As I arrived at the put-in, the sun streamed down into the valley. I stepped out of the car and the gravel crunched beneath my feet. A slight breeze carried the scent of the river by my nose. Everything was perfect. It was… unexpected.
This river trip was a bit of a new experience for me. I’ve done a handful of rafting trips, but only in the summer. It wasn’t that I was against shoulder season boating, I just never had the right opportunity. A lot of aspects of shoulder season really appealed to me: Fewer crowds, no rush to nab campsites, just open water. It seemed more adventurous. So, when I had the opportunity to join some friends on a pre-permit season float down the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River, I jumped at the opportunity.
My excitement grew as our planning ensued. I poured over beta online looking for the best campsites and side attractions. But, one thing kept causing some apprehension as the trip grew closer: the forecast. It was supposed to be wet and cold. Precipitation was expected every day. With temperatures dropping into the low 30s some of it could be snow.
That was a distant memory as I found myself peeling off layers at the put-in. By the time we’d sorted gear, rigged boats, un-rigged, and re-rigged, I was down to just a sun hoodie and pants wishing I had brought shorts.
My excitement was riding high as we pushed off the bank. The oars swirled through the water as osprey circled overhead. My shoulders warmed in the afternoon sun. The first couple of miles offered a nice reintroduction to the river. Read and run drops passed quickly and wave trains sent water splashing playfully up into the air.
The sound of rushing water grew in the distance as we approached our first obstacle of the trip, Rainie Falls. Rainie Falls presents boaters with three options. The main falls (V), the middle chute (IV), or the fish ladder (III). We pulled off the river to assess our options.
We had four people with two rafts and an IK that was packed away for easier water. As a photographer, I offered to sit this one out as there were great picture-taking opportunities from shore. Doug, an avid R2er with a penchant for strapping on a row frame for the right trip, elected to take his raft down the middle chute.
This left Ben Capelin and Emily Thimesch in the remaining raft. Emily turned over captain duties to Ben. Though an avid paddle guide, Emily was on this trip to get a taste for rowing. Rainie Falls wasn’t the right introduction. Ben, who’d grown up running the Big Ditch with his family’s outfitting business, found himself deciding between the main and middle chutes. Ultimately, unfamiliar with the river and not wanting to start the trip with a flipped raft, he elected to follow Doug down the middle chute.
I watched as Doug approached the rapid. He found the elusive entrance and appeared to be lining up perfectly. All set for a smooth run, a move for a last-second adjustment caught his oar and ripped it out of his hands. There wasn’t much that needed to be done as the boat sailed smoothly through and Doug was rowing away from the bottom seconds later.
Ben followed. Though he found the right entrance, the momentum of the raft carried the nose of the boat just past the rapid. The current turned the back of the boat into the chute. Almost in slow motion, Emily could be seen yelling “Here we go!” before grabbing hold of the boat as they were committed to running it backward. They popped out of the bottom unscathed.
I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead. Going into the trip I was concerned about the weather. Maybe I had overlooked the river?
After the falls, the river quieted down. As a pool-drop river, many of the Rogue’s pools are known for more closely resembling lakes. We were on one of the “lakey” portions. We let the river carry us and stared up at the madrone trees reaching up for the late afternoon light.
One of the nice benefits of boating in the early season is that all of the campsites were open. Instead of arriving late in the afternoon and having to settle for whatever spot was available, we had our choice of campsite. We found a big open shore and made camp.
Perched from a rock overlooking the river, we watched the sunset. I couldn’t help but reflect on the day. Everything had gone well. The weather was perfect and we had an amazing camp. It seemed like shoulder season boating was the way to go. I found my sleeping bag and fell asleep content from a great day on the water.
I awoke to the staccato sound of raindrops on my tent at 4 AM. It wasn’t what I expected. The skies were clear when I went to bed. I tried to roll over and push off my fears of discomfort for a couple more hours, but the rain didn’t stop. The hours passed as I tossed and turned. I was waiting for a break in the rain to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. It never appeared.
The chill air rushed into my sleeping bag as I unzipped it. I scrambled to find some warm layers. After zipping my rain jacket all the way up and cinching my hood tight, I unzipped my tent and stepped into the day.
It was better than I’d expected. The rain sounded stronger in the tent and there were breaks visible in the clouds. We weren’t destined to be in the rain all day. By the time we were hopping in our boats, we’d seen a few glimpses of the sun.
The chill wore away as I began paddling. I’d elected to spend the day in the IK and a number of fun rapids lay ahead. We passed our lakey section and the pace of the river picked up. We quickly paddled through Russian Rapids, Slim Pickings, and Plowshare. I found myself acclimating to the river. Learning its rhythm. Finding excitement paddling through rapids, anticipation beforehand and relaxation in between.
Our river flow was only interrupted by a quick scout on Upper Black Bar Falls, the largest rapid of the day. As the river bends right, a counterintuitive entrance on the inside edge requires some hard pull strokes in order to avoid a rock wall at the bottom. We all found clean lines.
Clouds passed. We alternated between sun and rain. Warmth and shade. But we didn’t care. We were playing in the river. We hit the center of Telephone Hole and found new paths through boulders; slaloming left then right. Letting the sun dry us in the calm moments.
When people talk about the Rogue River, conversations often drift to Rainey Falls, Coffee Pot, or Blossom bar. The bigger rapids garner most of the attention. But the stretch we covered on our second day was one of my favorites. Fun wave trains and inconsequential mistakes kept the mood light and airy.
The hills narrowed and banks steepened as we entered Kelsey Canyon. The river carved its way through ten-to-twenty-foot rock walls, boulders littering its path. Drop after drop. Splash after splash. We wore smiles as we pulled into camp.
Warm dinner, barley water, and a few games of cards ensued as the last of the sun’s rays washed over the canyon. Night fell as the clouds started to roll in.
The clouds blanketed the top of the canyon as we started our third day on the water. Gone were the inconsequential rapids. Some of our biggest challenges lay ahead. As we pulled onto the river, ospreys fought overhead. Screaming and falling through the air. It echoed through the canyon.
Rain had fallen all night and the temperatures fell with it. It didn’t look like there would be any respite. It was the first time I’d needed my dry suit, but even inside, I was chilled. A slight shiver ran up my body anytime I stopped paddling. My clothes were dry, but everything daring to show itself to the weather was coated with a frigid layer of moisture.
The valley narrowed as we approached Mule Canyon. It felt like we were entering a tunnel. The walls steepened and the canyon seemed to swallow us. Sound reverberated off the canyon walls echoing louder and louder.
The pace quickened as whitewater became visible. The river was now just over a boat length wide. I felt so small. We hit a slight drop and entered the swirling waters of Coffee Pot. Boils popped up all around us. The current tried to spin us toward the walls. A quick pull on the right side and we were through the rapids.
We were granted a moment of tranquility as we floated through the rest of the canyon. Flatwater was all that could be seen ahead. The walls started to part as the river meandered. Turning right then left. The sound of rapids was just audible in the distance. Blossom Bar lay ahead.
We pulled over to scout. Blossom Bar is the most notorious rapid on the Wild and Scenic section of the river. Its technical boulder garden requires special attention. After passing some initial boulders, boaters need to catch a right eddy in order to avoid the Picket Fence, a row of boulders acting as a sieve on anything that tries to enter. Once into the eddy, the main dangers are clear though plenty of rocks capable of flipping a raft remain.
My anxiety soared. Everything had been building up to this moment. It’d been in the back of my mind throughout the trip. Now, it was here. The rain poured.
My heart pounded as we pulled out into the river. We moved to river left and lined up our move. Time slowed. We made little adjustments. The current pulled and we entered the rapid. Boulders passed. We pulled right. We were in the eddy. A couple more turns and we were through the rapid. Smooth sailing!
A single drop at Devils Stair Rapid, brought us to easier water. We were soaked but smiling—high on adrenaline.
The clouds continued to spit rain as we pulled into camp. Red jasper, quartz, and agates dotted the gravel bar. Dampened by the rain, their colors shone brightly.
But the temperature was falling. We shoveled down a quick dinner and hopped into a tent for a game of cards. Our energy was depleted. After one game, we retired to our individual tents.
On our last morning, the weather deteriorated further. Slight gaps in the clouds passing by revealed glimpses of snow on the hills above. Wind rolled through the valley. My hands stung from the cold as I loaded the boat. I questioned what I was doing. Why was I there?
Pushing off onto the water, the clouds unleashed. Rain poured from the sky and thunder roared above. I started counting the miles until takeout. We passed Fall Creek Falls. Three miles to go. Payton Riffle. Two miles. Rain turned to sleet turned to hail. Rowing was the only thing keeping me warm. We passed Burnt Rock and the hills flattened out. We were close. The hail let up as we covered our final mile.
We pulled into the takeout and a giant hole opened up in the sky. The sun was welcoming us home. Warmth streamed down. Steam filled the air. All the highs and lows from the trip came together. A wave of emotions washed over me. Relief. Joy. Serenity. At that moment, I knew I’d be expanding my boating season. It just added to the adventure.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Ben Kitching is an adventure photographer, climber, skier, and outdoor athlete. Adventures and expeditions evoke feelings of resilience, joy, heartbreak, and freedom. He captures those authentic moments and crafts stories that inspire people to get outside and strive for the best of their own capabilities.