Water Hero: John Roberts

“I work to lift rivers out of obscurity, so people can look at their river and say, ‘WOW!!!’”
Pine and Popple Rivers
Aurora, WI

How do you work to protect Wisconsin’s waters?
Breakwater Falls, Breakwater Gorge, and the 5 Ridges by Halls Creek… Have you heard of these places? Have you ever been there? Would you even know where to go? They aren’t on the web, aren’t on maps, they’re not in any guide book, and yet Breakwater Falls is the 6th largest waterfall in Wisconsin. In a series of drops, it plummets 60 feet over 2 billion-year-old bedrock. It is an extraordinary place, a Wisconsin natural treasure. It is on the Pine River in Florence County. You need to see it. You need to tell other people about seeing it.

This is how I have worked on rivers. It has taken me years to restore the original name to Breakwater Falls, to get it officially recognized, have it start appearing on websites, maps and guides. Most recently, my effort to improve signage and access appears to have been successful.

What are your biggest concerns right now?
For me, advocacy is about engaging community. I am not about issues. I am not regionally or politically engaged. I am intensely interested in just two, close-to-home rivers, the Pine and the Popple Rivers in Florence and Forest Counties. Through snow and rain and heat and bugs, high water and low water, hundreds of canoe trips, a relentless amount of study and research, time and experience I have gotten to know these rivers. I use this understanding to elevate the rivers, to lift them out of obscurity and to place them in front of a community.

What keeps you strong and inspired in the face of challenges?
I don’t stay strong in the face of challenges. I weep equally to the joys and the sorrows. Both are intensely inspiring. Both are essential to my relationship with rivers.

What’s your favorite “water spot” in Wisconsin?
I have canoed from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, journeyed by canoe up Lake Michigan, across Green Bay, up the Peshtigo, the Menominee, the Pike, the Popple, Pine, and Brule, across the UP on the Ontonagon, around the Keweenaw, and back home on the Michigamme. I have canoed most rivers in Wisconsin and many, many across the US.

In all this I have no more favorite rivers to paddle than the Pine and Popple Rivers. These are our state’s original, legislatively-designated Wild Rivers—a designation that preceded and served as a model for the Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. There is a reason the Pine and Popple Rivers were chosen to be protected from development. These are special rivers—living testimonies—set aside by Wisconsin for the people of Wisconsin to experience what wildness in our rivers once was, and still is.


Learn about other Water Heroes in Wisconsin:
River Alliance Water Heroes – 2018