Kayaking Lifestyle Rafting Rivers

“WHAT’D YOU SAY, DIRT BAG?” ~ A Southerner Paddles the Northwoods’ Wolf & Peshtigo Rivers. by Michael Potter, photos by Mike Toughill.

Have you ever had one of those spur of the moment opportunities that you just can’t pass up? I mean something that you have no idea what is going to happen, but dang it you’re rock solid, dead set, no matter what, going to do it? That’s the way this amazing weekend came about for me.

I have a group conversation message on my phone with DBP. This is the way I usually talk about general business or everyday life with all of the DBP Administration. We share our lives with each other like family at a breakfast table. There is a mixture of everything, from what needs to be improved in the magazine, jokes, and video sharing, to personal issues like happy moments or someone in need. We are just one big extended family.

One week in October, we were just talking to each other, nothing important, when one of the messages turned my way. “Potter, bring your boat up north next weekend.”

Peshtigo River, WI

I didn’t even ask at the moment, I simply said, “Can do. Let me tell my boss in the morning.”

The next morning I called the boss and told him that I have plans to stay up north next weekend. He asked, “Where at up north?”

I replied, “Chicago, so I can run the Libertyville or Stevenson Point load. I can make either one work.” Within minutes he and I had a plan in place for me to take a load to Stevens Point, Wisconsin on Friday and catch a return load back to Rensselaer, Indiana for Monday. His regular driver had asked for Friday off. Taking the Stevens Point load not only got me in position, but also helped him cover the load back to Rensselaer. Game on!

I finished out the week and dropped my regular load in Greeneville, Tennessee as usual. I had a trip planned for the French Broad section 9 on Sunday with two friends from Hickory, North Carolina, Wayne and DBP Admin Nate Cline. After leaving FB9 I headed home to pack for the next weekend. I washed all my gear and laid it on my front porch banister to dry and for quick access in the morning.

The temperature had not dropped in the south yet, so the next morning I packed what I felt like I needed for a light fall paddling. PFD, paddle, skirt, helmet, boat, kayak, and throw rope. I opted for a 3mm wetsuit instead of my drysuit and under layers. A short trip to my 18 wheeler, transferring all this highly important stuff from my car to my truck, and I was good to go. (Or so I thought…)

Strapping a Flying Squirrel to the cab of an 18 wheeler is not at all easy. I think I may have created a new foreign language before I was finished with strapping that beast down! Some of the verbalizations that I conjured up were certainly not reminiscent of anything in the English language. I slid that boat up and down in every possible position that I could think of before I was satisfied that I wasn’t going to damage my kayak. At least the next time I will know what needs to be done.

I drove all week while making plans with Chicago Mike (AKA Mike Joseph on Facebook, Editor-in-Chief of this fine publication) about what river we would paddle. I remembered that Mike had mentioned the Wolf River so I asked him about it. “Sure. If it’s in.” A few minutes later he messaged me back: “Potter, Wolf’s in. We’re going bro.”

Now we had set plans. I was going to Stevens Point and the. try to make it to a truckstop on I-94 south of Milwaukee. Mike would pick me up on his journey north.

Saturday morning Mike arrived around 6am. We transfered my boat and gear to his infamous CRV (320k miles and charming hard!) and headed Up North for some Wolf and Peshtigo Rivers excitement! I was running on little sleep and a lot of caffeine.

We were the first of our crew to arrive at the takeout, Big Smokey Falls on the Wolf River. I could hear the falls flowing in the background. Mike and I took a walk across the bridge and through the woods to see what awaited us on the other side. I found myself standing at the bottom of Big Smokey with a full view of the entire rapid. It’s approximately 100 feet long from top to bottom. I scouted my line with nervous anticipation.

Chicago sending Big Smokey

The top of the rapid opens on river right with an immediate left turn into two holes. It then descends into a 50 foot slide with a couple of curler waves coming from the left. It ends with a large rooster tail on the left side with an 8 foot drop into a still pool. This rapid looks like a blast as long as you don’t get rolled over by one of the holes or curlers. That slide with all the water pressure cascading down it looks as if it could shred skin from bone.

Mike and I walk back to his CRV and change start to change into our paddling gear. I realize that I am ill prepared for these weather conditions. With Tennessee being 80 degrees and Wisconsin at a mere 35 degrees, I had only packed thst thin wetsuit. I was freezing and shaking miserably. Mike took one long look at me and the real Mike Joseph comes out – both the good and the bad. “Is THAT all you brought to wear?!?”

“I didn’t know it was gonna be this cold. It’s warm down home!”

He dives into the depths of his car and started pulling extra gear from his box. “Don’t they have the Weather Channel down South? Here, put this on…” He started throwing stuff at me, hat, gloves, fleece, paddle jacket, wool socks, even a set of long underwear! I felt like a kid getting dressed for my first day at preschool. When he had finished I wasn’t exactly sure I could paddle. The Egyptians didn’t use this much material on a mummy! Mike is 6 ft 3 and I’m 5ft 6. There were some issues but I darn sure wasn’t cold.

Wolf River, WI

Soon enough the crew arrives and we pay Ralph of Big Smokey Falls Rafting, an old friend of DBP, for our fees and shuttle. He shuttles all of the boats, gear, and bodies to the put in at Sullivan’s Falls where we will start our expedition through the land of the Menominee Indian Reservation. This is a rare start point, a sign of respect for my paddling friends. But I was looking forward to the warmup!There are six of us in the group: legendary kayaker Rick Klade, former river manager and longtime raft guide Sheryl Swiontek, (these two are both DBP Admins and old friends of Mike) Elita and her friend Steve (who arrived an hour late), Mike, and myself.

The crew at Sullivan’s Falls

Sullivan’s Falls is a seven foot straight drop with many different lines and a couple of boofs into a rock slide. Now if there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s starting out with no warm up or adjustment time. I watch everyone run the drop from shore and choose my line. Dreading to be upside down in the first 30 seconds of the run, I paddle out within 10 feet of the falls. I catch a small eddy and scout my mark. I paddle 3 good hard strokes and drop perfectly into space on my target. Good line on the first rapid and my anxiety is gone. I’m digging this!

Mike, Elita, Steve, and Sheryl

We shuttle off through the woods with the current carrying us into the unknown that lies beyond each turn. (Well, unknown to some of us! Rick, Sheryl, and Mike have hundreds of laps between them.) There are long pools between rapids. The fall colors are popping with radiant hues of orange, red, purple, and yellow jutting out among the pine and spruce. The gentle fall winds rustle through the enchanted forest, mixing with the steady soft sound of the rippling water.

We paddle a few Class II rapids that are a fun float for me yet still enjoyable. I’m having a great time floating and paddling while I chat with my newfound friends when Mike paddles up beside me. He tells me to follow him to shore so we can scout the Dells.

Mr. Rick Klade!

We stand on top of a cliff and peer into a narrow crack in the granite about an eighth of a mile long. This is the Lower Dells. There are sheer rock walls between 20 and 30 feet high on both sides. This is a solid Class III+ rapid, reminiscent of Accelerator on the Upper Pigeon. Once you start into the Dells you are only coming out one of two ways, in your boat or swimming for dear life; there is no safety setup here, also extremely little chance of reentering if you swim. (The difference is Accelerator has a long slow pool, whereas the Dells are upper Nantahala style swift water.)

I make up my mind on my paddling course. There is a large hole on river left. It could easily stand a full size creeker on end and there is no skirting the edges as far as I can tell. I don’t think that is my line today. I opt for river right, punching two smaller holes right up against the rock wall and cutting through the smaller curlers. I nail my lines with great accuracy and lean out to miss the small undercut ledge. I’m really feeling my game at this point and loving me some Northwoods.

We paddled onward through flatwater floats until a large sign announced that we were approaching Big Smokey Falls. We didn’t stop to scout again; I had already etched in memory my next moves. Big Smokey is rated Class IV by American Whitewater standards. I’m about to bust top of my game here! MY FIRST KAYAKING CLASS IV.

I entered the top on river right and immediately started working my way left. I skirted the two holes on the left, paying little attention to them as I stroked on past. As I entered the top of the slide I knew that I was going to need to cut the curlers pushing out from the left. I remembered Rick telling me to hit the rooster tail as close to center as possible. He said it was darn near impossible to hit the target area, but to get as close as I could.

Chicago flying off Big Smokey

As I cut through the curlers I found my target just above the drop. I start making my way left as hard as I can. I barely notice the rock wall that I’m up against on the left side. I have my eyes set on my target. There’s no way I can miss this shot. I am running breakneck speed now. Suddenly my boat goes into the right side of the huge mound of water. I’m not exactly where I need to be and I know it. The flying squirrel lifts off as the water propels my boat airborne. When I launch off the lip, the rear end of the boat immediately turns right. Instinctively I put my left blade into position for the brace upon landing. The boat lands flat in the frothy white pillow that awaits below. One good left powerstroke and I’m home free with a clean personal first descent of the mighty Wolf river.

I turn in the calm pool at the bottom of Big Smokey to watch the boater behind me. I’m throwing brown claws and yelling at the top of my lungs. Everyone has a clean run, so I turn toward the takeout. At this moment I realize that our crew has an audience. On the banks above I look up to see what looks like a full tribe of Menominee Indians!

We all exit the river, grab our boats and gear, and walk around the group towards our vehicles. The Menominee are having a traditional tribal wedding that day and we busted Big Smokey somewhere between “I do!” and “You may kiss the bride.” I’m envisioning arrows in the chunky portions of my big, fat butt at this point! Instead the ceremony ended, and folks started making their way around us as they adjourned.

The chief stopped and made long conversation with me as I loaded boats. A few of the ladies wandered by and told us how brave they thought we were. My reply was, “We really ain’t that brave. We’re just a special kind of stupid. There’s a difference.” I was actually a bit in awe of the friendliness of these true native people to the pale skinned foreigners who had just interrupted their sacred ceremony without invitation.

We made our way to our destination, Kosir’s Rapid Rafts, with a few stops along the drive at some local eateries. Kosir’s is the headquarters of DBP, the place where the magic started. Here we would spend the night at the cabin of the famous #danewho himself, Mr. Dale Anthony Guarniere.

Michael Potter and Twiggy

The next day would bring another cold Northwoods pfd for me, paddling the Peshtigo River. This is a Class II-III section of enchanting whitewater. Ryan “Twiggy” Hagen, a young Kosir guide and DBP Admin, joined Rick, Mike, and I. This was also my first chance ever to try paddling a ducky, courtesy of Dale and Kosir’s.

Rick at the put in 

Again the weather was too cold for this Southerner. Our wetsuits were frozen solid. I had already used a full suit of Mike’s gear on the Wolf the day before. Lucky for me he’s been boating in snow and ice for years and had fresh dry base layers for us both, but that wouldn’t be enough… What’s the solution? Kosir’s Rapid Rafts! It is right there on the Peshtigo. Easy access to all of your rafting needs. Dale kindly unlocked the door and led us in. Kosir’s has everything that you  need, even something to fit 5ft 6 dirtbags like me! Yes, I returned it all when I was done. No, I didn’t dunk.

Potter empties the tank one last time before the final suit up…WALLACE!!!

There was one rapid, Class III+ Horserace Rapid, where Rick stopped me at the top and warned me to avoid the sharp rocks at the bottom, called the Dragon’s Teeth. “Paddle left and don’t let the current push you in there.” As I approached I could see the twin rocks pointing skyward, correctly named after the spikes they so resemble. The current went directly into them, with the clean route just to the left side, exactly as Rick described.

Twiggy (above) and Potter (below) running 1st Drop on the Peshtigo

I floated the path of the tongue, which was clearly defined. Just as I placed my correction stroke to avoid the Dragon’s Teeth I heard a loud whack and felt a sudden surge of speed, pushing me directly into the rocks that I was trying to avoid. I leaned into them and transferred my weight downstream. I took a second look and realized to my surprise that Rick had boofed the top ledge right into the rear of my ducky, forcing me into the very spot that he had only minutes ago told me to stay away from! What a pal! I leaned backwards and the boat came smoothly and safely back into the current without any hesitation. Only afterwards did those dirtbags tell me this was the only spot on the river where a fatality had occurred!

Twiggy gets his trophy!

A little further downstream we started seeing several hornets’ nests hanging within arms grasp of the water. (Remember it’s in the 30 degree range.) Twiggy picked out the biggest one and paddled over to it. There were a few hornets coldly crawling around on the front of the nest. He flicked them off into the water, cut the limb, placed it on his lap, and finished the rest of the Peshtigo. He had a 3 hour trip back to Milwaukee. I wonder how that ride went with that nest sitting up in the cab of his truck near the heat vents?

Potter taking it all in…

After we dry haired the Peshtigo it was time to navigate south again. Mike, Twiggy, and I stopped by to grab some grub with Dale at his parent’s bar, then pushed on to Milwaukee.

My first Northwoods experience taught me many things:

1. There is an extreme language barrier between me and the people of the North which resulted in me repeating myself many times and having to spell my 4 letter name (Mike in southern drawl obviously sounds like Mack or Matt to a northerner). I also got the famous line “You’re not from around here are you?” from a guy that I had only spoken two sentences to.

2. Watch the Weather Channel! I was very unprepared when I arrived. Luckily Mike had enough cold gear for both of us. Later he made the comment “Thanks for making my gear smell like a southerner.” To that remark I said, “Mike, you’re welcome for the upgrade.”

3. It’s good to finally write an article for DBP that doesn’t include the “WALLACE FACTOR”! There were four Wallaces on the Wolf, but none of them were mine to tell. There’s no way whatsoever that I would pass up mentioning having to chase Mike’s boat down!

4. I learned FAMILY. Family is not limited to blood in the veins, the color of skin, or even heritage. Family is a feeling in the heart.

Potter in a Ducky. Quack Quack!!

When I left Dale and Mike that weekend there was an immediate emptiness that consumed me for several days. The three of us are very different in many ways, yet very much alike in others. It’s not either of these things that truly matter, it’s how we feel toward one another. There were no long goodbyes here. The parting to me was a hard separation.

Twiggy and Rick

With Dale, I hugged him and broke quickly for the door. With Mike it was a hug, a handshake, and I went to strapping my kayak back to my 18 wheeler. I know what family is. It’s the heartbreak of watching them leave after so little time together, and thinking of them for so long after they are gone.
Special thanks to Ralph for the hospitality and opening up his business at Big Smokey Falls Rafting to accommodate the six of us.

Special thanks to Kelly at Kosir’s Rafting for putting up with Mike, Dale, and myself and the excellent service. (Especially Chicago Mike watching his Cubs win!)

Chicago Mike scoring the shot

The biggest gratuity of all goes to Mike Joseph for thinking enough of me to invite me for the weekend.

Mike, Dale, love you guys. “Huh?” (I think they understood me when I repeated it the second time…!)

By Chicago Mike

Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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