★ ★ ★ ★

Sheboygan River IV

Millhome to Johnsonville:
Arguably the wildest and wooliest section of the Sheboygan River, this trip will be most suitable for roguish paddlers who are comfortable with the occasional discomfort of obstacles to dodge in a current that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The payoff will be a paddling equivalent of being “off the grid” and exploring an obscure but rewarding portion of the river. Clear water, a riffly current with a half-mile-long run of Class I rapids, boulder gardens, steep wooded banks, a couple background hills, and just a tangible sense of interrupted primitiveness make this a special trip. As with all Sheboygan River trips, timing this in autumn will be captivating.

Sheboygan River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 13, 2016

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I

~6′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Sheboygan: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 330

Current Levels:
Sheboygan: ht/ft: 2.20 | cfs: 122

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. That said, keep in mind that this section of the river has a steep gradient and will require good flow to be floatable.

Also, it’s worth noting that this trip is a long way upstream from the official gauge, so correlating water levels is rather imperfect. In addition to that, this trip begins right on the downstream side of a dam – which will impact flow rates – and ends just before another. Beyond this trip, the river will be impeded three more times by dams (in Sheboygan Falls and Kohler), which also will affect water levels. So, the above USGS gauge is provided as an indicator that’s better than nothing, but one to be taken with a grain or two of salt. The best way to know where the river’s at is to eyeball the rapids in Franklin via the Main Road bridge.

Millhome dam, off Gierke Road, Millhome, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.89422, -87.96316
Laack’s Schnappsville Park, (off County Road JM, behind the fire department), Johnsonville, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.79938, -87.91121

Time: Put in at 10:50a. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 3h 40m
Miles Paddled: 11.5

Owl, hawks, wood ducks, great blue herons, kingfishers, mussels and deer.

Shuttle Information:
9.2 miles for bicyclists or cars, long and monotonous, but safe.


In our last two trip reviews of the Sheboygan River, we took a moment to clear some ambiguity about the Sheboygan River vis a vis Mike Svob’s classic Paddling Southern Wisconsin. For instance, the map provided for his first Sheboygan River trip encompasses a large area – Millhome to Sheboygan Falls, a distance of some 27 miles – although he really only describes the section from Johnsonville to Sheboygan Falls (16 miles). He does mention the Millhome portion insofar as saying that it’s comparable to the Johnsonville to Sheboygan Falls section, but sternly warns in no uncertain terms that, on account of the “HAZARDOUS” (all caps his) dam in Johnsonville, paddlers are advised to take out well upstream.

Let us state here and now that we respect and understand what the good Svob is getting at here. The official portage/take-out is relatively close to the lip of the Johnsonville dam (which itself is nothing more than a decrepit and broken concrete shelf). But, honestly, you’d have to be pretty drunk to miss it. (Then again, the take-out here is at a place called “Schnappsville Park”…) Regardless, it’s at least as close as other dam portages he describes elsewhere in recommended Sheboygan River trips. To be sure, both require caution. But it seems unbalanced to nix one section of the river while promoting another, even though both have portages that are unquestionably close to the dams themselves.

If anything is peculiar, it’s why whoever called the shots (schnapps, eh?) on where to put the portage take-outs did so unreasonably close to the respective dams. They couldn’t have pushed them back, like 10′ further upstream from the lips of the dams?

Or, you know, get rid of the damn things today? They serve no function, for the record.

Another peculiarity is that Svob indicates putting in for the Millhome section at Highway 57 (downstream-right). Yeah, no. Maybe it’s just a matter of publication dates and road construction changes, but Highway 57 is a non-starter in every sense. There’s nowhere to park near the bridge, traffic is fast and heavy, and access is crappy. All respect due to Meister Svob, but he is just dead wrong about this. Furthermore, County Road MC is only a ¼ mile downstream and a much better, much safer starting point. Maybe that’s what he meant and his editor got it wrong…

Anyway, all that said, we were really eager to explore this obscure section of the Sheboygan River. Between it not being elaborated by Svob and it flowing through a relatively undeveloped part of the county, with promising topography no less, it had a hint of the wild about it, which totally intrigued us. Of course, we recognize that we’re never (well, at least hardly ever) the first persons to truly pioneer paddle a little-known stream or little-known section of a somewhat-known stream – hell, here’s a video of two guys in a canoe paddling this trip well before we ventured out there – but still it’s fun to think so at the time. At the very least, we may be the first odd ducks to be describing and providing info on it.

You’re at least palpably in the boondocks as you drive down the isolated Rhine Road and turn right onto the dead-end Gierke Road to as far down and close to the dam as you can get. The setting is a bit ambiguous, but we saw no signs of private property/trespassing literally or figuratively. Besides, there has to be a public right-of-way portage around dams on a navigable body of water.* The situation on the opposite bank (technically, river-left) is just as formidable. We chose river-right because it was safer to access via bicycle. Regardless, we still recommend river-right whatever your means of shuttling are. It’ll be a short schlep of 60′ from the road to the river, but the slope is steepish and it’s all riprap rocks at the water’s edge. Tread lightly and be kind to your ankles.

(* Well, that is until the Republican controlled State Legislature & Governor decide to reverse that, too.)

Launch off the riprap wherever it’s easiest and furthest away from the discharge current from the dam. This is a seldom paddled segment of the Sheboygan River, and there are a couple nasty obstacles in the first half-mile, admittedly. Solid boat control and the ability to maneuver around, under, and over some strainers are why only experienced paddlers should consider this trip. (Alternatively, one can skip this section and instead put in at County Road MC on the downstream side of the bridge, river-right. There is no official access, and the incline from the road to the water is steep and weedy, but it’s totally doable (and a feint footpath there indicates others have done so). Starting at MC would cut out ¾ of a mile.)

On the left, just below the dam, is a charming old red mill building, complete with a humongous water wheel. On the right are woods, which shall soon enclose most of the river. Crystal clear water, riffles, and small boulders are the signature features of this section of the Sheboygan. They’re found right off the bat, and they shall prevail for this entire trip. Even if the river is only 1′ deep you’ll have enough water to paddle without scraping too often; but you will need to read the river constantly to avoid running into rocks or running aground in shallow shoals. It’s not at all arduous – indeed, it’s part of the fun! Combined with the rugged woods and surrounding hills, the river here truly feels wild in nature.

Wild, in spite of the many bridges you’ll paddle under – 10 total, which is a lot for an 11.5-mile trip.

From the bridge at Highway 57 for the next five miles or so there should be no more major obstacles to contend with. Periodic riffles will whisk you past an abandoned rusty truss bridge, in turn followed by the next bridge at County Road MC. The river now slows down some, and the surroundings become serene where a long line of tall pine trees flanks the right bank and a big hill looms before you off to the east. Here and there you will see flickers of development – a small pier, a deer stand – but they are few and far between. Riffles and boulders return as the river heads to the next bridge at County Road EH. Below the bridge are the concrete foundations from a former bridge, today just the vestige of a time-forgotten moment in transportation. A beautiful sweep of steep-hilled woods comes next on the right, the river still bubbly and boulder-strewn, before quieting down again in a pleasant straightaway. In such moments, a paddler can be forgiven for mistaking this section of the Sheboygan River for a wilder, less developed stream up north.

The landscape varies from hardwood forest to low-lying floodplain, an occasional field of corn to woodsy hills. Frisky riffles will lead you to the bridge at Willow Road, after which you’ll see a large ridge on the left. There’s a convenient access located at the following bridge, on County Road MM, on the upstream side, river-right, where there’s a fire hydrant. Beginning here would shave off three miles from this trip. A small stream comes in on the right below the bridge. After a few houses the woods pleasantly return and envelop the peripheries. Below the next bridge at Franklin Road you’ll pass a couple trailers, shacks, and weeping willows, but again only briefly. As you approach the next bridge at County Road FF, be careful to keep to the far left; a large logjam lies in the center, and the far right was too shallow and rocky when we paddled this. A small island appears shortly after the bridge. Either channel is passable, though the left is more intimate. After a tunnel effect of center-leaning alders from both banks, itself a pretty neat effect, a lovely and truly peaceful sweep of tall pine trees gracefully bends to the right from the left.

The river will begin to taper as you approach the tiny town of Franklin, first discernible by a soft cascade of weeping willows, some houses, lawns, boulder-lined banks, and reawakened riffles. There used to be a dam in Franklin, but it was thankfully removed in 2002. The best riffles and light rapids of the day – but also the shallowest section on this trip – are found in a half-mile stretch. There are some snags and strainers to avoid in the brisk current, so be careful. In quick succession you will pass the Main Road and County Road A bridges. Just below the former is the tall old feed mill building, an industrial iconoclast on this otherwise natural setting trip.

In the remaining 3.5 miles the river will alternate between brisk current and quietwater. Development becomes apparent only at the end of the trip, in Johnsonville. There remain many scenic vignettes of rolling hill backdrops, boulder beds, woodsy ridges, riffles and light rapids, and crystal clear water. Before the last bridge at Garton Road paddlers will have a navigational dilemma around a wide grassy island. Both channels are passable, but each has a strainer to be mindful of. After Garton Road the only hillside pasture on this trip will come into view on the right, while a couple large houses can be seen off to the far left. A short straightaway leads to the dramatic horizon line at the low-head dam in Johnsonville. As always, you’ll hear the roar of water first. (It’s like the opposite of lightning and thunder.) Take out at the concrete apron on the right. While the apron itself is relatively close to the lip of the dam, the current here is pretty slack, so taking out is easy and without worry. From here it’s a short schlep to the parking lot across the lawn of Laack’s “Schnappsville” Park.

What we liked:
There’s a Fiona Apple song with a line that goes “He said ‘It’s all in your head,’ and I said/“So’s everything,’ but he didn’t get it” I’ve always liked how clever and subtly on the nose that is. Of course everything is in our head. I say this because my fondness for this section of the Sheboygan may well be personal and subjective. Is it truly wilder and woollier than the segments up- or downstream? We think so, but other paddlers are welcome to contest that. All the same, it is a unique section of the river that has a rugged character enveloped by an aesthetic charm. The lively current, clear water, boulder gardens, pine-lined banks and soft background hills; the relative lack of development, the obstacles to dodge around or duck under, the fun half-mile run of light rapids in Franklin – all of these add up to just a great trip. However you dice it, everything’s coming up Milhouse!

What we didn’t like:
The put-in is crappy, but we’ve certainly endured worse. Between the poor access, parking, and proximity to the dam(n) discharge, some paddlers might wish to begin this trip ¾ mile downstream, at County Road MC.

We spent some time clipping, snipping, and sawing as many strainers as we could, but this is always a matter of playing defense. It’s been nearly 18 months since we did this trip, and who knows that this section looks like today… That ruggedness adds to the off-the-beaten-path allure of this section of the Sheboygan River, at least for those paddlers who are comfortable with a nuisance or two. Of course, in an ideal world, we’d love all our trips to be clear and clean, but that’s a pipe dream. Where it gets a little hairy is when obstructions come in strong current… So, all in all, while we don’t consider this an unsafe trip by any means, paddlers should know first that the likelihood of a dodgy spot or two is pretty good and will need to be reconciled in live time while on the water.

If we did this trip again:
We would and at some point will and do it exactly as we did it here, not changing a thing (except maybe for another couple of paddlers with saws and clippers to help clean up some of this section’s inevitable clutter).

Related Information:
Sheboygan River I: Sheboygan Falls to Lake Michigan
Sheboygan River II: Dassow Park to Sheboygan Falls
Sheboygan River III: Johnsonville to Dassow Park
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
Camp: Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park
Wikipedia: Sheboygan River

Photo Gallery:

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