” Terri says.
The weather this evening won't be steamy like last year, but Coast Guard Lt. Brian Dykens expects more than 500 vessels to drop anchor for the fireworks. He says just a few – often under the influence or amateurs, will operate carelessly. "Speeding through the area, and they go by other vessels and wake them out or they may even get close to running into each other,” Dykens says. He adds that the black breakwater sometimes poses challenges for people port hopping and unfamiliar with Milwaukee's shoreline.
The Coast Guard will police the lake tonight, so will Milwaukee’s Harbor Patrol. City Harbormaster Wayne Johnson has issued a no wake rule – to keep movement at a safe pace. He says officers will also make sure boats are properly equipped including with life jackets.
“A couple years ago, we had a 14-foot boat sinking. Nine people were aboard – seven children. It was an older boat that had been rotting away, which they didn’t know about,” Johnson says.
Johnson says when the fireworks end, boats make a mad dash for shore. McKinley Marina’s Eric Lesch looks forward to the view. “When it’s dark out, and all the boats come in with their lights on – the red and green lights, and you just see a sea of lights. It’s a beautiful sight,” Lesch says.
Generally, outings on Milwaukee’s waterways end up just that – summer celebrations.