★ ★ ★ ★

Sheboygan River VI

St. Cloud to Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park:
A surprisingly varied and pleasant trip for what otherwise might seem like a monotonous marsh, this section of the Sheboygan River rewards paddlers with a historic bridge, woodsy corridors, a labyrinth of side channels, and solitude on a very pretty wetlands.

Sheboygan River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 12, 2016

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

Gradient:
~1′ per mile

Gauge:
Sheboygan River: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 270

Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable. Also, it’s worth noting that this trip is a long way upstream from the official gauge, so correlating water levels is rather imperfect.

Editor’s update: Sometime in April 2018, the Sheboygan Marsh will be drawn down by the DNR to levels that may well preclude paddling, until the autumn 2018, when the marsh will be refilled. Think of it as the ecological equivalent of a road being closed for construction. For more info, see here. Thanks again to Nancy for letting us know about this!

Put-In:
Riverside Park off County Road G, St. Cloud, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park dam

Time: Put in at 8:40a. Out at 10:40p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 7.25

Wildlife:
Great blue herons, sandhill cranes, hawks, songbirds, all sorts of ducks and geese varieties and an otter!

Shuttle Information:
10.3 miles for bicyclists or cars. It’s long and a little hilly, heartbreakingly indirect and longer than the actual paddling, but safe.


Background:

Have you ever wondered where’s the source of the Sheboygan River? Of course you haven’t. At best, perhaps seven people have ever asked themselves this, six of whom already live in Sheboygan County plus a friend who was visiting some weekend to go fishing. Guidebook guru Mike Svob points out in Paddling Southern Wisconsin that the headwaters of the Sheboygan lie a few miles east of Fond du Lac in “the same area that spawns the Milwaukee River.” Technically, both are southeast of Fond du Lac, but why split hairs? What is worth pointing out is that neither river can be traced back to a lake or pond or really anything other than a dribble of an intermittent stream in some farm field or swath of trees in between farm fields. Hell, even the Mullet River is “spawned” in a namesake lake.

And when Svob says “the same area,” allow us to be precise. As the crow flies, the two rivers begin only 2.5 miles away from one another, but where they end is 51 miles apart from the other. That’s kind of interesting, no? Whereas the Sheboygan flows north and east before plummeting down south and east again into Lake Michigan (noshing on a brat along the way), the Milwaukee heads south and east and south and east again before having a beer with Laverne & Shirley as it empties into Lake Michigan. In many ways, the two rivers are fraternal twins: glacial streams with clear water and a sand-gravel substrate beginning in a mix of hills and farms, connecting one community after another, all too often dammed, surrounded by white flight and suburban enclaves before concluding their runs in a corridor of mixed industries (factories and warehouses), at the edge of the huge beautiful sprawl that is Lake Michigan.

Whichever river it is, when you see one at its harbor just before the lake, it’s quite remarkable to consider its humble origins in a much more natural setting.

For all practical purposes, the first paddleable segment of the Sheboygan River is this trip, beginning in St. Cloud. (You could tack on 3 additional miles by putting in at the County Road CCC bridge, west and upstream of County Road G, which will provide more river/quietwater than marsh/flatwater paddling to this trip. Anywhere upstream of County CCC will be usually too shallow and too agrarian for paddling. Unrelated: Why three c’s for that county road? I mean, come on. What madman came up with the county road name system in Wisconsin? I don’t even understand two identical letters – “County Road CC” – much less three?!? Seriously, what’s going on here?)

While nowhere near the size of the better known Horicon Marsh southwest of here, at 14,000 acres the Sheboygan Marsh is nothing to take for granted. Like everything in this part of Wisconsin, the marsh was created by the retreat of a glacier in the last Ice Age some 10-13,000 years ago. As the mountain of ice receded eastward (back to present day Lake Michigan), it left behind spectacular deposits of minerals and meltwater in its wake. It also serendipitously deposited a large rock outcropping impervious to streamflow, which acted as a natural dam that backed up all that water. After a few thousand years, plant matter decayed and a marsh was born. At least this is essentially what we read. Where that aforementioned rock outcropping is today, or whatever happened to it, we have no idea.

Svob ascribes ecological and recreational importance to the Sheboygan Marsh. We’re not entirely sure how a body of water – a marsh no less – can be designated as “recreationally important,” but we’re all for it, all the same. It was not ever thus, however. As with the Horicon Marsh, a grand scale effort was undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to drain the Sheboygan Marsh for the charitable purposes of farming. (Think of it as the forbearers of today’s manufacturing and commerce lobbyists draining wetlands in the name of development. Not very much changes through the centuries. Well, clothing does. But short-term, zero-vision profiteering is still the same, today as in yesteryear. Greed is greed.) And as with Horicon, the drainage attempt here was an abject failure in both ecological and economic terms. As many as 20 miles of drainage ditches scarred the marsh, leading to an incredible degradation of the landscape and an absolute boondoggle of real estate tomfoolery. What took 10,000 years for nature to make a wetland took human greed 50 years to render a wasteland. Fortunately, forward-thinking citizens, most prominently Charles Broughton (yes, that Broughton!), together with the county and the federal Works Progress Administration, led efforts to restoring the natural beauty of the marsh.

Today, the gouges from all that dredging and drainage still bear evidence of this enterprising human folly by way of ditches like scars on the land’s skin. But the body of the earth is resilient. Amen.

Lastly, there’s really no other place to mention this, so here goes: did you know that this part of Wisconsin is like the mecca of NASCAR and road racing? We neither. Elkhart Lake has both a present and past steeped in motorsports. Not only is it home to Road America (a race track that is precisely 4.048 miles long, but the whole facility is larger than the actual lake in the town of Elkhart Lake), but it was ground zero for motorcar racing along county roads in the 1950s. A leg of the shuttle route lies along the former county road circuit. At its heyday in 1952, over 200 cars raced over a two-day period and drew an estimated crowd of 130,000 people. I’m a far cry from a car guy, and I personally regard racing things that require internal combustion engines with the same head-shaking disdain you’d expect of a tree-hugging, car-pooling, hatchbacking liberal. But still I think it’s pretty cool to close your eyes for a minute along County Road P on a quiet morning and hear in your head the roar and screech of European Ferraris and Jaguars tearing hell for leather on winding, hilly country roads past cheering fans dressed in their Sunday best, where today it’s just the lowing moo of cows getting milked, the backup alarm of a Cisco truck parking at a loading dock, or the humdrum whir of a Honda minivan like a fat manatee full of restless children watching a cartoon DVD and a restless mom gabbing away on her phone. It’s hard not to feel some nostalgia for a less mundane past.

Overview:
Put in at the concrete ramp at Riverside Park, just off the County Road G bridge. (There’s plenty of parking here and full facilities.) Immediately downstream is a historic limestone bridge comprising nine total arches. Closed off to vehicles now, it once served as the official road bridge. Today it’s open to pedestrians and snowmobilers. It’s strikingly photogenic and a really cool way to begin a trip. The only riffles of the day lie underneath the arches of the bridge; choose any one that is open. Below the bridge a gentle current on crystal clear water quietly takes you eastward into a hardwood plain forest with shrubby alders lining the banks. Narrow at first, the Sheboygan River will widen out and then taper again throughout this trip. Here and there you’ll pass a cluster of cattails, ambassadors of the marsh foreshadowing what lies downstream. A graceful modest ridge will rise on the left from the north, one of a few such visual contrasts to the otherwise flat foreground. Also on the left, you’ll see an alternate access at a concrete boat ramp located off quaintly named Mallard Lane. (We don’t recommend putting in here since it would forfeit the lovely bridge at Riverside Park; but if you were simply doing a river trip by putting in at County Triple-C and had no intention of venturing into the marsh, then this provide a good take-out for a 5-mile trip.

After this you’ll begin to enter the marsh proper.

There is no shortage of sidetrack recesses, little nooks and crannies and “back alleys” to the marsh. Some lead to dead-ends, some will be too impenetrably mucky to enter, and some lead to another…and then another after that. Some of these are protected wildlife refuges closed off to the public from September to November. You won’t be able to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs, but do be mindful of where you go so you don’t get lost. The marsh really isn’t that large, so getting lost is unlikely. And sometimes purposefully losing your way can be fun; just make sure you have enough time to be disoriented! If such a notion totally disconcerts you, then you may wish to have a GPS device with you to know where you are in the marsh at any time, since there is no trail or signs. Even detailed maps are hard to find.

At one ambiguous point you will have to choose to go north (left) and try to find the natural channel of the river or south (right) into an artificially channelized path that detours a tiny bit before returning to the heart of the marsh. Needless to say, there’s no signage here telling you which way to go. There is no wrong way to go, but the left/natural channel is a little bit longer than the right/artificial channel. Think of a circle. Now cut it in half and remove the bottom. The top arc is the natural channel (with a few meandering kinks), while that straight line at the halfway cut is the artificial channel. In other words, all the land between the two channels is an island.

We ended up on the artificially channelized path, which was pretty cool (if unnatural and uncharacteristic for us). It’s surprisingly pretty and offers a welcome break from the relative monotony and flatness of the marsh. Here, both banks are lined with deciduous trees with the effect of the landscape feeling like a hardwood forest. In fact, it reminded us a little of the Kawishiwi River up in the Boundary Waters; a flatwater corridor connecting one lake to another – in this case, one section of lake-like marsh to another. Also, there’s a cool red-and-white striped corrugated metal fishing shack on the left bank with three (yes, three) piers, an outlier that looks more Caribbean or than Sheboygan! Again, it’s all the more intriguing since this is an island in a public park. It would make a killer tiki bar or pop-up Cajun crawfish boil.

Once back on the marsh you’ll see ditches crisscrossing here and there. And once again you will have a navigational dilemma as to which channel to enter to reach the take-out. Finding the main body of the marsh is a little tricky, and frankly you may wish to avoid it altogether – especially if it’s windy. Also, on the main body of the marsh you’ll be more prone to share company with powerboats. Instead, we diverted to the north ditch, off to the left – look for a barn and silos on a small ridge – and followed that eastward to the take-out. It’s a little more varied and offers a few pleasant vistas of small hills in the background. It’s quieter and more secluded, too, and you’ll pass by a pretty stretch of tamaracks to the north that adds a welcome spice of variety to the bland cattails, reeds, and wavy grasses.

Whichever path you take, eventually a building with a flagpole will come into view, today a bar and restaurant that is part of the Broughton Sheboygan Marsh County Park. You have two choices about where to take out. The more obvious is to your left at the boat launch located at the base of the tall wooden observation tower. The only catch is there’s a $5 day use fee for this – even for paddlers. Alternatively, you can take out on the right, technically the south ditch. It’s a little inconspicuous, but basically it’s in front of the building, off of the sidewalk. There’s plenty of room to park as well, and there’s no fee to do so. It’s entirely up to you where to take out. Either way, take a couple minutes to climb up the five stories of stairs at the tower to take in the impressive panorama of the marsh from the top. It’s a helluva view!

What we liked:
For starters (literally), the limestone arch bridge by the put-in truly is a beautiful sight to behold. Verily, they don’t make them like this anymore… The variety of landscape feels is a nice touch. You start off with surrounding woods, then shrubs, then cattails, then that cool straight-line ditch, then the marsh proper, and finally a cool tamaracks-lined channel. That’s more entertaining than just a big old blob of a marsh.

Even though this trip is the definitive Sheboygan Marsh environment, most of it feels like paddling a river (which we much prefer). Virtually this entire trip lies along public land, so it feels very remote and rugged. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost while paddling a river; if nothing else, gravity alone points you from A to B and you just go with the flow. A lake is much different, of course. Depending on its size and/or islands, a modicum of navigation may be required. A marsh the likes of Sheboygan or Horicon can be disorienting by the many side channels and ditches stitched across its scarred landscape. Not unlike hiking on the Ice Age Trail in southern Wisconsin, you can’t really ever get lost; you just might go off trail a bit and need to relocate the main channel. It’s fun though to not know where you are or how it will work out, but to do so basically with a safety net beneath you, knowing that no matter what, you’ll be fine and figure it out. (You can go only so far astray…)

It probably had everything to do with the early morning start on a weekday and the fact that it was actively raining, but there was nobody else out on the marsh at the time, so the sense of solitude amidst the vast openness of 14,000 acres was quite palpable and pretty awesome. The wildlife too was great and abundant.

Also, a deserved shout-out to Three Guys and a Grill, the bar and restaurant at the county park here. Nice folks, good food, and surprisingly not-bad beer choices on tap. I mean, how many places can you get latkes and schnitzel?

What we didn’t like:
Well, the rain sucked, but that’s not the marsh’s fault. Really, the only thing we can think of that falls under Didn’t Like is the $6 day use fee for the boat launch – even if you’re a non-motorized paddler. To be sure, we didn’t use the boat launch for the take-out. And while the dam itself points away from the parking lot boat launch on its Take Out sign, there’s a big block of swampy land in between the main body of the marsh and the dam itself. In other words, you have to get out before you can even see the sign at the dam. Presumably, this swampy land is human-made and created long after the dam… and nobody thought about the Take Out sign still on the dam. Maybe it was created to direct folks to the official boat launch and therefore having to cough up a fee. Who knows. The point is, it’s free to take out on the right and then schlep to the road. Per usual, forgiveness comes before permission.

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 or buffer from trees for mile after mile. That ain’t no fun.

If we did this trip again:
For paddling purposes, we enjoyed the Sheboygan Marsh as much as, if not more than, Horicon. Why? There’s more river-like paddling than lake paddling. In other words, less flatwater sprawl. And if Horicon is the summertime hit on the radio, then the Sheboygan Marsh is that intriguing B-side that receives little attention and less fanfare, but may say more about the band beyond its commercial endorsement.

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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 V: Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park to Kiel
Camp: Kohler-Andrae State Park
Camp: Sheboygan Broughton Marsh County Park
Wikipedia: Sheboygan River

Photo Gallery:

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