★ ★ ★ ★

Peshtigo River

Burnt Bridge to Goodman Park:
In normal conditions, this stretch of the Peshtigo River is excellent whitewater wonder for intermediate-to-advance paddlers thick in the exclusive north woods of Wisconsin.

Peshtigo RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 2, 2012

Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Class II-III

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wabeno: ht/ft: 3.60 | cfs: 130

Current Levels:
Wabeno: ht/ft: 4.05 | cfs: 263

Recommended Levels:
These are below recommended levels for comfortable paddling. The Wisconsin Trail Guide recommends a minimum level of 4.6′ at the County Road C bridge gauge.

Put-In:
Forest Road 2134/Michigan Rapids Road
GPS: 45.56205, -88.4953
Take-Out:
Goodman County Park, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.51839, -88.3408

Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 8:00p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 12.5

Wildlife:
Ravens, bald eagles, ruffed grouse, blue herons, lots of good-looking wood ducks and several types of hawks.

Shuttle Information:
Don’t do this bike shuttle, at least not the way I did it! If you do pedal back to your car, then do yourself a favor and heed the following advice: 1: Do it only on a mountain bike (and preferably one with good shock absorbers). 2: Do it in the daylight. 3: If you have a spare respirator (at least a mask) to cover your mouth, you might want that too.

For what can be worse than beginning your bike shuttle at 8:00 pm in early September in northern Wisconsin? A: Doing so after sitting in your boat for 5 hours paddling laboriously due to shallow water. B: Doing so on a road bike with skinny, smooth tires when the roads are rough-and-tumble dirt-gravel forest roads. C: Doing so when the total distance is some 14 miles. D: Doing so through the very evocative northwoods, full of owl-cries, wolf-howls and lots of other spooky stuff to scare you stiff!

It was an experience for sure but it was more than a little jarring. My only savior was a relatively full moon and one lone truck that past me by and whose ambient light I could more or less “piggyback” for about a mile before the dust from the roads got to my lungs and I could no more keep up. I should have realized/remembered that the roads up here would not be paved and that there would be no street lamps anywhere! You take some things for granted when you grow up in New Jersey!


Background:

Let’s go to the Peshtigo! But in low levels of water, it’s a little pish posh. It was Labor Day weekend and I was already in this neck of the north woods of Wisconsin anyway, so I thought I’d try my luck on the Pesh, despite my apprehension that it would be too low.

What we liked:
When and where the river was runnable, it was absolutely wonderful; exciting slots and drops, wave trains and almost endless boulder gardens, beautiful scenery, total isolation and a thrilling falls section (Taylor Falls) with a convenient rock-shelf to get out and re-run the falls as many times as your heart desires. The access points are pretty convenient, though remote. Half of this segment lies within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which is a real delight and worth the trip but it’s definitely “out there.”

There are no fewer than seven rapids sections (and no doubt more in higher water) with as many fun drops, one of which is a full mile-long.

And yes, Taylor Falls is fantastic. If you have visited the Dells of the Eau Claire River, east of Wausau, this drop is reminiscent. A cautionary note, however: The drop is about 2-3’ and demands respect, to say nothing of control. You’d be a fool not to get out first just to scout the right course to take. Avoid the far-right channel as there is a rock overhang into which you can easily knock your head, immediately followed (below) by awkward rocks that will almost certainly pin your boat. The water is too fast and severe here to steer safely. Instead, take the middle section but you must do so precisely. A curve of rocks on the right causes a very pushy outflow of water that can easily turn you sideways, if not capsize you altogether. Again, the sheer volume of water at this section is formidable and needs to be respected. I myself am a whitewater novice and maybe not as inhibited as I ought to be… I did this drop four times, taking a brisk swim only once. It’s exhilarating but it needs to be done correctly. Or just portage around it to be safe while still being impressed by its beauty.

Helpful Tip: If you only want to paddle Taylor Falls, I discovered a great access point otherwise not mentioned on any map (to be fair, the Wisconsin Trail Guide website mentions it, but I know that only after the fact). About 50 yards or so west of Marinette County Forest Road 1510, there is a small pull-out on the riverside of the road (which by the way is alternately called FR 2136, Goodman Park Road and Benson Lake Road. Why the ambiguity? Because the same road cuts through Forest County, National Forest and then Marinette County). Roughly equidistant between Porcupine Lake Road and Swede John Road (gotta love a quaint old name like “Swede John”!), there is a spot big enough to safely park a small car off the road, and then drag your boat about 25’ to the water. From there Taylor Falls is at best only 100 yards downstream. Also, the takeout at Goodman Park is only 1.5 miles downstream if you wish to continue.

Notice a conspicuous absence? That being Strong Falls just after the takeout? What gives? Meister Mike Svob advises to avoid it, though online sites boast it. I would contend that it’s a class IV waterfall, though some list it as merely a III (it’s a heluva III is all I can say…). I personally did not attempt running it after considerable deliberation, calculation and talking myself out of it. I have a bit of a penchant for tossing caution to the winds but I was by myself and I had a long drive ahead of me. And I knew that if I had gotten injured, my girlfriend would have killed me! All of which is not to say that I still don’t think about it and continually play that reel of imaginary film in my mind’s eye. I do! I scouted and reconnoitered from as many different vantages as I could clamber. In the end, I had to be honest with myself and let it go, reasoning that my skills are not yet up to this.

What makes this waterfall such a challenge is that there are at least four ledges, each dropping a couple feet with tight turns, one right after the other, lightning fast and with no time to adjust or pause. OK, so far so good. But the real hangnail lies at the final two drops. First, you’d be thrust down into a pool quite quickly. Then, turn on a dime (I’m not exaggerating here) in order to position yourself perfectly to run the next drop which is so narrow that unless your accuracy is 100 percent, you’ll be bombarded to the left or right (or both). Normally, no biggie, but here because of the narrow slot, your body will scrape against something very unforgiving (that or your boat may be too wide and get stuck which would be awkward and awful). If that’s not daunting enough, when/if you run this last slot while still upright, there is a gigantic boulder at the bottom, virtually impossible to miss, with a sharp exposed edge facing you dead-on. I honestly don’t know how it could be avoided. And then there’s a short little drop after that. All of this takes place within split seconds and must be done with impeccable precision. It would all need to be choreographed beforehand, for it would happen too quickly for you to think/react to while doing it. I had to let it go and walk away, no matter how [expletive deleted] awesome it would have been (to say nothing of the bragging rights).

What we didn’t like:
Awfully low water. The recommended level is a minimum of 4.6’ and it was a foot less than that (and I paid for my stubbornness). For the solid Class II+ rapids and the fun drops, there was always enough water to run everything successfully without too much scraping or stopping. But all the Class I areas were scrape-city and very frustrating. I seriously debated just quitting and getting out at the Burnt Wells bridge, which is the halfway point but I didn’t (mostly) because I would have had to walk six miles either to the car where I put in or to my bike at the take-out. Neither seemed desirable, plus I really wanted to experience the Taylor Falls drop. But five hours for 12 miles of fast moving water is a long time to scrape, get stuck or get out and drag your boat. With the exception of taking pictures or “wheelchairing” my way through shallows, I vigorously paddled nonstop this 12-mile stretch and it still took five hours to complete! Making matters even more annoying, the day after I paddled this, there was a downpour of rain. Only 48 hours later the cfs gauge had more than doubled! But by then I was back at home in Madison and back to work.

For future reference and information regarding water levels, try calling the U.S. Forest Service office at Laona (715-674-4481) or Kosir’s Rapid Rafts (715-757-3431). The general rule of thumb is the river is runnable from 0 to 10 inches on the gauge. Above 10 requires expert paddling. I called and enquired about the river level on Labor Day, September 3, 2012 and was told that the last time they checked the gauge, about five days earlier, it read 5! So I didn’t bother. A disappointment too, because I had my hopes (and adrenaline) set for the alluring “roaring rapids” section of the Peshtigo but alas, that shall have to wait ’til next year…

Also, There may be a $3 fee to enter Goodman Park to use as the take-out. I decided to camp overnight at the park anyway and so “assumed” the one-night camping fee already included the park entrance (I also took significantly less firewood than the $4 bundle cost ought to have allowed, just to call it all even).

If we did this trip again:
I probably will someday but there are other segments of the Peshtigo I’d like to explore first, not to mention other closer whitewater rivers I have yet to tackle. I doubt I will ever do this segment again so late in the summer or without having had rain in weeks. Like any good whitewater river – and the Peshtigo certainly qualifies as such – this is too delightful to experience in anything other than its full potential.

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Related Information:
Camp: Goodman Park
General: American Whitewater
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Wikipedia: Peshtigo River

Photo Gallery:

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