B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
LEARN TO PICK your fights, the saying goes. Since the Arizona summer has decided to get surly by producing 21 days of 100 degrees or more and a record low of .04 inches of rain in July, fleeing the state is the only rational thing to do.
With giant trees and roaring rivers, Oregon seems a logical destination. As the principal point is to escape the heat, what better thing to do in the Beaver State than float down a river?
Along the southwestern corner of Oregon lies the Rogue River, and this mighty drainage is where the Franklin Clan decides to rendezvous for four days of running the rapids.
The Rogue was one of the first eight rivers protected under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. As such, the number of rafters is restricted to 120 a day, 60 for commercial trips and 60 for private boaters, says guide Chris Kohler. He works for Rogue Wilderness Adventures, the rafting company we sign on with. He and fellow river guide Scott Calvert will pilot the two inflatable oar boats on our 40-mile trip.
This four-day adventure encompasses almost all of the river designated "wild and scenic" and cuts through some of the most beautiful land in the country. However, this forest Mecca nearly ended up as so much particle board. The area protected under the 1968 law extended only a quarter-mile off the river's banks. In 1978, writes Vladimir Kovalik in his remarkably thorough Rogue River Guide, several logging companies were poised to clear-cut the mountains right up to that quarter-mile boundary. The removal of forest habitat and the ensuing erosion would have severely damaged the river. The increase in silt and loss of the forest's ability to slow runoff (thus allowing the slow release of water over the entire year) would have put the legendary migrations of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon in jeopardy.
The Rogue Wilderness Act of 1978 added 38,000 acres as protected National Forest in the area and prevented the wholesale stripping of a national treasure. Just leave it to those pesky federal bureaucrats to put a clamp on honest businessmen. It's a damn good thing the Republicans are putting a stop to that sort of mentality.
But all these political ruminations seem very far away as we put in the boats at Graves Creek and begin floating down the Rogue. The addition of four inflatable kayaks to our flotilla makes the trip even more pleasant. Most commercial outfitters won't allow you to take a kayak on your own, especially down Class III and Class IV rapids (out of a six-class system, six being highly dangerous and generally considered impossible to navigate, and five the exclusive realm of seasoned river runners). However, if you can find one that will, do it--if you like adventure. Riding in a large raft commanded by a professional, while pleasant, can become somewhat dull. Paddling your own tiny craft into a torrid onslaught of pounding waves and swirling eddies is adventure Nirvana.
A wild ride through Blossom Bar Rapids approaches this type of Nirvana. Kohler preps us immediately before our descent into the narrow canyon: Hang on the inside curve of this rapid or bear left of these rocks and so on. But once in the thick of the whitewater, the once-clear visual map of how to run the river becomes muddied. Only two of the four kayaks make it through the rapids without capsizing. At one point my kayak is sucked backward into a recirculating wave and nearly swallowed by a deep pit of raging water. A sudden burst of adrenaline, and more than a little luck, gets me spit out (rightside up) like a human watermelon seed. Fortunately all hands make it through the rapids safely, though my younger sister, who is dumped in the water, clings to the back of another kayak through half the run.
Shortly after Blossom Bar, another set of rapids, called The Maze, stand ready to challenge skill and courage. We idle in an eddy above this monster while waiting for another raft to break free from some rocks it has lodged against.
At this point the river brushes up against a cliff maybe 50 feet high. As our band of rafts mills around in the eddy, a breeze kicks up and a bowling ball-sized rock takes a plunge off the cliff. We see it just moments before it hits the river, sending a depth-charge cascade of water over us. The rock narrowly misses Calvert; several kayaks, including mine, had been in the bullseye just a few moments before.
With no small amount of motivation to move on, we successfully run The Maze. Our trip continues for another wonderful two days. But all along, the memory of that falling rock keeps dropping into my thoughts. It occurs to me that you never know when you might start pushing up daisies. Everything from lightning bolts to city buses to cancer cells lie in wait to smash life unexpectedly. But how very fortunate to have those things! What great motivators they are, propelling us to accomplish our goals today, rather than a day too late. With the simple act of living already inherently dangerous, undertaking unbridled adventures becomes that much more reasonable.
To reach Rogue Wilderness Adventures to set up a trip, call (800) 336-1647 or write Rogue Wilderness Inc., P.O. Box 1110 Merlin, OR 97532. Camping trips or lodge trips are available from two to four days and the accompanying prices vary widely. Call the Oregon Tourist Information line (800) 547-7842 for more generic Oregon information. Mapage: The Rogue River Guide, by Vladimir Kovalik, is available by calling (503) 474-2677 or writing 12035 Galice Road, Merlin, OR 97532. The guide contains a map of the river's rapids and a list of lodges.
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