Do we have extreme sports in the U.P.? You bet. And if you haven’t had a piece of the action yet, you’re missing out.
A few friends and I recently rafted through whitewater rapids on the Menominee River and had a blast. This rough and tumble section of the Menominee is called Piers Gorge.
It’s just minutes away from Iron Mountain and it’s a roller coaster of a good time, making it one of the best things to do in the Upper Peninsula!
Rafting in Piers Gorge with Northwoods Adventures
I began by ringing up Northwoods Adventures to schedule our trip. I spoke with both Matt and Steven (co-owners), and both guys were super nice and very professional.
When my crew and I showed up at Northwood’s headquarters ready to hit Piers Gorge, Matt and company fitted us with helmets and lifejackets. If it was earlier in the year when the water is still cold, we could have also donned wet suits, but on this day the river was warm and the sun was shining.
With our helmets on and lifejackets tight, we boarded their bus–“The General”–and departed for the gorge.
“How many of you have not done this before?” asked Matt.
Almost everyone’s hand went up.
“Alright, this is called a bus! It’s a lot like a car but bigger…”
Everyone laughed at the first of Matt’s many jokes and we proceeded to listen to him give humor-laced safety instructions on the way to the river. It was a short trip to the boat landing where we launched the raft; maybe ten minutes or so over the border to Niagara, Wisconsin.
We unloaded the rafts and Steven had us line up for group photos as the setting sun gave life to the gorgeous Niagara bluffs in the background.
Once the photo op was over, we slid the rafts into the river and were on our way, two rafts full of people, each towing an empty raft. Why the empty raft, you ask? Read on my friend…
The first section of the river is slow and calm, which is a good thing because it’s here where Matt taught us how to paddle while in the raft–it’s slightly different than canoeing–and how to follow paddle commands.
The first whitewater we hit was just an appetizer for things to come and a good warm-up for those who had never faced a roaring river head-on. We were on our way towards more serious stuff after a few bumps and a live run through the paddle commands.
Whitewater Rapids on the Menominee River
The serious stuff is what most people think of when they hear the name Piers Gorge. That is because the river features Mishicot Falls, Volkswagen Rock, Hell Hole, and the Twin Sisters. All of which leads you to the correct assumption that this is not a canoe-friendly stretch of river.
This ain’t your grandma’s river. Do not try this at home. Professional driver on a closed course. You get the idea.
We had the opportunity to get out of the river and take a peek at the gnarly stuff before willfully agreeing to paddle through it. We stared at Misicot falls for a while. It’s about a ten-foot drop.
“I’m scared guys,” someone said, only half-joking. We muttered small talk as the river rumbled, and then Matt spoke up.
“Alright, does everyone here want to raft through this section of the river?” he yelled over the roaring falls. “I need a verbal yes from each of you.”
We answered with a resounding “yes!” as our adrenaline levels started to rise.
“Well then let’s stop talking and start rafting!” he shouted, and with that, we hoofed it back to the rafts.
Now, about that empty raft. The guys at Northwoods want you to have a great time. So much so that they have you haul down an extra raft, tie it up at the beach before a great part of the ride, and then, after you’ve gone through it once and are dying to do it again, you get to!
It’s like getting off a killer roller coaster ride and then getting to hop right back on. Sweet!
We shoved off the beach behind the second group of people, so we had the pleasure of watching them drop over Misicot falls first. It was kind of a “now you see ‘em now you don’t” moment.
“Whoaa,” someone muttered.
“Holy sh*t,” said another.
The rest of us just smiled and gripped our paddles.
“All forward!” Matt yelled as we were about to drop into the gorge. And he really had to yell at that point because the sound of Misicot Falls smashing into the river below would have drowned out anything less.
Then one of the girls screamed as the nose of the raft dropped down the falls and into frothing whitewater. It knocked me back a couple of feet and almost made me lose my foothold.
“LEFT SIDE TWO!” Matt shouted. Those of us on the left side dug in and paddled the hardest two strokes we could muster as the front of the raft smashed into the top of Volkswagen Rock, a Volkswagen-sized boulder submerged inches below the surface.
The shock jarred the raft and my right foot flew out of the foothold, and before I could react I was on my way out of the raft, smack in the middle of the most serious section of whitewater in the Midwest. I was about to become a “swimmer,” in rafting-speak.
I fell backward toward the water, reached for the safety line that surrounds the raft, and then magically ended up back in the raft. One of my fellow rafters had grabbed my arm and yanked me back in. But I didn’t even have a second to thank him…“All back hard!” screamed Matt as more whitewater crashed over the raft, soaking everyone to the bone.
To the left were rocks, to the right were rocks, and in the middle of the river was a rock island. Careful maneuvering is a must here and Matt did a great job of getting us through unscathed. We paddled backward for a second, spun in a full circle, and before we knew it we were coasting downstream in idle water, all of us dripping wet.
Now that’s Mother Nature’s roller coaster.
We beached the raft and eagerly hiked toward the empty rafts we’d parked at the beach above the falls.
We couldn’t wait to do it again.
How to Go Whitewater Rafting in Piers Gorge
Piers Gorge is one of the U.P.’s top destinations. People drive hours just to come here and raft Piers Gorge. And, provided you are in decent shape, you should too. It’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Find an outfitter: https://www.ironmountain.org/outdoor-fun/whitewater-rafting/
Thanks to Jesse Land for sharing his whitewater rafting experience with Awesome Mitten. This article was written in 2011 and has been updated for accuracy.