With its walls of busted scree, ridges crooked and gnarly as old spines, and banks lined with twisted oaks draped with more moss than abandoned mansions have cobwebs, Southern Oregon’s Lower Rogue might be the ideal river to run on Halloween weekend. One of the first rivers designated Wild and Scenic under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Rogue is an unpredictable, rich, and knobby stretch of whitewater. The flatwater sections catch rafters gawking at the lush, Jurassic Park-esque scenery before whipping them into slot canyons tighter than a wetsuit and roiling with more holes than a boiling caldron.
This river might be nature’s veritable haunted house, and who better equipped to navigate such tricks and serene treats than a mess of haughty, bawdy rafters with a sweet tooth for northwest rivers?
The first night, we camp at the Almeda put-in, and despite a bright and clear dawn, I wake to thin film of frozen dew across my rain fly. The forecast calls for a high between 60 and 70. If the days are holding on to summer, the nights are definitely ceding to late fall. The Rogue is already keeping us on our toes. I slip into a drysuit, stuff shorts and a gaggle of layers in my Bill’s Bag and hop in a raft.
In its spooky fashion, the Wild and Scenic section begins below Hellgate Canyon at the confluence of Grave Creek (I’m not making this stuff up), named for Martha Leland Crowley, a 16-year old woman who died of typhus while her family traveled the Oregon Trail back in 1846. We pass under a bridge with high arches like a gothic cathedral. A faded sign mounted to its piers states we need our permits to go any farther.
After a series of riffles and floating a mile or two, the Rogue welcomes us with the biggest rapid of this section. Rainie Falls is a Class IV+, where the channel splits between three runs. Behind door number 1, a man-blasted fish ladder descends in gradual but rocky steps; behind door number 2, a narrow chute rushes down several narrow tiers; behind door number 3, most water cascades over the 12-foot falls. We opt for door number 2.
The approach to the chute is narrow and easily missed, with rocks on river right and the falls on river left. Just before entering, some water veers sideways over the falls. This is when we discover how low and bony the Rogue really is. We’re hauling the kitchen (with food), several packs and miscellaneous supplies for our crew, so we sit pretty heavy. As we approach, we bump some prankster rock just beneath the surface and a short distance from the shoot. Our precarious butt swings parallel to the channel and the sideways flow tugs us to the precipice of Rainie—where we stop, hung up on more rocks.
So there we are, Amanda, her brother Cheese, and I, in limbo on our first trip down the Rogue. On the one hand, we must sit and contemplate the total carnage of running a Class V sideways. On the other, we have one of the most unique views in whitewater, sitting safe(ish) on the rim of a waterfall like three ospreys on a snag. Luckily, we travel with a group of nimble kayakers—Ashley, Adam, and Clint. Adam already ran the falls, so he jogs back upriver. Ashley and Clint paddle wide, eddying out just above the fish ladder. They toss us a rope. With some group tugs, using a boulder for leverage, we pop backwards off the rocks and drift toward the shoot, throw the oars, and down we go.
After an eventful first day, and only six or seven miles behind us, we take an early evening at Tyee. While Aaron and Laura bake a thick Dutch Oven lasagna and some peanut butter brownies, we inflate the sofa. (You know, the usual.)
The evening is clear and crisp. Fireside, we laugh about our Rainie hang-up and the fact that we slackers have a 20-mile day of paddling tomorrow to make up for our short day today. In the meantime, Laura somehow manages to wear more Parmesan cheese than the lasagna. At dusk, a great blue heron loops over camp, ending Halloween with an eerie cackle from his gaunt, snaky neck. Clint looks on, clad in his practical costume: a Captain America extra-extra-large children’s sleeping bag.
The next day, we move through the first few river miles with ease, catching on a couple of sneaker rocks after whipping around the tight hairpin at Horseshoe Bend. This stretch from Horseshoe to Winkle Bar has a personal significance to me. These are my old haunts: I lived around here with my partner, Belinda, for 14 months back in 2016-17. We were caretakers and writers-in-residence on a homestead that was grandfathered into the Wild and Scenic corridor. We wintered over then, during a heavy snow and flood year. As I drift by, I have flashes of us catching steelhead, eating our lunch or walking with our dogs Pete and Frankenstein as we leaped from rock to rock.
The Rogue lulls us into awe through another stretch of Class II-III riffles. We gaze at bigleaf maples, their foliage big as dinner plates and turning gold. Patches of colt’s paw blaze orange and yellow like a cold fire smoldering down the bedrock. While white and black oak flare, canyon live oak remains evergreen, winding between stately pillars of Douglas fir, sugar pine, and an occasional cedar. We also keep seeing these tiny idiosyncratic pumpkins placed on random islands and craggy outcrops, an apparent tradition here this time of year. Before we know it, the light gets low. A little moonfaced, a little dazed and bewildered, we find ourselves drifting upriver from Mule Creek Canyon, where the walls close in and the river dumps into a narrow slot.
Mule Creek is straightforward, but the move from Mule Creek to the Coffee Pot is weird. Bedrock collapses in on you. For claustrophobic folks, imagine taller walls, a bottomless channel that keeps going, and a bluish-purple hall of funhouse mirrors. The Pot gets its name from the way the river percolates, despite its frigidness. The mass burbles, swirls, and distends in strange patterns as it piles up on itself with no room left to flow. Those unlucky enough to swim here can get sucked 20 or 30 feet down, even in their PFDs.
Somehow, despite our wide raft and the dodgy currents, Amanda keeps our nose straight. The tight walls frustrate her oars, but she manages a skilled and intuitive technique. She throws them back, dipping the left or right tip just enough to course correct when the hydrology gets super wonky and upwellings or backflows threaten to wedge us broadside.
There’s little time to celebrate, though, before Blossom Bar. We could eddy out and scout it, but light and visibility wane. We decide to forge ahead rather than risk running it at dusk. Plus, Paradise Lodge waits for us on the other side, along with a hot meal and our reserved cottage.
Laura runs Blossom Bar first. Like the odd rapids that come before it, she can’t bomb straight down the channel. Blossom requires a technical move at the very beginning. Nearly all the water bottlenecks to river left, where she drifts in slowly and patiently. She angles her back to river center, letting the current ferry her around a guard rock, then, and only then, when the coast is clear, she pulls hard right with the current and around the rock, dropping into the rapid from the side.
This move is crucial, and the stakes for missing it are high. Dropping in too early means hitting the guard rock and bumping out around the drop. Waiting too long means missing the drop entirely. In either case, the Rogue will thrust you down on the Picket Fence, a row of ominous boulders rafters wrap, get pinned, and sometimes perish. If there’s a move to hit, this is the one.
Amanda follows Laura’s line, sneaking by the guard rock. With a couple of well-timed and strong strokes, she drops in perfectly. The force pirouettes us into the rapid like ballet mixed with demolition derby. Then we enter Blossom’s blossoming boulder garden, a sort of “choose your own adventure” run where the river plays Plinko with our raft. In a genuine Rogue moment, I wheel around and make eye contact with Clint on his blue kayak. He flashes a big smile and raises his eyebrows as if to say, “Fancy seeing you here?” Then we whirl our separate ways again.
There’s nothing like eddying out at Paradise Lodge and peeling off my drysuit after a 20-mile day. A unique feature, lodges like Paradise dot the Rogue often enough that a boater could float from lodge to lodge if they sought to sleep luxuriously. We put the rest of our gear on a lift (yep—a lift), and get some understandable guff from staff while loading our blow-up sofa. Paradise sits 75–100 feet above the river on a flat bench with no motorized access apart from jet boats, which come upriver as far as Blossom Bar to supply it. Plaques along the stairway and catwalk document high water marks, including one in the 1960s when the river rose to the lodge’s main deck.
After a hot shower, we stroll to dinner. A fire roars in the fireplace and another rowdy group plays a guitar, harmonica, and a washboard. They cover some Beatles and Paul Simon tunes, calling themselves “Wave Train.” After a little conversation, we discover they have a tradition of floating the Rogue at the end of guide season each year. Some of them are active guides. Some are retired freestyle kayakers. Others haven’t guided since the 70s. Turns out, the lodge would have closed a week ago if they hadn’t asked staff to keep it open. After a chicken and rib dinner, wine and scotch, and spending a ridiculous amount of hive-mind power recalling who sang, “I Believe in Miracles” (hint: it’s not Prince), parties stumble to our respective cottages, parting ways.
Our group decides to relax for our final night. We float 5 miles down to Tate Creek and make camp early. Amanda shoots down a natural rockslide. I hike two miles with Cheese. We revel more in the canyon’s rich scenery. I revel in my company: some of us have known each other for a lifetime, growing up together in Illinois, while others have met for the first time on this trip. Such windy paths we took to get here, eating bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed bell peppers, and cobbler together on a Rogue beach. Before bed, we play a trippy round of glow-in-the-dark bocce ball on a rocky slope, which ends predictably: waving goodbye to a red orb as it plops into the river.
If our trip ended there, though, it wouldn’t be Rogue. Continuing the eerie motif into our final day, we wake to low fog lifting off these balmy Pacific woods. But we’ve gotten the hang of this off-the-wall life: Our last few miles, Laura tows the sofa while Adam and Aaron drink beer and fish from it; A bald eagle soars overhead, oblivious to a family of otters scarfing a salmon carcass on the bank; an unlikely and picturesque oak grows from the top of a mossy monolith.
Just before our take out at Foster Bar, Clint and Ashley veer off. It isn’t until Ashley brandishes something from an eddy that we know why: she retrieved the red bocce ball we lost in the river the night before, along with a size nine shoe and koozie commemorating the marriage of “Allie and Josh, Lake Tahoe, September 23, 2016.” And this seems like a great place to end the trip—an eddy of Rogue booty and our new friends, Allie and Josh. May they be happy and healthy. I hope they celebrated their third anniversary this fall, and I hope, like us, they are surrounded by friends on some weird, wild, and beautiful northwest river.
Also, Allie and Josh, if you’re reading this, we found your Koozie. And perhaps your shoe.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor, Eric Greenwell is a conservationist, writer, and writing teacher. He currently lives in Enterprise, Oregon with his partner, Belinda, and two pups, Peter Beans and Frankenstein.