IN THE REALM of American whitewater, Oregon’s Rogue River stands alone. It’s often lumped into the same epic category as the Middle Fork of the Salmon or the Colorado. But it shouldn’t be.
The Rogue is sort of “epic lite.” Think three days, not six or seven. You can rough it in riverside camps the whole way, or you can lay over in cushy paddle-up lodges each night. Yet no matter how you go about it—and this is one of the many contradictions of the Rogue—it still comes off like a full-blown expedition.
Ten of us had signed on for a three-day trip down the river’s wildest 36 miles. We first gathered in crisp morning light at a bridge about 30 miles downstream from the town of Grants Pass in southwest Oregon. Wollney chirped orders, and soon our flotilla of four rafts and an aluminum dory was in the water, noses pointed toward the Pacific.
This act of putting-in was simple but symbolic. The Rogue has played a crucial role in the history of American rivers, one that has shaped U.S. conservation in ways largely overlooked. That story began during the Great Depression, when the federal government embarked on a 50-year crusade to harness virtually every drop of free-flowing water in the country by building thousands of dams on most every river outside of Alaska. It was one of the largest civil engineering projects in human history. And it might well have continued unchecked had it not been for one pioneering piece of legislation.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law in October 1968. Its mandate was to identify a network of streams and rivers that were still wild and free-flowing, and keep them pristine by prohibiting new dams and other forms of development. The Rogue was one of the eight rivers originally declared Wild and Scenic. It was both an exemplar and a benchmark, and since that time, the system has grown to 166 waterways.
“It’s basically a national park system for our rivers,” explained one of my fellow passengers, David Moryc, a senior director with American Rivers, a watchdog group that looks after the network. Imagine a park in which the scenery scrolls past hour by hour. Imagine no RVs and no crowded campgrounds—just oxbows and big frothy drops, easy jokes and river-cooled beer around a campfire.