With its soothing siren call, the Rogue River draws me back every few years to kayak its frolicking rapids, revel in it verdant canyons, hike up its side creeks and sleep on its welcoming beaches.
I’m not alone in treasuring this delightful, family friendly whitewater stream in the southwest corner of Oregon, which flows 215 miles from its headwaters near Crater Lake National Park through the Cascade Mountains on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Designated as one of the eight original Wild and Scenic rivers in the United States in 1968, roughly 80 miles in the lower section are protected from dam-building, diversion or other kinds of development. Additional streams in that seminal group include the Clearwater and Salmon rivers in Idaho and the Feather in northern California.
Thousands of people enjoy the Rogue each year for salmon and steelhead fishing, whitewater rafting and hiking, to say nothing of its rugged scenery. Western adventure writer and novelist Zane Grey came here to fish in the 1920s and built a modest cabin on a stretch of the lower river that remains today. He extolled the Rogue in magazine articles that boosted its standing among anglers. He also penned the novel “Rogue River Feud” from his time on the stream that dealt with conflicts between gold seekers, salmon anglers, and a fish-packing monopoly. There was, of course, a love angle between a wounded WWI veteran and the daughter of a fisherman.
I’ve done some angling in my time – and even caught a treasured steelhead – but it’s the tumbling rapids of the Rogue that drew me here more than 40 years to kayak as part of a University of California, Davis outdoor program. That was the start of a decades-long love affair with Western whitewater. I also fell, hard, for a fair-haired cross-country ski instructor on that first trip, which, perhaps, has something to do with my enduring affection for the river. Alas, the relationship – passionate while it lasted – didn’t endure. But I was hooked on the Rogue and have been back half-a-dozen times since then to kayak – and reminisce.
Eight years ago, after my oldest son, Matt, finished his studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wa. with a degree in recording arts, we decamped for the Rogue and some father-son bonding within an hour after his graduation ceremony.
Not long after we embarked on the river, an osprey circled overhead, which I took as a good omen. Soon we were drifting down the Rogue through rugged terrain that once was home to the Coquille and other Native American tribes – who called the stream “Tak-elam” – before bloody conflicts with miners, settlers and their militias led to their forced removal to reservations.
Pine trees and shrubs climbed the sides of the canyon, offering a range of light to deep-green hues. Here and there were splashes of red and earthy orange in the form of madrone trees, a bigger version of the manzanita bush.
At one point, 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.
Matt and I shared a tent on that three-night, four-day trip and I got used to his occasional snores. (And he mine, I assume.) But the last evening, with millions of stars filling the sky above us, we slept on the beach only a few feet from the river, sans tents. In the morning, as the sunrise reached the rim of the canyon and began to illuminate our campsite, I watched him snooze and smiled at my good fortune as I sipped coffee that had been prepared by guides from the OARS (oars.com) rafting outfitter. That, indeed, was a special trip.
Last summer, I got the opportunity to paddle the Rogue again. This time around I went with my old paddling buddy, “Moth” Lorenzen – who has accompanied me on numerous kayaking adventures on the West Coast, Central and South America – and his 13-year-old son, Joe. A fun-loving lad, he’s a chip off the ol’ block.
They live in San Francisco and sail frequently for much of their aquatic recreation these days. The pair picked me up at the Sacramento airport – I’d flown in from my home in Madison, WI – and we drove north through smoke from forest fires on the California-Oregon border. We spent the night at the Galice Resort, listened to a band playing music from the Grateful Dead and the Eagles and dined on barbecued chicken and salad on a deck overlooking the gurgling Rogue.
We met up with with guides from Hood River-based Northwest Rafting (nwrafting.com) after a breakfast of French toast the next morning and were on our way, headed for the put-in below Grave Creek at the entrance to the roadless area. We’d been worried that the fires might prevent our trip, but they thankfully stayed to the south.
Soon, Moth and I were practicing Eskimo rolls in our hard-shelled kayaks, while Joe became comfortable in his inflatable kayak. It wasn’t long before we came upon Grave Creek Falls, a class 3 (moderately difficult) rapid that knocked us about a bit, though we all stayed upright – including Joe.
A bald eagle floated in the sky above us, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was kin to any of the other birds I’d encountered on previous trips. Nearby, a pair of otters swam in the river and a family of mergansers paddled in an eddy. The canyon, just as I recalled, was loaded with wildlife.
Abut five miles from the put-in came the notorious Rainie Falls, a Class V – very difficult and dangerous – rapid that is the most-feared drop on the Rogue. Which is why we pulled over to scout it and ponder the consequences of getting stuck in the reversal at the bottom of the rapid on the left side of the river. It didn’t take long to decide that running the Class III “fish ladder” on the right side of the stream was the most prudent and sensible way to go.
I’d run the 15-foot falls years ago, back before I had children, other responsibilities and when I possessed a higher skill level. And maybe I’ll try it again one day – after my youngest son is off in college – but I kinda doubt it.
Zachary Collier, who runs Northwest Rafting, said he, too, has walked around Rainie. (He’s also run it, too.) He said he’s seen plenty of other kayakers and rafters take it on and never seen anyone get stuck in the reversal at the bottom of the falls. Trashed, recirculated and then regurgitated downstream, yes. But kept in the hole, thankfully, never.
“I give a talk at the beginning of the trip about the difference Class 3, 4 and 5 rapids,” he said. “Rainie is a great illustration of them all with the main drop being a 5, the middle chute a 4 and the fish ladder a 3.”
There were other class 2 and 3 rapids that day with names like China Gulch, Tyee and Wildcat, but the best part was a hike up Whiskey Creek to see a gold miner’s cabin. Maintained by rangers from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the redoubt has bottles, cans, household utensils and mining gear left behind many decades ago.
We camped that night and had a delicious salmon dinner prepared by our guides as we sipped wine and other libations while playing an old Viking game called “kubb,” which has gained popularity in recent years. Something of a cross between bowling and horseshoes, the objective is to knock over wooden blocks by tossing wooden batons at them. (I won.)
A highlight of the second day was another hike, this one up the narrow and crystal-clear Kelsey Creek, which cut deep into a steep and forested canyon wall. What I liked best, however, was stopping at Winkle Bar and walking up to Zane Grey’s cabin sites, which includes a boat from his days on the river. Due, in part, to his stories, the Rogue eventually became too popular and over-fished for his liking. So he moved on the Umpqua River, which was more isolated.
Day three included a stroll up to the historic Rogue River Ranch, a wide spot in the river valley where archaeological evidence shows Native Americans lived for more than 9,000 years. Tom Billings and his family homesteaded there at the turn of the 20th Century and built a two-story house in 1903 that served as an inn and a store, as well as a home. It was beautifully renovated recently by BLM.
Mule Creek tumbles into the Rogue beside the ranch and we hiked up that stream to a large rock where we took turns jumping off a 10-foot ledge into the chilly, clear waters below. After we returned to the main river, we soon encountered Mule Creek Canyon – a relatively narrow slot where the Rogue slices along a fault between two geologic formations on the river.
Collier calls this section of the Rogue his favorite.
“If you look to your left, you’ll see basalt and sandstone pillows, twists, and slants that make up make the Dothan Formation,” he said. “Looking to your right, you’ll the see dark grey and green bulges of ocean crust and volcanic sheets of the Rogue Formation. Over time, the river helped carve a narrow path between these two jagged formations, causing water to speed up and bounce irregularly through the smaller, rougher, space.”
The river becomes faster here and more unpredictable with enormous waves, contrasting currents, boils, and sometimes combinations of all three. The “crown jewel,” as Collier calls it, is the “Coffee Pot,” a lower section where the river narrows the water becomes confused swirls and navigating a big raft can be difficult.
In a kayak, I found it hard sometimes to keep my little vessel upright because the surging boils seemed to have fingers that wanted to grab the edge of my boat and flip me over. Fortunately, I stayed upright, because doing a roll in those surging waters would have been difficult.
If that weren’t enough excitement, downstream a bit we came to Blossom Bar Rapid, which we scouted from some high rocks on the right side of the river. Named for the Western Azalea plant, Collier said this Class 4 drop is sometimes called “the most expensive rapid in the West” because of a picket fence of rocks partway through that sometimes traps, holds and flips rafts.
My group breezed through it on our trip with no mishaps, and I found it relatively simple to negotiate in my kayak. Collier said it gets the Class 4 rating because of the penalty for not making the Class 3 move above the picket fence.
“The consequences can be significant,” he said.
That afternoon I took a walk along the river and up the slopes above our campsite and found lovely yellow Oregon irises, bright red Indian paintbrushes, golden buttercups, fiery columbines, blue chicory and other flowers.
Moth gave his son Joe a hard-shell kayak paddling lesson and I have a feeling they’ll return to the Rogue one day to paddle it together. I know I’ll be back, too, with my two youngest children, now ages 16 and 18. Who knows, if I can stay spry for another couple of decades, I might even get back on the Rogue with a grandchild or two?
More information: A number of rafting outfitters operate on the Rogue River, offering trips into October. Two I know well and respect are Northwest Rafting at nwrafting.com and OARS at oars.com. Three-night, four-day trips start at around $1,000, while specialty outings cost more. The minimum age for most trips is 7. For names of other companies, contact the BLM office in Galice, Ore. at (541) 474-3735.