Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Briggs Creek

Stream: Briggs Creek is a tributary to the Illinois River that enters on river right about 2 miles downstream of the standard Miami Bar put in for the Wild and Scenic Illinois trip.  It is accessible by road without a hike and can be done either as a day trip or tacked on to the beginning of a Wild and Scenic Illinois trip.  

Brandon lake, Ben Mckenzie, Emile Elliott and I ran Briggs Creek at the start of a 2017 "Cinco de Illy" trip, meeting up with 20 other boaters at Pine Flat on the Illinois River.  

The beta we had going in was that there was a rumor that while Ben Stookesberry had been going to school in Ashland he had run this creek.  He put on with high water and when he got to the final rapid, had found it too sticky to safely run.  He chose to camp out above it, waiting for the levels to drop overnight.   A good group of boaters had also gone in a few years ago and hiked out at the first rapid when it was determined the levels were too high.   I had also gathered from maps and satellite imagery that the run was steep and bouldery (250 fpm in the crux section), but looked like it had minimal wood issues.  One of the boaters who had attempted the run a couple years ago (Jospeh Hatcher, who had given us the only beta we had on the run) was planning to paddle the run with us and take out at the campground, but the morning of it looked like flows were going to be low.  He understandably decided not to take work off with a likely possibility of getting skunked.  The rest of us were doing the Illinois anyway, so figured Briggs would be worth a look for us.    

With the talk about the sticky final rapid, big holes at higher water and stacked bouldery rapids, we were happy to see low flows at the campground, but were they too low?

We decided to drive to the put in and if we could float our boats, put on.  Driving the few miles up to Brushy Bar, we were unhappy to see a plethora of poison oak in full bloom that lining the road.

We appreciated the beauty of the urushiol-free oak varieties though!

                                                  Classic Kalmiopsis water color at the put in.

Ben taking advantage of the facilities.

Priscilla saw us off and headed back up to the Swinging bridge to gear up her raft for the Cinco De Illy float.  We were planning on joining forces again either at the confluence with the Illinois, or more likely Pine Flat where the group was planning to camp.

There was about a mile of class II to warm up on with a log duck before the rapids began in earnest.
The first big rapid (one of two class Vs at our flows), was unique and was just around the corner from the onset of the whitewater.  The crux move was an 8' ledge with a kicker at the bottom.  Based on how you interacted with the kicker dictated how you went over the second, smaller ledge.  We had a variety of bounces off the kicker, with everyone coming through the bottom ledge upright, and most everyone facing forward :)

Ben went first, right on the money in "Cavity Search"

For the next mile or two, there were a bunch of nice boulder gardens with plenty of variety.  At our low flows, there were short pools between all the rapids, I don't see that being the case at medium flows.  Because of the low water there was also some mank, but the fun and clean lines outweighed the rock bumps.

Here is a photo of the same rapid by Tyler Pohle, a few months later (Nov 17, 2017) at medium flows of 3,000 cfs in the Illinois.  They reported that this way an ideal class V flow.

Some of the rapids we shore scouted, most of them Emile boat scouted.  I bumped into a patch of poison oak on one of the first scouts, but we were able to avoid it the rest of the trip.  At higher flows, boat scouting would be more challenging as the rapids padded out.

We had a good time through this section of whitewater which made up the bulk of the run, all the rapids had their own flavor and came at a pretty relentless pace with enough recovery time below each to not feel stressed.  Most of the rapids were entirely comprised of boulders, but every now and then some bedrock played a role.

Near the end of the run we came across a landslide we had been keeping an eye out for, from the satellite imagery the rapid created by the slide looked like it would be a portage and signal the entrance to The Brig, the gorged in section where portaging stops becoming practical and from which one needs to run the sticky rapid we had been warned of to escape.  We scouted the rapid from the right and found that while it would be hard to style, it actually looked plenty good to go and pretty fun.  It just involved lining it up correctly, then setting your angle and holding on!

Even when you are pretty sure a rapid is good to go, you are never really sure until someone tries it out.                   Ben probes.

Brandon, most of the way through the whiteout.

Just downstream from where Brandon is in the above photo is another tier that delivers paddlers into The Brig itself, the walled in section that ends with the ledge Stookesberry was held prisoner above while he waited for flows to drop.

Emile and Brandon drop in.

 There are just a couple small rapids in The Brig before the exit rapid, which ended up being a 5-10 foot ledge.  As it turns out the final tier is not only unportageable, it is tough to scout.   The drop definitely appeared sticky from above, and the line was not obvious looking downstream.  The water split around a rock in the center; right seemed ominous, left looked like it might go, and boofing center like it might go.  Because of our low flow, Emile was able to tether into his cow tail and crawl along wall through the shallow water pretty close to the lip while we held the other end of a rope.  He came back with good news; he could see the left line and it looked fine.  The recycle was also not as bad as it had looked from above.  He agreed to go first.

Emile seeks freedom from The Brig.
He was planning to bank off the wall, but instead took a left stroke and that worked fine. 
  Brig - A place on a board ship used for temporary confinement, like a jail cell.  

 From below, he was able to see the rest of the drop and signaled Brandon and I off the right edge of the center rock (Ben had already followed him down the left side).

After seeing the rapid, we could all tell how this drop would get hellishly sticky at high flows.  The walls below it kind of bow in, backing up the flow and creating a bowl.  We felt that at medium flows boofing off the center would be something all of us would be comfortable with.  We did not see a way to set safety from shore, or portage.  It looked though like a skilled rock climber could maybe sketch his way out from above the drop without his boat, maybe.

Floating away from The Brig, the walls open up immediately, a true boof to freedom moment.  A few minutes of class II-III lead down to the take out bridge at the campground.

If you are doing this as a day trip, you are done.  If you are continuing through the Illinois you have one last obstacle.  Where Briggs meets the Illinois it sifts through a gravel bar, where some of the water disappears into the rocks.  Then, right where the waters merge a stand of brush has grown thick.  Ben read and ran the obstacle and we all followed.

Next time I might just portage into the Illinois :)

We waited at the confluence for the rest of our group for a couple hours.

Around 3PM we started to wonder if maybe they had actually gotten to the confluence before us, so decided to head downstream.  We arrived at Pine Flat and spent the next hour collecting firewood, reminiscing and avoiding the creepy-crawlies.

When the group did show up, the rafts were unloaded and Cinco De Illy went into full swing.

Flows:  There is a bridge at Briggs Creek Campground, below that bridge are two rocks that can be used to gauge Briggs Creek.  These rocks are circled in the photo below.  This run hasn't been run all that often, so take this rough gauge with a grain of salt.

A photo of the gauge from a trip Mike Goglin and Tyler Pohle did March 25, 2018 with the Illinois gauge dropping from 3400 to 3000 cfs, at a flow they dubbed "High side of good".  They felt this was the highest this run should be done, as with more water the entrance rapid to The Brig would become unscoutable/unportageable in addition to the exit.

From local Joseph Hatcher, who was part of a well equipped team that hiked out of Briggs Creek with the Illinois gauge reading 5,000 cfs. "If there was not at least part of that pointed rock sticking out, I would not go and consider it too high."  

Looking upstream the day the photos on this page were taken - May 5, 2017
Minimal enjoyable flow

Another one of Tyler Pohle's trips, this one at a good medium flow - Nov 17, 2017
 Medium flows

If you want to ballpark flows before driving down to look at the bridge, here are the levels we had on May 5, 2017  I believe this is not a good reference as the Illinois was bumping from snowmelt.  Side creeks were at flows more likely to be seen with the Illinois at 1500 cfs from rain.

Word from local Jared Sandeen, who has run Briggs at least once before is that 2500-3500 cfs on the Illinois gauge is what to shoot for if you want a healthy medium flow.  

Here are a couple other nearby gauges from the day we did Briggs.

Access:  Briggs Creek enters the Illinois River on river right shortly below the put in for the Wild and Scenic section.  The same road that is used for the Illinois put in is used for Briggs, just instead of stopping at Miami Bar, you travel another 2 miles to Briggs Creek Campground.

The take out is at Briggs Creek Campground, the put in is at Brushy Bar.
All roads shown on the map below were drivable by a high clearance vehicle without 4WD under dry conditions in 2017.  Personally, I would not take a Subaru past Oak Flat.

A final couple of notes if you are doing Briggs Creek in conjunction with the Wild and Scenic section of the Illinois via self-support.

  • If you are hiring someone to run your shuttle, it might be tricky to start on Briggs.  You may need to get creative in order to leave your vehicle somewhere a shuttle company would be willing to pick it up.  
  • Stash your overnight gear near the campground so you don't have a loaded boat on Briggs.
  • If you get to Briggs Creek Campground and flows are not good, don't fret!  You can just put in right there at the foot bridge and you won't miss anything on the Illinois.  Or backtrack 2 miles to Miami Bar.


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