Story by DANNY MOGLE // Photos by SARAH A. MILLER // May/June 2017
Joel Ruark is ready for an adrenaline rush. He straps himself on a colorful wakeboard and jumps from a platform into a small, manmade lake. He grabs a handle suspended from a cable overhead and signals that he’s ready to go.
The rig propels him toward a white ramp jutting out of the water. He hits the ramp (known in wakeboarding lingo as a kicker) and soars sky high into the air.
Ruark, a drilling company operations manager, is the man behind The Levee Wake, a private wakeboarding site near Bullard, Texas, that virtually nobody knows exists.
It may be the best-kept secret in East Texas.
When Ruark started wakeboarding eight years ago, he and his friends had to take a boat out on a lake and be pulled behind it like a skier. Even then, there were no places in the area to satisfy the daredevil in them. They wanted to do inverts and grabs off kickers, skid along the tops of half-submerged barrels and plummet down thin rails — just like thrill-seeking snowboarders and skateboarders were doing.
Unlike water skiing, wakeboarding uses a single board that resembles a snowboard. Riders use straps or attached boots to stay on the board as they speed across the water and do tricks.
By some accounts, about 3 million people go wakeboarding at least a few times each year either as riders behind motorboats or increasingly at cable parks where the wakeboarder is attached to a permanent overhead cable system that stretches across the water and connects to fixed towers.
Thanks to the growing number of cable parks and the popularity of televised wakeboard trick competitions, wakeboarding has become one of the fastest growing water sports in the United States.
“For many years, there were just two wakeboard cable parks in the U.S., one in Orlando and one in San Marcos,” Ruark says. “But between 2010 and 2014, Texas became the home to nine commercial wakeboard cable parks.”
One of those parks is Barefoot Ski Ranch in Waco. The 400-acre park — one of the largest in the nation — has a clubhouse, multiple lakes, water slides, sand volleyball courts, a cable system that accommodates several riders at once, cabins and a “lazy river” for tubing.
Ruark began to dream about bringing something like that to East Texas. Anthony “Turbo” Ruch, Barefoot’s manager and a world-class wakeboarder, agreed to work with Ruark to open a park.
“We walked several (potential) properties and examined economics,” Ruark says. After some investors lost interest, the initial effort never got off the ground.
Ruark was ready to put aside the idea when Turbo suggested opening a private park using a two-tower cable system that had just been developed. It would require a fraction of the size and cost of a large commercial park.
Excited about relaunching the project, Ruark began looking at sites near his home on Lake Palestine.
“Then one afternoon a listing (of property) came up that was only one mile off of my drive to work every morning. I immediately ran over and took a look and I immediately fell in love with the place and put it under contract that day. We began working on the details of lake design, course design and construction plan as well as reaching out to contacts in the wakeboard industry for sponsorship and support.”
It turns out that representatives of Hyperlite, one of the biggest names in the business, wanted a place where they could go and be undisturbed while shooting promotional materials featuring wakeboarders in action using their products.
“They wanted use of the facility for training, product catalog shoots and development,” Ruark says. “We have had the park sponsorship from them and it has really helped out.”
With Hyperlite’s support and Turbo’s experience, Ruark created a facility with features for professional-level wakeboarders. Work began in January of 2015 and nine months later The Levee Wake was ready.
“Our lake is a bi-level, which is unique to the sport and to cable,” Ruark says. To get from the lower level to the upper level, which is several feet higher, wakeboarders have to hit the kicker and fly over a levee, go up a steep embankment or skid up and over the grassy mound.
The lake — on both levels — is filled with kickers, tubes and obstacles.
In a Hyperlite product catalog, Turbo is seen showing off one of the company’s line of wakeboards. Because The Levee Wake is surrounded by a forest, it looks like he is flying through tree tops. Hyperlite’s team of wakeboarders come there to perfect tricks and try out new products.
The Levee Wake is not open to the public. Ruark is considering making it available on a limited basis for special outings or to introduce the sport to a new generation of riders.
“The cable can be set to only pull in the bottom (part of the) lake and speed is completely controllable, allowing us the ability to teach beginners,” Ruark says. “My daughter started riding the cable at 7 years old.”
The site will not be a secret much longer. “We have lots of people that stop out at the road and watch us ride. I am sure they are trying to figure out what is going on,” he says.
For Ruark and his friends, the cable park is the ultimate playground. It’s the place Ruark wished he had when he started wakeboarding years ago.
“For us, this is having fun. It allows me to do what I love.”