Sheboygan River – Johnsonville
I’ve been interested in the Sheboygan River for a while based on pictures I’ve seen and a favorable review from canoe author Mike Svob. The idea this year was to save it for fall because of its abundant sugar maple population and a chance to experience the famous salmon run (they can get HUGE). While I did this perhaps a tad on the early side, it still worked well for a fall color paddle. No salmon unfortunately (turns out they hang out well downstream between the Kohler Dam and Hwy 43…shucks). This upper stretch was still very nice though with clear, swift current, clean gravel substrate, and attractive wooded banks.
Starting at the fire station in Johnsonville is a good way to begin the trip. Johnsonville is not much of a city and mostly services the local Johnsonville sausage factory (which will flank both sides of the river). Don’t run the low-head dam (dangerous), but I thought the second ledge (a partly removed dam) was manageable and is easy to scout if need be.
The trip starts on a great note, with many overhanging trees, super clear water and fun little riffles. You’ll paddle by a large clay bank before the river straightens out and opens up a bit by the Hwy J bridge. Hwy J is an access option with a pull-off on its southeast side and a small trail leading to the water. Canoe author Mike Svob strongly suggests paddlers put in here over Johsonville, but I disagree, as the fire station is a better launch site and allows you to run a nice sub-stretch of the river. The river loses its openness after Hwy J and becomes pretty narrow and shallow (which is nice and gives it character).
On the downside, there were some noise issues. The sausage factory (home of ‘Johnsonville Brats’) was very active, making a lot of noise and spewing smoke into the air, but really the major problem was the farm machinery, which was exceedingly loud for more than a mile. Just unlucky timing though and doubt most would deal with this. While the river mostly has a healthy wilderness buffer along its shoreline, there were some sections in which cows had direct access to the water and you could smell the manure. Most unfortunate, but not indicative of the river at large.
Again, the main impetus for doing the trip was the fall color and I was a tad early (drat!), but it was still nice. There were many leaves floating on the water and fluttering through the air, which kind of reminded me of falling snow. Neat experience.
After Woodland Road, most of the farm problems go away and the woods (aptly) return, which are quite beautiful. I definitely thought the second half of the trip was more scenic than the first (most of my photos are from the second half). The lighting was very challenging though and I don’t think I captured the essence of the trip, but there are still some nice pictures.
In conclusion, this was a great trip that I’ll give 4.5 stars for its clear water, riffles, rocks and nicely wooded banks. Highly recommended!
There is a public parking lot northwest of the Hwy JM bridge in Johnsonville that makes for a good landing (right by the fire station). If you want to run some minor rapids, you’ll have to drag your boat maybe 300′ over grass to launch just below the dam (I think it is worth it).
Great access and public parking for taking out at Dassow Park. Neither the put-in nor the take-out have facilities.
I’m not aware of any commercial liveries that service the upper stretches of the river.
The bike shuttle is hilly, but not unbearably so. Small shoulders, but light traffic and a length of only 3 miles make biking a good shuttle option.
Hazards and Log Jams:
No log jams!
For the most part, no hazards. However, there are two noteworthy ledges by the put-in (both super easy to avoid by just putting in downstream).
The first ledge is a low-head dam. Do not run this, as the shallow dam looks tippy and the re-circulating current grippy. If coming from upstream, this seems like an easy portage (canoe author Mike Svob was actually quite concerned about even attempting a portage, which frankly I didn’t see as an issue).
There is a second ledge shortly after the dam which is runnable and perhaps a low class 2. In higher water, this could be meaner though.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
Pay attention, as this is important. I went at 86 CFS per a gauge downstream in Sheboygan. This is doable, but for most would not be ideal. Now much of the river (maybe 90%) had no issues. However, many of the riffles (and there were a lot) were bumpy and I did have to get out several times. There was a canoeing family that went ahead of me, and I did see their paint on the rocks from time to time… When navigating, remember: still water runs deep.
What’s frustrating is that 86 CFS is actually relatively high for this river, so it is a tough river to time. I’m totally guessing here, but think 95 to 130 CFS might be ideal. 130-160 might be on the high side and 160+ might be near flood stage (guestimates…don’t hold me to any of this). I wouldn’t run the river too high though, as it has a lot of quaint character with the riffles, bends and clear water that would be easily drowned in high water.
The current itself was mostly pool and riffle. Pleasantly up-tempo, but never pushy.
Not much (typical for many fall paddles). Saw a crayfish, huge flocks of geese, bank beaver holes (I think), some fish darting through the water and dragonflies.
The Sheboygan is famous for its salmon, which do their run in October and can grow to be quite large. My hope was to spot them from the kayak, but as it turns out, Johnsonville was too far upstream for that (not that the salmon are lazy, they just don’t care for the three dams between Johnsonville and Lake Michigan). In hindsight there actually was an amazing stretch of the Sheboygan to kayak for Salmon spotting, but that was from Rochester Park to Esslingen Park (9.5 miles). Oh well…next October.
The prime fishing spots are below the Kohler dam (the last on the river), but access is controlled by ‘River Wildlife’, an upscale, exclusive resort that owns over five miles of shoreline. The corporation regularly patrols the shoreline and calls the police on trespassers (fishermen who don’t pay the insane access fees), but kayakers should be ok.
Thanks to Mike Svob, author of "Paddling Southern Wisconsin", for much of this information.
- Upstream of Hwy CCC: River looks too small and channelized to be interesting.
- Hwy CCC to Palm Tree Road landing: 3.17 miles. Interesting creek prospect with a mix of wetlands and woods. Part of a State Natural Area with a cool bridge. Warning the weeds in late summer can make navigation difficult. A group got lost here and had to call 911.
- Palm Tree Road to Sheboygan Marsh Tower: 8.8 miles. The heart of the Sheboygan Marsh and probably similar to Horicon Marsh. Some flowage paddling and channelized sections.
- Sheboygan Marsh Tower to Hwy MM: 1.1 Miles. Probably nice, but with logjams and a possible fish barrier. Am not 100% sure that Hwy MM is ok for public access.
- Hwy MM to Kiel (8th St.): 5.9 miles. First 1.3 miles is mostly wooded and probably nice, with perhaps a few jams. Then it is open marsh to Kiel.
- Kiel (8th St. landing) to Kiel (Rockville Road landing): 2 miles. Seemingly pleasant urban paddle, but a dam and two flowages to contend with.
- Kiel (Rockville Road) to Steinthal Road/Dam: 0.7 miles. Very big flowage...looks boring.
- Steinthal Road/Dam to Rockville Road: 1.2 miles. Looks like a pleasant wooded section with maybe a log jam.
- Rockville Road to Millhouse (Gierke Road/Dam): 2.5 miles. Mostly minor flowage paddling.
- Millhouse Dam to Hwy FF: 5 miles and a good prospect. Dam might not be a good put-in though. Hwy 57 is a half-mile downstream and a good backup plan.
- Hwy FF to Johnsonville Dam: 5 miles and also a good prospect. Be careful of the dam in high water.
- Johnsonville to Dassow Park: 6.4 miles. A good stretch. Hwy J and Hwy M are alternate launch options.
- Dassow Park to Hwy TT: 5 miles and a good prospect.
- Hwy TT to Hwy C: 3 miles and also seems good.
- Hwy C to Settlers Park (by the dam): 2.8 miles. A mediocre urban paddle through the city of Sheboygan Falls.
- Settlers Park to Sheboygan Falls View Park: 0.3 miles. A scenic but dangerous section with strong whitewater. Americanwhitewater.org has a nice review.
- Sheboygan Falls View Park to Rochester Park: 0.7 miles. A narrow wooded stretch with perhaps some Class 1 and even Class 2 rapids.
- Rochester Park to Esslingen Park: 9.5 miles. Despite being mostly a golf course paddle and needing to portage two dams, this is a really nice paddle. This trip is best timed in October when fall color can be quite good and you can see large salmon spawn.
- Esslingen Park to the 8th St. landing: 3.1 miles through the heart of Sheboygan. One more mile and you can get out onto the breakwater and disembark on one of Sheboygan's Lake Michigan parks.
Also nearby are the Pigeon, Meeme, Mullet, Black, and Onion rivers, as well as Sauk and Sucker Creek. I'm trying to find which are feasible water trails, so if you have some tips leave them in the comment section below.