10/20/2014 2 comments

Sugar River VII

Verona to Paoli
☆ ☆ ☆

A charming and short stretch quietly nestled in the soft hills and farms of southwestern Dane County, featuring clear water, riffles, pretty stands of majestic oaks, good wildlife, a fun rapid and the button-cute hamlet of Paoli. This section has been greatly improved upon and receives our paddling endorsement.

The 2' drop which is totally fun but it can be portaged on river-right.

September 14, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater (One 2' drop)

3.5' per mile

Verona: ht/ft: 3.27 | cfs: 53
Brodhead: ht/ft: 1.84 | cfs: 496

Riverside Road, Verona, Wisconsin
County PB Bridge, Paoli, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 2:45p.
Total Time: 1h 35m
Miles Paddled: 5

Wildlife: Blue-winged teal, great blue heron, green heron, deer, killdeer, kingfishers and unidentified fish.
Time worth driving to: 30-60 mins

If ever there were a stream that embodied the old adage “you never paddle the same river twice,” it’s the Sugar – this section in particular. They say you never paddle the same river twice because each experience is unique and has its own feel and conditions (favorable or fubar) change all the time. This was my third time paddling the Verona-to-Paoli leg of the upper Sugar and it was by far the best occasion. Some of that has to do with my own growing up as a paddler but much of it is thanks to the commendable work of both volunteers cleaning up the Sugar as well as Dane County purchasing tracts of now public land along the river.

Gone are the concrete footbridges midway through this short jaunt as well as the fallen tree against which I was pitifully pinned and rolled under last year (an almost lethal debacle that still spooks me when I replay the incident in my head, one whose eerie association with the term “deadfall” is uncomfortably close to home). Two strands of barbed wire remain but they’re fairly decrepit, easy to discern from afar and duck under. Plus they’re both located shortly after the put-in at Riverside Road, so they shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, there were no obstructions until the very end of the trip.

About midway into this paddle I happened upon two other kayakers lazing about in the sun and they told me that a friend of theirs had paddled this stretch recently and had informed them of a downed tree near the dam (where the 2’ drop is located) and another by the Range Trail bridge. That information was spot-on. Shortly after the 2’ drop is a downed tree but a narrow clearing on the far-left made it passable. Alas, about 25 yards downstream from the Range Trail bridge was a honking-big fallen tree from bank to bank, likely the victim of one of the several thunderstorms we had had back in early September. That one I had to climb over – the only such annoyance on this otherwise spectacularly improved trip. The good news is that the great folks at the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association (USRWA) know about it and plan on clearing it (which, by now, a month later, may well have happened already). So I think it’s entirely reasonable that this stretch should be obstruction-free if you choose to paddle it and it’s definitely worth checking out.

What we liked:
Let’s be real. There’s nothing anywhere on the Sugar River that’s going to unhinge your jaw with awe; no towering cliffs, no stunning rock outcrops, no rollicking rapids. But the Sugar is pretty and not without its moments of showing off. What begins as little more than a drainage ditch near the headquarters of Epic cuts its way through Dane and Green counties and then down into Winnebago County in Illinois, more or less marking the periphery of the Driftless Area. As such, the surrounding landscape is picturesque. Plus there’s something cool in knowing that this little stream that begins just west of Madison flows all the way down to Illinois where it teams up with the Pecatonica before joining the Rock – both of which begin in Wisconsin – on its way to the mighty Mississippi.

One of the nicest parts of this little trip is how much variety there is in only five miles. True, most of the paddling is through pastures but there are a couple steep hillsides, a glimpse here and there of the gently rolling landscape at the fringe of where the last glaciers came and ended and the Driftless begins. Especially nice are the many old oaks, handsomely macabre in their gnarled isolation. The river does meander but it has moments of straightaways too, sometimes tree-canopied, other times in savanna settings of unbroken sunshine. Predominantly rural/agricultural, this trip finishes in the cute-as-a-button tiny town of Paoli, today a hub for road bicycling enthusiasts and also an artist community.

The water is clear, the bottom sandy and the current generally reliable. But for one very wide section about midway, the river is generally 30-40’ wide. There are obstacles to dodge but usually none so formidable as to be dangerous (again, usually). One of the darling highlights near the end is a 2’ drop where there used to be a dam. Predictably, you’ll hear the sound of the rushing water well before you come upon it. Also, there’s a sign that reads “Dam, Swift Water” alerting you beforehand. A well-marked portage trail allows you to circumvent the drop – or allows you to run it, get out and run it again as many times as your heart desires. It’s a sweet little drop that is a perfect combination of not really dangerous but just adrenaline-raising enough. Surfing below the drop is a whole lot of fun, too.

Riffles will take you along 100-200 yards of pretty backdrops of woods and steep banks to the charming take-out behind the beautifully restored old mill building. There’s no designated launch but the lawn is only half a foot higher than the water, so taking out is pretty easy. A short walk across the lawn leads to the gravel parking area on Canal Street.

What we didn't like:
This is the upper Sugar River, so adequate water levels can be an issue. At 3.27’ and 53 cvs, (the levels at which I paddled this trip on this day) there was just enough water to manage the shallow sections. Still though, I’d recommend paddling this with more volume. Another 2-3” would have been perfect, especially for the fun riffles leading into Paoli.

The barbed wire also is unfortunate, of course. It's pretty easy to discern and negotiate, as I mentioned above but still, who wouldn’t prefer that it never be strung across public rivers in the first place?

Last, the put-in at Riverside Road is totally fine and adequate but it’s somewhat confusing in that from first appearances it doesn’t look all too inviting or accessible. There is no signage for one and the path leading from the road to the river is more a trampled one made by footsteps, not one that was mowed. The bank is steep and the parking is along the road. You just have to trust me on this: the actual public access is on the upstream side of the bridge on the river-right. What’s strange is on the downstream side, river-right, there is a sign facing the river – meaning that it’s legible only if you’re already on the river – stating that this side is private property and that public access is on the other side of the bridge. Presumably this is for paddlers who have put-in upstream (about which consideration I’ll mention something in a moment) but why not have at least a modest, unadorned sign (hell, a flier) on dry land telling you where you may and may not go?

OK, so why not put-in further upstream? It’s a good question, particularly since there are two acknowledged public-access landings on USRWA’s own map of the upper Sugar. One on Bobcat Lane (north of Highway 18/151) and the other on Valley Road (south of Highway 18/151). I've never even scouted Bobcat Lane but it seems safe to speculate that one would need a whole lot of recent rain or snowmelt to put-in there without getting stuck in shallows. The map indicates a “rapids” between Bobcat and Valley roads, which sounds intriguing. As for Valley Road, I do not now recommend it. As of 2013 there still were barbed wires and a questionably legal cattle gate on the segment of the river between Valley and Riverside.

Incidentally, Bobcat to Valley is 2.3 miles and Valley to Riverside is 1.8 miles, so tacking both on would make for a 9.1-mile trip to Paoli. But until we learn that the Valley to Riverside section is relatively clean (at least from the cattle gate, for God’s sake!) then we recommend only the Riverside to Paoli section. Also, there is a very dangerous cattle gate that is indisputably illegal – flagrantly and egregiously illegal – just downstream from Paoli. USRWA and Capitol Water Trails both know about it. Even the DNR knows about it. The property owner has been asked to remove it and by asked I mean offered to have it replaced by something more paddler-friendly by the very groups themselves at no extra cost to the property owner and yet still the monstrosity is in place!?! Until it is dismantled, we strongly discourage the Paoli to Belleville section.

If we did this trip again:
Well, this is my third time paddling this trip. Due to its proximity to Madison and its potential for a short morning or after-work paddle, it’s always fun. Next time I will wait for a little more water on the river to enjoy the riffles better. At some point I will embark on the upstream options, because I’m a stubborn and curious guy.

Related Information
Sugar River I: Belleville to County Road X
Sugar River II: Paoli to Belleville
Sugar River III: Verona to Paoli
Sugar River IV: County Road X to County Road EE
Sugar River V: Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian Road
Sugar River VI: Albany to Brodhead
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River I: Belleville to County Road X
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River IV: County Road X to County Road EE
Miles Paddled Video: Sugar River VI: Albany to Brodhead
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Sugar River


View Sugar River VII in a larger map

Shuttle Information:
5.5 miles and very pretty whether by car or bicycle.

Photo Gallery:

Adequate put-in at Riverside Road.

Shimmering mirage of Epic campus seen from put-in.

Tree-canopied sections on the Sugar.

These signs at the put-in, face the water, not dry land.

Wire 1.

Attractive high banks with handsome oaks.

Wire 2.

Attractive metal bridge.

Typical tree debris on the Sugar, totally negotiable.

Again, obstacles like this are easy to get around.

Open pasture with small hills in the distance.

Curious cows.

Kind of poetic in its solitary relief.

Cool wavy current (though shallow!) leading to Highway 69 bridge.

Pretty surroundings after Highway 69.

Mostly clear water with gravel bottom.

Tarantula Tree.

Not so much a dam as a fun 2' drop.

Take-out on right behind old mill (County Road PB bridge in background).

Restored old mill building at take-out.
10/12/2014 0 comments

Yellow River (Chippewa Tributary)

Miller Dam to County Road H
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

An absolutely wonderful trip that begins in a beautiful and secluded section of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, below its namesake flowage, with nothing but miles of undeveloped scenery and forests that lead to a thrilling eight-mile section of unending riffles and Class I-II rapids with boulders and exposed rock outcroppings from the halfway point all the way down to the take-out. This trip should be on anybody’s to-do list!

More open, airy and agricultural after the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

August 31, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class I(II)

6.2' per mile (Dam to Gilman) | 10.5' per mile (Gilman to County Road H)

There is no gauge but a good visual gauge are the riffles at the park's put-in/take-out in Gilman. If that’s runnable without much scraping, the whole trip will be totally fine. You can try your luck calling 715-748-0913, the Northwoods Guide Service in Medford but I doubt they’d be able to provide precise, specific info for the river conditions (this is not a dis to the good folks who work there. I’m just saying that Medford’s a good 20-30 miles east of the Yellow River).

Miller Dam, Memorial Drive Boat Launch, Taylor County, Wisconsin
County Road H bridge

Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 6h
Miles Paddled: 16.75

Wildlife: Blue-winged teal and frogs (we weren’t exactly a quiet bunch, so we probably spooked the wildlife).
Time worth driving to: 3-4 hours

Before I get started, I should explain that this is the Yellow River up in Taylor County and the tributary of the Chippewa River. There are three other Yellow Rivers in Wisconsin (I know nothing about two of these – the two northern-most are tributaries of the St. Croix and Red Cedar rivers up in Washburn and Barron counties, respectively – and I only a little bit about the other better-known one that is a tributary of the Wisconsin River that flows south of Marshfield, then through Babcock and Necedah and finally down to Castle Rock Lake at Buckthorn State Park.) OK, are we now all on the same page?

I can’t contain my enthusiasm for this river! If you live nearby or are visiting/vacationing in the area, you should definitely make the time to paddle at least half, if not all of this trip. You won’t be disappointed – you couldn’t be (provided that the water levels are adequate but that’s a given). We selected this trip because we were camping at the nearby Mondeaux Flowage and no one in our large flotilla contingent (six adults and two 13-year-old girls) had been on this river.

We followed Mike Svob’s lead by paddling the Chequamegon Flowage/Gilman-area segment of the Yellow, though one can paddle upstream of the humongous flowage as well as downstream from our take-out. But there’s a reason why Svob chose this stretch of the river. It has just about everything you’d want in a daytrip: scenic beauty, a sense of seclusion, moving water with a couple spots of pay-attention light rapids but nothing so crazy or hackle-raising as to be distracted by worrying the whole time. There are also several options for putting-in and taking-out to tailor the length of the trip to personal preference. This was the first time either of the girls had been on moving water, much less an occasionally tricky boulder garden or two (or three…) with solid Class I rapids (some even Class I-II). Still upping the ante, two of our party were in a 17’ canoe and are veteran flatwater paddlers. Not only did everyone do perfectly well in the rapids (zero accidents!) but by the end the girls were dismissing my recommendations of the easiest, safest lines to run in favor of the more fun and difficult sections! Attagirls!

In a few senses, this long trip feels like two separate segments and the park in Gilman makes for an easy, convenient place to put-in or take-out allowing one to paddle the river as such. Three of our friends took out at this park and headed back to the campground. The rest of us pressed on since we were having so much fun and had the rest of the day to continue having fun. The real rapids on this trip begin a mile downstream from the park in Gilman and we were eager beavers to have at them. To avoid confusion, I will break down the two sections separately, even though we did the whole 16.75 miles continuously (well, we had to do a second car shuttle, so there was an hour of downtime for lunch and fishing).

Basically, the first section is more secluded (since it courses through the protected national forest) but not necessarily more scenic (it’s just a less-developed kind of scenic). This section is wonderfully riffly and totally suitable for beginners. There’s a small, slightly tricky, rapid immediately below the put-in but the rest of the trip is straightforward riffles and small ledges. The deep woods for the first couple miles are the prettiest. While still pleasant after the national forest periphery, it’s mostly agricultural plus a few houses towards town. One of the highlights here is the handsome iron train trestle bridge just before the park in Gilman. The park itself is quite pleasant and a nice picnic spot.

The second section begins in the town of Gilman where first you paddle some awfully fun riffles/light Class I rapids (a good visual gauge for water levels) and then you pass three picturesque footbridges, one of which is the “famous” Swinging Bridge, a century-old landmark of the community (it’s not for nothing that Gilman bills itself as “Home of the Swinging Bridge”). Shortly after this is a mile of Class I-II rapids and boulder gardens begin. These were that perfect combination of not-crazy-difficult or frightening but just enough to spike up the adrenaline and make you whoop and holler. Again, two teenage girls whose first time in kayaks plus a 17’ canoe paddled by flatwater folks, all of whom were inexperienced in rapids, did beautifully well and had a thrilling time! After that, the river only slightly calms down. Riffles and innumerable Class I rapids continue all the way down to the take-out past islands, attractive rock outcrops and large stones. While slightly more developed, this section is not lacking in natural beauty whatsoever. Indeed, the cool rock formations are found in this section and occasional 10’-high wooded banks keep this section feeling remote and secluded.

What we liked:
This trip is prime-time fun right off the bat. First, there’s a great riffle and short boulder garden immediately below the put-in. Second, the surrounding scenery is unspoiled north woods national forest! Heck, even the dam and humongous flowage at the put-in are cool. While relatively flatter than the second half, the gradient for this first half still is 6 feet per mile, which is nothing to sneeze at; there are lots of riffles and the current is consistently swift. The first few miles are just as lovely as can be, thick and deep in the forest.

After the park in Gilman things pick up in earnest and are just so much stinking fun! Svob warns that this section can be dangerous when the river is high, which I suspect is true. But you probably shouldn’t be paddling this – or most rivers – when it's high. For us, the levels were fantastic and as I’ve mentioned, formidable enough to have to pay attention to what you’re doing and respect the river but not really dangerous. The average gradient from Gilman to the take-out is an impressive 10.5 per mile, higher in the oxbow rapids section a mile downstream from the park. Occasional rock outcrops and shoreline stone formations keep the spirit continually curious and in awe of this treasure of a river.

As for other opportunities on this river? Above the flowage, the Yellow River looks potentially doable but it would be rather narrow and I suspect deadfall would be an issue. There’d be a mile or two of lake paddling until the nearest boat launch. Downstream from the take-out there’s a whole lotta river before the Yellow finally empties into Lake Wissota, an impoundment of the Chippewa River on the shores of Chippewa Falls. Svob doesn’t mention anything about the downstream portions of the Yellow River, which I find puzzling, since there’s so much of it.

One particular section looks very intriguing via satellite maps. In the tiny town of Cadott, there's a dam on the Yellow River immediately below which look like some quite reputable rapids. Houses line the shore for a half-mile or so, then disappear. A few miles further downstream the river braids into various channels around a series of large islands where riffles lead your way. The first available take-out would be at the County Road XX bridge four miles down from the dam. An additional 4.6 miles through more enormous islands takes you to the beginning of what will eventually widen to huge Lake Wissota. An attractive steel bridge at County Road K looks like a make-do take-out, otherwise a mile or two of lake paddling gives you more options. This is the last leg of the Yellow River and it looks lovely! But if anyone has done a portion of this or any section upstream or downstream of the trip written about here, we’d thankfully love to learn about it!

What we didn't like:
Really, there are only two things to note, literally at the very beginning and then again at the very end. There are technically two put-in options. In Svob’s book he recommends using the official Miller Dam Recreation Area, which is all fine and good but it costs a fee to use (it’s administered by the United States Forest Service). Or you can take a whole five extra minutes to drive slightly out of the way to the other side of the river directly below the dam at Memorial boat launch off of Memorial Drive (itself off of Beaver Creek Road). There’s less space for parking than at Miller but it’s a much shorter schlep to the river. So it’s your call whether you want to spend money and walk farther to put in or drive around to Memorial Drive.

Svob recommends taking out at the County Road H bridge, which let me declare as clearly and unequivocally as possible is a terrible, nasty, annoying and unnecessarily difficult option. He’s usually spot-on about these things. But this take-out is truly one of the worst I’ve ever endured and that’s saying something considering some of the dumb-ass, ninja-style landings I’ve made do with.

What’s so awful about it? Well, it’s extremely steep for one and the ground consists of large loose rocks so it’s positively unstable. Unless you’re looking to twist your ankle or slip and fall flat on your face and dropping your boat, this is a terrible nuisance. Exacerbating that, the tall grass and weeds are thick and impenetrable. Any exposed limbs will be scratched mercilessly. The only less-steep (but still steep) path takes you slogging through water-sogged marsh. Seriously, I just cannot imagine what possessed Svob to recommend this. Stranger still, he tells you in his trip writeup not to use the bridge at Polley Lane because it has “no good access.”

Not only is this untrue but if by contrast County H were considered “good,” one would be left to assume that Polley Lane must have assassins, spiders, snakes and portals to hell itself. Thankfully, this is not the case. There’s a conspicuously well-trodden footpath through the grass from the road to the river itself at the Polley Lane bridge, located on the river-right upstream side. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a 5-star landing but it’s a hell of a lot better than the preposterous obstacle course at County H!

If we did this trip again:
Absolutely I will and just as absolute I will be putting in at Memorial Drive and taking out at Polley Lane. From the park at Gilman to Polley Lane is a four-mile trip that features the “best hits” of this section: the Class I-II rapids and the rock formations. Plus a 12-mile trip (from the dam) is a lot more kosher to folks than a 16.75-mile trip!

This would make for one of the best 12-mile trips you can find in Wisconsin. Seriously.

Related Information
Overview: Hunt Fish Camp
Wikipedia: Yellow River (Chippewa River)


View Yellow River (Chippewa) in a larger map

Shuttle Information:
Essentially 16 miles, suitable for bicycles or cars.

Photo Gallery:

Loading up at Memorial Boat Launch.

The mighty dam holding back the Chequamegon Waters flow age.

Through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

A sense of wilderness pervades through the forest.

This really isn't a superimposed picture, even though it looks like it!

The one and only obstacle in 16.7 miles of paddling!

Determined 13-year-old by old bridge piling.

Picturesque iron trestle bridge in Gilman.

Put-in/take-out/picnic spot at park in Gilman at the halfway point. Note the riffles in the background; that's the unofficial gauge for this trip!

One of three pleasant pedestrian bridges in Gilman (alas, not the "famous" swing bridge).

Synchronized strokes!

I swear they weren't posing for this shot.

Should the person up front look more worried than the one in back?

Piece of cake!

One of several cool rock outcrops and stone formations in the second half of this trip.

Plenty of riffles and light Class I rapids all along the second half.

Recommended take-out at Polley Lane bridge.

Attractive high wooded banks near the take-out.

The preposterous obstacle course take-out from hell at County Road H.
10/11/2014 0 comments

Peshekee River

Peshekee Grade to 3 Mile Mark
☆ ☆ ☆

For sure beauty, the Peshekee is stunning. Nestled in the foothills of the Huron Mountains, copper-hued water flows past towering pines and tangles with numerous gravel beds, rock-cuts and boulder gardens all in the solitude of a true Canadian-like wilderness. You just have to catch it at the right water levels.

The paddle itself, as it turns out, was only half the story of where we were on this particular day. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects to this place is the history surrounding not the Peshekee River itself but the road that runs along it and makes it accessible in the first place.

A view of the Peshekee.

August 31, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class I(II)

Champion: No longer in operation

Peshekee Grade, (the fourth bridge up the Grade) Champion, Michigan
Peshekee Grade, (just upriver of "Unnammed Road" at the 3-Mile Mark)

Time: Put in at 11:25a. Out at 2:45p.
Total Time: 3h 20m
Miles Paddled: 3.75

Wildlife: One northern, an unidentified fish and one heron.

2014 will go down as the year of challenging paddles, for me, personally. Six Mile and Mormon Creek were two of the hardest but both had highlights; constant riffles and finding the hand-cut and elusive Oehler cave, respectively. But they were nothing short of portage fiestas. And this trip, which was nothing short of a hard-fought 3.75 miles, certainly falls in that category. But there are some days and some paddles though, where walking my boat down a river is the most welcome way to spend an afternoon. Where it's not a chore but more of an adventure. And this was one of those special ones.

Now why were we up in Michigamme? Well, my wife spent many weekends up there in her youth at her Grandparent's cabin on Lake Michigamme. We went, not only because we hadn’t been there in awhile but to have our own kids experience it and start new memories of this special place. I hadn’t planned on paddling but Timothy, often the voice of reason (and wise kayak evangelist), said it would be sacrilege for me not to bring my kayak, just incase, of course. So I brought both it along, figuring my brother-in-law might want to get out for an afternoon.

Now, to be honest, I hadn’t completely done my homework on the area but I had done a little (ya know, again, just incase we were able to get out for a bit). There are plenty of paddling options in the U.P., even this time of year but the one I keyed in on seemed to make the most sense because it was just down the road. It was the Peshekee (pronounced “puh-she-key”) River which also happens to flow into Lake Michigamme. Perfect, I thought, we could even paddle back to the cabin. That was until I realized that from where the Peshekee meets the lake at Highway 41, it was another 5-mile lake-paddle to the cabin, so I opted to make this just a river trip and take-out at the Highway which is a popular and accessible point for paddlers.

Not knowing anything about actual accessibility of the river, I mapped out what I deemed, manageable day-trips, with a 9-, a 7.5-, and a 5.25-mile section. I figured we’d surely find something we could manageably paddle for an afternoon diversion and play the length by ear after some scouting.

Coincidentally, my wife’s Aunt and Uncle also have a cabin on the same property as my wife’s grandparents and they recently ran the Peshekee for the first time back in July. They started in the McCormick Tract, which even further up the road and it took them nearly all day in very shallow water. Due to other circumstances, they ended up taking out at the 3-mile mark on the road at a rocky area nestled up along an opening between two boulder gardens about a football field in length upstream and down. It appeared to be an access/exit point for many (and as it coincidentally turned out, us too...).

They had heard, however, that the area had gotten a lot of rain in the last month and the river was up, so with that in mind, we thought we’d take our chances. They also offered up their own kayaks if anyone else wanted to go and with that, the party grew to four. My mother, father and brother-in-law (none of which had kayaked before) all set out on a daytrip with my wife’s Aunt and Uncle who graciously helped us shuttle.

While scouting the put-in options on my quickly-conspired map, the eyeball test had me questioning the likelihood for a successful paddle as the river was clearly shallow in some areas but at the same time, there were plenty of deeper stretches to be seen. We decided to give it a go and if we had to walk a bit, we’d walk. We just didn’t realize how much walking we’d really have to do…

What we liked:
After scouting all the options, we chose the 7-mile mark (which is the fourth bridge up the Peshekee Grade). It seemed like a reasonable afternoon paddle. The put-in itself wasn’t ideal (none of them really are off the grade and some were steeper than others). Essentially, you climb over a guardrail and work your way down a steepish-slope. I've had better but I’ve encountered much worse.

The river here is gorgeous and practically nothing (especially, a slightly-inconvenient put-in) will dissuade you from wanting to jump in and get paddling. The pines are just so inviting and once you’re making your way downriver, you long to see what’s around the next corner. The beautiful copper-colored water, a common characteristic to water in the Upper Peninsula (this area was built on mining, with its iron and mineral rich geology), enhances the stony-bottomed floor and the boulders it has smoothed over for centuries. There are countless boulder gardens (in higher water, some boulder gardens will test your whitewater skills) and some extremely beautiful rock cuts flanking either side of the river. Comparing this area to Canada is not unrealistic, because, thanks to the glacier, much of Canada ended up here and it’s characteristics are very much what you’ll find just north of Lake Superior.

I could go on and on with superlatives about the environment but the thing I enjoyed most about this trip was all after the fact - this area is steeped in history, starting with the Peshekee Grade (formerly the Huron-Bay Grade).

The river had once been used to float pine trees to the mill in Michegamme but that’s hardly the most interesting piece of history surrounding this area. Over a century ago, there was no road along the Peshekee but there is a very intriguing story about how it and the access to this beautiful river came to be.

It’s been often written and referred to as the “$2 Million dollar mistake”. The long and short of it is that back in the 1890s, a guy by the name of Milo Davis, an entrepreneur from Detroit, wanted to build a shorter, more direct route to get ore from nearby mines to the ore boats on Lake Superior where a giant ore dock was to be built (even while Marquette’s Iron Range was extending westward). It was not only shorter but it was thought that it would help develop logging and that other gold, silver, lead and zinc mines would open, adding additional activity to all the slate production already underway in the area. The track was meant to follow the Peshekee River valley and climb towards the headwaters.

Then known as the Huron Grade, a couple thousand men spent ten years cutting, sometimes blasting through the rock where needed while laying track that crisscrossed the Peshekee and Slate rivers.

Work started in 1890 and in 1894, two locomotives were ordered and stored at the Huron Bay end of the line. On the first test run, a railroad engineer by the name of Sam Beck, rode one of the locomotives up the steep grade from the ore dock for twenty minutes (most accounts say 20 yards). The locomotive literally rolled over and fell off the track. And from that moment, the Iron Range and the Huron Bay Railroad ceased to exist and is considered the greatest railroad debacle in Michigan’s history.

Bankrupt, Milo Davis fled to Mexico and was never heard from again and the track was never finished. It turned out that this area was later found out to be the highest point in Michigan (1,979 feet above sea level. It wasn’t until 50 years later that this was officially calculated). The grade was figured to be over 8% which is too steep for a railroad and should never have been built, let alone used. And the huge pocket ore dock built in the bay? Well, that cost over a quarter million dollars and it was never used either.

Many years later, the tracks were pulled up and the grade was paved up to the McCormick Tract (the Tract is an acreage of land given to the U.P. by Cyrus McCormick, a prominent business man but that’s a whole other story for another day) about 8 miles north of Highway 41. From there, it becomes a dirt/gravel road. Sometimes still referred to as the Huron Bay Grade (although official signage calls it the Peshekee), this is the Peshekee Grade and this is how we are/were lucky enough to access this river now.

Interesting story to say the least and I owe it to the family for highlighting that and feeding my curiosity about the area. Naturally, they're really into the history of the U.P. and they introduced me to a couple books that capture not only the infamous debacle but a very thorough and interesting history of the U.P. called “Superior Heartland, A Backwoods Story”. It’s an absolutely fascinating and invaluable read but appears to be out of print (accordinging to the lofty price on Amazon).

But there are a lot of great articles about the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad to be found. If you’re interested in this story specifically, there are some nice writeups like this one, another from a real estate listing and my favorite, the one on Mikel B. Classen's site.

And now back to the paddle... We didn’t see a lot of wildlife but at one point I saw something jump/splash upstream. As I got closer, I could see something white and moving just under the water. It appeared to be the belly of a very large walleye or something but as my eyes adjusted and my brain unraveled the puzzle, what appeared was a much larger fish with its mouth wrapped around it. Jack confirmed it was a northern pike and we watched as it dodged us under the water with the catch in its mouth. It was a fascinating sight that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve always wanted to see a moose in the wild, despite my brother, who spent many years guiding fly fishermen down Montana’s waters advice which was that I didn’t really want to come across a wild moose. They can be mean SOBs, he cautioned. Call me stubborn as a moose then because I still wanted to see one and here I was in the perfect setting for it… actually ideal setting because of unique aspect to this trip part two…

In the 1970s, the deer population in Lake Superior had dwindled so the DNR wanted to supplement the vacancy with moose, reintroducing them to Upper Michigan. In 1985 and 1987, 59 moose (29 in 1985 and 30 in 1987 - I'm not sure why the DNR's own site says 61) were airlifted by helicopter from Ontario Canada to Michigamme, known as Moose Lift One and Two (a plaque at Van Riper State Park calls it “Operation Mooselift”, while others refer to it as the “Moose Drop”). And where were they dropped? None other than on the Pesheekee Grade.

This whole story seemed so random and coincidental but I have to report that it was on this river, that I… didn’t see a moose. I see snakes all the time - a creature I could care less to see - so maybe I just need to go in with the perspective that “I don’t want to see a moose” and I’ll come across a dozen. Or at least, hang out in town because I’ve been told that they can sometimes be seen strolling through Michegamme ala Northern Exposure (for more on how the relocation has gone, there's an update here and a lengthy and interesting article from 1994).

Another unique thing, were the beaver dams or more specifically, the three beaver dam drops. These are not to be confused with the intentional moose drops, no these were actual beaver dams at their handcrafted finest, doing all they could to slow down the flow of the river. And they could only be overcome by actually running them - easily class I drops at that.

What we didn't like:
There wasn’t a lot to dislike aside from the fact that it was slow-going at these water levels.

Only halfway into our trip, we had already spent 3 and a half hours on the water. In the midst of what seemed like an endless boulder garden, we encountered a wide opening nestled along the Grade that would give us an out. Considering how far we’d come and how far we had yet to go, we were facing a potential 7 hour paddle for 9 miles and we had family waiting for us, so we took this opportunity to exit.

This take-out was easy but had me we made it to the official take-out on Highway 41, we would’ve had a clean take-out (the take-out there is easy, low-grade access with plenty of parking).

When all was said and done, we had paddled a mere 3.75 miles in 3 hours and 20 minutes. At one point we were dead-on at 1 mph which is the slowest paddle I’ve ever experienced, completely throwing the 3-4mph rule of thumb out the window. It was definitely a slow 3.75 miles but it was also once of the pretttiest.

So my wife's Aunt and Uncle picked us up at, ironically, the same exact spot that they had taken-out in July (it’s at about the 3-mile mark, just upstream from the second bridge that crosses the river not named the Peshekee, in fact, it has no name). It was actually kind of funny that they knew exactly where to look for us. And despite exiting early, it wasn't the usual bummer I feel when having to bail on a paddle because we had a lot of fun and it was a beautiful day to hike down this river.

I guess for me, taking three beginners who have never paddled before, and for this to be there experience, was a potential let down. This is the kind of paddle that would have most people turned off to the sport in a second. But I think that for a first experience, part of the beauty of this place played into it. And luckily, I was with family with the right spirit and enough fortitude to carry-on when times got frustrating. I had actually assumed that we’d be taking out much earlier at one point but we pressed on because everyone was having a really good time. And that’s really what paddling is all about.

If we did this trip again:
For all intents and purposes, this river is impractical this time of year or at least, these water levels. It’s definitely more walkable than runnable and in hindsight, we probably did more walking than paddling.

But while it wasn’t the time of the year to paddle the Peshekee, if ever given the chance, I'll be back to finish this paddle in spring or do it again in higher water now that I have a gauge.

There’s a boatload of upper peninsula history to appreciate and there are many river miles to explore and it’s just too damn beautiful to not return. This paddle is just one of a million reasons to make the drive from Madison to spend more time up there. But next time, I do hope to see a moose.

Related Information
Camp: Van Riper State Park
General: American Whitewater
General: Riverfacts
Overview: Paddling Michigan
Wikipedia: Peshekee River


View Peshekee River in a larger map

Photo Gallery:

Upriver of this Peshekee Road put-in.

A rough and tumble-looking bridge.

Putting-in below the bridge (and pines).

Glorious pines.




Occasional, grassy vegetation, otherwise it's stony-bottomed throughout.


A beautiful rock-cut...

...flanking both sides of the river.

One of three beaver dams to run.


One of many boulder gardens.



The third Peshekee Grade bridge north of Highway 41.





The second Peshekee Grade bridge north of Highway 41.




When stuck, why not make the most of a photo opportunity?




In higher water, this would be a lot of fun (and a potential class II).

Taking-out on at a bend on the grade between two boulder gardens.

Upstream of our take-out.

Downstream of our take-out.