Tour d’Oregon and Exploring Rivers in Idaho

By Jan Dooley

My family had a wedding to attend in Idaho, so we decided to paddle our whitewater canoes on the way there and back again. We started our tour on Saturday,July 7, 2012 by paddling the Rogue. The AWA river flow site rated the Rogue as barely run-able due to a high flow of 3000 cfs. We put on at Casey and paddled to Shady Grove, a Class I+ run just below the Lost Lake dam. When my son Jake was 6 (8 years ago!), I used this run to give him his first chance to actually paddle a boat, albeit in a tandem IK. I remembered only one slightly tough spot on the run. This year, Ruth at age 11 was finally tall and brave enough to paddle a solo canoe. We thought it would be a great place to start her adventure. The rental inflatable kayak companies supply a steady flow of customers on this section. Shuttle was easy to arrange. The high flow created lots of moderate waves. Ruth got more challenge than expected, but she handled it calmly and well. The rest of us kept stopping to play instead of guiding her through the rapids. We just couldn’t resist the fun.

That night our friends Kit Hewitt, Charlie Wright, plus Dan Hocoy, Martha Johnson and their dog Cuda joined us. We have paddled together for years. Martha was also a beginning paddler, but her partner Dan could get a tandem canoe down anything. We paddled the Class II+ section from Ennis Riffle to Graves Creek on the Rogue, taking out just above the famous wilderness run. The flow was double what we usually see in mid-July. The rapids weren’t much different, except for Almeda. The photographers were there and caught us gamely punching through the waves and holes at the bottom and then bailing in the eddies.  Cuda did not like it when his canoe took on water in Galice rapid. He jumped out mid-rapid, and swam to shore. No one could find him until we finally spotted a familiar looking dog running down the shore through bushes. It turned out to be a different dog. Cuda finally came out of hiding. It took a while to convince him that returning to the boat was his best option.  He spent the rest of the paddle trips whining every time we came to noisy water.

Oregon in July

We left the take-out for the drive to Roseburg, where we planned an overnight layover before the long haul to Eugene where we wanted to paddle the middle fork of the Willamette below Dexter Dam the next day. The engine check light came on in our 12 year old, 200,000 mile van. This was not good. We set up camp at Whistler’s Bend on the Umpqua and debated our options. We got up at 6AM the next day to get to a dealer in Roseburg as they opened. After begging and being very nice to the clerks, we finally got a serviceman to find out what the light meant. Unfortunately, it meant we were buying a new car- the transmission (the second one of this van) had died. The rest of the group met us at the dealer. They responded to adversity by asking what good runs were nearby and how did they get there. Fortunately, the Umpqua was a river we knew well. We directed them to the Winchester to River Forks Class II(III) run. Kit and Charlie and Dan and Martha paddled the day away while we negotiated with the dealer for hours, agreed on a car, price, towing package and adequate roof racks. The dealer loaned us a car and even allowed Yukon, our dog, in it. I think they were sick of us camping in their show room.

We met the paddlers at the put-in at Winchester as they finished their shuttle and we all agreed to camp at Whistler’s Bend for the next 2 nights while our car arrived. The county park was surprisingly delightful. Kit could have stayed there the whole trip.

Whistler’s Bend – hot showers, river, grass, what more could you ask for?

It sat on a shelf above the Umpqua and had a new bathroom complex with free unlimited hot showers. It was in the shade in the hottest part of the day and had quiet campers, green grass and big shade trees. It proved serendipitous.

The next day, Kit and Charlie, Dan and Martha followed Jake down the Umpqua from below Colliding Rivers to Whistler’s Bend, Class II(III). Every run on the Umpqua has a Class III. Fortunately, the flow of 1400 cfs supplied an alternate channel around the hardest rapid just above Whistler’s Bend. The river is full of lots of small islands and rocks barely submerged under the surface and  with tall plants that made visibility difficult. Jake played scout by easily standing up in his boat at any obstacles. The rest of us were way too old to be that nimble.

Finally, all the automotive issues were settled (the manufacturers name for the color for the van was “Mocha” but none of us would ever drink a Mocha that particular shade of brown so we decided it was mushroom colored which was fine, since when we are not boating in the Fall we are mushrooming).

Mushroomy

We continued on to the Class II Dexter Dam run after the two day delay. This was a beautiful rural 8 mile run with swift clear water, open valley, big trees, and colorful wildflowers. The majority of the run passed through sections protected in parks. A few areas had fancy riverside houses intruding on the rural feeling. I picked out one next to a good play spot to buy some day. Log jams and shifting channels change the river every year and required caution around corners. Our flow of 1900 cfs provided surf waves, clear channels and seemed similar to what we have paddled at this time of year before.

Ruth scouting a rapid

We spent the night in Paradise campground on the Mackenzie. We spent a lot of time looking at the river scaring ourselves with stories about past trips down the 8 miles of continuous rapids of the Upper Mack.

the Mac

Tall tales about the Mackenzie 8 miles continuous rapid

The next day, the party split up with Dan and Martha headed off to Bend and Kit and Charlie off to visit Alice in Portland where she was staying with a friend. My family paddled the 7 mile North Santiam from Fisherman’s Bend to Mehama. This was another beautiful run with moderate Class II drops. It’s fun for intermediate paddlers because the rapids provide just enough challenge to get the adrenaline going, but rarely cause flips. The water again was crystal clear with lots of fish, birds, greenery and a mostly rural feeling. The water flowed fast enough that the flat sections passed quickly. Our flow was 1800 cfs.

After boating we passed a few days with family and friends at the wedding in Idaho.

Our next plan was to explore the rivers of the Selway, Lochsa, Clearwater and Payette rivers in Idaho. Dan Hocoy, Martha Johnson and Cuda met up with us in Moscow Idaho. Having beginning canoeists in the group, we looked for Class I to II+ runs. I found few information sources for this level of paddling. The best books included Kath and Ron’s Guide to Idaho Paddling, Paddling Washington and Western Whitewater. Web sites tended to quote one of these sources. Kath and Ron seemed great for most of Idaho. Unfortunately, they skipped the Clearwater area, but do a good job on the Payette. Paddling Washington included one run on the Selway in their whitewater section. That information proved very useful. Western Whitewater at least mentioned the lower Lochsa as Class II+ below Knife Edge access.

We paddled 3 sequential runs on the Selway and Clearwater. The second half of July provided low and relatively warm water. The Selway from mile 114, SOB Creek, to Slide campground provided a surfing safari at 2700 cfs. I paddled tandem with Ruth and Yukon in the Esquif Canyon. My daughter limited me to only 5 small surf waves. I managed to stretch that to 13 by saying that if they were in the same rapid, they all counted as one. There was a challenging Class II+ rapid at Rock Island. We choose the channel left of the island and ended up doing some fast maneuvering. Ruth saved us with a quick, strong cross-draw. The rest of the river was Class I+. We put in from a turnout downstream from the Class III rapids below Selway Falls. The canyon was fairly narrow, steep sided, beautifully forested and had little traffic. The water ran quite clear.

The river ranger pointed us to Slide campground, a free, walk-in camp site on the river with a big sandy beach. Dan went swimming several times a day. The site was well located for a take-out/put-in at mile 108. Boyd Creek, a mile upriver, would also be a good choice. There were lots of small campgrounds to choose from. O’Hara at mile 105 took reservations. We drove upriver to look at Selway Falls. It was fun to fantasize about running sections of it. In one channel, we saw a permanent whirlpool.

The 6 mile run on the lower Selway from Slide Creek to Johnson’s Bar allowed Ruth to solo on its Class I+ rapids. We found even more small surf waves on this section. The river kept flowing so that even the flat sections went quickly. The more advanced paddlers stayed entertained catching multiple small waves. The canyon and river remained lovely, but somewhat more open.

We thoroughly scouted the lower Lochsa flowing at 1800 cfs from Apgar campground to Lowell.  The information about the Lochsa proved contradictory. We had sources rating the rapids Class II to IV. I suspected that at different flows the rapids changed their nature. A river ranger at the Kooksia station answered our questions about the river, but provided still different information from the above sources. After scouting, we still felt uncertain about its level of difficulty, II+ or III-? I would love information from anyone who has canoed these sections. We decided not to run it with our beginners.

We woke up to muddy waters. Heavy rain from a thunderstorm the previous afternoon must have caused a blowout upstream. We put on at Lowell after asking permission from the Three Rivers hotel. If you made a point of it, you could paddle the three rivers by detouring through the Selway-Lochsa confluence for a very short distance before entering the Clearwater. The run provided mostly Class I water, with a couple of Class II rapids. The flow was calculated at 4000 cfs, obtained by combining the flows near Lowell for the Lochsa and Selway. Ruth continued to improve her solo skills. The take-put was under the bridge in Syringa. We were warned that parking was difficult because the turnouts were considered private property and generate tickets. We went upstream about ¼ mile to a side road with a turnout between it and the highway. The sky was clearing up as we took out, but too late for our enjoyment.

We moved on to the Payette River. We started on the Horseshoe Bend to Montour run. This was rated as a Class II-. But it was boring, even for Ruth and Martha, at 4000 cfs. A canal takes 2/3 of the water in the first half of the run. The water was very slow through this section, but it felt intimate and private. When the canal rejoined the river, things sped up. For camping, we found a great riverfront, walk-in campsite at Big Eddy campground on the North Payette. The swimming was great. We watched the rapid, plus the otters, bald eagles, ospreys and Cedar Waxwings. Jake, Ruth and Dan feed their fire-starved souls with campfires. Have you ever grilled tortillas to make corn chips over an open fire?

Swirly Canyon, a Class II+ run on the South Payette, provided the exciting conclusion. I paddled it with 6RPC 13 years previously. It was great fun for a new solo paddler. I told my story about how thrilling it was to cross wave trains and catch eddies. Dan and Martha decided it was more than they wanted, but offered to drive shuttle for us. It looked so pretty during the drive that they decided to paddle it anyway. Their only condition was that they get to use our tandem playboat.

The run at 840 cfs consisted mostly of a narrow canyon with vertical walls filled wall to wall with clear water. Hot springs created small cascades of steaming water on the cliffs. You lowered the canoes into the canyon via a wooden slide. There was a mile warm up, then the corners and wave trains started. Martha started to catch eddies well and even Cuda seemed calm. We turned a corner and found a long stretch of continuous Class II+. I was sure we would have boats over. The tandems plowed down the middle through fortunately forgiving waves. We didn’t take any water on in the barge-like tandem canoe. Even Cuda stayed calm and never whined. The solos created a lovely ballet as they pirouetted crossing the wave trains to catch eddies numerous times.

The canyon continued to wind on. We found another long straight away with waves that ended with a point making a big wave. Ruth and I went sideways into the wave and flipped. As the boat and I sped down the river, I didn’t see Ruth or the dog. I finally saw this little tanned hand waving at me from under the canoe. Ruth ended up under the canoe, with her head in an air space. I pulled her out from underneath, and the river promptly tried to pull her back under. I hauled her over to the slow end of the canoe, which I then realized was in an eddy. I yelled at Ruth to take a couple of strokes and get us to safety. Yukon came dog paddling down the current a bit further back than I expected. I wish I could hear her story. She limped for a few days. Ruth was quite shaken, but recovered well.

Later, Dan and Martha stopped to scout a big S turn with a scary, splashy, diagonal wave on the outside at the bottom. There was an eddy on the far side. Jake caught the eddy. Ruth and I made a great run on the inside of the curve. Ruth kept our bow exactly where it needed to be. Chuck couldn’t decide whether to go into the small, crowded eddy, or to punch the wave. He dithered too long and the wave decided to push him over. He took a long swim through several Class II drops. At a shallow spot, Chuck tried to jump back into his boat, but it accelerated away just before he made it in. Jake pursued him and got Chuck holding onto his boat with a rope. The empty boat pulled them down the next drop. Chuck finally found a relatively easy place to get to shore and let go of his boat. Jake went after the boat. Ruth and I caught up and went through several more drops before we got the boat corralled into an eddy. I was very worried when I didn’t see Chuck. Jake finally remembered to mention that Chuck was safe on shore. Of course, by that time, we were a long ways downstream.

Jake climbed the shore upstream as far as he could to find Chuck. Vertical walls and no beaches made for hard going. Chuck decided that he had better climb up out of the canyon and started walking downstream. Just then, Dan and Martha came downstream unaware of all the drama that had proceeded them. They nicely waved to Chuck as they passed him without recognizing that he was stranded. Chuck managed to communicate that he needed help. Cuda graciously shared the cargo space and they brought Chuck downstream. They spotted Jake onshore and he directed them to the boat. Jake jumped in the river and swam down after them since it was easier than hiking. I’m glad Dan and Martha aren’t cursing us for getting them into more than they thought they could paddle. When we turned that early corner and saw the long wave train, I prayed that they would forgive us.

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