The river looked calm enough.
Wide and slow-moving, it drifted east between steep, green banks, looking harmless beneath a gloomy gray sky. I'd absolutely paddle it in a canoe. Maybe even a stand-up paddleboard.
But we weren't launching a canoe or paddleboard from the rocky bank near Niagara. A 200-pound inflatable raft would carry us down this seemingly flat ribbon of water.
The sight calmed me for the simple fact that I hoped it calmed my two friends Katie O'Connell and Emily Widen, whom I'd talked into white-water rafting with me on the Menominee River in northeastern Wisconsin. They are good sports who are usually up for anything, tagging along on adventures that I know sometimes push their comfort limits, and doing it with a smile.
But I had made the mistake of sending O'Connell a video of rafting the river in the spring, when it is higher and the rapids are a tad rougher. She promptly responded with: "Pardon my ignorance, because I've never gone rafting before. Do you get belted in there somehow? Because that looks like the kind of thing where I would finally die trying to keep up with you."
I backpedaled, assuring her the river is tamer in the summer (sort of), and that while you aren't belted in per se, there are spots to wedge your feet in for a solid(ish) anchor. With her convinced, Widen wasn't too hard of a sell, especially since I withheld the video.
So I was relieved to see that at least the first section of our trip down the Menominee was even tamer than I had advertised.
Running from Iron Mountain, Mich., southeast to Marinette and Menominee, Mich., at Green Bay, the 116-mile Menominee River forms part of Wisconsin's northern border with the Upper Peninsula. It also provides some of the best guided white-water rafting in the state.
Starting out calm
We had made the trip from Milwaukee to Thornton's Rafting Resort's Menominee River outpost about 1.5 hours north of Green Bay early on a cloudy June Saturday. The resort runs two daily trips on the Menominee, plus rents one-, two- and four-person rafts for guided trips on the Peshtigo River from its campground and resort in Athelstane.
As we pulled up to Thornton's outpost, river manager Barry Edgar bounded over to greet us.
"You here for rafting?" he asked.
"We sure are," I said. He directed us to park nearby and got us set up with helmets, life jackets and paddles (it was warm enough that we didn't need wetsuits) before we piled onto a school bus.
A short ride later and we were at the riverbank. Our guides hauled the rafts to the shore and our group of three, plus another group of three guys who would be in our eight-person raft, helped shuffle them into the water.
The stretch of the Menominee we were traveling features a couple of small, Class II and III rapids, plus a stretch of Class IV rapids known as Piers Gorge. I chose the Menominee over the Peshtigo — which features Class II and III rapids in the summer — because of the gorge. Each group had two rafts so we could run the gorge rapids twice.
"See you in Michigan!" Edgar shouted as we shoved off, referring to our take-out point on the Michigan side of the river a few miles down.
Our 20-year-old guide, Jon Sisley, bounced to the raft's bow to give us instructions. He went over how to sit in the raft — on the edges with our feet wedged under the seat in front of us — and we practiced hunkering down inside for rapids sections. He showed us how to paddle and explained how he would direct us from the raft's stern.
What if ...
"Now we'll go over what to do if someone falls out," Sisley said.
Oh no, I thought. I looked at Widen, who was sitting behind O'Connell and me and was a bit more nervous since I hadn't shown her the video and she didn't know what to expect.
"Don't worry, you won't," I assured her. "They just have to go over this, like when they tell you about evacuation procedures on an airplane." I forgot she doesn't like flying, either.
She gave me that I-can't-believe-you-talked-me-into-this stare and turned to Sisley. "Has anyone fallen out this year?" she asked.
Please say no, please say no, I thought.
"Not through our company," he said. "But a woman with another outfitter did fall out just after the rapids at Piers Gorge the other day."
This wasn't helping.
But Sisley's patient and calm explanations, a little practice paddling along a calm section of the Menominee, and a light wind and easy current helped buoy our confidence. We all relaxed a bit and took in the scenery.
The 200-foot cliffs along the riverbanks looked otherworldly under the gray-pocked sky. The rain had held off so far, but the wet spring had left the bluffs blanketed in a vibrant green. It felt like a scene out of "Jurassic Park" or "The Hobbit."
A hum becomes a roar
Even without a wet spring, the Menominee has a fairly reliable flow thanks to the Little Quinnesec Dam in Niagara, which is what makes the river a great spot for commercial rafting trips throughout the summer, regardless of rainfall.
By the time we reached the first set of rapids, a tame set of Class II-III known as Sand Portage Falls, we were ready.
We paddled our way through the ripples and riffs of Sand Portage, which Sisley explained got its name from the path American Indians had worn into the small island they used to portage around the rapids to the left.
"That wasn't bad," Widen said as we paddled back through calm water on the other side, a little wet but everyone accounted for.
Then we heard the distant roar.
Dim at first, the steady hum grew into a more pronounced cacophony of water crashing and tumbling as we paddled toward a sandy shore just before Piers Gorge.
We ditched the second raft we'd been towing along so far and Sisley gave final instructions on navigating the Class IV rapids. It was go-time.
"Six left!" he shouted, and the left side of our boat furiously plunged their paddles into the water six times, moving us into the rapids and over the 10-foot Mishicot Falls.
Sitting at the bow of the boat, I was immediately soaked as we plunged down the falls and past Volkswagen Rock, obscured by water but still menacing. Someone let out a scream — me? probably — as we bounced and splashed through the mess of white-water. We were huddled between the seats in the raft with our feet wedged into the sides, but I still found myself sliding toward O'Connell as I maintained a death grip on my paddle.
Soon enough our raft fully resurfaced as the river calmed and widened. Most of us were soaked but grinning with childlike glee.
Edgar stood on a high point on the river's Michigan bank, swinging a rescue throw bag — now thankfully rendered unnecessary.
We waved and paddled through another small set of rapids — Class II — and passed a swirling dip in the river that looked harmless enough.
"If you go in that hole, you don't come out," Sisley said.
Comforting. Thanks, Jon.
But we paddled around the black hole easily enough and angled toward the shore, where we ditched our raft and hiked back along the river to the sandy beach where we'd left our other one.
We paused at a lookout point to catch a glimpse of the rapids we had just crashed through, their raw power mesmerizing from above.
"That was actually fun," Widen said.
"Yeah, I'm excited to do it again," O'Connell echoed.
The second time around was equally as fun, and all-too-soon, we were paddling back to our other raft on shore and loading the bus for the trip back to the outpost.
Our entire white-water experience — bus trips included — was less than three hours. And although the rapids sections were shorter than what I've experienced on trips out West, the adrenaline rush was all the same.
As we bounced along in the bus back to the outpost, my friends said they'd absolutely do it again. I heartily agreed, not withholding a couple of I-told-you-sos. I had their confidence back, opening up the door for more crazy — er, "fun" — Wisconsin adventures. Maybe next time I'll even show them both the video beforehand.
Trip tips: You don't need any particular experience or gear to go white-water rafting in Wisconsin. Just be sure to wear shoes that are secured to your feet — no flip-flop sandals — and clothes you don't mind getting wet — ideally no cotton.
Menominee River trips cost $46 per person Friday-Sunday and holidays, and $42 Monday through Thursday. Guided Peshtigo River trips are run in one-person Fun Yaks and two-, three- and four-person rafts. They cost $27 per person Friday-Sunday and holidays and $25 Monday-Thursday (spring trips on the Peshtigo cost more).
Thornton's recommends children be at least 10 for Menominee River trips, but weight is the real limiting factor — 50 pounds for the flat-water section and 75 pounds for the rapids.
There are campsites and cabins available for rent at Thornton's in Athelstane, about an hour south of the outpost. We stayed at one of the campsites after our trip, but we could have made the drive back to Milwaukee if we wanted.
The campground at Thornton's includes a bar/restaurant that's quite the party scene well into the night. If you're looking for a quieter experience, I recommend staying in Iron Mountain, near the outpost, or at a nearby state park like Governor Thompson.
More information: For more on rafting with Thornton's and to make reservations, call (715) 757-3311 or see thorntonsresort.com. Other rafting companies in the area include Kosir's Rapid Rafts & Campground, (715) 757-3431, kosirs.com; Wildman Adventure Resort, (888) 813-8524, wildmanresort.com; and Northwoods Adventures, (906) 563-5450, michiganrafts.com.
Getting there: Thornton's Menominee River outpost is about three hours north of Milwaukee via I-43 and Highway 141.
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