Sheboygan River I
Sheboygan Falls to Lake Michigan
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Hardly a destination river trip to make a bucket list, but a splendid final segment of a great, underrated river in southeastern Wisconsin. This trip on the Sheboygan is never far away from development – actually, you’re pretty much right in the heart of lots of development (golf courses especially) – but it offers several woodsy scenes, lots of fun riffles, a cool urban/industrial corridor downtown, and access to Lake Michigan itself.
October 3, 2016
Skill Level: Beginner (Intermediate if you venture into Lake Michigan)
Class Difficulty: Riffles, Class I rapids in higher water (and waves on Lake Michigan)
~3′ per mile
Sheboygan River: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 600
We recommend this level. That said, this is relatively high, so the river can be paddled lower than this. How much lower? Good question. Minimum, 300 cfs.
Rochester Park, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
8th Street Boat Launch, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:40a. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 3h 50m
Miles Paddled: 15
Wildlife: Hawks, wood ducks, great blue herons, egrets, seagulls, and whole lotta steelhead running like a marathon.
This probably won’t come as a big surprise for some who follow our site (for which we never take for granted but are always grateful!), but following the publication of the south central Wisconsin paddling guidebook, I (Timothy) began work on my next project: a sibling guidebook covering southeastern Wisconsin. You already know what they say about not quitting your day job, but do you know what I say to what they say?
So, I took two months off in autumn 2016, having quit my job and moved out of my apartment in Madison, to commence a “paddling sabbatical” (aka sapaddlecal), wherein I paddled during the day and then camped at various state and county parks at night (or crashed on a couch in Cedarburg – thanks again Andy!). Once a week or so I’d stay at a friend’s cabin with my dog for a few days to write about the places I’d been visiting before going back “to work.” Between Packers games, playoff baseball and the presidential debates, there was a lot to drink about (did I mean think about?).
It was romantic in a way, a grownup and outdoorsy Holden Caulfield sort of thing. Granted, when you learn of some of the exploits done by bad-ass paddlers speaking at Canoecopia or interviewed in magazines – circumnavigation of Lake Superior or sea kayaking with polar bears in Hudson Bay; self-support, solar-powered solo trips down the Mississippi from source to sea or staring down death in the first descent of the Elwha River’s Grand Canyon blindfolded and backwards – then car camping in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, is about the lamest couch potato form of recreation I can think of. Still though, it was a lot of fun and a meaningful experience for me personally, even if it wasn’t that bold or ballsy. I’ll just have to find another time in life to drop everything and merge an Eat, Pray, Love with The Alchemist combo/choose your own adventure series.
Knowing me, that could be tomorrow.
Regardless, one of my self-assigned tasks was paddling all of the Sheboygan River. At about 80 miles long, there are several day trips to explore – most of them quite good. That said, the river cannot really be paddled upstream of St. Cloud. And there are a total of four dams in a skimpy 13-mile distance between the Sheboygan Marsh and the blink-missed hamlet of Millhome. After Millhome, there are four more dams along the way before the river reaches Lake Michigan (Damn, Sheboygan – them’s a lotta dams for a short river: 1 per 10 miles on average). Fortunately for the paddler, two of those will be skipped outright (Kiel and Rockville) and four of them coincide with beginning or ending an individual trip (i.e., not having to portage). All in all, only two of the dams require portaging around – both on this trip, the final segment of the Sheboygan River.
Also worth noting is that this final segment of the Sheboygan River was marked as an “Area of Concern” in the 1980s due to the high levels of PCBs in the sediment, generously donated by corporate sponsor and former manufacturer plant, Tecumseh Products, in Sheboygan Falls. The river then became a superfund cleanup project by the EPA. At the risk of sounding testy or defensive, for those naysayers out there who think government is the problem of everything and the solution to nothing, or that there are just too many regulations choking the free market and killing jobs, well, let the Sheboygan River illustrate a thing or two. Today, you can eat the fish you catch that a couple decades ago you wouldn’t want to touch with a 10′ pole.
You’ll begin at the hard-to-find but easy-to-access (once found) Rochester Park. There’s no official launch, but the bank is low and clear, with parking nearby. In theory, you could paddle upstream to the eponymous falls of Sheboygan Falls, but that would be pretty arduous. Better to see the falls by land – more on that in our next trip installment. Before you get carried away, take care to notice on the opposite bank (river-right) and you’ll see a rather modest looking stream enter the Sheboygan. That’s the Onion River, which I myself had paddled the day before this trip on the Sheboygan and which by total coincidence Barry had paddled two weeks beforehand.
The river width will range from 50-100′, depending on bends and straightaways. As such, it remains pleasantly intimate. The banks here are woodsy and alternate from flat to about 40′ tall. Here and there are riffles whisking you along a series of right and left bends as the river meanders in broad loops. On river-left you’ll pass a couple palatial estates likely from Kohler money. (Does the old term “filthy lucre” work here, given the whole Kohler plumbing thing?) There will be a break from these buildings followed by a big left bend. Then you might hear a rushing sound. Is it the wind blowing through leaves? Maybe, but it’s definitely the first dam too. There are two “Warning, Dam Ahead” signs, on the left, and you’ll have two portage choices, both with pros and cons. If you take out by the first warning sign, you’re plenty far from the dam itself, but then you have to schlep your boat about 900′. If you take out by the second warning sign, there’s a concrete apron immediately upstream of the dam, like within spitting distance. Maybe it was the high water, maybe it was using my 15′ long kayak with a sharp v-shaped hull, but I had a heck of a time “beaching” myself onto the apron while fishtailing sideways and then getting dragged backwards to the lip of the dam, a rather precarious premise. I am a far cry from a worrywart or safety-first kind of guy, but I was genuinely shocked by how close this official “Exit Here” portage is to the dam itself. So, just be mindful of it and not take it for granted. Or take the long portage.
(Incidentally, it looked like you could run the dam – which, yes, I know you’re not supposed to do, ever, etc. But at least at this water level there was plenty of cushion and more of a 45-degree angle ledge than a sheer 90-degree one. I’m not recommending you should run the dam, mind you. Just saying it probably could be done.)
A couple more huge horseshoe-shaped loops follow. During these you’ll pass a cool, quaint boxy brick building like a shoebox that was or still is a pumping station for Kohler. Following a big rightward bend, where the river sidles up parallel to a road for a moment, there’s a straightaway and a very dramatic horizon line, indicating the next (and last) dam. When I did this there were half a dozen fishermen, the first of whom I saw was simply from the waist up, like a magician’s trick sawing a person in half, not because he was wading in the water, but rather because that’s how high the horizon line is.
There’s no warning sign for this dam, but you don’t need one; the audio/visual department here is plenty telling. Portage left. This is a weird dam, as it looks like the kind of outdoor sculpture park in a big city’s downtown (think Government Center in Boston or Embarcadero in San Francisco) or an amphitheater. What I mean is it comprises a series of really wide stairs – from bank to bank – like a big letter ‘U’. I’d never seen such a structure before or since. The folks fishing were there for steelhead. I didn’t see any right there, at the base of the dam, but I would a couple miles later, downstream. Several, as a matter of fact, which was quite a sight.
Shortly after the dam you’ll see signs of the lush greens and hushed whispers of the Blackwolf Run golf course (which apparently is famous, but you’ll have to ask Barry about that). This is on the left, but soon you’ll be surrounded by the course on both sides. Fortunately, the river picks up speed here – which always is the case through golf courses, but why? – and you’ll be greeted by and treated to riffle after riffle. In his Paddling Southern Wisconsin guidebook, guru Mike Svob describes this section of the river as a “torturous sequence of bends,” but also goes on to say (in the same sentence no less) that it is one of the prettiest parts of the river. I still don’t know what he meant by “torturous.” We’ve paddled plenty more meandering streams, as he himself must have (many, many more times than we). It’s true that there’s one 4-mile section that if you drew a straight line from points A to B would be 1/3 of a mile long, so maybe it’s torture for logicians or engineers, but the paddling is nothing but pleasant.
Between the riffles and rocky shoals and attractive pedestrian (re: golf cart) bridges you’ll see a sign on the left bank stating “Canoe Landing,” but this is private; you have to be a “club member” to use it. Curiously but not coincidentally, you’ll soon see another sign after that warning you of firearms, as that’s also done at the club. The third thing you’ll see – and see over and over and over again – is one of the largest American flags in the world (70’x140’) attached to literally the tallest flagpole at least in North America (400′ tall). So, given its prominence and the meandering nature of the river in this section, you’ll see the flag many times from as many angles as you could ever want.
Something else that also is ubiquitous is the sound of noise from the interstate; the din is constant. So, while this whole area is pretty, and the riffles are fun and lively, it is a little compromised by a couple distractions.
Eventually the river becomes less kinky and more sober-minded as it flows first under the tall bridges at County Road A and then I-43. Right after the twin interstate bridges are more lively riffles and even some Class I rapids. There are two alternate accesses in the next half-mile. The first is on river-left upstream of the next bridge (Lower Falls Road aka County Road PP aka Indiana Avenue) at a small wayside called Esslingen Park. The second is on river-right downstream from the following bridge (Taylor Drive aka County Road TA) at another small wayside, this one called Roy Sebald Sheboygan River Natural Area. Both of these landings are great and would cut this trip to 9-ish miles. For those not interested in paddling through downtown Sheboygan, where the river slows down, widens out, and is totally developed on both banks, these accesses are excellent. But if you’ve never paddled the actual Sheboygan portion of the river, it’s definitely worth continuing for three more miles, at least once.
After a cool rustic wrought-iron railroad bridge, the river will swell considerably where a few small islands create several channels. The right channel seems to be the best bet for depth and relative lack of development. Another bridge comes into view, at nostalgically named New Jersey Avenue, with an even taller railroad bridge built atop huge stone pylons right behind and perpendicular to it. On the left, the bank is flanked by a soft wall of weeping willows indicating a large city park, Kiwanis Park, while on the right bank there are residential houses. Svob indicates a boat landing at Kiwanis Park, but I didn’t see anything from the river and don’t see anything obvious on Google Maps; it’s grassy and has low banks, with street-side parking feet away from the river, so taking-out here would be pretty easy.
The river heads north, turns right, and then back south in a big loop as you pass Kiwanis Park and then under the 14th Street bridge. You’ll see a Walgreens on the left, and a Boat Doctors on the right. There is a boat launch at Boat Doctors (again, river-right), just after 14th but before yet another railroad bridge. But you might as well just press on to 8th Street. A blend of warehouses, city parks, boat docks and restaurants set the scene for the final few miles. Just before the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge there’s a small island with its own boat slip and some kind of house. Kind of intriguing since there’s no way to get to this island other than a boat (or swimming). Finally, you’ll see a Sprecher’s Pub on the right bank, which is directly across the river from the take-out at the 8th Street public boat ramp, river-left, immediately upstream of the 8th Street bridge.
From the take-out it’s a mile and change to the breakwater at Lake Michigan. I went out to the lake and back because I was curious and because it’s pretty cool. I mean, how often do you get to paddle into Lake Michigan (at least when you live in Madison)? There’s a pleasant wharf section with cute shops, a recommendable café and pub, a Coast Guard station, and of course a lighthouse, at the end of everything. Needless to say, the water will begin to get wavy the further out you venture, downright choppy once/if you get out onto the open lake. This is a really fun experience, to be sure, and the views are pretty awesome. But it’s big open water, prone to wind and wave. You’d need to have some kind of open-water experience and the comfort and confidence to know how to handle this situation – up to and including what to do if you tip over (roll or wet-exit). Again, just be mindful.
Coming back to port (so to speak), there is a boat launch on river-right at the Sheboygan Yacht Club, in a marina, but I have to imagine it’s another “members only” sort of thing. Besides, it’s only a mile from there back to 8th Street, and there’s no current you’re paddling against, so why not take out where it’s free? On the return trip, take notice of the gorgeous graffiti on the inside wall of the bridge, river-left. Finally, the boat launch at 8th Street is a neat and tidy concrete ramp, where parking is located just feet away.
What we liked:
While never wild, given its surrounding development, this final leg of the Sheboygan River is nonetheless intimate, pretty, and engaging. The wooded hills are especially aesthetic – downright striking in peak foliage. And boy oh Sheboygan, if you can coincide this trip during fall colors and a steelhead run, it would be exhilarating!
Coursing through Blackwolf Run is not without its own novelty, and the peppy gradient in this section keeps you more attentive to the river than the greens.
Also, I actually really enjoyed the downtown/urban segment, a novelty unto its own. There’s something fun about going from woodsy corridors to industrial buildings, warehouses, and wharves. I can’t help from wondering what the river would have looked like prior to European settlement, naturally emptying into Lake Michigan… (Back in a time before time when the river could’ve been called the “Hegirlgan”?) Still, any venture into a huge open body of water like the Great Lakes is a whole lot of fun.
Finally, there are lots of accesses – and good ones at that, with plenty of parking and sometimes facilities – which makes this trip additionally inviting, especially if you live in the area.
Oh yeah, when in Rome… we recommend a stop by the taproom at 3 Sheeps Brewing (great for food and October baseball too).
What we didn’t like:
Geez Louise, Sheboygan County, what’s up with all your golf courses?!? I’m not kidding. I have no idea how close to accurate this is, but I’d swear that there’s more golfing in Sheboygan County, per capita or otherwise, than anywhere else in Wisconsin. They’re all over the place. I’m sorry/not sorry, but I have little to no tolerance for wealthy white people on fake land looking at me on a natural river as though I’m the one who doesn’t belong (fake land that’s awful for the environment, by the way).
I could have done without the two dams also, the first one especially. The portage landing is dangerously close to the lip of the dam itself, and by all appearances the dam seems to serve no purpose. It’s not hydroelectric, and it creates no lake impoundment. By contrast, it’s almost certainly concealing a natural rapid underneath it.
The constant highway noise as you paddle through the golf course was always unwelcome, as was seeing the ginormous American flag. I’m all for patriotism, but the insane size of this bespeaks chauvinism or just showing off.
And in a weird combination of annoying noise and redundancy, all along the riverwalk close to the breakwater are these lamp posts with a rotating propeller at their top with two fake hawks attached at each end circling round and round while a speaker pipes in seagull aw-aw sounds. It’s rather bizarre. I mean, the fake hawks on perpetual loop is one thing, presumably to deter seagulls, but there is more than enough natural annoying seagull squawks without additional recordings blaring on and off over and over. I pity the folks who work down there, indoors or out-, and have to put up with this crap all the time!
Finally, this isn’t a great trip for bike shuttling. Now, chances are this won’t be a concern for most paddlers, who’d be doing a regular car shuttle. But if you’re going solo, be prepared for traffic and detours.
If we did this trip again:
I’d definitely do this again, but next time I’d take out at Roy Sebald Sheboygan River Natural Area and skip the downtown section (I’m glad I paddled downtown, but there’s really no reason to do it again). Also, there’d be a much better bike shuttle option this way, as you could access the Taylor Drive Trail north to the Urban Rec Trail west and avoid most of the major roads and detours.
Sheboygan River II: Dassow Park to Sheboygan Falls
Sheboygan River III: Johnsonville to Dassow Park
Sheboygan River IV: Millhome to Johnsonville
Sheboygan River V: Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park to Kiel
Sheboygan River VI: St. Cloud to Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park
Camp: Kohler-Andrae State Park
Good People: Friends of the Black River Forest
Wikipedia: Sheboygan River
8 or 7 miles for bicyclists, 5.5 miles for cars. We’ve sure pedaled worst roads for bike shuttling, but this trip is a bit inconvenient due to detouring from unsafe highways. That’s why there’s a discrepancy in mileage for bikes and cars. Speaking of discrepancies, bicyclists can either take to the streets the whole way back to the put-in or access a trail for the first half of the shuttle via the Urban Rec Trail. I hadn’t known about this trail prior to this trip, and I wasn’t all that familiar with the Sheboygan area anyway. The trail is a little convoluted but looks fun from the satellite map.