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.
August 31, 2014
Champion: No longer in operation
These levels were far too low. Without capturing a distinct visual gauge for reference, it’s hard to recommend an ideal level.
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
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, as well as my favorite 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 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.
Miles Paddled Video: