Big Rib River
Goodrich to County Road A
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Beginning with a bang and ending on a whimper, this section of the Big Rib River offers an exhilarating trip fit for experienced paddlers featuring a spectacular Dells section with challenging whitewater, root beer-hued water, undeveloped privacy and outstanding wildlife.
May 10, 2014
Rib Falls: ht/ft: 3.7 | cfs: 480
We definitely recommend this level. The popular whitewater stretch of the Big Rib should be run no lower than 350 cfs minimum – and even that is low. Considering that no one but whitewater paddlers (or amateurs like myself) would consider this segment, realistically you’ll want the gauge to start at 600 cfs and only go higher.
Highway 64, Goodrich, Wisconsin
County Road A, East of Athens, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 6:15p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 10.75
Wildlife: Blue herons, bald eagles, deer, two common and one hooded mergansers.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours
I’ve had the Big Rib dog-eared in my memory’s to-do list for a couple years now and decided to check it out on the fly after my weekend plans had changed. This 11-mile trip is quite varied. It begins with swift riffles, a couple easy “warm up” Class I’s, then turns sharply and drops suddenly into a spectacular Dells section with several Class II+ drops, steadies through a Class II boulder garden, slows down to a Class I and this is all just the first three miles! The next eight alternate between flatwater, riffles and a couple more Class I’s. There’s one last Class I-II ledge at the 7-mile mark, after which point the river is flat until the take-out.
What we liked:
The color of the water might be what first catches your attention. It’s that endearing root beer hue common of northern Wisconsin rivers. Throw in some pine trees (actually, a ton of pine trees) and you know you’re not in the Kansas of southern Wisconsin anymore! Riffles begin immediately, followed by some easy Class I rapids. You’ll hear the real rapids of the Dells before you see them, mostly because the sound is thunderous but also because the river abruptly turns to the left only 20’ or so before the first of several substantial drops.
Do your best to catch an eddy on the left bank and get out to scout the Dells rapids. Follow the relatively well-worn footpath that leads through brush and trees. I’m not a terribly skilled whitewater paddler to be honest, but I managed to read everything correctly and choose a safe path without endangering myself. Maybe I got lucky… I found the trick to be as relaxed as possible which isn’t the easiest thing to do when drops are 3-4’ with waves as large coming at you! I’ve been in reputable-enough whitewater before and was tense and panicky, usually with the result of getting dumped.
Here, I thought I’d try, well, to go with the flow, to paddle hard and quickly when I had to but otherwise responding to the current and determining how and where to go based on what was happening. That doesn’t always work out and in some cases isn’t at all advisable but this time it was a breathtaking success! Those rapids felt like riding a bronco (which of course this Jersey boy has never done, but that’s neither here nor there). This was definitely the most challenging and rewarding whitewater experience I’ve had. And I was definitely surprised/marveled that it actually worked out. A very small triumph worthy of a very real Yawp.
The Dells can, in theory, be portaged but it would be a long and strenuous one, especially as a Class II boulder garden follows the Dells immediately and continues for a mile or so. But scouting it is imperative. The main drop is at the top and is best run just to the left of center. After that, some zigzagging is required until the last drop. The boulder garden is easy to read, hell, even a cakewalk after the Dells! When I thought the current and gradient had pretty well petered out I got out, swapped my full regalia neoprene ensemble into shorts and a shirt (it was hot outside), cracked open a beer and reveled… and then discovered another mile or so of Class I rapids and riffles. How much better does it get than this?
Incidentally, if all you want to do is paddle the rapids, on the river-left about 1.5 miles downstream from the Dells is an access to a dirt road that leads to another dirt road at the intersection of Grainer and County Line. More on dirt roads in a moment…
Another mile of Class I’s precede the County Road F bridge. Just after the bridge lies Amco County Park, a very pleasant area with full facilities that provides for a great put-in or take-out. The river is cut in two by a small island right at the park, both channels offering a fun, splashy Class I-II ledge (in fact, I am reasonably certain that the photo on the cover of Mike Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin is this ledge on the river-right channel). I ran the left channel as it looked more fun and steep while the right seemed rockier and with a potential strainer near the bottom. By and by, this is the encore of moving water on the Big Rib, at least for this trip.
When not running swift or dropping over rocks, the landscape is either flat or scalloped with pine-woodsy banks of 10’ high or so. The latter is very picturesque and while neither is spectacular per se, it’s pretty and intimate.
What we didn’t like:
Two words for you: dirt roads. I should have known, I suppose. This tri-county corner of Taylor, Lincoln and Marathon is very rural and undeveloped, up to and including the roads. This is awesome and a veritable hallmark of keeping things real. Why go out all the way to Vermont when you can get dirt roads and maple syrup only a few hours away here in Wisconsin? That’s all fine and good if your vehicle is able, not so much when you’re low-clearance Volkswagen Golf is all you got (that and a skinny-tired road bicycle for your shuttle). What should have been an 8-mile shuttle ended up being 15.5 miles, which I had not at all anticipated or factored into my time. I was tired and grumpy by the time I returned to my kayak only then to begin an 11-mile paddle at 3pm on a river I had never been on but knew had challenging rapids. It’s a good thing I had nothing else going on the rest of the day but a campsite to return to!
To be sure, the shuttle has little to do with liking the river itself. And I drecognize that I am a rare breed of stubborn fools who’d do such a long shuttle on a bicycle. But even in a car, be cautious on these roads. After a decent rain they’re just putty mud with deep ruts that could ensnare a number of vehicles without AWD (some day I’ll succumb and get that Subaru… which reminds me, if anyone can recommend a high clearance vehicle that’s all-wheel drive but doesn’t absolutely suck on gas mileage, do please let me know. I’ve been wondering about this for years. It’s hard to let go of my diesel VW at 45mpg but he’s not the most rugged chariot for outdoor play).
If we did this trip again:
I would definitely do the Dells section again (and again). And I do look forward to exploring other segments of the Rib River, particularly from County Road A to Big Rib Falls County Park and Highway 107 in Marathon City. I enjoyed this trip immensely but mostly for the whitewater.