Onion River
★ ★ ★ ★

Onion River I

By on October 28, 2016

County Road V to Sheboygan Falls
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Onion River, a tributary of the Sheboygan, is a delightfully enjoyable run when the rare opportunity to paddle it presents itself. Almost definitely a spring trip, or after heavy rains, the Onion worth is waiting for those ideal levels. In what it may lack in scenery, it makes up for with a swift current, mild waves and splashy riffles on a small creek-sized body. Add to that, an easy shuttle, the Onion may bring a joyous tear to your eye.

September 23, 2016

Class Difficulty:
Class I

Otter Creek: ht/ft: 4.5 | cfs: 7.9
Sheboygan River: ht/ft: 3.27 | cfs: 627

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level – they were ideal. Here’s a visual gauge taken from the downstream side of the Ourtown Road bridge. If the boulder on the right looks like this or you don’t see it at all – the Onion is runnable. If the water isn’t at least splashing over the top – don’t bother.

County Road V
Rochester Park, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 3:20p.
Total Time: 1h 50m
Miles Paddled: 7.25

Wildlife: Deer, ducks and one heron (or 24 – but it could’ve been the same one over and over, again).

Let’s start with the fact that I love that there’s a river called the Onion. If not my favorite vegetable (I’m looking at you mushroom), it’s a close runner-up. I mean, sure you make conversing offensive, but conversely, damn you make life taste alive!

And before we really get started with the proper review, let me get this out of my system.

We’re going to peel back the layers on the Onion, a river just blooming with opportunity and the root of much excitement. When the water is up, here’s another place you can go where everything flows, and when it blossoms, it’s just so fun(yun) to paddle. The surroundings were mostly green, not the red and yellow varietals of fall just yet. And the plentiful riffles, while mostly minced and granulated, do get quite choppy, with rings of mild eddys so best to have the foot on the petal of you boat. What’s sweet is that there’s no deadfall to get you pickled – no you’ll only be shedding tears of joy on this gem, neigh, pearl of a run.

Whew. Alright. Let’s move on…

The Onion has been on my to-paddle list for a couple years now. I don’t know if it was Timothy Bauer or Rick Kark who had first clued me in on it, but Rick had included it in his guide, so I took his notes along, which, as is usually the case, were more useful as comparison after the fact.

The Onion is best caught in Spring when flows are higher. In fact, up until this trip, only two other times in 2016 would the levels (above 600 cfs on the Sheboygan gauge) have accommodated this paddle – once this summer after much rain and the other, prior to mid-April (of course, hindsight indicates you could have paddled this section a couple times after this specific paddle date, so it may not necessarily be considered a Cinderella stream). Wisconsin has had a very wet September, having recently been inundated with rain the last month – a ton of rain, causing devastation all over the state – and more specifically, the last couple days prior to my visit.

But I felt I got lucky, kind of. I was being opportunistic with a day off from work (where I had planned to get a lot more paddling in, but man the weather was off). I had a hunch the Onion was running while keeping my eye on gauges and for places to play while also trying to stay away from the thunder and lightning and other bad weather that was scattered across the state. It really messed with my 2-day paddling agenda (it rained where it wasn’t suppose to and it didn’t rain where it was suppose to). The plan was for a different river but the weather Gods outlawed that one and parted the clouds (so to speak) for this one. So in that way, I did get lucky. These levels were perfect.

I’ve noted two gauges. The Sheboygan gauge is downstream from the confluence of the Onion. The Otter Creek Gauge is located upstream of the Sheboygan, another feeder creek. I’m willing to bet that if Otter Creek and the Sheboygan are at similar levels to these, the Onion and other streams feeding the Sheboygan would be too. In addition to the Onion, the Mullet and Pigeon, all tributaries of the Sheboygan, can be canoed at high water according to Wisconsin Guides.

What we liked:
Mr. Rick Kark put-in at Ourtown Road but I’m not sure how. Not only is it steep and brushtacular, it’s definitely trespassing. Add to that, the upstream approach looked extremely inviting and I felt like 4.25 miles was far too short of a paddle (actually, any paddle under five miles is a questionable use of your paddling time). Now that I’ve talked me and you out of it, you’ll thank me. The upstream three miles is well worth the extra shuttle time.

There were two options at the County Road V bridge. Again, one was obviously trespassing, the other probably trespassing? So I chose the option least likely to cost me a ticket and also, it really was the most convenient, with a sloped, grassy bank leading down to the river’s edge.

From County Road V to Ourtown Road, you’ll find nearly non-stop riffles – the mild, sometimes splashy kind. And there were some decent little drops. While maybe not totally noteworthy, there a couple that might be considered Class Is (especially by those who generously classify rapids by there own experiences).

Now overall, there was nothing amazing about the landscape. It’s mostly forested and it was still lush and green despite getting closer to fall. There’s little glimpes of farmland and modest clay banks throughout. While there were only a couple of boulders between County Road V and Ourtown Road, you’ll find a lot dolomite boulders after Ourtown as mentioned by Kark – nothing majestic, but large and at- or below- water level, occasionally making an appearance.

As for wildlife, I encountered nothing of the aquatic variety but deer were plentiful. Including an amazing sight where a group of deer, including a doe, had a hard time traversing the stream. I sat idle in my boat watching the little one try to make its way up the bank – which it did – but not before witnessing a whole lot of frightened effort.

The water itself was brown – a very light brown at that and there was no water clarity whatsoever. It certainly could be from the storms mixing things up or maybe it’s always this way? With the current moving at a brisk pace, you had to be prepared to follow the current and make sure there were no blockages downstream. To my absolute amazement, I expected a portage or two, but there was nothing. Actually, I expected a lot of climbing this day but I was going in glass half-full. The stream was moving, so surely stuff was piling up. Save for one downed tree near the end of the trip, (which I thought for sure I’d be climbing, but upon closer inspection I was able to paddle under and then quickly across the stream to the other opening before i hit the next trunk – it was a nice little maneuver if I do say so myself) it was free and clear.

So, why was it so open? With the banks, often tree-lined, you’d surely expect blockages. Someone must take care of it because it’s not a very wide river (and really, more creek, than river) even though it’s not small like the Badfish either. I kept looking for signs of cut branches but I didn’t see anything until way later in the paddle, somewhere after Highway 28. Maybe this is paddled more than I thought but Spring water levels alone would cause some blockages. So thanks to whomever cares for it.

Ourtown Road to Highway 28 is the golf course section but it’s also quite fun with more riffles and greater drops and potentially Class Is. The golf course, the Bull at Pinehurst Farms, is located midway through this section. It’s not as manicured as I expected, instead, continuing to be curvy and splashy and fun. And here’s where I need to clean up and clarify what Kark’s writeup suggests. He’s a bit vague in his description of the golf course. In it, he says “One interesting aspect of the trip was a long stretch through a golf course. It followed an especially tortuous path past several fairways. Many of the banks had been rip rapped with rocks”. And that’s it. What was tortuous? Portages? Rip Rap?? Tortuous Rip Rap for which to portage?!?!? Raptors?!?!?!?! Torture?!?!?!?!


Actually, what I believe he means is what I felt once I spotted the first flagstick. I could hear the banter of guys being guys on the course – cracking beers, the smell of cigars, swearing and laughing (kind of like paddling, really). But the other sound was the cracking of an iron and a ball that immediately had me hunching my head into my shoulders like a turtle into its shell. The “oh god I hope that isn’t going to nail me in the head” reaction. It’s a natural reaction and I think that’s what Kark was speaking of. Super drunk golfers have been know to go errant. It’s unnerving, indeed.

Despite coursing through the, um, golf course, the Onion continues to be wonderfully riffly as it curves its way around greens and, yes, rip rap. There are four course bridges for golf carts and once you spot the last one, you’re in the clear from getting pelted in the head from a Titleist.

The fun basically ends after the golf course. There’s one more drop after the last course bridge and then Highway 28 signals the end of the riffles and anymore excitement. But it’s still a pretty paddle on flatwater as you get closer to the confluence with the Sheboygan River.

The take-out is directly across from the confluence (directly!) so you have to be prepared to paddle immediately across the Sheboygan or you’ll be paddling past it. I almost missed it myself with the current moving so quickly. Although, thankfully, someone propped a stick into the bank’s edge as an indicator or maybe it was just for their fishing pole. Either way, it was useful.

What we didn’t like:
A few things.

That unnerving feeling of potentially getting nailed in the head with a golf ball….

….and also that this river can only be paddled a few times a year…

…and there were Trump signs everywhere. Really people?

But most disappointing of all… one of my favorite parts of traveling the state and discovering paddling opportunities on rivers and creeks is also exploring locals cities and towns I wouldn’t otherwise visit. And often times, I’ll patronize a local bar or tavern and I’ll have a beer while writing up my notes on the paddle (ya know, before I forget all the details).

Well, after checking out Falls View Park, I walked down the quaint (but surprisingly busy) downtown and stopped into Osthelder Saloon, pen and paper in hand – ready to scribe the next great Miles Paddled Trip Report – the one to rule them all! Well, the bar was full (musta been happy hour based on the clientele) but I found one sole barstool sitting idle at the end of the bar. I sat down and the bartender instantly greeted me with a “What do you want? What are you selling?”. Noticing that my pen and paper must have been some sort of sign that I was a vendor or soliciting something, I probably scowled at the insinuation that I was a nusiance – and said “I don’t want anything but a beer” – though I probably should’ve just walked the hell out of the place.

This shitty greeting soured what had been a great day on the water. But despite feeling unwelcome, I wrote these notes up as quickly as I could and downed that beer (I did deserve a beer, afterall) and even begrudingly tipped that shitty bartender and left (despite really wanted a second, of course).

If we did this trip again:
I would definitely seek out the Onion again. And I’m curious about exploring even further upstream. I didn’t scout the access points but there are more bridges in smaller increments that might add to the delight that these 7.25 miles already were. The Onion is a ton of fun and worth the gauge watching to paddle it at the right time.

Related Information:
Onion River II: County Road A to County Road V
Mullet River: Plymouth to County Road M
Wikipedia: Onion River


Shuttle Information:
The bike shuttle was an easy 30-minute straight shot down a main artery. It was a bit busy but luckily there was a shoulder. All in all, I’ve experienced much worse and will take this shuttle anyday.

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