Thrills, chills and a few spills on the Rogue River
MERLIN, Ore. — Before my 23-year-old son, Matt, entered high school nine years ago, his mother and I signed him up for an Outward Bound sailing course in the Gulf Islands west of Vancouver, Canada.
It was rugged, but he still talks about the good time he had on that adventure.
In mid-June, when he graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., with a degree in recording arts, his gift was a three-day rafting trip on the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon.
But there was no way I was going to let Matt have all the fun this time. Besides, it was a great chance for the two of us to celebrate this major milestone in his life, as well as do some father-son bonding.
It was also an opportunity for me to get back on the Rogue, which I first kayaked 30-plus years ago. I still have fond memories of that trip, which was the beginning of a decades-long love affair with Western white water.
The Rogue, one of the first streams protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, is below the small burg of Merlin. It has a 40-mile stretch of mostly Class III (moderate) rapids, with a Class IV (dicey) drop at Blossom Bar and a Class V (death-defying) rapid near the start of the trip at Rainie Falls. There’s also plenty of calm water and deep pools for swimming.
Though I’d once kayaked Rainie — when I was younger and not yet responsible for children — this time I chose the considerably easier fish ladder on the right of the stream. Carved out of rock, this series of steps offers a Class II (mild) way for rafters and kayakers to move downstream and spawning salmon to head upriver.
When I reached the bottom of the ladder, I glanced back at the falls to see what I’d missed. And gulped.
The entire river seemed to be funneling into a giant hole at the bottom of the 15-foot drop.
“You made the right choice,” said Joslin Fritz, head guide on the trip for the OARS rafting and adventure travel company. “No commercial outfitters run that rapid. And only a few kayakers and catarafts (two-hulled rafts) chance it that I know of. It eats most boats.”
Meet the guides
Matt and I had met our small group of fellow paddlers two hours earlier at Morrison’s Rogue River Lodge, a famed fishing retreat where we had all spent the night.
After a 45-minute shuttle, we met Fritz and fellow guide Nicole Smedegaard, a pair of outgoing and outdoorsy twentysomethings. When I began kayaking in the late ‘70s, female rafters were a rarity. Now, Fritz told me, up to 40% of the guides on the Rogue are women.
With an osprey circling in the sky, Fritz gave us the mandatory safety talk, while Smedegaard secured the last of the gear in the rafts.
Then I checked out the hard-shelled kayak I’d borrowed for the trip, practiced a few rusty Eskimo rolls and reacquainted myself with what I think is the best way to boat a river. (Alas, I now live in Wisconsin, so my white-water options are limited.)
Soon we were drifting down the Rogue through rugged terrain that once was home to the Coquille and other Native American tribes before bloody conflicts with miners and settlers led to their forced removal to reservations.
Pine trees and shrubs climbed the sides of the canyon, offering a range of green hues. Here and there were splashes of red and orange in the form of madrone trees, a bigger version of the manzanita bush.
At one point, a bald eagle swooped in to check us out, and several great blue herons, looking to me like something from the Jurassic age, flew back and forth across the river, much to our delight. And in a calm eddy, a six-pack of Western pond turtles basked on a tree branch, oblivious to our presence.
The best Class III rapids of the day were Tyee, Wildcat and Black Bar Falls, all of which we managed with no flips — though we had a couple of near misses. Before lunch, we passed Black Bar Lodge, one of several grandfathered in the Wild and Scenic section of the river, where boaters and hikers often stay.
By the time 1 p.m. rolled around, we were hungry. Our guides prepared a delicious meal that included fruit and veggies, hummus, peanut butter, jam, wheat bread and several juices.
Instead of a nap, we moved on and hiked up Windy Creek. Then — because it was fun and because temperatures were in the mid-80s — we jumped repeatedly off a 15-foot cliff into the Rogue.
We camped that night at Jenny Creek, where previous visitors had built a series of cairns (small towers of rocks), including one that was an impressive 5 feet tall. I laid my thick sleeping pad within a foot of the creek and listened to it gurgle before drifting off to sleep, sated by a delicious meal that included salmon, asparagus, potatoes and an ice cream sundae.
We awoke around 7 a.m. to the smell of coffee and had a leisurely breakfast before breaking down the camp and putting on the river by 10 a.m.
At Horseshoe Bend, less than a mile from our campsite, the river took a 180-degree turn and we floated past a group of gray rafts tied to the bank. They had the letters JHRJ on the side. It took me a couple of seconds to translate, then the name James Henry River Journeys popped into my brain. Many years ago, I’d paddled the Rogue with this outfitter.
I maneuvered my kayak to the shore and greeted guide Peter Leh; his wife, Renee; and JHRJ owner Jimmy Katz. Katz, a Marin County resident, had organized a reunion trip of buddies he’d known since second grade in suburban Detroit. I hadn’t seen Jimmy in at least 20 years.
“This is my probably my last season,” said Katz, who is now in his 60s. “But then again, I say that every year.”
I wished them well, shoved off and paddled hard to catch up with my group. After Horseshoe Bend, we were greeted by a long series of big waves, with crests of white water that occasionally broke over our boats.
We had lunch on the Winkle Bar beach near Western author Zane Grey’s modest cabin. Grey was an avid fisherman, and he had built the cabin in 1925 so he could angle for salmon and steelhead.
Though decaying, one of the wooden, flat-bottom boats he built for fishing the river is on display near the cabin.
In the afternoon, we ran Mule Creek Canyon, a slot carved out of the rock that follows an ancient fault line. At the rapid above Mule Creek, one of our fellow kayakers turned his “rubber duckie” sideways in a wave and promptly flipped. He was able to clamber back into his inflatable kayak and maneuvered through the canyon with, er, finesse.
Mule Creek didn’t have major rapids, but it was narrow, which produced swirls of surging water that sent rafts and kayaks bouncing off the rock walls. For me, the worst part came at the Coffee Pot, where the river wanted to grab the tail of my kayak and suck it down. Or at least flip me over.
The best, and most challenging rapid of the trip came at Blossom Bar, which I first scouted in the late 1970s. We climbed the same rocks, discussed our lines and then ran the drop with aplomb.
As we pulled into a beach at Half Moon Bar, a bald eagle floated in the sky. I hiked along the river and up the slopes above our campsite, finding lovely yellow Oregon irises, bright red Indian paintbrushes, golden buttercups, fiery columbines, blue chicory and other flowers.
That evening, over Merlot, Matt and I talked about his plans to find work in a recording studio in the Northwest. We also discussed river trips we’d taken together in Washington, Montana and even one in Idaho when the dory in which he was riding (at the tender age of 6) nearly flipped on a big rapid of the Salmon.
That night, we slept beside each other only a few feet from the river. And, truth be told, I enjoyed hearing his infrequent snores. In the morning, with a light sprinkle falling, I watched him sleep as I sipped my coffee.
By 10 a.m., we were back on the river, headed toward our take-out at Foster Bar. But the Rogue wasn’t done with us yet.
At a Class II riffle only a mile from our campsite, a rubber duckie flipped again. And then another boat went over, which astounded Fritz, the head guide.
She rocked back in the seat of her raft, her laughter bouncing off the canyon walls.
“Well,” she hooted, shaking her head, “that’s one way to end a trip.”
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