County Road A to Rib Falls:
There’s something unassuming and subtle, but really engaging about this somewhat-secluded section of the Big Rib River. With many modest outcrops and plenty of gentle riffles, it makes for a scenic and fun day trip that’s perfect for novice paddlers.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 30, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
5.3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Rib Falls: ht/ft: 3.09 | cfs: 298
Rib Falls: ht/ft: 2.14 | cfs: 59.1
These were very good levels but I’d consider them the minimum for this section as I sense there’s a fine line between low and too low. The levels the night before were 395 cfs but dropped to 322 cfs when I woke up, so I was a little hesitant as to whether I could or should attempt to paddle this. By the time I actually put-in they were even lower, but it looked fine from scouting so I threw caution to the wind. It was by and large, completely comfortable paddling with only a bit of scraping here-and-there. Even then it was only when the river constricted around islands creating shallower narrows, but as long as I followed the outer bends it was clear sailing. Conversely, there were still some really deep areas along the way, most commonly found after long straightaways.
County Road A, East of Athens, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.04691, -89.95474
Rib Falls County Park, Rib Falls, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.97398, -89.90792
Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 2:25p.
Total Time: 2h 10m
Miles Paddled: 7.25
Heron, ducks, two hawks, snapping turtles, a gazillion frogs and a dazzling river otter.
7.5 miles. It was a 36-minute bike shuttle on a couple straight country roads, but there were a lot of hills on County Road S which wasn’t ideal for a bike like mine with very few working gears.
Located west/northwest of Wausau, the Big and Little Rib rivers meander their way towards the northeast face of Rib Mountain on their way to the Wisconsin River. While much of the Big Rib is paddleable, (south of Rib Falls is popular for its numerous sandbars) this section and another upriver section are more well known by light- and whitewater paddlers thanks to American Whitewater and Mike Svob who covered both sections in his legendary Paddling Northern Wisconsin guidebook. Mind you, there’s not any whitewater on this stretch.
Mike covered two sections of the Big Rib River; Highway 64 to County F, and then County F to Rib Falls. Miles Paddler, Timothy Bauer, almost covered both sections in one trip report, contributing the first trip combined with part of the second back in 2014. Since then, I always wondered what was downstream from his take-out. I figured it had to be worthwhile considering it’s the last few miles before the marvelous Big Rib Falls.
So completely contrary to my previous day’s paddle on the Tomorrow River, where I re-paddled a section verbatim based solely on Mike Svob’s guide, here I chose to complete the last of leg of Timothy’s trip report because there was some unfinished business downstream from where he took-out many years ago. And curiosity always gets the best of me.
My first attempt at paddling this section was actually in May of 2021. Everything was seemingly in order. The levels were great. The weather looked great. UNTIL the night before where it didn’t just rain – it poured. Like, monsoon-downpour that quickly soaked and instantly eroded my campsite. I spent the rest of the night watching the rain fall and the USGS gauge rise from the shelter of my hatchback while working up the New Wood River report from earlier in the day. The needle on the USGS didn’t just move that night, it swung. Hard.
At 10PM when the storm was in full swing, the river was at 411 cfs. At noon when I went to paddle it, it was at 1940 cfs! (It climbed even higher to 2100+ later that day.) I still hoped to paddle it but a clearer head prevailed when the wine-hangover waned and I scouted the access points all the way up to the put-in. The immense volume of water I was seeing gave me an instantly bad gut-feeling. That river was moving. Like, scary-moving. And Rib Falls looked and sounded like an intimidatingly roaring spectacle unto itself. Despite the devil on my shoulder saying “Do it! Paddle it!,” the angel on my other won out. Live to paddle another day, (… and see my kids again, run milespaddled.com, etc…) right?
This year I intentionally returned after a couple solid days of rain, but the river was dropping fast – almost so much so that I wondered if there’d be enough by the time I arrived. There was enough. These were great levels. Coincidentally, they also dropped quite a bit from when I put-in to when I took-out to give you some idea of how quickly Big Rib’s water levels can drain.
This trip has three makeups. The first third meanders over light riffly stretches that alternates from canopy-covered to woodsy banks. Here you’ll encounter a few small islands and some rock outcrops, too. The second part is mostly straightaways which are long, broad, and gentle with less riffles but you’ll find even more appealing outcrops. The final section is more like the beginning when it gets back to a twistier, more interesting “what will come next?” sort of feel, with many more sweeping curves. It gets wider and a little slower in places but it’s quite interesting for a first time Big Rib River-er.
The put-in is located downstream river-right from County Road A. There’s a one-lane trail that leads into the woods from the highway. I believe it’s mostly used for ATV or snowmobile trail access based on the classic up north (and semi-ironic) hand-painted signage attached to a nearby tree and gated fence. There’s not much space for parking but I was able to get the ‘Sube in position so as not to get parked-in (the fear of getting parked-in is real here). From there you’ll find a mostly clear 30 yard-ish trail that leads down to the river.
While dragging my boat down riverside, toads jumped everywhere along the freshly-mudded terrain from what was clearly higher water only hours earlier. This was also certainly the reason the water looked liked fresh chocolate milk. At the end of the trail is a side channel where the short bankside put-in made for a relatively easy launch. Once out of the muddy intlet, things quickly got better. Like, way better. And it was probably one of the better expedition-paddles I’ve experienced in awhile.
The trip begins with twist and turns and moments of light riffles throughout which was immediately a good sign. As far as features, there’s really nothing for awhile. Just little islands which crimp the river every so often, some are gravel or sand but most of them grass or full of knee-high brush. Occasional gravel ledges and small clumps of vegetation break up the wooded to heavily-wooded banksides. And the occasional boulders sit idle in the stream – just waiting for you to make a wrong move.
The river is generally pretty scruffy. It reminded me of the Plover or Lemonweir rivers. There were often large deposits of tree debris, but with the river varying between 50′ and 75′ wide, there was always a clean passage even if it were around a tight (and highly suspect) corner. It’s evident that this is one of those rivers that could easily move a chunk of forest downstream after heavy rains.
The recent rains definitely affected the clarity of the water, but in general the Big Rib River is never all that clear. It’s brown. Only when the sun shines just right in the shallows does it expose that alluring copper-colored hue, otherwise, it’s just brown.
Before the halfway point and subsequent straightaways are some long rock wall sections along the left-bank. They’re modest in stature but some of the boulders are uniquely and handsomely chiseled by wind, water and time. It’s a welcome sight – as well as a welcome sign – since outcroppings and boulders become more common thereafter and add something special to the overall aesthetic of this mostly-secluded adventure.
One thing Svob wrote that isn’t true anymore (but doesn’t really matter) was that you won’t see any houses. That may have been true decades ago, but it’s not anymore. I saw more than a few, and three of those were very manicured backlots with lawnmowers a-blazin’. Mike said “You’ll see no houses between County F and Rib Falls.” Talk about broken promises, Mike! Ah, how guidebooks show their age. (His, much less-so than others, to be fair – this is why this site nor any guidebook will ever be finite or accurate with current information or conditions.) So it’s not entirely undeveloped, but it’s as close you might expect. What you won’t encounter for sure are bridges which is relatively rare for a trip of this length.
For much of “the middle” part of this trip are long straightaway sections only punctuated by light riffles and the occasional boulder. That is until two lengths of beautiful rock walls appear on river-right, after which, the current slows for a bit.
Soon the final third begins, and the river regains its momentum once again with more riffles, boulders, and braided sections around islands on the approach to Rib Falls. On the last legs, there’s a notably large island and then a series of three smaller ones that lead to one last straightaway. It’s pretty, riffly and fun to navigate the maze but the current slows after once again, which I figured had something to do with approaching the “natural dam” of Rib Falls. It’s the slowest and also the widest expanse of the river yet, but large boulders set along the banks and in midstream – almost like the ending was decorated intentionally – made it a very appealing scene to close with.
The end is near when you hear the roar of the rather vocal Rib Falls. At the end of the last straightaway and before turning river-right downstream to the top of the falls, you have a couple of take-out options. The main access point was an awfully steep bank so I chose the gradual option just twenty yards upstream marked by a rope swing. You could also potentially take-out at the top of the falls on river-left, but beware of deep pools along the rocks. Also, hauling your boat from the falls to the parking lot wouldn’t be all that convenient due to the terrain.
After the paddle, I recommend exploring the Rib Falls which can be accessed from various rugged trails near the Rib Falls County Park parking lot. These aren’t clean trails, mind you, so check for ticks. The interesting feature to check out are the remnants of an old dam that once created power for a grist mill. There’s a stone wall that once spanned the river that you can walk out on for a bit, as well as some openings that once housed the turbines. Rib Falls County Park had announced plans for redevelopment of the park as recently as 2020 and they sound really exciting. It appears they’ve stalled as the mine/future lake is still an eyesore and I can’t find any current information about it. This park has so much potential. Nevermind the fact that I’d love to end this trip at a riverside campsite. Maybe in the near-future?
What we liked:
Finishing what Timothy started had been on my to-do list for many years and it was well worth checking off the honey-do instead of pushing it off another year. I really, really enjoyed this trip. It’s an easy, interesting, and delightful paddle.
There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife throughout, though noon-paddles rarely provide an abundance so my expectations are always tempered. That said, I did have one really unique encounter with a river otter that I’ve never experienced before. While moving downstream I saw something pop its head out of the water to the left of my kayak, then duck down and suddenly pop up to the right (that would be port, then starboard, for you purists). I happened to also be paddling into a cool set of rock outcrops so I was suddenly over-stimulated. While heading downriver, the otter stayed to my right – not quite swimming, but well, “dolphin-ing” is the only way I can explain it. It kept alongside the boat diving up into the air and then down into the water where it’d be down for a bit and then suddenly dive back up alongside me. This leap happened three times until it stopped, popped its head above the surface to give me one last look. I kept looking back until it splashed back into the water and swam upstream.
I’ve never seen that before, but I already want to see it again because it was just such a unique and wonderful moment.
What we didn’t like:
My only “didn’t like” can be ignored and avoided by car-shuttling or via a “normal” bike. The amount of hills on this shuttle is an unfortunate chore when you have an old bike. Coincidentally, I had just bought a new bike prior to this trip but decided to take “the Dale” out for one last go of it. Boy, was that a mistake. These weren’t Driftless hills but when you only have a few gears to work with, (and can’t depend on if those gears will engage or even disengage at any given moment) this was a long goodbye. And my butt hurt for 36 hours afterwards. Despite the butt-hurt, in honor of his decades of service, I captured Dale’s retirement photo, finally hanging it up at the Big Rib. Thank you Dale, for the many years and miles together (but only the good ones).
If we did this trip again:
If I do this trip again, I’ll definitely follow the Big Rib River 2 trip from Svob’s guide, starting off at County Road F for 11+ miles. This paddle had all the elements that I look for in a great paddle, but I’d love to add a few more miles if water levels allow.
Big Rib River I: Goodrich to County Road A
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Big Rib River
Miles Paddled Video: