Ontonagon River (Middle Branch) - Michigan

Date: June 13, 2021; Length: 12 miles; Duration: 4 hours

Put In: Buck Lake Rd Bridge

Narrow bridge with side of the road parking questionable. A small path led down to the water on the downstream right side of the bridge.

Takeout: Interior Rd Bridge

A sand spot on the upstream right side of the bridge led to a trail up to the road where there is room off the side of the road to park.

Paddling Experience = 4/5

The first half of this trip was pretty flat and bland until coming to Mex-i-min-e Falls. The Falls were challenging but over before I knew it, while the remaining half of this trip had a decent current and some riffles and easy rapids in there. Water level and downed trees were no issue as well.

Natural Scenery = 5/5

There were only a handful of houses in the first half of this trip, along with two trail bridges. Otherwise it was a mixture of uninterrupted forest and tall grass beyond the river.

Solitude = 5/5

The lack of houses and bridges contributed to the solitude experience. I also only ran into two other people, kayakers that put in just below the campground, which was fairly empty as well when I scouted the Falls in the morning.

Gradient & Water Level

Gradient: ~5 feet per mile. Early on there wasn't much of a current, but it picked up with the Falls and after with more riffles and lighter rapids.
Experience Paddling at this Water Level: The water level was good. It was high enough to avoid scraping and the rapids remained manageable.

Gauge Information

Here is information on stream gauge readings around the date of this paddle (Note: located near Paulding, MI, several miles down river to this section.):

  • USGS Number = 04033000
  • Discharge Rate = 128 CFS
  • Gauge Height = 4.28 ft

Overall Experience

Planning: The Ontonagon River is located in the western part of the upper peninsula of Michigan and flows north into Lake Superior.  The guidebook Canoeing Michigan Rivers has several trip options for the Ontonagon and its branches, which I used to plan for a 12-mile section from Buck Lake road to Interior road on its middle branch.  This first half of this stretch is fairly flat until coming to Mex-i-min-e Falls at Burned Dam USFS Campground, with a mix of light rapids occurring in the second half.

Paddling: Downed trees were never an issue, while the water level was just right.  The river was narrow the majority of the way, with some wider spots early on.  The current was completely lacking for the first half until coming to Mex-i-min-e Falls at Burnt Dam campground.  After the Falls, the current picked up and started to wind more, with some riffles and class I rapids in the mix.  So it was definitely a slow start for paddling, but really picked up in the second half.

Rapids: Mex-i-min-e Falls is not rated, but would likely be a class III rapid.  I scouted it from the rocks off the river and campground before starting my trip and felt I could give it a go.  When the time came, I could hear it a decent ways before seeing where the water started to show the Falls in the initial gradual drop.  From here there is a tight right turn leading to the main drop, where I had to try to square myself back up to while trying to slow the water’s momentum.  The plan was to avoid the left side of this main drop, hitting it on the right side, but angling back to the left for the drop that quickly follows, as the succumbing drops on the right appeared more shallow or boney.  But it didn’t go quite as plan, as I hit the drop around the middle, but square and cleanly, with my momentum to0 much to stop and try to veer back left for the deeper water route.  So I ended up going over the next smaller drops on the shallow right side, with enough speed to scoot over in my inflatable packraft without issue.  It was quite the rapid experience.

Observations: The river had a brown color with pretty good clarity, where plenty of vegetation, boulders, and sandy bottoms were in sight. Forest typically lined both banks, with some marshy tall grass areas early on.  There were only a handful of houses, and in the first half of this trip, with a couple trail bridges otherwise.  A little ways after the Falls I passed by two other kayakers, with no other people in sight the whole time.  And then there were spottings of a blue heron, some ducks, and a family of geese over my time out there.  This section of the Ontonagon remains pretty undeveloped and natural.

Reflecting: I tend to think back to this river trip as two different ones with Mex-i-min-e Falls separating the two.  The first half was a very flat, uneventful grind of a paddling experience, while the second half made up for it with its more enclosed surroundings, winding route, and decent current to light rapids.  So even if I portaged Mex-i-min-e Falls, the put in from there to this trip’s takeout or a little beyond would have made for a nice river trip that I would recommend to other paddlers.