Editor’s note: This was an American Whitewater trip. AW is a national non-profit river conservation organization founded in 1954. AW’s mission is to protect and restore America’s whitewater rivers and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely. The organization is the primary advocate for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers throughout the United States. To learn more about AW, check out their website or take a look at their strategic framework.
The Tsunami Ranger website primarily features sea kayaking, but rivers flow to the sea and sea and river are inextricably linked in the water cycle of the planet. In the same way, developing river whitewater skills enhances a paddler’s sea kayak skills, and vice versa. The goal of this trip for me was to scout the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue, and paddle a portion of the recreational section with my friend Kathy.
In mid-June a friend invited me on a 4-day supported whitewater trip run by Northwest Rafting Company on the Wild and Scenic section of Oregon’s Rogue River. It turned out that this was an American Whitewater trip as well, which made it extra special. One AW professional (Mark) was retiring and a new guy (Kevin) was taking his place, and so we were treated to talks on AW’s mission and activities, and on the Rogue, its health, and its salmon runs.
The first couple of days were cloudy and cool. Checking the weather pre-trip, I decided to bring rain gear, a wool sweater, polyprop long johns, a down jacket, and a 5/4 wetsuit, and everything got used. On the second day it rained, and there was much borrowing of NWRC’s spray jackets. But it was beautiful, and when the sun came out and decided to stick around on the third day it was bliss.
On the first day, we launched at Almeda (mile 29.4) and camped at Tyee Bar after about 8 miles. The river was running at approximately 3,400 CFS and as we went through Argo at mile 30.9, normally Class III, it was unrecognizable. As Matt Leidecker’s guide to the Rogue notes, at “around 3,000 CFS [the feature] mellows a bit into a large standing wave” instead of the usual rock-clogged channel. On this day, I didn’t even see the wave, just a big run of water sweeping around the bend with one big rock in the middle. Also of note was Rainey Falls at mile 34.9, where the boats went down the fish ladder to the right of the falls. The ladder was blasted by dynamite back in the day and is the most popular route around the falls.
On the second day it rained on and off all day. I was glad I’d brought the wetsuit and even borrowed a spray jacket from NWRC. Right away we hit Wildcat Rapids (Class III), and then a series of 22 more Class I – III rapids, chutes, and falls until we reached the camp at Missouri Bar after about 12 miles. As we travelled further downriver the scenery became more and more beautiful. Gray skies, falling rain, and a general dimness in the atmosphere made for challenging photography but it was still stunning. The sharp, steep mountains clothed with pine, fir, maple, madrone, and oak gleamed in many-colored green and the madrone’s red bark stood out brightly when struck by a stray sun ray.
The highlight of Day 2 was a stop at Zane Grey’s cabin, now a historic BLM site. Grey visited the Rogue several times and liked it so much he bought property on Winkle Bar (mile 48.4) in 1927. He built a very small log cabin and hung out here with his family throughout the 30’s till the river became “too crowded”. The cabin is one of the most primitive “celebrity” homes imaginable, and all the more likable for it. It’s situated on a lovely oak-studded flat large enough to land a small plane (there’s a space for a runway behind the house) and that’s how Grey travelled to and from his vacation spot. Also of interest is one of his wooden boats for river running and fishing.
When we got to Missouri, the rain took a break long enough for us to find individual campsites and set up. It started again just as I finished putting up the tent. We had a great fly rigged up for the group though, and a fire pan every night and morning so we were cheerful and toasty. I warmed myself up with some bourbon and “branch” courtesy of the NWRC bar. Other people had brought beer and wine so we were all set. The cooks and the food also deserve a mention. We ate well.
Day 3 took us down a fairly mild section of river until we came to Mule Creek Canyon (Class III – IV), Coffeepot (Class IV), and Blossom Bar (also Class IV). The description of the canyon in the river guide is great: First Wall, Second Wall, Telfer’s Hole, and The Narrows. It didn’t look that bad, only narrow, but there were powerful swirlies all down the run. Kathy has been down this section multiple times and she said it was the hardest it’s ever been because of the speed and volume of water pushing through, the result of recent rains.
For the first 3 days, I rode point in one of the gear boats with guide Claire at the oars. It was great to sit in the bow like Cleopatra in her barge for the easy stretches. This also made it possible for me to check out the scenery, get a good look at the rapids, and stand up and look back at the following boats. From this vantage point I was able to get lots of photos.
Blossom Bar is a rock and boulder-strewn rapid with an abundance of routes depending on flow. The rocks are the result of of two steep drainages that regularly dump debris into the river’s channel. Because this section was originally so choked with jumbled rocks, in the 30’s river runners dynamited a navigable channel through and even though they did more work to open it up in the 40’s it’s still the most difficult whitewater in the Wild and Scenic corridor. Both Kathy and Claire crushed it.
On the third night we camped at Middle Half Moon Bar, a large campsite with plenty of room. The sun had arrived and was shining gloriously. I found a nice grassy spot overlooking the river. Stuff was still damp from the morning rain, so once I set up the tent I laid everything out to dry and sat down to look at the scene. And here’s when I got the big payoff. As I was looking at the radiant blue sky, the big white clouds, the green slopes, the golden grass, and the river running through it all I had a peak moment of joy and gratitude that sent tears rolling down my face. My heart felt so full that the words of the psalm “my cup runneth over” came to mind and my whole body felt light and joyful. I sat there so long I missed the obligatory Ridiculous River Costume Party in camp but it was worth it.
On Day 4 we made 10 miles to the take out at Foster Bar, a grand total of just under 40 miles for the trip. This section was “easy”, all Class I and II except Upper and Lower Clay Hill Rapids. Since I’d taken plenty of photos and scouted all the biggest rapids during the previous days, I opted to paddle one of the IKs. After a pretty leisurely day we hit Upper Clay Hill Rapid (Class III), where a big boulder and its ledge create big rolling waves. As we approached the rapid, I was following one of the paddle boats. They drifted toward center then moved left to avoid an obstacle. The obstacle, a big boulder, had been obscured by the boat, but when they moved I saw it with little time to spare. The river was taking me swiftly just where I didn’t want to go so I paddled hard to the left. Too late.
The current swept me right into a big hole where the wave hit my starboard bow with tremendous force and I went backwards and sideways head over heels. Hanging on to boat and paddle, I flushed through the rapid and fetched up against the paddle boat which was waiting to rescue me. Two of the paddlers grabbed my PFD and hoisted me into the paddle boat and I slid across the deck belly first in a textbook seal landing. We went through the next rapid (Upper and Lower Clay Hill are about a tenth of a mile apart) and then someone brought my boat around and I achieved another seal landing launching from the paddle boat back into the IK. All that Tsunami training comes in handy in ways you’d never think.
Meanwhile, one of the two kids on the trip, Nolan, about age 9, in another IK had unwisely followed me into the hole. Hah! He got dumped at exactly the same spot but another IK paddler, Brian, snatched him up and all was well. The remainder of the trip was a pleasure paddle down mostly Class I sections until we reached the take out at Foster Bar at Mile 67.8. There Kathy and I picked up our gear bags and hightailed it into one of the shuttle vans for the ride over Bear Camp Road back to Galice where we’d left our vehicles. Then Kathy and I said our goodbyes and motated over to Almeda Campground a short drive downriver where I’d booked a campground for two nights. We dropped some gear and had a light meal and Kathy set up her tent and then we drove up to Merlin to my friend Neil’s house where we took showers and sat in the hot tub on Neil’s very nice deck and watched the stars come out and talked about the trip. What a great day! What a great trip!
Sleeping like a stone, so tired at night I didn’t even read and dropped off while it was still daylight with the sound of the river in my ears, eating healthy and well, hanging out with fun people, spending the day on one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve been privileged to experience, this trip was one of the best adventures I’ve had. It wasn’t a Tsunami retreat, but it had many of the features of one: whitewater, beauty, wildlife, games, adventure, and a few wipeouts. Good stuff!
The next day Kathy and I paddled from Hog Creek down to Galice on the recreational section of the river, about 7 miles total. This was my first time paddling a river in a hardshell kayak with only a buddy, not a clinic with lots of support, and I was a little nervous. Kathy’s a good kayaker and I trust her but there’s a psychological jump in going from paddling with a bunch of instructors and other kayakers to doing a self-supported paddle with just two people, especially on a river in spate. We’d paddled this section before, but features that had seemed significant before were gone and rapids that hadn’t seemed difficult were challenging. Going through Hellgate Canyon we hit some swirlies that were a lesser version of the ones in Mule Creek Canyon and I got an adrenaline rush as the swirlies snatched my boat and I found myself bracing hard.
Below Hellgate is Dunn Rapid, a Class II which should have been easy but I made the same error as on the previous day, following a boat into a hole. Kathy has a Zet5, a completely different design than the Pirouette which flies like an arrow through wave trains and stays on track but doesn’t particularly like getting smacked around at odd angles. I was following Kathy as she approached the rapid sideways to slow herself down, her bow angling left, and I allowed myself to get swept into a hole and flipped in almost the exact same circumstances as at Clay Hill. Not her fault; had I angled away higher up I would have made it. However, I hung on to boat and paddle and once out of the wave train swam to shore.
After a rest we carried on and the paddle was fun although I was still nervous. I had chosen this section so that I’d be doing something familiar for my first out-of-clinic paddle, but everything was so different! Speed and volume matter. It was fine until we got to Upper and Lower Galice Rapids, both Class II. I crushed Upper Galice, which on this day was a big, well-formed wave train. I could hear Kathy whooping as I took a slap to the face on one of the bigger waves and then I was through. However… Lower Galice trounced me with a disorganized train of two-directional waves and over I went. Still, I achieved another successful self-rescue, Kathy herding me to shore so I didn’t get swept downstream. The river was honking so fast there were virtually no eddies.
We were right across the river from Galice boat ramp so after some consideration I decided to call it quits. We’d been on the water about 2 1/2 hours with another hour to go and I was tired, so we pulled over to the boat ramp and Kathy paddled on down to Almeda, picked up my truck, and came back to fetch me. It was a good choice. Kathy said it was flat all the way, the features we had paddled in previous years being covered up, and the wind was blowing in her face making for a fair slog. But she made it back in about an hour and then we headed up to Merlin for a blowout Mexican dinner at Tacomania and another soak in Neil’s hot tub.
As Eric used to say, it takes a pillage. In the hot tub, Kathy and I talked about how if it weren’t for Melissa de Marie and Cali Collective, we wouldn’t have met, and if it weren’t for Neil we wouldn’t have had a hot tub and Mexican food and a place to leave my kayak while I was on the NWRC trip. I am also grateful to all the people who made the river navigable, who built the campgrounds and boat ramps, who maintain same, who offer guided trips on the river, and who make boats and gear and trucks and racks so people like us can have these wonderful adventures. Grateful to NWRC and their outstanding guides and to AW for all their work protecting America’s rivers so generations of wildlife as well as humans can enjoy them. And thanks to the wild, beautiful, Rogue River, without which none of this would have been possible.
Thanks to our lead guide Daniel and to guides Claire, Brad, Emily, Logan, and Michael for all their hard work making this trip stupendously successful! To learn more about rafting the Rogue with NWRC, click here: https://www.nwrafting.com/ To learn more about American Whitewater click here: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/ To learn about California Watersports Collective where you can sign up for cool clinics paddling both river and ocean whitewater and meet awesome people, click here: https://www.cwwcollective.com/ For questions or comments please contact us by clicking the button at the top or comment below. Thanks!