Black River Narrows Trip Report

John Hart

John Hart

By guest blogger John Hart

The temperature dipped little by little, hour by hour as I drew closer to the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With every drop in temperature my excitement ticked up a notch, knowing I was getting closer to the start of an amazing weekend. As I rolled into Wakefield and swung through the curve around Sunday Lake, the street lights cast dash marks on rippling water like an airport landing strip, informing me I was on final approach to my destination. After passing the lake and veering down a road to the left it felt as if I was taxiing toward an arrival gate. Within several minutes I could see the welcome sign of Presque Isle State Campground.

I stopped at the cedar sided headquarters, collected the registration envelope and then drove off to find the camp site. Lowering my window I felt crisp air on my face and heard the soft sound of the lake lapping the shore and muffled laughter. The boys were grouped around the fire sharing stories of glory and hilarious tales about frozen sleeping arrangements from the night before.

In the glow of the campfire they also shared stories of epic runs down the Presque River from earlier that day and the previous weekend. Some runs were more successful than others and the puckered bow of one boat supported the account of a missed stroke that caused penciling into a rock below.

Presque Isle State Campground

Presque Isle State Campground

One by one we found our way to our sleeping arrangements for the night. Chad and Strong in a tent, Mike and Josh cozy in a camper van straight out of “That Seventies Show,” Keller nestled into his minivan “Vansion” and I stuffed into a sleeping bag amidst gear in the back of my SUV. I pulled the hatch shut while thinking about how nice it would be to have the tent setup tomorrow. But it was late and too dark for that now.

The next morning began with a tasty breakfast of red sweet peppers, potatoes with  onions and a silky coating of coconut oil on communal plates (food and plates provided by Keller; thanks bro). Then we were off to run the “Narrows” section of the Black River. After caravanning across country roads we found the put-in and unloaded boats. Mike, Josh and I continued on to set shuttle at the takeout before returning to the put-in.

As we geared up, the mood was light and jovial. Laughter echoed through the trees. We set off on a ten-minute hike to the put-in. Our mood shifted as we approached the put-in due to the incident of the prior week when Clint Mabie lost his life on this Class II-III river (at normal flows). The flow on that unfortunate day was four times higher.

Today at the put-in the current was calm with mostly riffles, a few small wave/holes and a couple of ledge drops. We all had a great time introducing Mike to the river. Once on the water he dialed in his practice roll to get comfortable. It was fun to watch his face switch from mild nervous anticipation to a broad smile as he enjoyed the light action of this Class II section.

As we neared the end of the run we could see a horizon line with mist spewing into the air and hear the ominous roar of Conglomerate Falls. We hurriedly eddied out so as not to pass the point of no return and blindly run the falls.

After prying ourselves out of our boats, we scrambled up the cliff to scout the falls. The right channel was barricaded by log but we figured it could still be accessed by entering the drop from river right then spinning on a dime to make a hard left followed by a few power strokes and a sweep stroke to turn back down river. One last well-placed boof stroke to clear the lip would lead to a green water tongue below. At least that was the theory. Miss any of these strokes and you’re in a BIG, ANGRY HOLE that looks like the wood chipper scene from Fargo.

We considered our chances and opted to save this one for next time. With 45-pound “hotdog buns” draped over our shoulders, we carefully chose our steps on the way back down the steep cliff.

The mist from the falls created a slippery mess of pudding-like mud near the crest of the cliff. This was followed by a rotted-out muddy mess of a boardwalk. Passage across the boardwalk should not be taken lightly — a lesson learned by a deer no more than five minutes ahead of us. We watched as it hobbled at the base of the cliff, bloody with a broken leg dangling like a pencil hanging from a string. As we passed across the ledge of the ravine, the deer gingerly hopped into the water. We expected to see it swept downriver and mangled by the rapids below. Amazingly it swam across the swift current as if propelled by an outboard motor.

After several rest breaks I reached the top of the 100 vertical feet of steps. Steam jetted out the top of my drysuit. My friends in much better shape than me were well on their way up the three-quarter-mile trail to the parking lot.

I tethered my boat to my PFD, leaned forward and used the rounded stones protruding from the path to glide my boat along the trail. As I neared the parking lot I took a another break to catch my breath. I sauntered into the parking lot, untethered the boat and had the best beer. Ever. It was only a Miller High Life but at that moment it was delicious.

And that was just day one of this amazing weekend.

Chris Keller

Chris Keller on Gorge Falls

Here’s Chris Keller’s edit of footage from their U.P. weekend, including the author (John Hart) and others chugging a bootie beer.

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