County Road J to Lake Michigan
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A true gem of a stream, the highlight of which is its endless riffles and playful current. Add to that a pretty environment with lovely moraine hills, numerous public parks and one of the most breathtaking scenes you’ll experience while paddling: the delta of the Pigeon River entering Lake Michigan. Notoriously low water levels, quick drainage, some development and no fewer than four necessary portages do diminish some of this trip’s charm but that aside, the Pigeon will have you cooing with delight.
December 5, 2015
11′ per mile
Sheboygan: ht/ft: 2.9 | cfs: 483
Gauge note: This is the Sheboygan River gauge, located near its confluence at Lake Michigan. The Sheboygan is a bigger river than the Pigeon and drains a larger watershed. As such, this is an imperfect correlation. However, it does give a better-than-nothing sense of recent rain and activity in the area since the Pigeon is only a handful of miles north of the Sheboygan gauge.
Alternatively, check the visual gauge of rocks on the downstream side of the County Road J bridge. If submerged, you’ll have plenty of water. Anything notably lower than the photo below will result in scraping.
We recommend this level. While the river can be run lower than what we did it at – and would probably feature clearer, prettier water – the tradeoff would be inevitable scraping.
County Road J, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
County Road LS, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 8.5 (1.75 miles from take-out to Lake Michigan and back)
Wildlife: Four deer, wood ducks, a mink and several great blue herons.
Christening it “the champagne of southern Wisconsin rivers… because it’s so clear and bubbly,” a close friend of mine has championed the Pigeon River for as long as I’ve known him. Why has it taken me six years to check out such an alluring stream? For one, it’s two hours away and there’s no gauge to know if it’s high or low – and the problem is it’s usually too low, given the outstanding gradient of the stream.
For another, after so much mythologizing, I could only paddle this river with my friend, not alone, and it’s taken awhile to align the timing and circumstances between both our schedules allowing for a 4-hr roundtrip drive when the river is running high enough. That is, except for December 2015, at the 11th hour of the paddling calendar, thanks to mild climes and recent rain.
Enter the three of us – the Kayak Guru, the Paddling Fanatic and the Minister of Rivers. Between my friend (the Guru) and his friend from Milwaukee who joined us (the Minister), the two of them have paddled the Pigeon at least 20 times whether together or separately. As such, they’ve experienced it in all conditions: raging high, scraping low and when the salmon are running (more on salmon in a moment.) They’ve been on it when it’s muddy brown and have been baptized by its crystal clear waters too.
Like any river with a gradient worth its salt, the Pigeon is fickle. It’s usually too shallow to paddle enjoyably (or without donating pieces of your boat onto the rocks of Sheboygan County) but when it does have enough water to run it doesn’t last long. Timing truly is everything. If you happen to catch it when the water is high yet clear, then mazel tov, my friend! And if salmon are running too, well then that’s just lagniappe. (Yup, salmon lagniappe!)
Put-in at County Road J on river-left. There’s better access on the downstream side of the bridge, but this might technically be encroaching upon a golf course. If in doubt, the upstream side would work, too. For the first half-mile you’ll paddle alongside a golf course on river-right – the first of two on this trip.
But soon you slip into a woods and disappear in a delightful run of frisky riffles. Even when the golf course appears again you’ll be too happily distracted by the light rapids to pay it much attention. The same can be said about the occasional houses here and elsewhere on this trip. Here and for most of this trip the river is only 20-30’ wide. The gradient is the steepest in the first two miles, from the put-in to the County Road Y bridge.
A hundred yards below County Road Y will be an ugly logjam you’ll have to portage on the left. The landowner has generously granted permission to the public here and you’ll even see a feint walking trail. Be courteous and respectful, please. Don’t get too cozy when re-entering the river, because there is yet another impassable jam only 30 yards or so downstream from the first. Again, portage left (there’s actually a third one a short distance after these first two but you should be able to sneak around it on the far-left). The setting for the next half-mile is gorgeous: woodsy and secluded, the banks reaching as high as 50’, with boulders dotted here and there in the stream.
Soon the woods will clear and you’ll approach the next golf course. Once in the golf course proper you’ll encounter the first of two fords on this trip. You’ll have to portage on the right (in theory, if the river were extraordinarily high, you could paddle over this in the center). The best run of rapids begins after re-entering the river and through the golf course. Once more it’s only half a mile before you slip back into secluded woods. Riffles and light rapids continue, however, whisking you past a curtain of billowy hills on the left 50’ high as well as a wall of eroded sand (maybe clay).
After crossing under the interstate bridge you’ll come upon the second ford, this time for a farm. After this last portage a gorgeous stretch of two miles awaits you, treating the tickled paddler with countless riffles and light rapids through undeveloped woods and savanna composed of two separate public parks, one on each side of the river.
Immediately below the Highway 42 bridge is a tricky quirk not to underestimate (like I did). The river narrows, abruptly bends to the left, drops a couple inches, and as of this writing at least, there’s a large tree limb that depending on the water height as well as the length of your own torso will be anywhere from waist- to forehead-high. Be careful here and either duck underneath this or portage around it. Snapping it off while sitting in your boat is not advisable – trust me on this one.
After this hazard there will be a huge rock quarry that today is a public park. You can’t see the quarry from the river, but it’s worth getting out on the right shortly downstream from the tree hazard to stretch your legs and take a look at it. You can even go swimming in it – though that did not seem too appealing in December. Where it gets woodsy again, pull off on the right, stretch your legs and check it out. Watch out for mountain bikers though! A rugged bike path runs along the river here. Also, there’s a large and quite lovely disc golf course here. How often can you take a quick break from paddling to play a couple rounds?
A mile later you’ll pass through a beautiful railroad tunnel made out of huge limestone blocks. The actual tracks are above you, and the ceiling of the cylindrical tunnel is at least 20’ high – it’s quite picturesque (that is, unless you’ve ruined your camera due to the underestimated strainer alluded to above and mentioned in greater detail below). By now most of the riffles have sloughed off. A gentle straightaway takes you to a dedicated take-out at County Road LS (aka Lakeshore Road) on the left just below the bridge.
Here you have three options: end your trip now (not recommended), paddle down to Lake Michigan and then back upstream to LS (absolutely recommended!), or paddle down to the Lake, turn right (south) and finish this fun trip for two miles of sea(ish) kayaking down to an eastward jutting point and public park (recommended only if you’re into and properly geared for that type of paddling, especially if it’s windy and there are waves).
It’s worth noting that the Pigeon River is one of a few renowned rivers in southeastern Wisconsin for salmon runs. Now, I myself know nothing about this. But my two friends have been on the Pigeon when all you had to do was hold out a net and the steelheads would just jump into it. Or bump into your boat while obsessed with the spawn. That’s an extra treat (aka “salmon lagniappe”), one of several on this otherwise underscored river.
What we liked:
The rapids, baby, the rapids! Disclaimer: these are not rapids that would interest serious whitewater paddlers – nothing on this trip, at least at the level we did it at, is higher than a Class I. But for the “lightwater” paddler, this trip is virtually nonstop fun.
Riffles begin only a hundred yards from the put-in and they continue or increase all the way to the takeout. The hilly landscape and steep wooded banks in the enclosed sections treat you to some of the prettiest paddling you’re likely to encounter on a stream you’d never heard of before. And I really appreciated the planning of parks and recreational opportunities along the river in the second half of this trip. The folks up in Sheboygan County have recognized the potential for this stream, and we the public are the beneficiaries of that forward-thinking.
The railroad tunnel is one of the prettiest I’ve paddled through; it just has that look and feel of early 20th Century masonry, plus who doesn’t like a random train tunnel in a woodsy corridor? The last mile of this trip, while slow in current, is still pretty since most of it lies within public land (that is, everything on river-left. The right bank is flanked by a dozen or so houses on top of a 20’-tall bank, some of the houses ostentatiously huge. But I’m sure each one is a not-for-profit group home for troubled youths from inner city Milwaukee).
But it’s easy to dismiss the displays of wealth once Lake Michigan comes into view (or earshot). The scene of the wonderful Pigeon River spilling into huge, beautiful Lake Michigan is something so truly exquisite it’s difficult to describe. It’s the closest I personally have ever experienced of a river meeting its source at the sea. To be sure, Lake Michigan is not an ocean. But at the coast it sure looks like one (shore looks like one?). Especially when there are 2’ waves rolling in one after another. How often do you get to paddle actual rapids on a rollicking creek as well as swelling waves on a huge body of water in one trip? I cannot overstate how glorious this was!
Paddling into the waves was an all-out bronco ride. I did get swamped on one such wave but it was fun and fabulous. And then turning around I got to ride a couple waves taking me back to the sand. It was exhilarating!
What we didn’t like:
None of the portages were difficult but I can’t say I especially “liked” them (the first two are very muddy – we all wore knee-high rubber boots, which worked great but if paddling this trip in warm weather in sandals it might be a sloppy affair). The down tree logjams, well that’s just a force of nature. The two fords are another matter. I’m not sure if they’re even legal, technically. All things considered, they’re minor annoyances – definitely worth the slight hassle for all the good this trip has to offer.
The principal complaint about this trip is the strainer hazard immediately below the Highway 42 bridge. This simply needs to be sawed off and done away with. I tried to snap it off to allow for safer passage, but in doing so I lost my paddle, which quickly got swept away from me in the swift current and into the branches of a fallen tree. In order to rescue it I had to pull myself sideways back into the tree using another stray branch. (Can you anticipate where this is going?)
After reaching out for and retrieving my paddle I had inadvertently leaned sideways, just enough for a rush of water to spill into my boat. Because the current is so strong here my boat filled up with a gazillion gallons of water in about three seconds. I knew what was happening, but it was happening too fast for me to do anything about. I had to forcibly wet-exit in order to hold onto my boat and paddle. Alas, my totally not-waterproof camera was still around my neck. It was submerged for only a few seconds, but apparently that was enough. It was done for. (And at the time of this writing, two weeks later, the camera is toast. Requiescat in pace, camera!)
By and by, it was fine. I had a dry bag of extra clothes to change into, but not another camera… That would be why there are no photos of the cool railroad tunnel, no photos of the take-out and no photos of Lake Michigan (it was gone, all gone! No turkey! No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone, ALL GONE!).
So, to recap, this trip took us 4 hours but only due to 4 portages with 3 boats, 1 capsize/gear rescue/emergency change of clothing, goofing off to play a few rounds of disc golf at a dedicated course along the river and a 2nd capsize in the waves of Lake Michigan. Your time will surely vary.
If we did this trip again:
This trip had a lot riding on it in terms of anticipation. I had heard so much about this most vaunted of rivers that, in a certain sense, it was set up for disappointment. This is not to say that I actually did find it disappointing; rather, it’s simply to keep in mind that one person’s adulation is seldom appreciated to the same degree as another’s.
The Pigeon is my pal’s baby. He “discovered” it about 10 years ago while working in the Sheboygan area and together with his friend, the Minister, the two established the proper put-in and take-out in the truest sense of pioneers: in the absence of any other info on the Pigeon in any published book or paddling blog. This is a great trip, and I’m very glad I was (finally!) able to experience it. But I wasn’t as amazed or enamored by it as my friend. Again, that’s bound to happen. It’s always fun to paddle a new stream, especially one with riffles and rapids. And if it’s a stream about which there’s virtually no published information, then it’s a gift in receiving but also in giving back to the paddling community.
That said, we’ll definitely do this trip again – just not in December or during cold water seasons. And next time with a waterproof camera!
It would be outstanding if there were a place to take-out at Lake Michigan but there simply isn’t (at least not without trespassing on private property). You can add two miles to this trip and paddle the great lake to the nearest public access point in Sheboygan, but that’s another matter altogether. If you’re not comfortable or familiar with sea kayaking (or the Great Lakes equivalent) and if the wind is whipping up waves at an exhausting, white-knuckled pace, then this is not a great idea.
Alternatively, you can simply start your trip at County Road LS and paddle Lake Michigan as its own short excursion.
Wikipedia: Pigeon River
3.8 miles by car. Longer by bike, because the shortest shuttle route is not bicycle-friendly.