Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Expedition

Originally, our two-week vacation that year was to be a scuba diving trip to California. Jackie, who worked at a Portland TV station, got free media passes to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so we added a stop at Ashland and scheduled our vacation around that date. In the meantime, I made a thorough study of the newspaper article about the Rogue River. With careful and selective interpretation of the information, I determined that we could actually add a Rogue trip to our vacation.

The trick to it was that we couldn’t carry camping gear—our raft was too small, and we didn’t have river bags. Furthermore, all the rest of our gear was made for car camping, not rafting. For instance, our cotton-filled sleeping bags were huge and heavy. And if they had ever gotten wet, they’d have never gotten dry. So I had to interpret the float log from the newspaper in such a way that we could do the run in two days, with an overnight stop at Marial, halfway through the run. It was the one place in the canyon with road access, and I figured we could drive in and drop off our camping gear.

We’d launch at Almeda Bar, float to Marial in a day, and spend the night there. Then we’d float out to Foster Bar and drive back to Marial to retrieve our gear. It seemed like a practicable plan—at least by my creative interpretation of the newspaper article.

After a couple of days in Ashland, we intended to drive straight to Marial, set up camp, and then drive to Grave Creek to launch our raft. But it rained hard the night before, and it was cool and cloudy in the morning. The local weather forecast was frustratingly vague, so we decided to hold off a day and see what happened. With time on our hands, we went to Grave Creek and hiked down to see Rainie Falls. In the course of our hike, we got to take a look at Grave Creek Rapid, Grave Creek Falls and Sanderson’s Riffle. Those were collectively referred to in our newspaper article as “busy water.” We watched a raft just like ours get flipped easily by Grave Creek Falls. With that, as well as our Santiam misadventure, fresh in mind, we decided that we couldn’t trust the Sunday paper, and would need to scout rapids. I knew we couldn’t do that on our 2-day schedule. The 2-day plan was a stretch to begin with.

Well, I wasn’t about to simply scrap our rafting plans, so we drove back into Grants Pass and found the library, where we studied Consumer Reports articles on sleeping bags—we had to know what we were looking for. Then we went and bought the bags that we used for all of our subsequent rafting, camping and backpacking adventures for the next 20 years. We went to a surplus store and got a white canvas zipper bag, which would protect the heavy duty plastic bags we put our new sleeping bags in. Real river bags hadn’t been invented yet. We also got a couple of “jungle bags” that we used in conjunction with more large plastic bags to hold a few clothes and some food, mostly in cans. We didn’t carry a stove—our old 3-burner Coleman was far too big to carry on the little raft. We would just cook on a fire, as I had learned to do in Boy Scouts. We took a minimal amount of cookware, and a little foam cooler that I strapped beneath the seat board.

We camped at Almeda Bar. It was dry but cloudy in the morning as I set up the raft, struggling to figure out where and how to tie everything down. The raft had no D-rings, so that was a challenge. It was almost noon before we got underway. We were wearing our wetsuits, but the weather was improving. By the time we got to Rainie Falls, we had stripped off our wetsuit jackets, and the pants were about to go. But I was glad I still had mine on for padding when I slipped and fell on my butt while lining the raft down the side chute. Despite the resulting bruise, we were having a great time. It was late in the afternoon when we scouted Wildcat Rapid. That was a long, tough scout, fighting our way through dense brush, scrambling over boulders and wading through mud bogs.

By the time we got through Wildcat Rapid, it was dinner time and I was starved. I found a little campsite at Russian Creek, on the right just above Russian Rapid. We got a good early start for our second day, and needed it. I scouted every rapid: Russian, Upper and Lower Montgomery, Howard Creek Chute, Slim Pickens, Plowshare, Big Windy, Black Bar and Black Bar Falls. We had a late lunch in the shade under the big rocks on the left side at Horseshoe Bend. Looking at the map, I knew that we were in trouble. We were going to run out of food before we ran out of river. So when a group of Whitewater Voyages rafts with real river guides came by, we quickly packed up and dropped in behind them.

I carefully watched every move the guides made and made the same moves myself. In that way, they guided me through the rapids of Kelsey Canyon—with great time savings—all the way to Winkle Bar. The guided group stopped for the night at Hewitt Creek. After visiting Zane Grey’s cabin, on the opposite side of the river, we went on ahead to Long Gulch and set up our camp there. I had no idea how we were going to get all the way from Long Gulch to Foster Bar in one day. We hadn’t even reached the halfway point on our trip after two full days.

The next morning, we stopped at Marial Lodge to try to buy some film. I was up in the lodge looking at the selection of film on the shelf, wondering if anybody was there. I hollered, but nobody answered, and I couldn’t see any film that would fit our Instamatic. Looking back at the river, I saw our old friends, the Whitewater Voyages group, coming past Mule Creek. I rushed back down to the raft to let them lead me through Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar. They were good-humored about it, and even invited us to climb up Stair Creek Falls with their group. At Blossom Bar, they took the time to explain to me how to do it and even put a raft in a rescue position in case I had any trouble. I didn’t. Actually, I never had any control problem on the trip. The nearest we came to dumping was at the bottom of Wildcat, where I caught a side-breaking wave over the left side of the raft.

The guides stopped for the day below Devil’s Staircase, and we kept going. What we had to eat at that point was just nibbling snacks—granola bars and the like. We ate every crumb, and I pushed hard downstream. By the time we got through Clay Hill Flats, the sun was low and reflecting into our faces as I pushed against the upriver wind. We got to Foster Bar at about 7:30. From there, we drove out to the Coast and found a drive-in restaurant in Gold Beach. We ate everything they had. Hamburgers never tasted so good! If it seems sometimes that I tend to take too much along on my raft trips, now you know why!

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