★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Big Rib River I

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.

Big Rib River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 10, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class I-II+

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Rib Falls: ht/ft: 3.7 | cfs: 480

Current Levels:
Rib Falls: ht/ft: 2.60 | cfs: 154

Recommended Levels:
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
GPS: 45.1493, -90.05907
County Road A, East of Athens, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.04739, -89.95487

Time: Put in at 3:00p. Out at 6:15p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 10.75

Blue herons, bald eagles, deer, two common and one hooded mergansers.


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.

Related Information:
Big Rib River II: County Road A to Rib Falls
General: American Whitewater
Wikipedia: Big Rib River

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Austin Smith
    July 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

    did this recently after heavy rains july 13 2014
    twas fairly gnarly; around 1000 cfs! we skipped the dells section, put in off county FF i do believe, and I am glad we did.

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    July 18, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Hey Austin,
    I myself was in Wausau last weekend and was itching to get out to the Big Rib again, but in just wasn't in the cards. Instead, I checked out Whitewater Park — which was awesome in its own right. Still though, the Dells section must have been quite impressive at 1000 cfs — more than double when I ran it! Where did you take out?


  • Reply
    Austin Smith
    August 1, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    The put is on the dirt road you describe for doing just the Dells section, County Line. I put it as "County FF" before and gee sorry to be wishy washy but it may be that as well(double named) but maps are showing it as "County Line".

    The take out was the same as yours, on County A. I was checking youtube just now to see if anyone uploaded vid of us running the rapids in AMCO park, but did not see it. My girlyfriend said people were taking vid/pics(of us) and if so figured there would be good chance of upload as a branch swept her off her seat as we went through! Luckily she didn't get hurt and the strainer at the end(dif tree) didn't get us either.

    I would say Big Rib had the most formidable rapids to date for me with a huge caveat of the water level, 1,000 CFS, being the factor. That is over the Wolf, Little Wolf, Black River and Morrison or Halls creek. I could not of ran the river in my kayak sans skirt (ha play on sanskrit!)

    I think the Dells would of absolutely ruined us at that level! Would of been neat to see it though. The Rib was a very pleasant "surprise"(i had read about it here but didn't really think about it much for some reason). It was my buddies suggestion and we took two canoes which have some major pro's to them, like being able to take on bigger water(vs. open kayak)…

    Would/will be interesting to see what the river is like at a lower level. Was very nice not to be scraping along though and literally did not hit one rock at all somehow! However we did get dumped trying to avoid a tree and if you thought a kayak with water in it is heavy, try a canoe!
    Still good times on the water were had by all. It's funny, my GF and friend(and his friend somewhat) were really indifferent about just how sick the water was and were like no big deal for reasons I could not ascertain… !

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    August 7, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Hey Austin,
    I remember how ambiguous the road signs were up there. Considering the proximity to Merrill, and Wausau, it's funny how "back country" this area feels (dirt roads, washed out dirt roads at that, little to no development). It's nice to know one doesn't have to go out of one's way to find that.

    I don't suppose you took any pics or video of the Dells section at 1,000 cfs. It was rambunctiously fun when I ran it at half that, so I can only imagine. Speaking of video, do send us a link of y'all if the paparazzi at Amco Park ever post a video on YouTube! Also let us know if you ever run a different section of the Big Rib, whether upstream or down-. Just before and just after Rib Falls Co Park sound fun. From the county park to Marathon City the river is reputed to change character quite a bit — sandy, wider, slower — but a lovely daytrip prospect.

    And if ever you feel like writing a report on another paddle you do, we'd welcome it. That's your call though. But anyone who sees a pun in "sans skirt" and "sanskrit" has definite potential in our book.

    Thanks for checking back in and happy paddling!


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