August/September 2009
The Wild Bunch
Imagine 166 national parks you've never heard of. The Wild and Scenic River system protects our most spectacular waterways—and makes for some ripping raft trips. The king of them all? Oregon's Rogue River.
Text by Kevin Fedarko

“So, this next rapid is obviously one of our bigger ones,” said Kate Wollney as she scanned the angry section of whitewater a hundred feet downriver.

Wollney, slim and dark haired with 16 years of guiding experience on Oregon’s Rogue River, is a master of understatement. Blossom Bar is not “one of” the Rogue’s largest commercially run rapids. It’s the largest, a Class IV meat grinder that injects doubt into the mind and wobbliness into the knees. And we were about to paddle right into it. My fellow rafters and I had assembled on a rock as Wollney sussed out a safe line. Ahead I could see a jumble of grayish-black boulders whose dimensions ranged from Sub-Zero refrigerator to Home Depot storage shed. Even at a safe distance, Blossom’s roar was consuming.

To tackle the rapid, Wollney said, we would start river left at Purgatory Eddy, then make a sharp cut right to avoid a line of nasty stone teeth known as the Picket Fence. Next we’d thread between the evil-looking pinnacles of Horn Rock and Goalpost before straightening out for a bumpy ride down Beaver Slide, a stretch of submerged ledges that, assuming all went well, would usher us into calm water.

“If you do happen to get thrown into the river, I don’t think it’ll be dangerous,” Wollney said. Before any of us had time to fully digest this comment, we were back in our boats and accelerating toward Blossom’s snarl of whitewater. I hadn’t come on what I’d always considered a “nice little river trip” expecting to find my heart in my throat. But as its name implies, the Rogue doesn’t take to being pigeonholed.

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.

“No other country in the world has anything like it,” Moryc said. “Yet few Americans even know the system exists.”

FROM THE PUT-IN at Grave Creek, our fleet stretched out like beads on a string. Paddlers were two to three in a raft, with the dory full of supplies bobbing between the boats. This first 34- mile section was the Rogue’s most pristine, the reason it was declared a National Wild and Scenic River in the first place.

A green slick of water wound through a tight canyon. Rocks toupeed with thick moss crowded the banks, and wildflowers—lupines and irises and mariposa lilies—snugged up to the shore. The entire scene was hemmed by old-growth forest, a staggering blend of broad-leaved hardwoods and needled conifers that, other than a few pockets in the southern Appalachians, constitute one of the most diverse ecosystems in all of North America.

Just as in the forest above, the river below teemed with life. In addition to receiving two separate runs of steelhead (the saltwater version of a rainbow trout that can grow up to 12 pounds), the Rogue is tied with the Columbia as the richest salmon river in Oregon, hosting more than 100,000 chinook that weigh as much as 50 pounds each. Back in the early 1900s, the Rogue was a favorite fly-fishing haunt of A-list celebrities, including Babe Ruth, Jack London, Zane Grey, Winston Churchill, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, and Herbert Hoover. Those clients helped broadcast the Rogue’s reputation to the outside world, but the river was really opened up—literally—by a local guide named Glen Wooldridge, who blasted passages through a handful of unrunnable rapids by blowing obstacles apart with bundles of dynamite.

Today, thanks to Wooldridge’s fondness for munitions, the river is studded with more than 40 Class II and Class III rapids, along with two Class IVs, including Blossom Bar. And we merrily splashed through them as we progressed from the first day to the second.

The weather was hot, the sky cloudless—the Rogue certainly had its “scenic” bases covered. It didn’t disappoint on the “wild” designation either: In a single afternoon at Tacoma Camp, we watched a pair of ospreys strafing the river in search of fish; on the opposite shore a mother deer with a fawn that couldn’t have been more than a few days old wandered by; and minutes later a black bear showed up, busily grazing berries. It felt as if the river was ours and ours alone.

IF WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS are generally overlooked, sadly, so are the threats posed to them.

This point was driven home to me one afternoon. We’d spent the morning tearing over Rainie Falls (where the river rips through a jagged ridge of bedrock to create a 12-foot drop), and then bobbing through an easy rapid called China Gulch, followed by a stopover on a grassy bench for lunch. While the guides laid out our afternoon meal, I found David Moryc standing on a footbridge, staring glumly into the pools below. When I asked what was bothering him, he explained that this very spot was at the center of a dispute his organization, American Rivers, had recently plunged into.

Most of the Rogue’s Wild and Scenic section is administered by the U.S. Forest Service which, Moryc explained, has strived to manage the area responsibly. Thanks to a quirk of legislation, however, a 19.5-mile stretch of the protected corridor is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and is not so strictly controlled. Thousands of acres of that land are still open to logging and mining; last year 313 acres of old growth were nearly sold off for clear-cutting, though that plan is now defunct.

“During the summer, the main stem of the Rogue gets quite warm, so the salmon and the steelhead tend to congregate in the cooler water at the mouths of tributaries like this one here,” Moryc explained. “The logging and accompanying roadbuilding will send eroded soil into surrounding creeks, degrading the spawning habitat and compromising the health of the ecosystem.”

American Rivers is hoping to add Wild and Scenic protection to the threatened lands with a congressional bill this summer. A separate organization, Rogue Riverkeeper, had two lawsuits pending at press time that would limit resource extraction near the river.

“There’s a handful of pristine, primitive rivers in the country that we should not mess with, simply on principle,” he says. “The Colorado through the Grand Canyon certainly makes that list, as do the Rio Grande and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Well, it turns out that the Rogue is one of those too. If this river isn’t worth leaving alone, what else is?”

OVER THE YEARS, I’ve run rivers all over the globe, from the Arctic to the Amazon to the Himalaya. I’ve noticed that every perfect river trip is marked by something guides call the “sweet spot.” It’s a point of harmonic balance that makes you want to freeze everything—the moving water, the drifting boats, the passage of time itself—thereby enabling you to hang suspended in that instant forever. It is the absolute heart of the experience, the moment you’ll flash back to for years.

As I sat in the grass next to the river finishing lunch and preparing to float down to the takeout ramp that would mark the end of the trip, I realized, with a sense of puzzlement, that there had been no such moment on the Rogue. Scrolling back through the past three days—the berry-eating bear, the gilded light, the glistening magic of the river itself—there didn’t seem to have been a single, shining experience that stood out as superior to the others.

Then it occurred to me: Perhaps this trip had no sweet spot because the river itself was the sweet spot. The realization seemed to defy one of the central tenets of a successful raft trip. I smiled. Could I expect anything less from the Rogue?