Here, the U.P.’s largest river drops into a canyon called Piers Gorge and plunges through half a mile of ferocity. Advanced whitewater paddlers come here from across the country to practice their skills.
And make no mistake: It takes a lot of skill. Piers Gorge is no place for beginners to test themselves.
Luckily, there’s an alternative for those of us who haven’t mastered our Eskimo rolls. Several commercial rafting companies offer trips on the Gorge that are safe enough for families but wild enough to be unforgettable.
I haven’t rafted Piers Gorge in years, but Dan Okerlund, owner of Northwoods Adventures in Iron Mountain, assures me that things haven’t changed since I was last there.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
We rode the shuttle bus to the access site, were outfitted with personal flotation devices, helmets and paddles and were given a course on safety. Six to eight of us climbed into a raft led by a professional guide. We pushed off into the river and practiced paddle strokes and splashed one another to build teamwork.
First came a stretch of light rapids that were no trouble at all.
We plunged into the standing wave at the bottom and were struck by a chest-high wall of water. The raft bucked like an angry bull and carried us toward Volkswagon Rock.
After that, things got more interesting.
Just above the Gorge is a spot where everyone goes to shore and hikes to a promontory 80 feet above the river to scout the rapids. Those who have second thoughts can opt to stay on shore as spectators. The rest return to the rafts and push off into the river.
The proper way to descend 8-foot-high Misicot Falls is bow first, through the narrow chute just right of center. We missed the chute and went over sideways. I remember thinking we had approximately the same control over the raft as a caterpillar has over a drifting leaf.
We plunged into the standing wave at the bottom and were struck by a chest-high wall of water. The raft bucked like an angry bull and carried us toward Volkswagon Rock. Our guide shouted, “Paddle left! Left! Left!” We bounced off the side of Volkswagon, twisted around and went over the next drop backwards. By the third drop we were in control. We hit it perfectly, bow-first, and crashed through the backroller at the bottom. Moments later we shot over the final drop into light rapids and made our way to shore.
Then we ran to the top of the Gorge and did it again.
To raft the Gorge, children must be 11 years old and weigh 100 pounds. Kids over four years and 50 pounds are allowed to raft the slower section above the Gorge, with adult supervision , but must get out there and watch from shore.
To learn more, visit michiganrafts.com.