★ ★ ★

Sheboygan River V

Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park to Kiel:
An odd duck of a trip if there ever was one, this section of the Sheboygn River begins below one dam and ends above another, with a big ‘ole flatwater, cattail-lined marsh in between. This trip starts off on a narrow, riffly stream past small limestone rocks and then a pretty bottomlands surrounded by gentle kettle hills, but then disappears in a thicket of oxbows and deadfall before petering out again into the huge slog of a slow, windy marsh.

Sheboygan River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 14, 2016

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

~1′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Sheboygan: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 280

Current Levels:
Sheboygan: ht/ft: 2.12 | cfs: 125

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level – although we don’t really recommend this trip.

Also, it’s worth noting that this trip is a long way upstream from the official gauge, so correlating water levels is rather imperfect. Moreover, the big dam at the marsh, where this trip begins, undoubtedly skews water levels.

Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park dam
GPS: 43.84944, -88.04709
Dam off Fremont Street, Kiel, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.91239, -88.02728

Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 2:20p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Owl, hawks, great blue herons, deer and mink.


Ever hear of the Kiel Marsh before? Me neither. I’d had only the faintest recollection that there even is a town in southeastern Wisconsin called Kiel. But I was camping at a county park along the Sheboygan River, located at the end of one trip and the beginning of another (i.e., this one). Besides, covering the entire river was part of my self-assigned homework. What the river/marsh would be like in this section, I myself had no idea and at the time I could find no information on it. That usually doesn’t bode well for anyone but the intrepid paddler. But I’d mapped it out, and the distance between the two dams at the put-in and take-out is just shy of 8 miles. How bad could it be?

Famous last words. (Well, at least infamous.)

Put in below the dam that helps maintain water levels on the Sheboygan Marsh. We recommend doing so on the south side, or river-right, because the access to the water is less rocky and more level. Before launching, I hadn’t noticed a stairwell to the water on that side of the river, which is why I put in on river-left. That and I seem to have a penchant for making things more complicated or difficult than need to be. For the first mile and change the river is one long, narrow, basically straight corridor. It has the look and feel of a canal, and one can assume it’s been artificially channelized. While this ordinarily would be uninspiring, the setting here is surprisingly pretty and engaging. To begin with, the water has that clear yet root beer-hued color that we just love. Second, there’s actual current in this segment – nothing pushy, but welcome riffles nonetheless. Trees on both banks reach towards the center of the narrow river, creating a neat tunnel effect. Adding to this sense of enclosed intimacy are relatively tall banks roughly 20′ high on either side. It’s a subtle sensation until you pass a bridge or two and realize how unexpectedly high up those bridges are.

After half a mile or so, past the first bridge (County Road J) and just after a quaint old truss bridge, the right bank is composed of a quite attractive (and totally unexpected) wall of exposed limestone in jagged, crumbly layers stacked atop one another, with a stray vine of ivy or peek-a-boo fern added for a little pop of color. (See below under “What We Liked” for some limestone history on the area.) After the second road bridge (County Road MM), the right bank will yield to an open lawn and house. This is brief, however; right after it the river will take its first bend (to the left) and slip into intimate woods.

Those woods are lovely and deep indeed, but certainly not dark, at least at midday in autumn. But the woods are weird. What do we mean by “weird”? Well, for starters the landscape changes entirely. The river behaves like a river and not a straight, narrow canal. And now you’re in a forest-like setting. There’s even an exposed sandbank or two. From limestone to sand in half a mile? Next, there’s a kind of slalom course around a dozen or more muskrat huts – domed nests “of clay and wattles made” that are the rodent equivalent of poet William Butler Yeats’ Innisfree.

Totally adorable and uniquely situated, but a little tricky in a 15′-long kayak to maneuver around without disturbing.

Finally, there comes a really cool, but, well… weird setting where the mainstream just vanishes in a sprawl of floodplain bottomlands. Trees that aren’t but kinda seem like cypress belonging in a southern swamp dot the all but imperceptible current. It will not be easy to know what or where the actual mainstream is. So, take a moment to train your eye to look for the subtlest indication of current. You’ll likely have to zig here and zag there.

Then comes the ugly crap. There are two awful obstructions back to back. The first is a nasty snarl of downed trees, weeds, and backed up pond scum you’ll have to portage around. There are no great options; going left or right will be mucky and yucky. (Yes, I am quoting Yeats and using the word “yucky” only sentences away from each other… in a blog post about paddling, no less.) Just after you get back into your boat and onto the water again you’ll see before you a veritable wall of dead trees and detritus a solid 7′-tall that are part of the most absurdly ginormous logjam we’ve ever encountered (and we’ve seen our share). The river simply disappears. OK, you might think, it’s just a dead end, a slough to nowhere. You weren’t on the mainstream after all. Just go back and find the right way. Right?

Wrong. This is the river; it just stops. Stops the way rivers do at dams and then resume somewhere on the other side. Honestly, this obstruction is astonishing. You can actually see the monstrosity from the satellite map! Which is insane. This time around, we portaged on top of this barrier of decay. (We’re not necessarily recommending this, by the way.) The cluster of weeds and grass and logs is so thick you could literally climb and clamber over it, which is what we did, dragging the boat behind. The whole time I thought I’d fall through, like a crevasse in a glacier, but never did. All in all the schlep was about 30′ long. That was a first… and hopefully last.

Mercifully, there’s open water again on the other side. As the river bends right, there’ll be a tight squeeze or two around some strainers, but nothing necessitating another portage. You’ll see a wide channel to the right, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere. Shortly after this, the landscape finally opens up, first with tell-tale cattails on the right. Suddenly – and it really does feel like that – you’ll see a huge open body of water on the left. When we paddled this, I wondered aloud “What the… Where the hell is that coming from?” It definitely looks like it would be the main channel, but it just isn’t. It’s simply a backwater that looks all the more deceptive on account of a long peninsula-like tree line. The tree line divides the river just about perfectly into equal halves. So, what you see on the left looks like a separate channel, but it’s a trick of the eye. Confused? We were! But if you look at the map, it’ll make sense.

As you work your way up north, the river will gradually widen and slow to a crawl, but this is still before the veritable sprawl of the marsh proper. Eventually, you’ll see the first building in a long while on the right, together with a concrete apron that looks a whole lot like a landing. This building is a bar, located on Hermitage Road (a fitting name for a dead-end road with only one property on it). By all appearances, this should make for an excellent put-in/take-out.

The river will swing to the left (west), underneath another railroad bridge, and then meander through the marsh. We’re not the hugest marsh enthusiasts you’ll find, but there are some novelties we do appreciate – like sneaking through side channels created by cattail archipelagos. In the Kiel Marsh especially, you’ll be surrounded by soft kettle hills in the backdrop. They’re not exactly breathtaking, but they do provide some relief to what otherwise would be a flat and monotonous landscape. In the widest lake-like portion of the marsh you’ll begin seeing a church pinnacle and smokestack in Kiel. Another landing is found on what technically is “river”-left, off of 8th Street, a dedicated boat launch ramp. The river will meander again as it constricts, leaving the marsh, and go under that same track of railroad for a third time.

After the railroad bridge you enter the town of Kiel, where there’s a pleasant park on the right. Following a quaint footbridge is a somewhat disturbing open cemetery, also on the right, only 50′ from the water. Not to sound macabre or disrespectful, but… what happens when the river is high and spills over its banks? Anyway, just past that is the bridge at 1st Street and then the dam 500′ downstream. The warning signs are well-marked. The take-out is on the left, although there is no dedicated place to do so. It’s just riprap along a 3′-tall inclined bank. Not the best, but pretty easy to access. Once you’re on dry land again, it’s worth having a look-see at the old mill building. There’s parking along Fremont Street.

Finally, it’s worth noting that from Kiel to Millhome lie some five miles of runty paddling due to the presence of not one, not even two, but three-count ‘em-three dams. 3 dams in 5 miles? What is this, Cedarburg? That’s a lot of flatwater impoundment, much of it surrounded by houses and highways and next to non-existent take-out portages.

What we liked:
The first mile+ is really great! The scenery and sense of intimacy is quite palpable as you cruise along brisk riffles and past tall, enclosed banks. We’re suckers for rock outcrops of any kind, and the random limestone wall was a welcome surprise.

Fun fact: Just before the bridge at County Road MM there’s a “Lime Kiln Road” on the right that runs parallel to the river, while off to the left and faintly discernible from the water are the remains of four 50′-tall actual lime kilns. A century ago, limestone was quarried a hundred feet away from the kilns, and tamarack trees from the Sheboygan Marsh were felled and burned as fuel to the tune 2,000 degrees in order to create lime that then was used as fertilizer for farm fields. The kilns got the axe (so to speak) in the 1920s, but they’ve been essentially preserved by a family that lives on the property. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more on that plus some great photos, archival and contemporary, see here.

The so-called “weird” woods are pretty awesome, frankly. The muskrat huts, the bottomlands sprawl with trees growing out of the water, the dense woods and occasional sandbanks – all led to a really pretty and engaging landscape.

The marsh is not without its charms, especially all the braided side channels created by cattail clusters. And the views of the kettle hills in the area added a nice touch to punctuate the flat landscape.

Unrelated, one of my childhood friends in New Jersey was named Brian Kiel. I had no idea it was a German surname. Then again, so is Bauer. (The German word bauer means peasant farmer, incidentally. Maybe that’s why I don’t like gardening…) Alas, there is no “Bauer, Wisconsin.” There is a state natural area named Bauer Brockway Barrens, located plumb in my favorite part of the state – the Black River Falls area – but that’s a distant second to having a whole community with your namesake.

Alas, neither is there a Kalpinski, Wisconsin. Though there really should be!

What we didn’t like:
The two logjams/portages are just preposterous. They basically ruin this trip from otherwise being a totally viable paddle. What we mean by that is this: you can’t experience the cool stuff in the beginning without enduring the logjams, but the trip after the logjams is more or less monotonous marsh, which unless you live in the area, you’d really never go out of your way to paddle.

And like paddling any marsh anywhere, be mindful of the wind and what direction it’s coming from. Not only is there essentially no current, but it can be truly arduous paddling against a strong headwind with no help from the water for mile after mile. That ain’t no fun.

If we did this trip again:
Alas, we probably wouldn’t – again, on account of those sci-fi-worthy logjams. Otherwise, this is just marsh paddling.

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 IV: Millhome to Johnsonville
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

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