Wisconsin Whitewater Rafting in Marinette County

The Peshtigo River


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

People from around the world and and people of all ages have found the Peshtigo River's outstanding whitewater. Discover it for yourself!

Spring Rafting on the Peshtigo River in northern Wisconsin

The water that brings all of the fun to the Peshtigo (Pesh-tuh go) Originates in northern Forest and northern Marinette Counties. The majority of the watershed is in the Nicolet National Forest, though some of the land is privately owned or in 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 Peshtigo 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 of the Nicolet National Forest, bordering the Wolf, Oconto, and Pike/Pine River watersheds. 

On this map, the Peshtigo River watershed is highlighted in Blue. Note that the rivers in the green sections of the map flow into Lake Michigan or Superior, and the orange sections, the Mississippi River.

A closer look at where the water comes from. If it is raining near Crandon and Laona, it is a good bet the river will come up.

Here is a map from the DNR. It is hard to read, but fairly detailed.

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. I have been watching the river a long time, and I do not have a good system for predicting this yet.

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. 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.

Well, now you know that you have a clean, free flowing river that needs rain to stay high. There is also a lot of history to the area and the river at one point was very central to it.

Next up, we will take a look at the structure and ratings of the river, and why you need the right outfitting.

Rafting Page 1.....Rafting Page 2.....Rafting Page 3.....Rafting Page 4, First Drop

Rafting Related Pages and Links

White Water Rafting Wisconsin

Peshtigo River Rafting

Menominee River Rafting

Kosir's Rapid Rafts
Whitewater Rafting and Campground

Wisconsin Whitewater Rafting Blog

USGS Gauge on the Peshtigo River

USGS Gauge on the Menominee River

USGS Gauge on the Wolf River

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