Rafting along one of the Rogue Valley's many rivers offers a unique perspective of Oregon's breath-taking scenery. But like any water sport, safety is also an important part of rafting. "The key phrase," says Bart Baldwin, owner of Noah's River Adventures in Ashland, "is 'Know before you go.' Be as educated as you can about the trip you are planning to take."
1 Know the river.
Because it is important to know what's ahead when rafting a river, a scale has been developed as a guideline of what to expect in various water conditions. While these may change during seasonal weather and varying water levels, the classes serve as a guideline for rafters and kayakers.
Class I - Moving water with a few riffles and few or no obstructions in the water.
Class II - Easy rapids with small waves and clear channels for passage.
Class III - Rapids with high or irregular waves and channels that require precise maneuvering.
Class IV - Long or difficult rapids that require complex maneuvering in turbulent water. Scouting may be necessary.
Class V - Extremely difficult and very violent rapids with congested routes, which should be scouted from shore. In the event of a mishap, rescue conditions are difficult. Considered hazardous to life, these are the upper limit of commercial rafts.
Class VI - For experts only, these rapids involve risk to life. Class VI rapids are not commercially raftable.
Of course, safety is important on all water. As Bart Baldwin, owner of Noah's River Adventures in Ashland points out, "More people get hurt on small class rivers in part because that's where more people are." So plan ahead and stay safe.
Part of the thrill of rafting is the rapids and these are often classed by the skill necessary to navigate them. "The section that we float on is non-classed," says Carolee Enriquez, co-owner of Rapid Pleasure (formerly Rogue Rafting) in Shady Cove, but points out that things change under the right conditions. What looks like smooth water may become something quite different around the next bend, so ask about the route that you will be taking. And once on the water, pay attention. "It's like driving," says Enriquez. "You need to watch out ahead."
Of course, not all surprises on the river will be bad ones. Along the Upper Rogue, there is a park to stop at for a picnic lunch, and several restaurants also cater to rafters with pullouts and barbecues.
2 Know the weather.
On a sweltering summer day, it's easy to forget how cold the water can still be. Baldwin goes by a 100-degree rule of thumb: "If air temperature plus water temperature don't equal 100 degrees, you are at risk of hypothermia if you end up in the water," he cautions. For longer excursions, it is best to plan for all possibilities. "That's the IF," Baldwin says. IF you end up in the water, you need to be prepared. IF the river is shaded, a fleece might be a good idea. When in doubt, Baldwin jokes, you're not backpacking so go ahead and bring it. And don't forget that the combination of sun, wind and water can mean severe sunburn, so take along some waterproof sunscreen.
3 Know your equipment.
The number one piece of equipment is a properly fitting life jacket, say both Baldwin and Enriquez. If you end up in the water, points out Baldwin, you will be much less susceptible to currents that may carry you into difficulties and you will also be more prepared if someone else is in trouble.
Most companies will provide the gear you need for a day or more on the water, from self-bailing rafts or kayaks and paddles right down to waterproof cameras.
Enriquez also points out, "We put ropes around all of our rafts. It gives you something to hang on to." If you have your own raft, Baldwin recommends checking that it will be adequate for the river course you've chosen. And for some classes of rapids, a helmet is an important safety item.
4 Know your limitations.
Enriquez says that while rafting is "good for young and old and everyone in between," she also advises some precautions. Seating younger passengers in the bottom of the boat, for example, rather than the edge makes good safety sense. And check with the rafting company before booking your outing. "We have restrictions for different trips," confirms Baldwin.
And if you're new to rafting or wanting to improve your raft-handling skills, consider taking a class to prepare for your water adventure. Rescue schools for beginners and experts are also a good idea. While popular areas like the Upper Rogue have rescue boats available, the more you know, the more quickly you can respond if someone ends up overboard.
5. Know your options.
If you want to experience the challenge of white water rafting, but are unsure of tackling it alone, try a guided river raft excursion that teams your participation with a knowledgeable guide. Or plan a team paddling, rafting outing before kayaking. And ask around for the river that best suits your skills.
Whether as an individual adventure or a group outing, with a little planning your rafting adventures on the rivers of Southern Oregon will be a fun and safe experience for all. Baldwin sums up, "It's one of the big perks of living in the area and a little knowledge will go a long way."