Growing up around water and seeing how the Milwaukee River was on the way to becoming a recreation destination, Beth Handle launched her Milwaukee Kayak Company in 2013. The startup offered kayak, canoe, and standup paddleboard rentals that provided residents and visitors with a healthy, safe, fun, relaxing, and unique opportunity to explore Downtown Milwaukee and area waterways. Four years later, her business continues to grow as developments and leisure interests align along the downtown river.
Q&A with Beth Handle
Q: How did your work at Laacke & Joys inspire and prepare you to start the Milwaukee Kayak Company?
A: Working at Laacke & Joys allow me to gain an appreciation for our rivers, as the business was located on the Milwaukee River downtown Milwaukee. I took breaks down by the river and spent a lot of time on the riverwalk. Laacke & Joys sold kayaks which furthered my knowledge of the sport. The river is what sold me. Being by the river, and hanging out on the river, provided great comfort to me during a time when I needed it most. When Laacke & Joys decided to move to Brookfield, I knew I didn’t want to leave downtown or our rivers.
Q: What was the experience like to form your own business, and did you face any obstacles as a female entrepreneur?
A: Launching Milwaukee Kayak Company has been a great learning experience. I’ve found that people really want me and the business to succeed. I’m very grateful for the good experience so far. I have not faced too obstacles as a female entrepreneur, and have worked closely with WWBIC, who has supported MKC in many ways.
Q: How did WWBIC (Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation) help your company, and what advice would you offer other women who dream of starting their own enterprise?
A: I enrolled in business planning classes at WWBIC. They are a great group of people and support small locally-owned businesses. I highly recommend contacting WWBIC and taking a look at the services and classes that they offer. I am grateful for WWBIC and their knowledgeable staff.
Q: What are the most common questions and biggest surprise people have about kayaking?
A: Will I fall in? How deep is the river? Can I touch the water? Is this kayak stable? How clean is the water? I’ve never kayaked before, will I be okay? Do I have to wear a life jacket?
Surprise? That seeing the river and city from a different perspective is a really cool experience. Plus, you’re getting a good work-out!
Q: How did you partner with the Milwaukee County Historical Society (MCHS)?
A: I have always been the lead guide on our trips and know a good amount of information about our rivers and city. Moving forward, I really wanted to support organizations that are doing good things for our rivers and by partnering with MCHS, it allowed us to develop a great tour focusing on the history of our rivers. I’ve loved the opportunity of working with MCHS and they’ve been a very great partner. Steve, an archivist at MCHS, leads our tours and is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the history of our rivers and buildings. He’s an expert in the field, and working with the entire staff has been a positive experience. Last year, we offered three History Tours and this year we are offering five History Tours. These trips are also a fundraiser for the MCHS, which makes them even more impactful. I’m grateful to be able to support their mission and great work.
Q: What was the most interesting historical fact that you learned on a tour?
A: That our founding fathers did not get along and so that’s why the bridges are all crooked over the river.
Q: How do the historical tours compare to your other group kayaking events?
A: Our History Tours are very informative and we paddle along at a pretty slow-pace. They’re great for people new to the sport and experienced paddlers too. We talk about the river history in general and the buildings that you can see from the river. We also stop at Pere Marquette Park and take a self-guided tour of MCHS, enjoy snacks and a beverage before paddling back to our dock.
Q: Are locals more surprised by the Milwaukee River than out-of-town guests, and do most folks view the city differently after seeing it by water?
A: Yes, we outfit many paddlers from out of our area. Tourists love the idea of kayaking on our rivers through downtown. People, especially those from the coastal regions, are intrigued by the opportunity to kayak on a river through a city, whereas they’re used to kayaking on the ocean. It’s really neat to hear their excitement before they launch and when they return. Their experience here on our rivers is one of the most fun activities on their vacation, and we know this because they tell us.
Q: Have you seen an increase in water traffic along the Milwaukee River since you started in 2013, and what do you attribute this to?
A: YES! The river has gotten much busier with recreational watercraft since we opened 5 years ago. Many people are purchasing their own kayaks and using the public launches. Motor boat traffic as well. It’s become a destination and with it’s accessibility, the river will continue to be a popular retreat.
Q: What would you say to disadvantaged youth in Milwaukee to encourage their interest in kayaking?
A: Learn how to swim, take a boater safety class, and engage in outings that take you to the outdoors.