The Northernmost Key

For Milwaukee natives Mike and Sue Johnson, boating paradise is as close as Lake Michigan.

Loyal. Fun-loving. Appreciative of fine art and live music. If the core values of Milwaukee’s residents are any indication, this is a city with a lot going for it. From the raucous bleachers of Miller Park to the reverent halls of the Art Museum to the thumping stages of Summerfest and beyond, Milwaukee is a cultural hub that draws visitors from near and far while pulsing, always and palpably, with the steady heartbeat of the American Midwest.

Its lifeblood, then, has to be the water. Hugging the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee is laced with rivers: the confluence of the Menomonee, the Kinnickinnic and the Milwaukee, as well as smaller, less-syllabic veins including the Root River and Lincoln Creek. Combine this aqueous real estate with relatively long, warm-to-steamy summers, and it’s only natural that the population would gravitate toward boating. For a good six months out of the year, Lake Michigan’s sprawling blue surface hosts quite a crowd, with overflow spilling happily into the river branches in search of food, drink and camaraderie.

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Amanda and Aaron take in the scene.

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Head to McKinley Marina on just about any given Saturday for shining example. It’s here that Mike and Sue Johnson have staked a claim on good times. Having worked their way up through the years from a small flybridge Sea Ray to a 270 and then a 320 Sundancer and finally their current 390 Sundancer, Escapade II, the Johnsons are consummate onboard entertainers and quick to espouse the benefits of Milwaukee life, starting with the relationships they’ve formed here.

“We’ve come to be great friends with our dock mates,” Mike says. “That’s the best part of keeping the boat here. You feel like you’re right in the middle of things.” Indeed, not more than five minutes goes by without hearing a jolly, “Hello, neighbor!”

Growing up with Sea Rays, Mike and Sue’s daughters, Amanda and Lauren, have acquired a real taste for boating, and a real fearlessness when it comes to swimming. Mike jokes that the trick to keeping Lauren happiest as a kid was to tie a rope to her lifejacket and let her bobble around behind the boat until the time came to reel her back onboard. The girls roll their eyes at dad’s anecdote, but it’s clear that even now, as young adults, they appreciate the water’s ability to strengthen the family bonds.

On this particular Saturday, the Johnsons are joined by longtime friends Cheryl and Joseph Mayer; Amanda’s boyfriend, Aaron Stanek; and Lauren’s pal Cheyenne. Cheryl is the self-appointed mixologist, reading out an extensive list of mocktails and cocktails logged on her iPhone with names like “Dragon’s Kiss” and “Grape Coolada.” The former, she explains, was inspired by a neighboring boat whose owners had welded dragons onto the hull, resulting in a “pirate ship party barge” and symbol of summer.

Milwaukeeans have a way of turning every outing into a celebration. The Johnsons report an epic Fourth of July at their marina involving a post-fireworks laser lightshow, complete with a DJ and fog machine. “Everyone came together to watch this virtual kaleidoscope in the sky,” Mike recalls. “Really special.”

Perhaps the most celebrated view in town is that of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the building features a ribbed sunscreen that unfolds to resemble an enormous bird, perched at the lake’s edge. No surprise that the beautiful campus has hosted countless art fairs, wedding receptions and cultural events.

But the biggest cultural happening to hit Milwaukee each July is Summerfest, a sprawling 11-day music festival featuring performances by over 700 acts—which, since the show’s 1968 inception, have included everyone from Led Zeppelin to Tina Turner to the Jonas Brothers. Annual attendance approaches a whopping one million visitors, earning it the Guinness World Record for “World’s Largest Music Festival” since 1999. Summerfest’s 11 stages span 75 acres of lakefront, meaning a boat can be your front-row ticket to quite an aural feast.

The Johnsons have attended multiple times, both casually by Sea Ray and, taking the hardcore-fan approach, with grass seats to the Eagles and Paul Simon. There’ve been years where weather threatens to encroach—for Simon, Mike and Sue recall encroaching thunderstorms that painted a wicked sky—but then, Milwaukeeans aren’t the type to let a shower cramp their style.

As Sue recounts details of Summerfests past, Mike steers the Sundancer into the dock at one of the family’s favorite on-water spots, the Horny Goat. Known for its creative brunch menu and craft beer selection, not to mention an adjacent indoor beach volleyball court, the Goat lures boat and foot traffic alike. Sue expertly handles the lines, weaving along the bow and hopping out to secure a spot right in front of the restaurant. “She’s the best first mate you could ask for!” Mike enthuses. With a captain’s class under her belt and a childhood spent fishing the region’s inland lakes with her family, it’s second nature at this point.

Mike, for his part, has been a boater since childhood, first on sailboats around his grandparents’ island house just north of the city. He graduated to powerboats at the ripe old age of twelve and hasn’t looked back, proud to have imparted that love in his daughters. “Lauren and Amanda have been to all the boat shows,” he says. “They’ve got the program down.”

To the Johnsons, part of that program involves giving back. Mike is the first to offer a tow to a fellow boater in need. “It’s all about community,” he says. “We help each other.” Mike and Sue are also actively involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Yacht Blast for Kids, an annual event in which over thirty boaters donate their time and boats to host 90-minute rides to Wish Kids and their families. The Johnsons’ Sea Ray dealership, Skipper Buds, and General Manager Todd Riepe are huge supporters of the event as well, and proud to note that Sea Ray is well represented among the group of host boats. “What these kids and their families are going through—it’s almost unimaginably tough,” Mike says. “We are happy to be able to bring a smile to their faces.”

After lunch is polished off, the crew climbs back aboard the Sundancer, settling into lounge position around the aft table. Mike steers back up the river and out toward the lake. The warehouses, cranes and silos of Milwaukee’s industrial south branch give way to chic new condo buildings and trendy restaurants of the Riverwalk zone as the boat glides north under bridge after bride. Some are low enough that he has to radio ahead for clearance, whereupon a cheerful operator waves and lifts the structure to allow passage. The experience lends a sweet small-town charm to an otherwise metropolitan landscape.

“You know, we’ve given this place a nickname,” Mike says, waving back at the bridge attendant. “It’s so fundamentally boat-friendly. We like to joke that it’s the Northernmost Key.”

Make no mistake, there are no palm trees to be found here in Wisconsin, and the wildlife tends more toward seagulls than sea turtles… Yet with strains of reggae coming from the stereo and a light breeze rippling over the transom, somehow the nickname just fits.

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