By Brian E. Clark
Mariah Staelens has been paddling canoes and kayaks almost as far back as she can remember, from the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota to whitewater rapids in Washington State, North Carolina and Tennessee.
But the whitewater rapids of northeast Wisconsin are special to the Neenah native, who spent several summers teaching kayaking at the Gardner Dam Boy Scout Camp on the Wolf River near White Lake, about an hour northwest of Green Bay.
Staelens also has paddled on the Peshtigo, Red and Menominee rivers in northeast Wisconsin near the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In addition, she’s kayaked numerous times on the Wisconsin River Course in Wausau, which attracts top boaters from around the country for regional and national competitions every spring and summer.
Ironically, Staelens, a budding documentary filmmaker, got into paddling because she had a water phobia as a little girl – she was even afraid to get in the bathtub – and her mother figured boating would cure her of the fear.
“It pretty much did, and I’ve had tons of fun playing in and running rapids,” she says, praising Wisconsin’s streams for their versatility and beauty. “Better yet, I’ve met a lot of great people on rivers. They may not be as big or scary as streams in the mountains, but they are still a blast.”
Staelens is a big fan of the Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort near the Wolf River. It’s run by Jamee Peters, who has been teaching whitewater paddling for 30 years.
Peters says she starts students off on flat water before introducing them to slow-moving sections of river and then moving up to small whitewater rapids so novice paddlers can gain skills and confidence.
"The Wolf has about 30 miles of runnable whitewater," she says. "The northern sections are easy Class I and II riffles, but when you get down into the heart of it, there is Class III and even some pool-drop Class IV waterfalls in what we call Section 4."
Tony Guarniere, who runs Kosir's Rapid Rafts out of Silver Cliff, says the Peshtigo River offers some of the most consistent summer white water rapids in the Midwest and features a series of Class III rapids with names like Joey's Hole, Five-Foot Falls, Horse Race and S Curve.
"We've been running the Peshtigo for 35 years, and it's always fun," said Guarniere, whose company has both inflatable kayaks and rafts.
For adrenaline junkies looking for the most exciting whitewater rapid drops in the region, Guarniere recommends the Menominee River, which forms the border between Wisconsin and the U.P.
"On the Menominee, we start out with the Class III Sam's Portage rapid and then slide into the three-quarter-mile long Piers Gorge, which is Class IV and then ends with Terminal Surfer, another Class III drop."
Guarniere says his favorite rapid on the Peshtigo is First Drop, "because that's where 80 percent of the tip-overs take place."
On the Menominee, he says he likes the action in Piers Gorge between a 12-foot waterfall and the big Volkswagen Rock.