Rafting the Rogue River

River-running trips come in all styles, streamlined to Sybaritic. Here’s a paddle-raft excursion on southern Oregon’s Rogue River that provides a little Mozart and Bach played by a chamber music trio, wine tastings in the evenings, and memorable dining. Plus a good amount of bird-watching, historic sites, exhilarating rapids, and side-stream swimming.

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A sandy beach in a wilderness canyon is an unusual venue for a concert of baroque chamber music, but then several things about this river trip are not usual. And they’ve all come with us on the paddle rafts, rocking in the riffles, ricocheting down the angry rapids—the cello, violas, violins, and music stands; a famed wine maker with several cases of his best vintages; and a round, ebullient chef.

In this particular campsite beside the Rogue, these are the genial sounds of late afternoon: a violin tracing a Mozart theme, the gently splashing river, the ping of crystal wine glasses, the snap of the cookfire.

The Rogue, in southern Oregon, is a lovely setting for appreciating all this. Its clear waters—which rise on the western slope of Crater Lake—drive through mountains cloaked in dark, ferny forests. Along its 215-mile journey are stretches of musical riffles, heart-stopping falls, and reaches that are positively Japanese in aesthetics and tranquility. Ospreys fish along the canyon, wild azaleas perfume the cold air hanging over the river bends.

During our 40-mile run from Alameda Bar to Foster Bar, daytime presents the standard river-trip fun—lazing around the rafts in quiet stretches, paddling like crazy in the whitewater, swimming, picnicking.

It’s the evening campsite scene that distinguishes this production of James Henry River Journeys out of Bolinas, California. While the passengers are doing combat with their tent poles, the chamber trio is playing some concerto by Vivaldi or Bach. Joel Peterson, wine maker for Ravenswood, is uncorking a case of bottles for the sunset talks and tastings—one night it’s chardonnays, the next merlots and zinfandels. Afterward, beneath the Oregon stars, Chef Bob Miller serves a fine dinner by the campfire.

A lot of river traffic plies the Rogue—oar rafts, paddle rafts like ours, hard-shell kayaks, and, on the "non-wild" stretches of river, the famed and noisy jet boats bearing rows of day-trippers. Grants Pass, on I-5, is the big gateway town, with strips of motels, cafés, jet boat docks. Most of the passengers in our party spend the night before the run downriver at comfortable Galice Resort or Indian Mary campground.

At Alameda Bar, a few miles down-stream from Galice, we put our paddle rafts and inflatable kayaks into the river, run a few miles, and enter the wilderness at Grave Creek Bridge.

For those whose river-running has been limited to California’s dry Sierra foothills and southwestern canyons, the Rogue seems impossibly lush. Long grasses wave on the river terraces. Above are the dark fairy-tale forests of fir and spruce, dripping mosses, ferns. Creeks pour down through banks festooned with wild roses and honeysuckle.

It’s near to summer solstice and the days are long and bright. It can rain in June—Lord, can it rain—but we get lucky with empty blue skies and hot sun.

Sometimes we stop at a side stream for a swim—in the icy swirls of Big Windy Creek, at the steep water slide and plunge pool up Tate Creek canyon. And once, wearing our life preservers, we jump off the rafts and bob like apples down a quiet piece of river.

Along the way, we camp out three nights, pitching our tents on the sandy beaches or up in the woods. Vintner Peterson talks to us about the making of wine, and evokes soils rocky or rich, breezes laden with eucalyptus or the sea, berries coming to sugar. We turn the glasses and gaze through the wine at the sky’s last light. And there is no sound like that of a solo cello, creeping into the woods in the deep of night—a heavy liquid sound that seems to crawl over fallen leaves and wrap around the tree trunks. Early in the sunny mornings, a violinist named Shira sits alone on the tethered rafts, smiling to herself, fiddling Irish jigs.

For the most part, the river is friendly, with a spicy dose of rocks, holes, hydraulics, and back eddies to challenge the boatmen and thrill the paddling passengers. ("Get in touch with your inner geek!" yells one passenger.) And there are a few thunderous waterworks, like Rainie Falls and Blossom Bar, which must be scouted on foot and occasionally walked around.

Several of us take turns paddling the inflatable kayaks, which for the novice is something like trying to steer a balloon. But it’s a nice way to experience the river in semi-solitude, appreciating such things as that mother merganser sliding in the current with her string of fuzzy ducklings, or the rare sight of a pair of river otters playing on a distant beach. But once, I stupidly miss an approach and get sucked sideways down the tongue of a rapid and tossed into a hole.

Even though I’m wearing a life preserver, the river holds me under for a worrisome long time, churning me around like nasty laundry, then spitting me out into a roller coaster of haystacks. Sputtering and scared, I’m hauled by a boatman onto his raft and don’t stop trembling for two hours.

All along the river are reminders of the Rogue’s human history—Indians, gold miners, rappers, settlers. Across the river from our camp at Battle Bar is the site of an 1855 engagement during the sad Rogue River Indian Wars. We spend half a morning poking through the buildings at Rogue River Ranch, a historic site and museum of early pioneer lifestyles on the river.

Birders can find plenty to keep them happy along the Rogue—gaggles of Canada geese waddling along the banks, great blue herons flapping down the gorge, kingfishers, an occasional bald eagle, several species of swallows, woodpeckers, ducks, warblers, and more.

On our last night we set up camp at Solitude Bar while the musicians play Handel’s Water Music. Vintner Peterson hauls out the Ravenswood merlots and cabernets for tasting. Chef Miller serves leg of lamb marinated for three days in soy sauce, ginger, and orange juice, with a demiglaze of zinfandel, mint, and mushrooms. The stars are intense. I lie in my sleeping bag, listening to the sound of water rushing toward the coast. And then, just before I fall asleep: the guttural tones of the cello.

Western Rivers

By Lynn Ferrin

Oregon’s Rogue River
rises near Crater Lake and flows some 215 miles to meet the coast at Gold Beach. It passes through the busy town of Grants Pass, on Interstate 5, where visitors can find motels, res-taurants, and other services. One-day jet-boat and one-day float trips operate along the 34-mile "recrea-tional" section of the river from below Grants Pass to Grave Creek Bridge. The roadless section from Grave Creek Bridge to Foster Bar is the "wild" section of the National Wild and Scenic River; no motors allowed. Jet boats also go upstream from Gold Beach as far as Blossom Bar.

Action on the River
Chamber music is the late-afternoon entertainment on this Rogue River trip operated by James Henry River Journeys of Bolinas, California. Some outfitters camp out, others stay overnight at comfortable wilderness lodges along the river. Experienced paddlers run the rapids in hard-shell kayaks—usually with a private permit.
For a list of outfitters and other information, write Rogue River Program, BLM, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504.

Walking the Rogue
If you’d rather explore the Rogue River canyon on foot, there’s a fine backpacking trail along the north bank of the river, climbing through the forests, dipping down to river’s edge, with established campsites along the way. It passes near the natural waterslide at Tate Creek (shown below). The trail runs 44 miles through the roadless wilderness from the Grave Creek Bridge to Foster Bar; it usually takes four or five days to hike. No pack animals, horses, or vehicles allowed. You can arrange locally for a shuttle pickup at Foster Bar. Best seasons for hiking are spring and fall; it can be uncomfortably hot in mid-summer. A nice short hike is the four-mile round trip from Grave Creek Bridge to Rainie Falls.

Rogue Rests

Visitors to the Rogue River area can find historic hideaways and first-class lodges peppering the banks of the Rogue, and others just a short distance away in the surrounding forest. Each of these places has something unique to offer the discerning traveler:

Wolf Creek Inn, Wolf Creek (541) 866-2474; www.rogueweb.com.

The inn was built in 1883 and was a stop on the 16-day stagecoach ride from San Francisco to Portland. Jack London completed his novel “Valley of the Moon” here. Off I-5 about 20 miles north of Grants Pass and 13 miles east of the river, $45–$75.

Galice Resort, Merlin (541) 476-3818; www.galice.com.

Built in 1945, the Galice, popular with locals and former president Jimmy Carter, has eight rooms, hot tub, and kitchen. There are also rustic cabins and a cottage. 20 miles northwest of Grants Pass, 15 miles off I-5, $50–$80.

Morrison’s Rogue River Lodge, Merlin (800) 826-1963; morrisonslodge.com.

Built in 1946 as a fisherman’s lodge, Morrison’s is now a rafting and fishing resort with tennis courts and a pool. In summer, guests dine outdoors. Sixteen miles west of Grants Pass, $85–$150.

Weasku Inn, Grants Pass (800) 493-2758; www.weasku.com.

Opened in 1923, this resort has hosted famous guests such as Clark Gable and Herbert Hoover. Summer barbecues allow guests to grill their own fresh fish. Located in the town of Grants Pass, $125–$295.

Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge, Gold Beach (800) 854-6357; www.tututun.com.

Taking its name from the Tutuni people or “people close to the river,” this AAA four-diamond facility boasts a long wine list and has 16 guest rooms and two suites, a separate house and cottage. Along the river 7 miles from the coast, $85–$325.

This article was first published in March 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

This June run of the Rogue featuring chamber music, wine-tasting, and memorable cuisine is operated by James Henry River Journeys, Box 807, Bolinas, CA 94924; phone (800) 786-1830 or (415) 868-1836. Boats used are paddle rafts (the passengers paddle, following the commands of the boatman/pilot). Inflatable kayaks also available for the intrepid. Also in June, the same outfitter offers a natural history-oriented trip on the Rogue.

Many other outfitters run the Rogue. You can get a list of commercial guides, as well as other information, from Rogue River Program, Bureau of Land Management, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504; phone (541) 770-2273. During river-running season, May 5-October 15, you can stop for information at the Rand Visitor Center a couple of miles downstream from Galice. It’s open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Address is 14335 Galice Road, Merlin, OR 97532; phone (541) 479-3735.

Grants Pass: For lodging and attractions in Grants Pass, see the AAA Oregon/Washington TourBook. For tourist information contact Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 970, Grants Pass, OR 97526; phone (800) 547-5927. For Galice Resort, phone (541) 476-3818.

Maps: The AAA map of Oregon shows access highways and nearby towns. A good companion on the river is the Rogue River Guide, by Vladimir Kovalik, about $7 in local stores. It’s a waterproof strip map of the river, with a detailed text on natural and human history.

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