The Coast Range in Northern Oregon doesn’t look impressive. The mountains are below 4,000 feet, and from a distance they look like a featureless green wall. As storms blow in from the Pacific, however, that wall is the first landmark they hit. So it’s the biggest thing those storms have seen for thousands of miles, and the result is rain, lots of rain. Some years, the Coast Range receives up to 15 feet, and most of it falls during the winter.
When the storms begin in October, the Coast Range transforms. Heavy waves begin pounding on Tillamook Bay and the salmon swim for the mountains. A fog creeps up the valleys and mingles among giant trees, and the rain falls hard on the cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir. It drips to the sword ferns below, and flows down well-worn tributaries. Waterfalls appear. Soon the rushing sound of water is the soundtrack of the forest, and down in the valley, the Wilson River begins to swell. All summer it languished beneath the sun, but now it expands across the riverbed and pushes against its banks. Waves form over the top of mid-stream boulders, and all of a sudden, it’s time to go rafting.
For the past three years I have haphazardly tried to raft the Wilson River, but it’s tricky. It’s not the access nor the rapids that are too difficult, it’s the flow that’s temperamental. It only runs after a few days of heavy rain. Too much and it turns into continuous Class III-IV—beyond my league. Too little rain, and you’re scraping over rocks. The sweet spot is when the river is running between five and six feet, but you have to watch the online gauge, and for the past three years I did, but was met with a trial of mishaps whenever I hauled my boat out there.
The first time I tried the Wilson I had only owned a boat for a few months. I bought a 30-year old Campways off Craigslist for 500 bucks. It included the frame, the oars, and a cooler stained with fish blood. The bottom of the boat was a quilt of patches and the valves constantly hissed giving it its name, Old Leaky Butt, but it was my first raft, and I loved it. After floating some smaller rivers near town, I set out for the Wilson in March with two friends. The put-in for the seven-mile stretch was supposed to be at mile marker 15, but that mile marker was missing, and there were tons of pullouts. We checked each one numerous times but we couldn’t find it. So we canceled the trip and went for a hike instead.
The next time I tried the Wilson I was with my brother, Wylie. This time we put in at the established Jones Creek Campground. After we hit the current, I asked Wylie to top off the leaking chamber. He gave two hard thrusts before the valve collapsed and the entire left side of the boat deflated. We were mid-river and about a quarter mile into the trip. I rowed us over to the bank, and we spent the rest of the day hauling Old Leaky Butt upriver to my truck. It took four hours and a lot of effort. Two years passed before Wylie rafted with me again.
Rafting has a tough barrier to entry. Learning to row and read whitewater is one thing, but learning the logistics of a river trip is no small task. Unlike a ski resort, you can’t just show up and go. You need to do your homework—how long will the float last, how dangerous are the rapids, what’s the current condition. Then there’s the gear. Buying a boat is an investment, and you might browse options for years before you commit. Then you start rafting in winter and you find yourself shopping dry suits on your phone while standing in a lunch line. If you’re anything like me, it becomes obsessive. I can’t honestly tell you how many times I have checked the USGS hydrograph for the Wilson in the past month, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve browsed NRS for upgrades. It would sound crazy, but that’s what the Wilson, and trying to become a better boater has done—consumed me.
I was starting to think I might never raft the Wilson. Then my friends Tom, Seth, and I bought another $500 Craigslist boat this past August. I retired Old Leaky Butt, but this new one failed to impress at first sight. The original owner left the boat partially inflated on an astroturf trailer outside for months. The sun had faded the tubes to the point that yellow paint delaminated when you touched it. There’s black mold on the tubes, and then there’s the bulge in the floor.
I’m not positive what created this, but when we inflate the floor this enormous bulge overtakes the stern. As much as the bulge sticks up, it also goes down. We call this Blunt Rudder technology, and it definitely impacts performance. If we inflate the floor tight, the Blunt Rudder takes over. So we like to keep the floor pretty soft and this, along with the mold, is why we named the raft Soggy Dopolis, a rare species indeed. Soggy’s one redeeming quality: it holds air like a champ.
The Wilson had been raftable ever since a typhoon hit Oregon in mid-October. So the question turned from would the river go, to would our boat float, to who the heck wants to raft in November? It takes a certain breed for winter rafting. It’s not necessarily toughness you need, but a positive attitude toward discomfort. The saving grace on the Wilson is that it’s a rain-fed river, and not nearly as cold as glacial melt coming off the Cascades, but you still don’t want to go for a swim. A normal November day out there is 45 degrees and raining, while 45 degrees might not sound cold, it’s 45 in your bones, and as you may guess, we’re not the type of rafters who own dry suits, at least not yet.
Surprisingly, five friends were down to raft the Wilson that early November day. It was overcast with a drizzle, and a few straggler leaves still clung to the trees. That typhoon had the Wilson charging at 2,300 cfs and I had a lump in my throat when we pushed off. We were running Soggy D as a paddle raft with five people. I had rarely guided with a paddle, and steering all six of us felt very heavy, especially with the Blunt Rudder technology.
Within the first 30 seconds we hit a small wave, and Tom, sitting on the front left tube, was ejected. He floated on his back in the 50-degree water wearing his rain gear. I grabbed him by the shoulder straps of his PFD and hauled him back into the boat. We all laughed. That was the quickest swim any of us had ever seen, but it made me wonder, if it was this hard to get on the Wilson, how hard is the float?
Two main rapids pose a threat on the Wilson. The first is where the river slices through a gorge—The Narrows— it’s like the river flips onto its side. The current flows deep and tight as it squeezes between 15-foot cliffs. Strange boils rise to the surface and swirl in white foam. The river twists through the canyon and then the cliffs crowd in and they get closer and closer until the keyhole. Here the river is only six feet wide. The goal is to run it straight, avoiding your broadside.
We passed through The Narrows with little trouble. It felt less like a rapid and more like a geologic marvel.
The Wilson is one of the best rivers for Fall Chinook, and as we floated on, we saw many fishermen along the banks. The fishermen plunked bright red salmon eggs into deep pools. We spotted a few salmon swimming in the shallows. Their dorsal fins sticking out of the water. It was amazing to see 20-pound fish swimming in the rain forest. I couldn’t help but imagine the aerial view:
A yellow raft floating down a jade green river. Beneath the surface are groupings of red Chinook. Foaming white rapids are scattered among the river, and as you pan out, you see the mossy forest, the sharp ridgelines, and then a patchwork of clearcuts in the surrounding mountains as the Wilson enters the Pacific just 15 miles farther West.
Oregon has some of the worst logging practices along rivers, and here it was evident. The Coast Range is the epicenter of Oregon logging, and we could see those barren, clearcut slopes above. The clearcuts came within a 100 feet of the river in places, and they exposed incredibly steep hillsides—a recipe for landslides and massive erosion during winter rains. All that silt and sediment make life difficult for the salmon. In one swift section, Seth caught a glimpse of something and turned our attention to the bank. We turned just in time to see a river otter splash into the current. Then, the otter swam beside us through the rapid, his sleek body just beneath the surface. It made me think that despite the logging, the Wilson is still a relatively healthy and wild place.
Once we floated out of the gorge, The Narrows behind us, it wasn’t long before I saw Falls Creek entering the river, and I knew we’re approaching the other main rapid, Ledges.
We scouted it from the road. It made my palms sweat.
Here the river makes a broad, sweeping turn, Falls Creek enters in a wide, terraced cascade, and then the river bolts straightaway for 100 yards. Crossing its entire width are two major ledges. The first one is a warm up with a stout recirculating wave at the base. It looks easy enough, from afar, to square up and smash through. The second ledge is more intimidating cutting across the river in a diagonal from left to right, and plunging over a four-foot ledge to form a four-foot wall of whitewater. If you hit this wave at an angle, it would throw you into the water before you knew you flipped, but that’s not the end. To finish, Ledges hooks a turn into a shallow rock garden and drops through a foaming, boulder-studded chute.
There’s this idle moment when I commit to a large, unknown rapid, but have yet to hit the action, when my heart becomes a heavy knot and slides into my stomach. It’s not a bad feeling, and maybe it’s even a little bit like love, where I am excited, vulnerable, and hopeful all at once.
We slid into the entry wave and passed Falls Creek. We were drifting toward meaty holes on the left, so I pulled a hard draw stroke in the stern. The boat kicked around and we lined up the first ledge.
I yelled “Paddle forward!” and we punched through the standing wave. A chaotic mix of whitewater ensued as we race toward the second ledge. Again we drifted left and I pulled a hard draw stroke. The boat spun and we were staring down the barrel of the second—much bigger than anticipated—wave. We lined it up, dug a few strokes into the smooth drop, then I yelled, “Duck!” right before we hit the four-foot wall. Everyone leaned in. The bow rode up the wave, and paused, teetering on the crest. I wondered if we were going to flip. I tried a stroke and swiped nothing but air. Then the stern eased over the crest of the wave. We’d made it.
The guys picked themselves off the floor, and resumed their positions. Chaotic waves came from every direction as we bounced through the rock garden. I was trying to line up for the sweeping turn into the boulder-studded chute. I’d aimed for a mid-right line to avoid a rock standing dead center and a nasty pour-over on the far right. The current swept us around the turn and I waited for one breath, then two, before yelling, “Paddle forward!” We dug in and dropped the chute.
When we hit the recovery pool, we looked at each other, and over our shoulders at what we just ran. I don’t believe you can conquer a river, but when you run one that was recently above your skill set, and you do it safely, you advance as a boatman, and that feels like a win. Damn it felt good to be on the Wilson.