Luke’s Heights Lane to Big Falls County Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A robust and haunting river on the cusp of the Chequamegon National Forest that features two sets of rapids in short order and riverbanks mostly undeveloped, this trip on the Jump is an absolute gem.
August 30, 2014
4′ per mile
Sheldon: ht/ft: 5.0 | cfs: 1000
We definitely recommend this level. Friends of mine who’ve paddled the Jump many times state that 500 cfs is totally doable (and arguably safer too). So anywhere between 500-1000 cfs should be outstanding. Above 1000 cfs is unknown, though American Whitewater recommends a range between 600-2500 cfs.
Luke’s Heights Lane, (between County Roads I and N) Price County, Wisconsin
Big Falls County Park
Time: Put in at 4:00p. Out at 6:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 10
Wildlife: Deer, bald eagles, turkey vulture, a hawk and a raven.
Time worth driving to: 3-4 hours
Friends of mine camp at the nearby Mondeaux Flowage in the Chequamegon National Forest every year on Labor Day weekend. Each year they invite me to join them and most years I must reluctantly decline due to prior plans. This year’s Labor Day weekend agenda was supposed to have been a canoe-camping trip with different friends down the Red Cedar River into the Chippewa River and then finally a mile or two on the Mississippi River. Alas, the weekend weather forecast had put the kibosh on that in short order with 2-3” of rain on the very first day with the possibility of more in store the days ahead – no thanks! So we all decided a car camping trip at the beautiful Mondeaux Flowage with our other friends sounded like a great alternative and indeed it was.
The Jump River from Mondeaux is a hop, skip and yes, jump away. I’ve heard about this segment of the river from my friends who paddle it each year and have long desired to experience it. There’s something just wonderful about driving only 20 minutes from your campsite to an incredible river seemingly in the middle of nowhere! I mean, how often have we ever written a report on this site where there is no identifiable town associated with the trip?
The Jump is that kind of special stream that, while not a secret the likes of the Thornapple River northwest of here, feels like one due to its location and not always reliable water levels. The Jump begins as twin forks that join together below Big Falls. Upstream from this trip the river is more marshy and meandering where downfall will be a problem. Then begin the rapids. First as fun riffles, then as easy Class I’s leading to more difficult Class I’s dotted with boulders and finally a thrilling Class II boulder garden where the river drops 12 feet in 200 yards, called “Little Falls.”
A mile below Little Falls is Big Falls, an exhilarating Class III mini-gorge nearly 200 yards long, followed by another couple hundred yards of Class II boulder gardens. From there the river slows down a bit towards its namesake town, Jump River, Wisconsin but it’s reputed to have an occasional riffly nod and wink along the way. Eventually it slows down considerably as it approaches the Holcombe Flowage, an impoundment of the Chippewa River just north of Cornell. This trip covers only the “midsection” of the Jump River but someday I hope to explore more of it up- as well as downstream.
What we liked:
It was chilly and drizzling and somewhat late in the afternoon. I had driven up from Madison, while my friend had come up from Wausau. Friends and family were expecting us back at our campsite. A 10-mile paddle on a river neither of us had been on and one of us who had never paddled rapids in a kayak before seemed a little imprudent. Looking for a phantom put-in didn’t seem like a good omen either, to say nothing of the rain that began to come down in earnest just as we were taking the boats off the car. “Are you sure you still want to do this?” I asked my buddy. As anyone who knows me knows, I have what psychologists call a “proclivity” for impractical behavior or at least, activities that aren’t the most sensible (but do tell a great story afterward!). That’s fine for me alone but I’m apprehensive about embroiling others in my misadventures. “Oh hell yeah!” he answered in no uncertain terms. OK then…
The rain was a nice touch. It added, not detracted, from the experience. Once it let up, so too did my initial misgivings. Paddling the rapids together was great fun and I felt ever fortunate to introduce and gently assist my friend to Class I. Almost all paddling is better with a buddy but running rapids especially is enhanced by companionship. Sure, there’s a safety component but you can’t high-five when you’re by yourself!
This trip has everything one wants from a North Woods river: the landscape is undeveloped, the scenery is rugged, the current terrifically active and alive. There are high banks and deep pockets of pine groves to help settle in the feeling of being remote. The brick-red dirt road leading to the hidden put-in adds to this charm as well! My two favorite aspects on this trip were the scenery and the rapids. There isn’t anything visually that is jaw-dropping amazing on this stretch of the Jump but it sure is pretty as a picture (not everything has to be amazing – indeed, it shouldn’t, if only because then nothing would be amazing). Sometimes, just solidly pretty scenery is perfect in and of itself. The rapids, on the other hand, were thrilling and deserve their own mention.
To be precise, everything up to Little Falls is pretty easy and straightforward and of little interest to serious whitewater paddlers. But for those of us who love riffles and small-fry rapids, this part of the Jump is a blast! The first mile and change are flatwater but if the river has enough depth, the current will be nice and swift. The water is blackish in color due to tannins and clay. A few boulders here and there signal the beginning riffles which further on will grow into Class I rapids. I did this in a 15’ kayak and it was easy to maneuver around everything. I took along my friend who’s an inveterate canoeist but still new to kayaking. The relatively easy-to-read Class I’s were perfect for him and he loved the experience (he wisely portaged around Little Falls). I myself wouldn’t recommend this for newbies in moving water, because the current is strong in some of the light rapids but it’s definitely manageable.
The highlight is Little Falls at about 8 miles in. You can/should check out the river here from the road during your shuttle, since the two are parallel at this point. You’ll see well-worn footpaths where many others have done this in the past. There are no actual “falls” at Little Falls, instead, it’s a steady drop of roughly 12 feet in 200 yards (making for a quite reputable gradient of 12 feet per one-tenth of a mile!) with a couple bends and larger sized boulders you definitely want to dodge since the current is especially strong here. You can’t really scout the whole 200 yards, since there is no shoreline to speak of (it’s just high-grown grass and rocks). But it gives you an idea A) if it’s even runnable and B) whether you’re up to running it if it is. If you aren’t, portaging around it is easy because again, there are established footpaths. Conversely, you can run it, take-out, and run it again to your heart’s desire.
Incidentally, our friends at the campsite have long told a story about the first time they paddled the Jump. It had been years ago when their kids (now teenagers) were still kids. No one had known about Little Falls… until it was too late. One by one everyone in their flotilla had dumped and gone for a swim – roughly eight people in eight boats. Everyone, that is, except for one 10-year-old girl who had never been in a kayak in her life and here she was about to barrel down Class II rapids where the river drops 12 feet in 200 yards! She alone was the one person who hadn’t fallen out! Why? Mainly because she didn’t do anything – well, she screamed but otherwise just let the current take her where it would. That happened years ago but the story’s retold as though it had been only last week!
And in the interest of full disclosure, I myself also capsized while going down Little Falls. Here’s what happened. Everything was going really well and was a ton of fun. My friend was off to the side with my camera taking pics. I knew his boat was on the right-hand side and that I didn’t want to paddle downstream of it and be separated. I took my eye off the river when the rapids began to subside, searching the banks for signs of him or his boat. Next thing I knew there’s a big old boulder just barely exposed 10 feet in front of me and the current is still quite fast. Alas, I’m in a 15’ kayak that is big on tippy and short on nimble. I didn’t have enough time to paddle hard to the left because I knew the stern wouldn’t clear the rock. Well, apparently I didn’t have enough time to paddle hard to the right either because the stern hit the rock all the same, which suddenly thrust my balance offside and my boat spun under. I was so close to a perfect run! This wouldn’t even have been an issue in my 9’ crossover kayak but alas that was at the campsite… It was a strange sensation to feel simultaneously the post adrenaline rush of awesome Class II rapids together with the latent shame and humility of having been dumped…
“What happened…?” my friend asked when he caught up with me, surprised. I had been too far downstream for him to see my mistake. “I screwed up!” I stated immediately the way one does when one knows one did something wrong and is upset more about the thing itself than having been caught. Oh well… Little Falls snags another victim – an anecdote that would be enjoyed by all who knew full well what that really means later that night round the campfire. I took out new clothes from the dry bag and we continued on another two miles to the take-out. By this time the sun had come out and was full blazing – blinding actually, since it was about two hours before sunset and we were heading due west.
After Little Falls there are another couple riffles leading up to the County Road N bridge where there’s an alternate take-out on river-left on the downstream side. From there, another mile of flatwater belies the spectacular series of shelves and drops at Big Falls. This trip ends just before that, past a large island that creates two channels that converge shortly above the take-out. There is no official take-out; rather, it’s wherever on the river-right you feel like it before Big Falls begins. There are a couple obvious places where others have used for putting-in/taking-out.
For fun we scouted Big Falls just to take the whole view in. It’s quite impressive and looks fun as hell. Notwithstanding having already tanked in Class II which didn’t favorably foretell much more difficult Class III, there just wasn’t time (or the correct boat) even to consider running Big Falls. But it was a fun hike just to see it and imagine it! On the drive back to the campsite I blasted – what else? – this which had been in my head the whole afternoon!
If you don’t have the time or inclination to hike around Big Falls, then I recommend exiting at the County Road N bridge because it shaves off a mile of flatwater paddling and is an easier take-out by and by. Altogether, you’d probably save 45 minutes by taking out here since the county park is tucked away and the ad hoc take-out there involves a short hike from the river to the parking lot.
Lastly, the water levels were awesome! My friends who’ve paddled this many times state that 500 cfs is a good metric. We paddled it at 1000 (at the time of this writing the gauge reads 5310 cfs after two weeks of steady, hard rain up there! I don’t know if this would make for ferocious conditions or if most of the rapids would be flooded out). It’s worth noting that some of the pics on the American Whitewater page for the Jump River were taken at 900 cfs and slightly below, so that too should indicate how reliable the levels are for running the falls sections.
All in all, this trip was a wonderful experience, and I absolutely recommend it!
What we didn’t like:
There’s nothing I disliked, but I’ll point out a couple imperfections and points of confusion. In Mike Svob’s writeup he mentions the presence of 1) old pilings from a driving dam of the logging era and 2) high banks of clay and sand on the river-right called Yellow Banks at the halfway point. either my friend nor I saw evidence of either. Again, this isn’t so much a criticism as it is something I feel obliged to mention. After all, when you’re on a river for a few hours, you look for certain highlights or landmarks not only to pass the time but also to help determine where you are. Maybe we missed the old pilings (which is entirely possible) and maybe my expectations were unreasonably high for Yellow Banks (also entirely possible). But we didn’t see either.
The put-in is a little tricky and also deserves some spelling out. Svob states that it’s located along County Road I at an oxbow in the river at an undeveloped landing. Well let me tell you: there is a County Road I and the river does bend like a horseshoe but there is no landing undeveloped or otherwise. Indeed, from County Road I you’d have to trek into the woods a good 100 yards until you reached the river itself. Instead, what I recommend is turning onto a dirt road called “Luke’s Heights Lane” and then turning left onto an off-road grassy area for about 35 yards where at the end there is an open space to park a couple cars. From there you walk about 20 yards to a make-do put-in spot. None of this is difficult (even my very low-clearance VW Golf handled the “off road” quite well) and it will all make sense when you’re there and see what’s what.
Incidentally, there is an alternative put-in (see map) that would be much easier to actually access the river, but it is indirect and requires a lot of dirt road driving.
The take-out is a little easier in some regards. Again there is no official landing or anything but you want to get out on the right before the falls and as close to the parking lot for the county park as you can (about 100 yards) from the river. From there you have to carry or drag your boat to the car.
If we did this trip again:
Next time I’ll be all Falls and put-in just above Little Falls and try my luck going down Big Falls. There’s no take-out for the latter, which means getting out when the fun’s all done and hiking back to the parking lot over the rocks with your boat on your shoulder. But Big Falls (when runnable) is quintessential Class III exhilaration and I’d love to tackle it (which might mean being tackled by it). And I’ll definitely be using my 9’ crossover boat, not the 15 footer!
Alternatively, if one were camping at Mondeaux Flowage one technically could put-in on the lake, paddle north to the dam, portage around it, re-enter below the dam and then paddle down to the Jump River, since the Mondeaux River is a tributary. Whether that’s even doable or worth trying is left to your own discretion and coordination. But I’d cook anybody dinner if they picked me up at Big Falls County Park, enabling me to begin a journey of a trip from my actual campsite! And what a journey this would be – from flatwater lake (the Mondeaux Flowage is beautiful) to tiny stream to larger river to Class I, then Class II and finally Class III rapids! That’s the beauty and purpose of crossover kayaks!
General: American Whitewater
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Free Waterproof Map
Overview: Price County, Wisconsin
Overview: Rusk County, Wisconsin
Wikipedia: American Whitewater
7.4 miles and doable by bicycle but half of the roads are dirt/clay and can be awfully sluggish and soft after a hard rain (which often dictates when the river is suitably runnable).