The Peshtigo River in Northern Wisconsin


The Peshtigo River in Northern Wisconsin

The Roaring Rapids section of the Peshtigo River has brought a lot of fun to a lot of people over the years. The whitewater there is just exceptional. The river is free flowing at this point, and with all of the rock gardens, it changes quite a bit with even minor changes in water levels.

The Peshtigo River watershed starts almost 50 miles northwest of the Roaring Rapids section that is famous for it’s whitewater. It has its origins in the head waters region in northern Forest and northern Marinette Counties bordering the Wolf, Oconto, and Pike/Pine River watersheds. The majority of the watershed is in the Nicolet National Forest, though some of the land is privately owned or in the Marinette County Forest. The water originates from the many small spring creeks and spring fed trout streams that are so common up this way. The water is clear and cold coming from these creeks, and most of the water is class 1 or 2 trout stream. That would suggest right away that it is a very clean river, and it is.

The river does pick up a tannin staining at higher levels that gives it a reddish or tea look. This is from the fallen leaves in the forest making the same kind of staining that a fallen leaf does on a patio. The staining varies with the water level. When it is at higher levels, the river tends to be very colored from the run off water picking up tannin from the leaves on the forest floor. When the river is at its lowest levels, it is crystal clear, and very cold from the high percentage of pure spring water that feeds the river all of the time.

In any river, there is a base flow, the water that flows all of the time. In this case it is the springs that feed the small creeks and rivers that are tributaries. The surface water from rain and snow makes up the balance of the river’s flow. When the river is low and just running with the spring water, it gets cold and clear. As the rain water warms from the land and joins the river, it adds both temperature and the staining.

The base flow of the Peshtigo varies between about 145 and 250 cfs. Ideal rafting starts about 300cfs and it is best at about 1,000-1,500cfs. That would suggest that the river definitely needs rain to keep levels up. It is so, with the Peshtigo getting, by my guess, about 60-70% or its total annual volume of water from rain and snowfalls. This makes us very rain dependent for water levels. The Peshtigo is free flowing and devoid of dams upstream of the Roaring Rapids section, so there is no shock absorber effect to smooth out flows. As a result, spring rafting usually brings the highest levels of the season with the snow melt offering a considerably increased flow. If it rains while it is melting, the river gets huge. Later in summer, the levels usually fall, but not always. If it rains, we can have great water anytime in the season.

Something of interest is how much the river comes up when it rains, how long it takes to peak, and how fast it falls. There are so many variables involved here, it is tough to call. Generally, the best rises in levels come from watershed wide rains. With the elongated watershed, it can take 1 1/2 to 3 days to peak, sometimes longer if there are supplemental rains. If the rain was more local to the Roaring Rapids section, it will rise and fall much faster and seldom achieves huge volume. The river could rise, peak and fall in 3 or 4 days. If the rain was heavier in the northwest areas of the watershed, it may peak in 3-4 days and fall to previous levels in 3-4 more. That all varies with how dry it is, what time of year, and many other things.

About 125 years ago, northern Wisconsin was being aggressively logged to build the big cities to the south. The first wave of logging came for the big pines that grew here, and because the pine floated so well, the rivers were the way to get the logs from the forests to the mills and to market. The Peshtigo was ideal for this with its high spring flows and the fact that it stretched from a Lake Michigan port city (Peshtigo) deep into the forests. This area is rich in history from that era, and many old logging camps still exist in some form.

The many ledges and big rocks in the northern rivers presented obstacles to the rush of logs and spring water, and would cause major log jams. As a result almost all of the major rivers were dynamited in the late 1800s to make passage easier. There is some debate if the Peshtigo was altered, but I will suggest that it looks like First Drop, Horserace and maybe the Third Drop/Joey’s Hole series of rapids were cleared.

The very first rapid on the river, Farm Dam, almost certainly was blasted. Local legend says that the loggers would pile rocks up in this narrowing to dam the river. When it froze in winter, they would skid the huge logs onto the ice. When the spring floods came, they would dynamite the dam and send a huge torrent of logs, water and ice downstream at once. There were no trucks back then, and the alternative was the horse drawn wagon. The rivers presented a great way to get the logs to market. The logs went to the town of Peshtigo, where there were many mills and cabinet shops and all sorts of industries with wood products. It was also right on Lake Michigan, making shipping convenient via the Great lakes. Much of this lumber built the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago.

This practice slowed eventually as the big pines were cut. When the loggers came back for the remaining hardwood trees, they brought the railroads with them to transport the logs. Hardwood doesn’t float as well as pine. Along in the same era, there was some prospecting for silver and gold in the area. There are low concentrations present in the area and they can often be seen in the bedrock of the river. Don’t forget that there is some iron pyrite (fool’s gold) too.

The Peshtigo River is world famous for its five miles of continuous class II, III and IV whitewater. The exciting Roaring Rapids section of the Peshtigo River includes three rock garden stretches and six main rapids, including ledges, waterfalls, and the legendary First Drop and Horserace Rapids. According to the river guidebook “Whitewater/Quietwater”, the Peshtigo averages 40 feet per mile of gradient in this section. The ledges and falls of the Peshtigo are a wild ride. As the water levels rise, huge waves and holes form.

The Roaring Rapids section of the river, even at low levels, has big enough rapids and waves that one will want either a decked boat (whitewater kayak), an inflatable one person raft (funyak, ducky), or float bags in a canoe to run it. Open canoes do not fare well on this stretch at all. They almost always swamp, fill with water, and then end up wrapped around a rock like a twist tie.

The rock that forms the river channel is a granite composite, more specifically a Precambrian crystalline dolomite, and as a result, there is very little water erosion and undercutting. That makes this river a lot safer than some with softer bedrock. At lower water, the rapids in this stretch rate Class II- III. At levels over about 800 cfs, they rate mostly III or IV. Again, you do not want to take a canoe down this stretch without float bags. If in doubt, raft it with Kosir’s Rapid Rafts first, and see what you are getting into.