Sheboygan River II
Dassow Park to Sheboygan Falls
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Everything you could ask for in a river but nothing to go out of your way for unless you live nearby or are passing though, this trip on the Sheboygan is generously endowed with innumerable riffles, clear water, steep wooded banks, intimate surroundings and good accesses. Catch it in the midst of autumn’s crisp colors for an added treat.
October 19, 2016
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
~5′ per mile
Sheboygan River: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 170
This is the lowest recommend level. Any lower than this will be Scrape City and frustrating. Ideal conditions would be closer to 200-300 cfs.
Dassow Park (located exactly between Johnsonville and Sheboygan Falls, off Hillside Road, perpendicular to County Road O)
Sheboygan Falls dam, off Broadway Street, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:20a. Out at 2:20p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Wildlife: Hawks, wood ducks, great blue herons, deer, mussels and muskrats.
This segment of the Sheboygan River is the kind of stream you wished you lived near. There’s nothing extraordinary, exotic, or singularly unique about it, but the river here is supremely pleasant and pretty. It’s the perfect kind of find-adventure-in-your-own-backyard paddling trip. An apt analogy is how we in south central Wisconsin, particularly those of us in Madison or Janesville (or in between) are lucky to have the Yahara River. For folks in southeastern Wisconsin – particularly Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, and between – the Sheboygan River is their lucky backyard stream that’s always pleasant and pretty and never disappointing.
In his Paddling Southern Wisconsin guidebook, guru Mike Svob lays out the entire Sheboygan River in two sections: 1) Millhome to Sheboygan Falls and 2) Sheboygan Falls to Sheboygan. There are some mentionable ambiguities to clear up in the first section. The map provided for “Sheboygan River 1” is curiously macro; the distance from Millhome to Sheboygan Falls is a whopping 26.5 miles, which is doable only if you had an axe to grind or Pyrrhic victory to win. But the first 10-ish miles – Millhome to Johnsonville – is alluded to only as an “other trip” with no real detail other than a safety caution about the Johnsonville dam. For all intents and purposes, his first trip on the Sheboygan River is from Johnsonville to Sheboygan Falls, which, at 16 miles, is still a little on the long side for most paddlers doing a day trip (though certainly doable).
For those not wishing to take on a 16-mile trip in a day, there are two options: Johnsonville to Dassow Park (6 miles) or Dassow Park to Sheboygan Falls (10 miles). There are alternate accesses between Dassow and Sheboygan Falls, but none that allows for an even 8-mile split. That’s why the next trip on the Sheboygan River we’ll write about is the Johnsonville to Dassow segment, a short jaunt of 6 miles (which, to be fair, is a perfect length for some paddlers or those seeking some after-work water time).
The put-in at Dassow Park is undeveloped. You’ll launch from grass and rocks wherever makes sense. It’ll be really shallow here, so if the water is warm enough, you may want to wade in a couple feet first. Be mindful though; there are some frisky riffles coming from below the bridge here. There are no facilities at Dassow, but there’s plenty of room to park several vehicles.
The setting here is quite pretty right off the bat. Except in times of high water (400+ cfs), the river should be clear. That’ll be helpful to avoid the many boulders dotting the riverbed you’ll want to avoid running into. Riffles whisk you past a tall tree-lined bank on the right. These riffles – even light wave trains – are nonstop for the first half-mile. You should get used to the vignette for this trip, as there are umpteen more sections where the river will bend to the left (sometimes the right) and a tall tree-lined bank is on the right; you’ll experience déjà vu all over again multiple times. But it’s pretty, not at all monotonous. And in autumn, the colors are just magnificent.
In the first mile you’ll pass only a handful of houses. Soon things will flatten out and on your right – because it’s Sheboygan County and you can throw a Titleist in any direction and hit a golf course – you’ll see the tell tale signs of manicured greens and a yellow numerical flag. The rather decrepit looking bridge at Alpine Road comes into view next. In spite of its discernible deterioration, it’s stain-streaked with surprisingly cool colors that actually reminded me of Pictured Rocks in the U.P. (I know how crazy that comparison sounds, but compare the pylon to the pastel-streamed cliffs and tell me I’m totally off base.) Anyway, you’ll pass a couple more houses, a couple more tall tree-lined banks, continuous riffles, etc. A few small islands will braid the river into narrow side channels. I always went to the right, as it looked less shallow. After some meandering, there’ll be a clearing on the right and an unusual tree house/deer stand-like white structure. It is nothing less than the Town of Falls Fire and Rescue Training Tower. Also, by now the traffic from Highway 23 is pretty loud.
The bridge at County Road T comes next, where Svob indicates an access on “downstream-right,” even though the map shows it on the upstream side. Either way, the gradient here is steep, and I don’t know where you’d leave a car or why you’d use this access when there is a much better one a mile downstream. Moments later you’ll pass under the twin bridges of chatty Highway 23 followed immediately by the attractive Old Plank Road Trail bridge. There’s a long island that spans the length of all three bridges but does not divide the streambed in equal halves. The left channel will be wider and deeper. Shortly after this, on your right will be… you guessed it: a tall tree-lined bank. The river will loop back towards Highway 23 for a brief moment before making a sharp right-hand bend and heading due south. At this bend is an inconspicuous little concrete apron on the left that provides a great access to the river. It’s part of a wayside park connected to a trailhead of the Old Plank Road Trail. From here it’s only 5 miles to Sheboygan Falls, which sure is skimpy. However, if you were to have begun your paddle in Johnsonville, this would be a great place to end, making for a neat and tidy 12-mile trip.
For the next mile it’s nothing but fun, lively riffles to the next bridge at Meadowlark Road. Here begins the residential section as you enter the outskirts of Sheboygan Falls. Still though, some tall banks, swift current, and clear water will keep everything engaging. The next bridge is at County Road C, where Svob states there’s access on the downstream, river-left side. There could be – I did not have his guide with me while paddling any of these Sheboygan River trips. The satellite map shows an open field here adjacent to a large parking lot and then a restaurant. But it’s only two more miles from here until the official take-out. So, unless you want to be cute and get takeout from the restaurant at your take-out (or even more mind-blowing, dine in at your take-out (whoa, man!), I’d just as soon keep on.
To be sure, you’ll see some houses in these next two miles, but the woodsy banks do a great job of retaining the river’s natural feel. Plus that quick current and clear water are nothing to sneeze at (unless you have allergies). Take notice where there’s an unusual wide spot on the right, past a marshy spot with cattails, where the river takes at a sharp left bend. The mouth of the awesomely named Mullet River is located very unassumingly over there (We’ll report on the Mullet in a few more weeks, once we’ve got the Sheboygan all wrapped up).
Soon you’ll pass a ginormous white manufacturing plant on the right in a long straightaway. In the final half-mile the river will bend to the right, then left, and right again in a big letter ‘s.’ As it does so, you’ll enter the cozy confines of River Park (alas, not Wrigley Park, although the Cubs were on my mind, having just been spanked by the Dodgers 6-0 in Game 3 of the Division Championships the night before this trip; don’t worry, the Cubs would tie things up later that night in a commanding 10-2 victory… and, you know, go on to win the World Series in the most amazing Game 7 of all time in extra innings, by God!)
River Park is lovely. First, you’ll paddle beneath a surprisingly elaborate footbridge, then alongside a far less attractive concrete retaining wall on the right, then past some elegant weeping willows on the left. There is a boat “launch” here, on the right, before the next pedestrian bridge, although it’s very modest and easy to miss. Parking is right next to it, and I suspect that most paddlers would just as soon conclude their trip here.
I ventured on, however, because it seemed silly to stop here when there was another quarter-mile of paddling to an interesting looking dam and quaint powerhouse downstream. Plus that second pedestrian bridge is attractive in its own right (although you could quite easily paddle to the bridge and back, as there’s no current here). There’ll be one more road bridge at Main Street, and then the river bends right. The left bank is actually quite tall and totally woodsy here. There’s no official place to take out at the dam. But the bank on the right is essentially flat (though a little rocky). There’s plenty of space here before the powerhouse and lip of the dam, so safety should not be an issue. Also, there’s a small parking lot located right at the powerhouse, so you don’t have to schlep your boat and gear but a few feet.
I suppose the only real argument for taking at by the dam is to then venture to Settlers Park on the downstream side of the dam. For what it’s worth, this is approximately where adventurous whitewater paddlers would start for the brief but ballsy run down the series of dolomite ledges that gave Sheboygan Falls its name in the first place. Settlers Park is only the very, very beginning of such a run. The dramatic ledges truly only begin below the main bridge in town, Monroe Street/County Road PP. To get the best view of the falls you’ll want to walk along unambiguously named Sheboygan Falls View Park, off of Broadway Street. It’s only 30-ish yards, but looks like a ton of fun in the right boat and with the right gear (and skills).
What we liked:
With an average gradient of 5 feet per mile, this trip down the Sheboygan is constantly jogging along. Moving water is why we so love paddling rivers to begin with! Added to that are the clear water and intimate nature of the environment. Not to repeat or parody ourselves, but the pattern of tall, tree-lined banks – especially in autumn – created some genuinely awe-inspiring moments and unforgettable memories. While there’s no lack of development along this leg of the river, it provides many welcome distractions that allow yourself to look past a house or loud road and just be immersed with the moment. It would be an embellished stretch to recommend driving a distance out of your way for the Sheboygan River; but if we lived in that neck of the woods, the Sheboygan would be an adopted stream we’d come back to again and again. It’s very endearing and quite pleasant.
And while not a part of this trip, taking 20 minutes to check out the ledges downtown is pretty awesome. In fact, downtown Sheboygan Falls is quaint and worth poking in a local café, bar, or restaurant. Even if you’ll never run the ledges here – and most paddlers won’t/can’t/shouldn’t – it’s still a fun treat to check out the site. Speaking of sites, man oh man, there’s a huge building right on the west bank of the river at the ledges. Formerly a woolen mill, today it’s been rehabbed into apartments and condos. Maybe it would get old after awhile (although we doubt it), but the sound of all that rushing water 24/7 outside your window? Boy howdy, how great would that be? (Hello? Anyone out there? Feel free to invite us for a beer sometime…) But dogs are prohibited, so scratch that.
What we didn’t like:
Sure, you’re essentially surrounded by development, but that’s a minor quibble when you’re not paddling a wild or scenic or protected river in the first place. By and by, we really liked this segment of the Sheboygan River and can’t find a whole lot to critique. Just be mindful of water levels, as scraping or taking your boat for a walk could make for a pretty lousy experience.
If we did this trip again:
We would do this again, definitely. But next time, if only to do something a little different, we’d start upstream in Johnsonville and then take out at either the wayside park/landing at the Old Plank Road Trail(head) or at County Road C, if after scouting it, it looked OK.
6 miles for bicyclists or cars, although the route for each is slightly different. Bicyclists are encouraged to take Fond du Lac Ave west, then north on County Road TT. Just before the intersection of TT and Highway 23 lies the Old Plank Road Trail that run east-west 17 miles connecting Greenbush and Sheboygan. Here it parallels Highway 23. Head north on Hillside Road. Cars will just head north on Main Street, then west onto Highway 23, then north on Hillside.