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White water rafting in Michigan: What you should know

White water rafting in Michigan: What you should know

Photo courtesy of Jackalope West via Unsplash.

By Lisa Green

June 14, 2024

Kayaking and paddleboarding are pretty cool, but if you’re looking for something more extreme, you can go white water rafting in the Upper Peninsula! We’ve got all the beginner tips to make it a breeze.

You’ve heard of kayaking, canoeing, and maybe even tubing. But a few Michigan rivers also allow you to do another popular water sport—white water rafting.

In Michigan, you’re never more than six miles from a body of water, partially thanks to the tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams. About 120 rivers in Michigan are considered major rivers, and we’ve counted over 300 different waterfalls. Those are good statistics for white water rafting.

If you’ve ever been to a vigorous river, then you already know what white water looks like. When water cascades and tumbles over terrain, the air in the atmosphere infuses into the water, in a process called aeration. This process, which produces oxygen-infused water, produces majestic white crests within the water, sometimes referred to as “white caps.”

White river rafting involves taking an inflatable raft downstream along a vigorous river that produces the trademark white aerated water, which creates an adrenaline-fueled heart-pumping journey downstream. White water rafters navigate the turbulence of the waves and water activity over cliffs and other drops, as well as navigate obstacles such as rocks.

Due to the difficulty and danger present, white water rafting should only be done with a reputable company and a trained professional guiding the raft. Day trip white water rafting can take about 4-6 hours, but multi-day trips can last anywhere from two to 21 days.

In Michigan, the best spot to go white water rafting is the Menominee River in the Upper Peninsula. This 116-mile river straddles the border between Michigan and Wisconsin. There are several white water rafting companies located there, with most of these companies either based in Norway, MI, or Niagara, WI.

If you’re looking to dive into your Michigan white water raft experience, you can trust True North Outpost (Michigan), Wildman Adventure Resort (Wisconsin), Kosir’s Whitewater Rafting (Wisconsin), or Tarka’s Whitewater Journey (Michigan).

If you’re looking to get into white water rafting as a first-timer or beginner, we’ve got a few tips for you.

Every River is Different.

Ask any Michigander who’s ever gone tubing down a river and they’ll tell you—some rivers are perfect for lazy drifting, while others are more dangerous. 

When going white water rafting on any river, it’s important to consider how challenging the river is to raft down. Thankfully, rivers are assessed using The International Scale of River Difficulty, as set by the American Whitewater Association. You’ll want to carefully consider how much of a challenge you can handle by looking at how the river route ranks on this scale in relation to how much of a challenge you want. 

A Class I river would include the best rivers for other forms of water recreation, representing calm and deep currents that are fairly safe. Class II is ideal for white water rafting beginners, representing straightforward rapids and easy-to-navigate occasional obstacles. 

Beyond that, the rafting gets more challenging. Class III usually involves more complex river sections and faster currents, while Class IV is an intense ride requiring precise paddling skills. Class V represents the longest, most obstructed, or most violent rapids that make for a rafting experience that should only be done by those with skill. Class VI also exists, but is reserved for only the most unpredictable, dangerous, and difficult rapids.

The Menominee River ranks anywhere from Class II to Class IV, depending on precise location and conditions. Certain parts of the course rank in Class III-IV territory, but the rafting outfitters still recommend it for beginners. The river levels can vary anywhere from 600 cubic feet per second up to 20,000 cubic feet per second. Some features along the river, such as Missicot Falls, qualify as a Class IV drop. Check out where Michigan’s rivers rank here.

Rivers May Change Throughout the Season.

Like most outdoor activities in Michigan, white water rafters are at the mercy of our state’s wacky weather and shifting climate.

Some white water rafting companies, including some in the Midwest, gladly offer rafting experiences most of the year or even year-round, but that doesn’t mean every season is ideal or makes the best experience. In general, the best time for rafting is between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

In the spring, the stream of melting snow and ice creates more active rivers, leading to higher flows and colder water. White water rafting is safest when the water level is higher, and trips may even be canceled if the water level is too low. Otherwise, commercial rafters generally run rain or shine.

White Water Rafting is Pretty Safe, But Take Safety Precautions Seriously.

While no outdoor activity can ever be 100% safe, when white water rafting is done with trained experts, it’s a safe and enjoyable activity. Fatalities while white water rafting are rare, happening to only about 50 people every year, which is about the same fatality rate as amusement parks. 

Injuries are more common than death, but the most common injuries are cuts, sprains, and strains, about the same risk factors as other water activities. More often, these injuries result from the paddles. Make sure you know how to properly hold and use your paddle.

White water rafting is safest when choosing a licensed and professional rafting outfitter. With these organizations, you’ll get a trained guide who will know what to do if dangers occur. It’s generally not a good idea to try white water rafting on your own and without a guide, unless you have significant experience.

White water rafting typically mandates the use of safety gear, with special life jackets designed for buoyancy. Life jackets are most useful when they are fitted properly, snug to your body, with all buckles fastened. Jackets should be loose enough for you to breathe but snug enough that you can’t pull them off your head. Make sure to properly fit your lifejacket—don’t let it hang loose, or worse, hang out in the raft! Often, a helmet is also included as part of your protective gear. White water rafters have the best chance of avoiding injury if they wear all their protective gear during the entire trip, regardless of the expected difficulty. 

Know How to Swim.

While you don’t have to be an Olympic-level swimmer, being comfortable in natural water and knowing what to do in the event of going in the water is vital for your safety. One of the biggest safety risks occurs when rafters fall out of the raft. In fact, most of the time, dangers and injuries happen when swimmers panic or otherwise don’t follow instructions properly.

Rafters should always be alert and aware of their surroundings, paying close attention to any upcoming bumps in the journey. Staying securely in the raft, especially when it hits more turbulent points, is vital to avoiding the water. Stay coordinated and paddle when you’re supposed to paddle to minimize your risk of going overboard.

Professional rafters will usually have a safety debriefing of the best practices for someone to do if they fall off the raft. Your guide will usually instruct you on how to get back in the boat, or otherwise, how to escape the river. In general, white water rafting pros often recommend generally following the current and never trying to stand up in the river, meaning the best way to handle going overboard is by swimming on your back or lying on your stomach. Your guide will let you know the best maneuvers to use. 

Dress Appropriately, and Gear Up!

White water rafting is similar to other forms of water recreation in the sense that dressing appropriately and bringing only the appropriate items can make or break your experience. 

It’s best to wear clothing intended for water, such as a bathing suit, wetsuit, or quick dry shorts. Additionally, sturdy footwear is also of vital importance, and flip flops or Crocs could be dangerous. Water shoes are ideal, as you should be ready to go in the water at any time. Finally, while cotton fabric is great in the summer to keep you cool, it gets cold when wet, so it’s not the best fiber to wear when rafting.

You’ll also want to make sure you’re prepared for sun exposure by using waterproof sunscreen, possibly wearing a hat with a brim (which can be worn under a helmet), and putting a retainer strap on any sunglasses. 

You should not take any valuables with you on the raft, but do bring a water bottle to stay hydrated and maybe a snack such as a granola bar. If you intend to bring your phone, it’s best to take it in an approved waterproof case that attaches to your lifejacket; otherwise, be aware it could go into the water and be unrecoverable. You can also bring a Go Pro for those social media-ready photos and videos! Finally, make sure you have a change of clothes and a towel waiting for you at the end of your trip.

You Can Customize Your Experience!

By carefully selecting your professional rafter and choosing from the different packages offered, you can pick who you want to raft with and how long you want to raft. You can choose to be part of a public group for cheaper rates and to meet new people, or you can pick a private trip for a tailored-to-you experience with the people you choose!

Most rafting experiences, especially on the Menominee River, are half-day trips taking place in the span of 3-4 hours. But some experiences, such as True North Outpost’s Mini-Expedition take place over the span of multiple days and also include camping.

Be a Team Player, Work Your Arms, and Don’t Get Lazy!

Most folks can paddle a white water raft, but it’s important to do it with elbow grease. While you might think the current will take you where you need to go, it’s the paddling power of the rafters that allows the raft to navigate treacherous spots. Rafting is a team sport that requires teamwork, and if you don’t put in your fair share, the trip suffers. 

Your guide will most likely teach you the different paddle commands, so everyone can stay in sync. Make sure to listen to your guide and paddle when they tell you to paddle, as this will minimize your chances of falling overboard. Remember that avoiding certain obstacles takes the entire team. 

Effort makes a big difference in paddling. Often, to get enough momentum, rafters must “dig in” to the water to direct it where it needs to go—merely grazing the surface with your paddle isn’t enough!

Trust Your Guide … and Tip Them!

Even if you’ve been white water rafting before, a professional rafter not only knows the sport of rafting as well as all the precautions to maximize safety, but also intimately knows the river and the lay of the land. Your best bet to stay safe and have a good time is to listen carefully to your guide and follow any instructions.

It’s generally a good idea to tip your rafting guide at the end of the tour, especially if you want to show you had a great time. Some recommended figures are 10% to 20% of the rafting cost. You can also go by $3 to $5 for a half-day trip, $5 to $7 for a one-day trip, and $10 to $15 for a two-day trip. Many professional services allow you to tip on the way back or back at the main site, including with digital options such as credit card or Venmo, so don’t feel like you have to take dollar bills on the raft with you!

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.White water rafting in Michigan: What you should knowWhite water rafting in Michigan: What you should know

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