What's in a name? Though the current reality came about after this stream's naming, the name is regrettably apt. About 70% of this river's 35 mile total length consists of a series of reservoirs and dewatered reaches due to extensive utilization for hydropower. The Dead arises at over 1800' of elevation (from it's headwaters in the McCormick Wilderness) and drops 1200' in 27 linear miles to the waters of Lake Superior (if unfettered, an overall average of nearly 45 feet per mile). Much of this drop comes in the final 10 miles of river. Before being dammed, there were great falls and cascades (at least one near 100' in height) along the course of this river's precipitous descent.
In the longest normally dewatered reach, described here, there are two sections of elevated gradient, roughly a mile each in length, separated by about four and one half miles of flatwater. The drops contained in these sections of gradient are not the biggest around, but a combination of the factors of bedrock type and configuration, in conjunction with their not inconsiderable size, may make this potentially some of the most challenging whitewater in the UP (Upper Peninsula, of Michigan).
The greatest challenge though, is actually finding a runnable flow in this reach. The storage capacities of the reservoirs are great, especially considering the relatively small size of the river. Flow in this dewatered reach requires sufficient water to exceed the penstock (pipe that feeds the hydroplant) capacity, fill the reservoirs, and top the dams. The UPPCO hydro project here came up for FERC relicensing several years back. The Michigan DNR stated at the time that they were adamantly opposed to any recreational boating flow studies. That, in combination with the fact that at the time there were perhaps no more than twenty or thirty paddlers in the upper Midwest that likely had the skills and desires to tackle a reach such as this, caused us to advise the persons directly involved with the relicensing process to concentrate on opportunities that would greater potentially serve a larger portion of the paddling community.
I have yet to see the first section of gradient (immediately below the McClure Dam) with a runnable flow. On site indicators suggest that this does occur, but is highly rare. Steep bedrock below the dam leads into a 6-8' vertical drop in a very narrow channel. Downstream lies a large, three step cascade and another cascading drop between rock walls below the LS&I railway trestle. These are only the three largest drops of the first mile of gradient -- less significant drops exist between and below these.
The second section of gradient (after the 4.5 miles of flatwater) is likely to be of more interest, as the potential for finding runnable flows here is greater (though still infrequent at best). Seepage from around McClure Dam, penstock leakage, and the additional watershed of this reach lead to a greater quantity of water in the natural streambed than will occur in the earlier part of the reach. This has been run once that I am aware of, as we came to the river one April afternoon and found a low but runnable flow. Unfortunately, the river was dropping as we set up and carried a mile to the head of this section of gradient. We ran some of the lesser drops, but the larger ones were looking too much like high-speed-impact injuries in the making so we opted out on those.
This second section of gradient begins at the point where a high tension power-line crosses the river, about a mile west of Forestville Rd. Just upstream of the power-lines lies a narrowed channel between rock banks. A sequence of low ledges and boulder bed "warm-up" leads into a brief, abrupt canyon with a tight "S" manuever followed by a steep, irregular drop of perhaps 12-15' between vertical walls. The outflow from this runs into a pond which appears to have been created by an old earthen dam. The river exits ninety degrees to the right.
The next drop, "Dead Bang", will be a portage by most, river left. Though conceivably runnable, a mistake here would likely maim or worse. The river starts dropping far left, moving hard to the right, and straightens out to drop over a 15' vertical falls that lands on an upthrust spline of rock. The narrow slot between this rock and the face of the drop (not more than 4 or 5' wide and parallel to the face) is closed out completely on the right with the only outflow being tight back to the left. Sound complicated? It is. (There is a high water channel to the right which bypasses this but the chance of being able to use it is slightly less than that of hitting the lottery and being struck by lightning, in the same day.)
Next encountered is a shelf drop (with the ledge near parallel to the current) and a fast run out. A brief stretch of low ledges and boulder-bed lead into "Cleavage", towards the right. The approach consists of several low, sloping ledges creating a flume that leads into a vertical falls of 13-14'. Several feet below the lip, and not visible from the approach, the water crashes onto a pair of rock buttresses that flank a narrow slot in the center where much of the water falls. The small pool beneath here has decent depth near the face of the drop.
Below this point, the river turns to the right and encounters a pair of steep boulder-bed/bedrock drops. The second of these opens with a horseshoe ledge of about 4', with "interesting" hydraulic, and then drops swiftly to finish by slamming into a wall and turning hard to the left. A brief pause is followed by a slot drop of perhaps 5' to the left of a large boulder. Right slot here is a nasty sieve. From here to the confluence with the powerplant outflow there are some low, straightforward ledges and light boulder-bed. A short flat-water paddle brings you to the take-out at the Forestville Road bridge.
Since the odds of finding this running are so low, it is probably best to plan on running the Lower Yellow Dog, a highly recommended run, and swinging by here on the way to or from that river. Who knows? You might get lucky. Directions: To McClure Dam, from Hwy 41/28 between Marquette and Negaunee, turn north at either intersection of Cty 502 and proceed to Cty 510. Turn north onto Cty 510, cross the bridge over the Dead, and turn right (east) on the first road, NeeJee Rd. Drive east on NeeJee to McClure Dam Rd and turn right (south). Look for an UPPCO sign on the left which marks the road which leads to the dam. From the parking area here, there is an obvious trail which leads down to the river. To Forestville Rd take-out and powerplant, from Hwy 41/28 just west of Marquette, turn north on Cty 492. Proceed north for about a mile until Forestville Rd branches off to the left. Take Forestville Rd to the bridge over the Dead. Proceeding past this point and taking the first left will bring you to the powerplant. The natural channel here is off to your left (facing the plant). To hike up and see the drops above, follow the trail along the penstock above the plant and veer off to the left on one of the lesser trails until you come to the river. To carry in for lower section only, head south from the Forestville Rd bridge over the Dead to a wide, open high tension powerline frontage on the top of a rise. Carry west for about a mile and follow the powerlines down to the river.
Not that it matters too much, since flow in the river happens only when reservoir is full and inflow exceeds capacity of penstock/generation facility.
As you encounter a mini-canyon, the river takes a sharp left bend and passes under power lines. Get out to scout (and likely portage) the next drop.
Enjoy the following YouTube video of a low-water run of many of the drops in this lower part of the run.
(First 1:14 is "Tourist Falls" section; To skip to just the falls on this section, position mouse/cursor at 1:14 on the time/slider and click.)
10 years ago
The USGS gauge for this reach appears to have been 'de-activated' as of late 2007.
Even when it was active, it did not indicate flow in this dewatered reach, only how much is coming out of the powerplant. At around 350 cfs, the plant is operating at full capacity and there is a chance that some water may be spilling. The storage basin for this hydroproject is huge so extended high flows are necessary to put enough water in the river to boat. Good luck.
As noted in a comment submitted, the penstock is reportedly 'down' for repairs, which are not expected to be completed until late 2009. Boaters with sufficient skills for this reach will undoubtedly wish to take advantage of this rare opportunity to catch this reach anytime area flows permit!
For what it's worth, the Dead River drainage area is 165 square miles. For comparison purposes, the Yellow Dog, at it's gauge (at the put-in for the upper, 8.3 miles upstream of the put-in for the lower) is only 32 square miles. The Silver, at it's gauge (Skanee Road, below the Lower Silver take-out) is only 64 square miles. The Black, at it's gauge (well upstream of the usual runs) is 200 square miles.
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