In this back country setting, the gorge-like landscape, exposed sandstone cliffs and waterfalls provide a unique recreational area for the Midwest. The river also has excellent fishing for resident brown trout, Lake Superior run salmon and steelhead. The river's outstandingly remarkable values include scenery, recreation, geology, fish, and wildlife.
March 3, 1992. The East Branch from its origin to the Ottawa National Forest boundary. The Middle Branch from its origin to the northern boundary of the Ottawa National Forest. The Cisco Branch from its origin at Cisco Lake Dam to its confluence with Ten-Mile Creek south of Ewen. The West Branch from its confluence with Cascade Falls to Victoria Reservoir.
Fish communities present in this segment transition from cool-water species in the upstream area (smallmouth bass, northern pike) to cold-water species (brook trout) downstream. Just downstream from Kakabika Falls, a major feeder stream enters and provides colder water and potentially the best brook trout spawning conditions of any of the Cisco Branch tributaries. Further downstream, numerous springs also lower the water temperature and provide suitable habitat for trout in the Cisco Branch.
Part of this segment is designated a Blue-Ribbon Trout Stream. Self-sustaining brook and brown trout populations dominate the fish community. Spawning of migratory steelhead trout and coho salmon occurs upstream from State Highway M-28 as far as Lower Dam. The brook trout fishery in Lower Dam Lake is unique in that natural reproduction in the East Branch above the dam supplies adequate numbers of brook trout (no longer stocked) to the popular fishery. Suitable spawning habitat for the lake sturgeon, particularly in the shale bottom areas, is present.
This river segment is a regionally important producer of resident fish species. Portions of the Middle Branch have a warmwater influence, resulting in a mixed community of smallmouth bass, walleye, and an occasional muskellunge occurring with the resident cold-water species. Trout are found here, including an occasional rainbow trout. The diversity of sport fish species in this segment is noteworthy. Few, if any, other locations on the Ottawa National Forest have brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, muskellunge, and smallmouth bass in a single stream segment. Brook trout and brown trout are present in sufficient numbers to support a Blue-Ribbon Trout Stream designation. Other cold-water fish species, such as longnose dace and mottled sculpins, are present in moderate numbers.
The West Branch is known for thriving populations of smallmouth bass. Rock bass and darters are associated species.
Glacial uplift and river down cutting have formed a deep, naturally unstable, steep-sided, and broad river valley as it flows through layered glacial lake sediments formed 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. The active process of valley formation continues to be evident to this day. The steep-sided valley walls are actively eroding, with numerous examples occurring frequently wherever the river channel touches and undercuts the adjacent valley walls.
The geology of the river begins to change once leaving the Bond Falls flowage; the river valley deepens and widens. Major erosional features occur wherever the river meanders into and undercuts the stream valley wall. The Middle Branch generally drops steeply within this segment. The river flows through a deep, steeply incised, and broad river valley that has cut down through glacial lake sediments. Notably, two waterfalls define this segment, Bond Falls to the south, composed of basaltic rocks, and Agate Falls to the north, composed of sedimentary rocks.
The West Branch flows along the geologic boundary between exposed bedrock outcrops and glacial lake plain, up to a few miles before the confluence of the South Branch where the landform becomes a steep-sided river valley. After the confluence, there is an unusually large mid-channel island, and the river valley begins to widen and the river gradient decreases. The approximate path of the river channel and valley in this area follows the Keweenaw Fault Line. This fault was significant in the history of the region in that it is where all of the early copper exploration and mining occurred. The Trap Hills and the Norwich Bluff border the river valley to the north. These consist of high elevation bedrock landscapes and numerous escarpments 200- to 300-feet high, composed of volcanic lava flows and metamorphic rock formations. From the South Branch confluence downstream to Victoria Reservoir, the river maintains these characteristics, and enters the Reservoir through a long series of substantial rapids and small waterfalls.
The Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River provides popular canoeing and kayaking opportunities. Some sections are only navigable by experienced paddlers (Mex-i-min-e Falls, Class III rapids). Burned Dam Campground provides a good opportunity to take out a canoe/kayak and/or experience overnight camping in a quiet, riverside environment. The Middle Branch has outstanding fly-fishing opportunities, with two segments that are designated as Blue-Ribbon Trout Streams. Outfitting and guiding services are available.
There are two large waterfalls on the Middle Branch. Agate Falls is located next to a state rest area on the south side of Highway M-28 which has a trail that can be used to view Agate Falls. Bond Falls, which is on the north side of Bond Falls Flowage, has accessible trails and overlooks maintained by the State of Michigan. Both falls draw large numbers of visitors to the area.
There are interesting falls, rapids, and races, most notably Kakabika Falls and Wolverine Falls. Kakabika Falls is secluded and drops 50 feet through a narrow gorge of black rock for a distance of 300 feet. The water is characteristically amber from the natural tannins produced in the wetlands. The river has high special interest in that it varies from steep sides to a broad meandering valley. The outstandingly remarkable character of the river varies through its course as it begins with high-velocity whitewater and gradually slows toward the north to a smooth meander.
Tree types along the stream are aspen, spruce, balsam, paper birch, jack pine, and species that regenerated after extensive logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Stunted and crooked box elder, which generally is not present in this region, is commonly seen along the riverbanks. This, plus the variety of trees contrasted with many interesting standing snags remaining from the Dutch elm disease epidemic of the 1980s, creates high contrast and visual diversity. Where aspen and sugar and red maple are clearly visible, fall color is a primary visual feature.
Below the confluence with Onion Creek are several natural overlooks along the river, most of which are associated with landslides where the river has eroded the banks. The river is commonly clouded and colored by sediments from the clayey soils and mass failures, especially after heavy rains and during spring runoff. Normally, this would be a detractor, but in this case, it is so much a part of this interesting erosive landscape that it is a visual symbol of the highly active, dynamic geological setting.
From the Bond Falls flowage, the river drops into a steep-sided, broad river valley, meandering a short distance north where it cascades over chiseled blocks of rock, creating Bond Falls, a fantastic rush of whitewater known for its year-round beauty. The wide river continues after this falls through the dense forest over numerous cascades and riffles to another set of falls. Agate Falls is a series of cascades 80 feet wide tumbling over black rock stepping blocks and dropping 80 feet into a pool where it clatters over stones and bedrock becoming once again a wide meander. Above Agate Falls, both Highway M-28 and an old railroad bed cross the river, the road on a fine arch bridge and the railroad bed on a huge, old trestle. The bridges add visual contrast and interest to the river corridor.
This river and its valley follows a path from west to east along a geologic fault line. The river becomes wider in this area and views from the valley of the surrounding higher bluffs are impressive. On the north,the valley consists of high, multicolored bedrock escarpments 200- to 300-feet high, rising above aspen, white spruce, balsam fir, hardwoods, and white pine. Lowland hardwood forests border the river in many areas and the black ash, red maple, and cedar present outstanding fall color. These hardwood stands also contain a substantial component of large hemlock trees. The dynamic variation of widths in this segment adds to its character, and the long series of substantial rapids and small waterfalls before it enters Victoria Reservoir contribute an additional dynamic component to its outstandingly remarkable scenery.
The river supports a white sucker run at the outlet of Cisco Lake that is an important spring food source for bald eagles and other predators, although the upper section is frequently de-watered in late summer due to operation of the Cisco Lake Dam. Several large beaver-created impoundments below the dam perform an important water-storage function and augment the low summer flows released from the dam. The beaver impoundments are protecting many values, including fisheries, aquatic wildlife, and hydrology. The importance of these beaver impoundments makes it essential that the beaver colonies remain active and viable in the reach.
Thermal cover and winter browse for deer are important habitat components. Numerous gravel bars and eroding banks provide nesting habitat for wood turtles in the middle portion of this segment. The river corridor provides connectivity across the landscape for numerous riparian and migratory species. Riparian forests within this corridor are very productive wildlife habitats.
The riparian corridor is considered remarkable due to its importance to wintering deer and the predators that prey or scavenge on them. In addition, Upper and Lower Dam Lakes are important nesting areas for fish-eating birds. Nesting wood turtles are common, utilizing gravel bars and sandy cutbanks where available. The river corridor provides connectivity across the landscape for numerous riparian and migratory wildlife species. Riparian forests within this corridor are very productive wildlife habitats.
Important wildlife populations that are present in this river corridor include bald eagle, gray wolf, American marten, northern goshawk, and wood turtle. Numerous gravel bars, point bars, and cutbanks exist, providing nesting habitat for wood turtles. In addition, the river corridor provides ample coniferous thermal cover for wintering deer and other species and provides connectivity across the landscape for numerous riparian and migratory wildlife species.
Wood turtles are present and likely reproduce in this reach. In addition, bald eagles, gray wolves, and other species utilize this area. This segment has outstandingly remarkable habitat values for wood turtles, due to the eroding banks, remoteness, and low human use. In addition, the river corridor provides connectivity across the landscape for numerous riparian and migratory wildlife species. Riparian forests within this corridor are very productive wildlife habitats.