Totogatic (Totagatic) River
A New "Wild & Scenic" River for Wisconsin?


Herbert Wagner

"Our camp is on the river Totogatic. How's that for a name?" -- Letter from 1900

In August of 2005 Governor Doyle of Wisconsin proposed that 70 miles of Totogatic River (plus eight miles of the Upper St. Croix) be officially designated as "Wild and Scenic" waterways. First proposed by the Washburn County Forestry Department in Madison during Superior Days in 2004, the idea has been picked up by area officials, residents, and outdoor enthusiasts.

To add these streams to the existing list of State Wild Rivers, a new bill willhave to be framed and passed by both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature and then signed by the Governor. According to a press release from state Senator Bob Jauch's office, waterways are chosen for Wild River status based on their outstanding "historic, scenic, or wildlife value."

Since almost nothing has been written about the Totogatic River in the past, this webpage will describe the river's unique geography and scenery, mystique and lore, and vegetation and wildlife. It also gives a little history of the watershed along with an explanation of its mysterious name.

River of Mystery

The Totogatic ("Tuh-TOE-guh-tik") is a small to medium-sized warmwater stream in northwest Wisconsin's Indianhead Country. It rises in the wetlands and lakes of southwestern Bayfield County then flows westerly through the piney woods and lowlands of Sawyer, Douglas, Washburn, and Burnett counties to its confluence with the larger and better known Namekagon River.

Draining an area of about 389 square miles, the Totogatic is the Namekagon's largest tributary and joins that stream just five miles above its confluence with the St. Croix River. Since 1968 both the Namekagon and St. Croix have been recognized by the federal government as National Scenic Riverways. With it's watershed nestled between the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers, Totogatic is just as scenic and even more wild. This "Outstanding Resource" stream is part of the great Mississippi river system flowing through the heartland of North America.

Unlike the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers, Totogatic was never a major water highway when northwoods travel was done by birchbark canoe. That's because Totogatic really doesn't go anywhere. Nor does it have any significant portage connections to other waterways. At least none that Euro people were interested in. Instead it plunges ever deeper into the forested wilderness south of Lake Superior.

For those reasons Totogatic River does not appear on early maps or in early accounts. By comparison the nearby St. Croix--Bois Brulé canoe route was described as early as 1680. Thus Totogatic long remained a river of mystery and remains pretty much that way today. Although the ancient St. Croix to LaPointe trail touches the northwest edge of the Totogatic watershed near Sand Lake, actual settlers wouldn't enter the region in numbers until the 1890s. Yet that long obscurity was not quite complete. Totogatic held a secret that in time would reveal the stream's own mystical allure.

Ed Nute, writing in 1939 in the old Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin said that Totogatic River "is one of the most beautiful rivers we have." But Totogatic also exhibits a Jekyll and Hyde personality best described by separating the river into two different sections.

Lower Totogatic
Geography & Scenery

The lower river (below Colton Flowage) crosses a gently rolling landscape of glacial outwash sediments. As it snakes around playground summer lakes, the lower Totogatic is sand, jackpine, and wild rice country. This region of few rocks and lots of sand was deposited by sediment-laden rivers flowing off the melting glacier about 12,000 years ago. These braided outwash streams filled the valley of the Lake Superior Syncline with deep deposits of sterile sand and gravel as they meandered southward towards the ancestral Mississippi. Today named the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape by the DNR, in earlier times this region of sandy soils running from near Lake Superior to the lower St. Croix valley was dubbed the sand or pine barrens. The bedrock here consists of sandstones and shales but is deeply buried by younger glacial-age sediments and does not outcrop along Totogatic River to my knowledge.

Where Totogatic River crosses the pine barrens its banks exhibit several landform types. Areas of uncollapsed outwash have steep shifting sand banks and a flat surrounding upland with a long history of frequent wildfire. There are also large areas of "pitted" or "collapsed" outwash where lirregular masses of stagnant ice left behind by the retreating glacier later melted to form a vast jumble of basins and depressions today occupied by bogs, streams, swamps, and pristine lakes. Some of these barrens' lakes such as Pokegama, Gilmore, Whitefish (Bardon), Nancy, and Chicog have perennial outlet streams that connect to Totogatic River and add to its flow. Along the river seeps and springs also emanate from the surrounding sandy uplands.

Although flowing through a water-rich area, the summer Totogatic is normally a modest stream with many shallow runs and sandbars deposited during spring high water. Because the water table is near the surface and run-off from the upper river can be immense, the lower Totogatic often becomes a raging torrent in the spring and after large rainfall events. Then a much larger river surges between entrenched high banks or overflows into low bottomlands similar to floodplains found along the lower Wisconsin or Mississippi rivers.

Upper Totogatic
Geography & Scenery

While the lower river can be serene and placid the upper Totogatic is seldom that way. While the extreme headwaters are small and rather tame, the stretch between Totogatic Flowage and Colton Flowage give the upper river its rugged reputation. Here Totogatic takes on a dashing, dropping, thunderous personality as it pounds down its steep narrow bed over billion-year-old crystalline basaltic bedrock.

Following ancient channels along strike between water-worn lava flows, Totogatic and its tributaries run as straight as an arrow in places, then abruptly breaks through faults in the bedrock in sharp 90-degree angle turns. This effect is so pronounced along Ounce River and in the Dingles that their faulted bedrock valleys form the giant letters "EL" when viewed from the air or on topographic maps. This unusual trellis drainage pattern is something of a natural wonder.

In its descent over Precambrian-age strata to the pine barrens, Totogatic drops in elevation approximately 160 feet in nine miles. By contrast, over its entire 70 mile stretch the river only drops some 450 feet. Rapids and waterfalls predominate here and include High (Big) Falls, Buck (Middle) Falls, and Totogatic Falls (Colton Dam). Old timers gave the short lake-like stretches between waterfalls colorful names such as the obscurely titled "Slough of Grundy."

During spring run-off or after high water events this stretch of river between Duck Dam and Colton Flowage offers true whitewater conditions for kayaks and canoes. Beware, however, that the run is fast, narrow, steep, twisting, and difficult. More than one canoe has been folded in half like a beer can while attempting it.

Legend & Myth

Weirdly enough, early reports mention cliffs back in the Dingles 200 to 300 feet high, but good luck finding them. I've wandered around in there until dizzy and found nothing like that. I don't know if the original observer was bewitched or what.

Bewitched might even be the best explanation. Old Indian legends say that the upper Totogatic country is sacred to the spirit-being Wanabuju and that it was best to avoid that area. Thunder-like sounds heard on clear moonlit nights were taken as proof that Wanabuju was hammering weapons or tools atop a certain low peak on or near Smoky Hill sometimes referred to as Wanabuju's Anvil. Curiously, the location of Smoky Hill varies from source to source, as if nobody really knew for sure its true location, or perhaps someone was trying to conceal it.

Another Totogatic legend was told to me by old Ben Kreiner, a part Ojibwe man who grew up at the Blackburn place on Totogatic-Ounce River along the old tote road southeast from Gordon. Tales of buried gold have haunted Blackburn's for more than a century after a sensational ax murder took place there in the 1890s. Spirits have even spoken to people about the gold, but that's another story.

According to Kreiner, before Colton Dam was built a peculiar phenomenon existed there that was known far and wide as "Wanabuju's Footprint." This Lusus Naturae was the impression of a perfectly shaped footprint only in solid rock. Emma Goodwin Smith, who was born in 1887 and grew up at nearby Chittamo, drew this picturesque description in her memoirs: "Only a few miles north of where our old home stood was Totogatic Falls, a beautiful, breath-taking, thundering cataract, held in on each side by huge piles of rocks. On top of one of the rocks was the perfect imprint of a moccasin foot, as though someone had stepped deeply into the stone while it was still soft. People came for miles to visit the falls and to see and marvel at the footprint."

Unfortunately a dam was later built on this site and Wanabuju's Footprint was either covered up by concrete or shivered into atoms by a blast of dynamite.

Another good old Totogatic tale comes down from early logging days. It speaks of a savage catamount or mountain lion that roamed the watershed. Possibly one of the last cougars in Wisconsin, the uncanny screams of this creature supposedly "shook the forest" as the vicious cat slashed the throats of teamsters' oxen and sucked out the blood. The tale grew with the telling and so did the cat until its body was said to measure 12 feet long with an additional 10 feet for its tail. Although lumberjacks were known for bravery, none ever collected the $250 reward offered by logging boss Isaac Staples to anyone who killed the legendary Totogatic catamount.

As late as the 1930s one local trapper swore that a wolverine still roamed the upper Totogatic wilderness. Whether it was finally caught or the wolverine or its pursuer died first of natural causes is unknown.

In his stories of the "Old Duck Hunters Association" famed Wisconsin outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie mentioned the Totogatic country on many occasions. In one place he described it as "one of the wildest sections of Wisconsin." Old timers like Joe Hollis and Wilbur Smith knew the river intimately, but since they have died the Totogatic has fallen into obscurity once again.

Even today, however, weird stories still emanate from the river. I know one person who has canoed Totogatic River over the years and once had a strange experience. He hadn't been hitting the bottle or anything like that, but claimed to have experienced the powerful sensation of being dragged back in time. The feeling was so strong that he had intense feelings of dread and in the twilight began hallucinating uncanny shapes in the dead trees and half-submerged logs along the river. He said that it only happened in one extremely isolated part of the river but that he actually expected to see a birchbark canoe manned by Ojibwe Indians or French-Canadian voyageurs rounding the bend ahead of him!

Call it an over-active imagination if you will, but that's how the wild Totogatic solitude affects people. Maybe that's how Dismal Swamp came by its name. Except where a few roads cross it or modern impoundments exist, Totogatic retains a raw primordial character in a constantly shifting landscape little different from what the Indians or first loggers saw. A powerful mystique haunts this wild and legend-rich stream.

River Ecology, Vegetation, and Wildlife

Where humans rarely venture unusual or rare forms of wildlife persist. Although our barrens' bison herd is long gone, there are still many interesting, declining, or threatened species found along Totogatic River. Some that I've personally encountered are ravens, eagles, ospreys, fisher, otter, beaver, gray wolves (heard them again last night), a solitary wandering moose, wood turtle, Blandings turtle, prairie skink lizards, smallmouth bass, keep-you-awake-all-night whippoorwills, and the awesomely fearsome hognose snake.

This last creature, if you've never encountered one, is pretty amazing. The hognose prefers sandy areas and dines almost exclusively upon toads. In size it is modest, but not its behavior. With a hood similar to a cobra's that it spreads while rearing up and hissing wildly you'd swear it is the most dangerous critter on earth. Old timers swear it exhales poisonous gas and call it "puff adder" or "blow snake." That last name is appropriate because the hognose (named for its chisel-shaped snout) is all bluff or "blow." In spite of its ferocious savage manners the hognose almost never bites, but when frightened begins to writhe, turns belly up, and then plays dead until danger has passed and it can quietly sneak away.

Rare aquatic fauna in Totogatic may be similar to creatures found in the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. But this is not certain. Totogatic River has not been studied much and species are scattered throughout the stream so nobody knows exactly what does live there or in adjacent oxbow lakes that have probably never been studied at all.

For example, there is no mention of lake sturgeon living in Totogatic River that I have seen, yet in the 1980s I personally saw a sturgeon caught in the Minong Flowage part of the river. This suggests that a remnant sturgeon population may exist in and above that impoundment. Old stories tell of sturgeon once so abundant that they were speared in great numbers at Totogatic Falls (Colton Dam).

Diverse vegetation types occur along Totogatic River. Where the lower river crosses the sand barrens jackpine forest and pin-oak predominates with groves of red pine near the river and around nearby lakes. Along the upper river excellent second-growth white pine can be seen as the big piney woods stages a comeback.

The upper watershed also contains the westernmost stand of eastern hemlock trees in Wisconsin. Located in northeastern Washburn County, this 160 acre tract is known as the Totagatic Highlands Hemlocks State Natural Area and contains old-growth eastern hemlock and large northern white cedar trees.

Totogatic River also contains a far northern example of southern lowland or floodplain forest. Curtis (1959) describes that forest type as extending up the St. Croix River into northern Burnett County. But it actually extends farther up along Totogatic River into Washburn County. Here silver maple dominates floodplain areas along the river that are subject to annual or seasonal inundation. Because true river floodplains are relatively rare in northern Wisconsin, the southern type lowland forest found along the Totogatic is of special interest.

Because much of the lower Totogatic has a sterile sandy bottom with only occasional boulders or short rocky runs in-river vegetation is sparse. For thatreason fallen trees from the unstable banks form log jams or woody debris fields in the river that provide critical fish habitat. These same fallen trees and log jumbles brought down by spring floods also make canoeing the narrow Totogatic a challenging proposition.

The slightly tea-colored cast to Totogatic's water is not iron as commonly believed, but comes from organic matter issuing from adjacent swamps and wetlands. Due to lack of human development along its shoreline, water quality in the river is high. Above Nelson Flowage the Totogatic is classified as trout water as are tributaries Ounce River and Bergin, Five Mile, and Shell creeks.

Shallow river enlargements along Totogatic River and in several connected "pokegama" lakes contain healthy stands of wild rice (Ojibwe: manoomin), including some "giant" rice. This valuable and uncommon natural community has special cultural significance for the Ojibwe people and provides vital food and cover for many wildlife species including migrating waterfowl.

Totogatic Logging

In historic times the greatest environmental impact to the Totogatic was the "big pine cut" of the 19th century. Government surveyors first subdivided the basin in the mid-1850s in anticipation of lumbermen moving up from the lower St. Croix. Loggers "officially" entered the basin in 1861 although free timber was probably being cut along Totogatic River even earlier.

Totogatic River's first logging dam was built on the upper river in the late 1860s near the site of modern Duck Dam and was known as "Big Dam." In the 1870s several more logging dams were constructed in the watershed including "Totogatic Dam" below the modern Minong Flowage. More dams were built on Totogatic, Frog Creek, Ounce River, and other tributaries until every drop of water in the basin was utilized for sluicing purposes. Shut down in March and April to gather a head of water, the collected flow provided the impetus for annual log drives downstream to Stillwater sawmills.

Early lumbermen largely passed by the lower river for the great stands of white and red pine on the upper Totogatic and tributary streams. Here the soil was more fertile and the largest and best pine in the entire St. Croix basin was said to grow. High quality logs were known after their place of origin and Togatigs were consistently given the highest rating and sold for higher-than-average prices at the Stillwater boom.

By 1900 the big pine cut had just about ended and the final Totogatic log drives tookplace around 1905-1906. Behind them loggers left countless stumps, a river system disrupted and altered, and slashings that burned fiercely into the 1930s. For decades settlers -- so-called "jackpine farmers" -- pulled old sawlogs out of the river and you can still find them half-buried in the shifting Totogatic River sands today.

Slowly the wounds of the early logging days are healing. Under sensible modern management the forest along Totogatic River has staged a remarkable comeback in the century since the big cut. In places beautiful natural groves of red and white pine are beginning to resemble the old growth forest that originally grew here.

Totogatic Copper

Just as old time logging was ending another industry attempted to invade the Totogatic River basin: copper mining. The upper river has a rich (if unprofitable) history of copper prospecting plus a little silver and gold hunting too. Mineral-bearing volcanic rocks similar to the copper-rich lodes on Upper Michigan's Keweenaw Point outcrop along the rugged upper watershed above Colton Dam and on tributary streams Frog Creek, Black Brook, Ounce River, and the Dingles.

We know today that prehistoric Native American peoples were procuring copper from the upper Totogatic for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before Euros entered the region. This story is related in greater detail in my article
"Wisconsin's Ancient Copper Miners."

American explorer Jonathan Carver seems to be the first to have heard tales of "mines of virgin copper" on or near Totogatic when he passed its mouth in 1767. But for nearly 100 years after Carver's visit Totogatic River copper dropped out of sight. Federal land surveys in the 1850s noted traprock outcrops and one government surveyor wrote to a newspaper in 1855 that, "I saw on the Totagatic, a stream which comes in on the North side of the Nimekagon, a large trap range and every indication of copper." After making that revelation, however, he was badly injured and had to quite the field. Curiously, no mining rush occurred at that time or even twenty years later when metallic copper indications were again reported in the "Totogatig District," this time by Wisconsin state geologist Moses Strong, Jr., who, inexplicably drowned shortly afterwards in the Flambeau River in spite of being a strong swimmer. That Totogatic River was able to keep its copper secrets hidden so long seems rather odd because other copper prospects in Douglas County to the north were feverishly worked during the entire 1840s-1880s period and loudly crowed about in Superior newspapers. Were the old Indian legends warning that the Totogatic copper region was taboo holding true?

Not until the late 1890s did Totogatic River give up it's copper-clad secret. According to folk historian John Bardon the knowledge leaked out when a native woman married a Stillwater lumberjack and revealed all. This site way back in the woods later become the Weyerhaeuser Mine and contained the best show of native copper in northern Wisconsin. Pure copper nuggets weighing hundreds of pounds were dug from shafts on both sides of Dingle Creek. In spite of this good show the copper was "bunchy" and the total size of the deposit deemed too small; operations ceased in 1914.

Just across the line in Washburn County D.A. Mudge of St. Paul dug two deep shafts on Black Brook around 1900 and recovered a little copper. Many other prospects were dug in or near the watershed. The most illustrious sounding of them all was the "Splendor Mine on the Totogatic" as described in 1897 by Minong's founder Josiah Bond. Unfortunately, the exact location of this wonderfully named copper outcrop has since been lost.

None of these explorations proved commercial. Whatever copper lodes may exist along Totogatic River remain undisturbed and still protected by the region's spirit guardian Wanabuju.

Totogatic Name

If you've stuck with me this long you deserve an explanation for this river's unusual name: Totogatic. To add to this puzzle I should mention that there are actually two Totogatic Rivers, but I'll get to that shortly. For now one is enough.

The name, as you might have guessed, is an old Ojibwe term and a tongue twister for people stymied trying to pronounce it. But you can't go wrong putting the accent on the second syllable by saying it: "tuh-TOE-gah-tic" or better yet ending it with "tig" giving a little "g" lilt at the end. The first way you'll pass as a local and the second as an old timer. At all costs steer clear of pronouncing it: "tota-GAH-ik" as that will instantly expose you as a greenhorn from down below. Casually shortening the name to "Togatig" will give you the panache of a jackpine savage.

Although I favor the spelling Totogatic because it is more faithful to the Ojibwe and encourages the preferred pronunciation, the spelling Totagatic will also be encountered on some modern maps and road signs. Over the years I have collected a number of variations of the name from 18th and 19th century historical sources including (in order of appearance): Totes, Totogun, Totokitig, Totogatic, Totagatic, Totogitick, Totogetic, Totogatig, and Totagetic.

Such variations reflect the fact that the persons recording the name were making a transliteration into written English of a spoken Indian word, perhaps heard second or third hand from other non-native speakers. In modern written Ojibwe the name Totogatic River is rendered as Dootoogaatigo-ziibi.

The meaning of the name was first given by Indian agent and ethnologist Henry R. Schoolcraft, who in 1831 passed the mouth of the stream while descending the Namekagon and recorded in his journal the following:

"Late in the afternoon we passed the inlet of the Totogun -- one of the principal forks of the Namekagon. The name is indicative of its origin. Totosh is the female breast. This term is rendered geographical by exchanging sh for gun. It describes a peculiar kind of soft or dancing bog."

In fact Totogatic flows over several large tracts of low boggy wetlands that may indicate the name's origin. Three of these areas are now under water having been flooded by the Nelson Lake Flowage, the Totogatic Flowage, and the Minong Flowage (Upper Dismal Swamp). Today the only large surviving area of "peculiar" soft or dancing bog along the river proper may be the (Lower) Dismal Swamp just above the confluence of Totogatic with the Namekagon.

Happily for posterity the original Ojibwe Totogatic name stuck. This was probably due to the fact that it was recorded on Nicollet's 1843 map of the Upper Mississippi basin and retained by government surveyors in the 1850s. By the time loggers entered the basin in the 1860s the name Totogatic was being used on official maps and documents. If loggers or homesteaders had reached the basin first and had named the river after a Euro person or translated the name into English as was often done, the original Ojibwe term would have been lost. Personally I'm glad that didn't happen.

The only possible instance of a Euro person attempting to give this stream an "American" name may occur on Allen's 1832 map where he seems to label Totogatic River as "Trout River." If so, the title didn't stick. But it does bring up the question whether or not most or all of Totogatic River was at one time trout water, especially before the destructive logging era with its erosive widening effects, damming, siltation of springs, and slashing off the original forest.

Finally there really are two Totogatics. Besides the main branch there is also the Totogatic-Ounce or "Little" Totogatic River. On today's maps and signage this branch is shortened to just Ounce River and most people probably think the name refers to the weight of brook trout found in this cold-water stream. Instead it's another Indian title meaning "small" or "little." Over the last 150 years the name has appeared in several variations including: Unse, Once, Oance, Gons, Gonse, and the oddball Americanized rendition "Owens."

Old timers pronounce the name oons stressing the initial long double "oo" similar to pronouncing oolong tea. Saying it like the weight measurement will identify you as a greenhorn so watch it!


Well, that's some of what I know about the mighty Totogatic and I hope you've enjoyed it. Perhaps it may help our legislators grant Totogatic River official Wild and Scenic River status. If you agree, please write to them and urge their support in recognizing and preserving this uniquely named quality semi-wilderness stream. You'll find contact info for Wisconsin's Senators and Representatives at the following link. You might mention that if they don't help out that the same Totogatic mishigenbig that my pal sensed lurking about here has also been known to visit the chain-of-lakes down below in Madison.

If you would like to support this website and future writings
you can help by ordering a copy of my landmark book on the origin and baby years of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle: At the Creation. Even if you're not a Harley enthusiast yourself, you probably know somebody who is and would enjoy this information-packed book as a gift item!

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Herbert Wagner

Webpage Updated 2 March 2008