Photo Essay: Rogues on the Rogue River
A C&K kayak test teaches the value of wild rivers
By Eugene Buchanan
Photos by Aaron Schmidt
What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act than to round up a bunch of Canoe & Kayak magazine contributors and test a new breed of whitewater kayak on one of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act’s original rivers?
A poster child for wilderness preservation, northwest Oregon’s Rogue River was one of the original eight rivers included 1968’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Out of 222 rivers nationwide currently on the list, Oregon has 61, more than any other state. While we were learning everything we could about crossover kayaks – whitewater kayaks with storage hatches and retractable skegs — it was teaching us the value of wild rivers.
Coursing 215 miles to the Pacific from its birthplace in the Cascade Mountain’s Crater Lake, the river has had four of its five dams removed in the last five years. The most recent was the Gold Rey Dam in 2010. Since then, its fish population of chinook and steelhead has soared to 600 percent of its 20-year average.
We learn all this on the shuttle to our put-in, which lies at just 600 feet above sea level near the town of Grants Pass. Helping our editorial pow-wow and review away from the cubicles is Rogue Wilderness Adventures. Operating on a permit system unchanged for 42 years, RWA is one of 14 outfitters operating during a six-month season from April 15 – October 15 on the river’s 34-mile Wild and Scenic section. Regulations restrict access to 120 people per day between commercial and private use, with your chances of getting a permit during the high-use season just 5 percent.
The Rogue’s restrictions come for good reason. It carries floaters away from roads and civilization through tight, evergreen-lined canyons protected by Class V Rainie Falls, Class IV Blossom Bar and more than 18 Class III rapids. Side hikes let you explore plunge pools, waterfalls and historic lodges, including the river-accessible only Paradise and Half Moon lodges grandfathered into the Wild & Scenic section. A 101-mile-long hiking trail parallels the river, spawning a growing genre of raft-supported hiking trips. “That part of our business is exploding,” says RWA owner Brad Niva, a former pharmaceutical executive who gave up the city life to raise his kids along the river.
Before reaching the put-in, we pass Hellgate Canyon, site of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s famous cliff jump, and much of the filming for Meryl Streep’s The River Wild. Johnny Depp’s Outlaw was also filmed here, as was 1975 John Wayne flick Rooster Cogburn.
Our guides Ali, ‘Bama and Taylor meet us at the Grave Creek put-in, readying three rafts to carry whatever gear we don’t lug in our kayaks. We shove off onto emerald water that carries us down into one of the wilderness movement’s most heralded champions.
A few miles in we round a corner to confront Rainie, a mandatory portage save for those on top of their game. After scouting, during which we see several salmon try and jump it, tester Joe Jackson, an Ashland local who has run Rainie several times, steps up and charges it in the Jackson Karma RG. He gets engulfed by the hole and promptly swims. We count 18 seconds of down time before his head emerges downstream from the boiling, aerated cauldron.
Kayaker number two, C&K’s own Dave Shively, nails his line, but not without a butterfly-filled stomach. Zak Podmore follows suit in the Wave Sport Ethos, stomping it.
Keeping my pride in my drybag, I follow the rafts down the “fish ladder” to the right, a bouncy, rock-strewn bypass that meets the main current below. We continue on to our camp at Battle Bar, the site where U.S. Cavalry Colonel John Kelsey crossed the river in canvas boats in 1856 to attack an Indian camp at Little Meadows.
The Rogue was named after the Rogue Indians, one of 50 indigenous tribes comprising 10,000 natives that lived in the valley. Many, like the Takelma, meaning “Of the river,” had languages unique to southwest Oregon. But faced with increasing pressure from settlers, gold miners and Hudson Bay Trading Co. explorations, skirmishes broke out throughout the valley, leading to the Rogue River Indian Wars of 1855-’56. Most of the tribes were either wiped out or re-located.
Shortly after putting on the next day, we pass the cabin of author Zane Grey, who lived there while churning out such best sellers as Riders of the Purple Sage. Keeping our thoughts on reading the whitewater, a few miles later we pull ashore at Mule Creek to tour Rogue River Ranch, a homestead purchased in 1898 by the Billings family. In 1930, it was sold to the Anderson family from Hollywood, who entertained such visitors as Clark Gable before selling it to the U.S. government in 1970 as part of the Wild & Scenic designation.
Taylor leads us to a swimming hole where we cannonball in, much like the Billings and Anderson children did in an earlier era. We camp just past Paradise Lodge, where rafters can overnight and enjoy showers, cabins and restaurant with full bar. A man named Charlie Pettinger homesteaded it in 1905, raising a family of eight children. It’s now owned by the Schleining family, which also owns the now-closed 20-cabin Half Moon Lodge across the river (currently for sale for $2.5 million). Only accessible by the river, both are equipped with giant metal trolleys to haul up supplies up from the water. Ascending a massive stairway, I note high water signs pointing out flood levels more than 100 vertical feet above the river.
Our camp is on a broad cobblestone beach, whose stones are frustratingly the same color and size as our Bocci balls. We talk shop, compare notes, drink Oregon craft beer and stare into a cloudless night sky streaked by the Milky Way.
In the morning, we shove off and tackle Class IV Blossom Bar, the stretch’s most dangerous rapid thanks to a sieve called the Picket Fence in the left-hand channel. It’s an easy enough move, but miss it and the consequences can be dire. Seven people have died there in the last seven years, including two this past April. Much of this danger is due to the river’s popularity. In the height of summer up to 120 people navigate it each day, many of them inexperienced (which is why it’s nice to go with an outfitter). Our guides stress the importance of hitting the eddy and making the move. We get through in our test kayaks without trouble.
From there it’s meanders and more Class III before the canyon tightens to barely a raft-width across. A section called Coffee Pot is known for its boils that can flip kayaks and even rafts. We dig our paddle blades in and forge on with one capsize easily rectified by a roll.
Soon, we see the jet boats from Jerry’s Jet Boat Service taking tourists upstream. They leave a wake as big as some of the waves we’ve negotiated, but afford us and other downriver travelers a wide berth, like yielding to uphill mountain bike traffic. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Rogue River pioneer Glen Wooldridge spent 15 years dynamiting channels throughout the river corridor to enable him to motorboat upstream its entire length. He made it for the first time 1947, just 20 years before the river corridor was preserved by Congress.
All too soon, we reach our take-out at Foster Bar, still 30 miles from the ocean. Looking back upstream, we all thank the powers that be for having the foresight to preserve it for future generations – including boat-testers like us. We all know that things could have easily gone the other way, just like the now-restored salmon jumping Rainie Falls.
If You Go: Floating the Wild & Scenic Rogue requires a permit (www.blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/rogue/permit.php) from May 15 – Oct. 15. To go with an outfitter, contact Rogue Wilderness Adventures (800-336-1647, www.wildrogue.com).
MORE FROM C&K
–Watch a VIDEO from the trip
–Read our boat reviews from the trip
–Check out more TRAVEL stories from C&K.