Southern Oregon's famed Rogue River beckons two Seattle-area fathers and their sons for a two-day adventure, including a surprise dunking for the dads.
ON THE ROGUE RIVER, Ore. — Moments after being dumped off the raft in the middle of a whitewater rapid, I popped my head above cool, churning water, grabbed a stray rope and yelled for my son Noah. No response.
My friend John, also dumped from the raft, and the only other adult on the trip, bobbed next to me.
Adults in the water. Two kids in the raft… maybe. This, I thought, might have been a bad idea.
We’d envisioned a four-day, two-fathers and two-sons, sun-soaked, do-it-yourself adventure on the famed Rogue River in southern Oregon. Somewhat experienced paddlers, John and I decided to forgo guides and make two day-trips out of the Rogue’s 19-mile recreational portion, just upstream from the aptly named — and permit-only — Wild section.
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The Wild section draws celebrities — Elijah Wood, Frodo of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, paddled it just after we left — and whitewater junkies on multiday trips.
But the recreational section is the more accessible playground, a largely pristine ribbon of tamer whitewater cutting through red-rock canyons and madrona-crusted hills. Peak summer days see about 1,000 paddlers.
If they can do it, so could we.
The Rogue, swollen with snowmelt, was running at nearly twice its normal levels when we arrived last August. Our second-day float took us through what is normally a relatively mild Class II rapid that high water had transformed into a kayak-munching hole. (The standard rating of white water goes from Class I, very easy, through Class VI, almost impassable.)
Upstream, John and I had prepared, encouraging our sons — Noah, 9, and Daniel, 13 — to paddle hard, stay low and hang on when we hit the rough stuff.
They did. The dads got dumped.
As I clung to the rope and yelled, Noah and Daniel popped their heads up above the raft’s gunwales. Their eyes were as big and white as marshmallows.
We wrangled the raft to shore and climbed back in. We broke into adrenaline-soaked smiles. “Dad, that was awesome,” Noah said.
Zane Grey country
From its headwaters in Crater Lake to its Pacific Ocean terminus 215 miles downriver, the Rogue carries Old West bona fides. Zane Grey wrote in a now-preserved riverside cabin. Paul Newman and Robert Redford leapt off the Hellgate Canyon bluffs in the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Old gold-mine adits dot the banks.
Since 1968, an 84-mile stretch — from Grants Pass to the Pacific Ocean — has been protected from dams and development by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Rich salmon and steelhead runs were boosted in 2010 with the removal of two upriver dams, letting much of the Rogue flow freely for the first time in a century.
The protected area near Grants Pass is raw, beautiful and lean on luxury. Cellphones often don’t work. There is a single supermarket, in Merlin, and few cafes.
We headquartered at Indian Mary campground, a riverside county park that functions as a paddlers’ hub, and headed to the town of Merlin, where several outfitters offer day trips and rent rafts and inflatable kayaks to do-it-yourselfers.
Guides such as Ferron Mayfield, owner of Ferron’s Fun Trips, suggest everyone except experienced whitewater paddlers stick to the recreational sections that bracket, upstream and downstream, the 34-mile Wild section and its churning Class 5 rapids. The Bureau of Land Management limits access to the Wild section to 120 people a day, May 15 to Oct. 15, based on a winter lottery and a few first-come, first-served passes.
“It’s more than a Disneyland ride. It’s real-life Western adventure,” said Mayfield. Two people drowned at Blossom Bar, a challenging piece of the Wild section, within five days last September; another man drowned at Rainie Falls in May.
For those not inclined to raft it, a riverside-hiking path traverses the entire Wild section. We took a scenic 4-mile hike to Rainie Falls, a Class V rapid with a 14-foot drop.
Hot days and jet boats
The recreational section can be tackled in one long day, especially with the river running fast. We split it in two, mindful of the kids’ attention span and hot days.
The first day, in two-person inflatable kayaks, took us through the spectacular Hellgate Canyon and a clutch of Class II rapids. Jet boats occasionally zipped by, leaving rolling wakes.
Along the way we stopped for lunch and a dip in the 65-degree water. Steelhead darted just past our reach, and osprey nests clung to snags along the canyon walls. We ended the day at the Galice Resort with beer for the dads and root beer for the boys.
“It’s just a blast,” said Jim Whittington, a BLM spokesman in Medford. “You’re on the river seeing ospreys and bald eagles and all sorts of wildlife.”
The next day, warned that the Class II Argo rapid was flipping kayaks, we rented a lemon-yellow 12-foot raft from Rogue Wilderness Adventures, an outfitter in Merlin. “Paddle faster … I hear a banjo!” reads the joke on the side of their shuttle van.
We shared the river with college students holding beers and families slathered in sunscreen.
Getting dumped at the Argo rapid proved to be no more than a brief adrenaline rush before we landed beneath the towering bridge at Grave Creek, gateway to the Wild section. We dried off in the 95-degree heat and watched rafts launch for the four-day run, envious but content with our tamer but thrilling adventure.
The review came from Noah: “Best. Trip. Ever.”
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.