Norm Jackson dragged his canoe across the railroad tracks Monday evening and slipped it into the still waters upstream of Gold Ray Dam for one last visit to a piece of the Rogue River that's about to become history.
With his wife, Linda, in front, Jackson paddled across the upstream face of the 106-year-old dam and up Kelly Slough for what became the final trek through a canoe trail Jackson has traversed for five decades.
"Over the years, I've seen a lot of wildlife and hunted back there," says Jackson, 54, of Medford. "I even have a shotgun at the bottom of the slough from a duck-hunting accident there.
"It's a beautiful place with a lot of memories," he says.
Like that old shotgun, Jackson's canoe access is gone forever.
The traditional access to Kelly Slough has disappeared now that work has begun this week to remove the aged dam and return the Rogue to 157 miles of free-flowing river for the first time since the Ray brothers dammed the river here in 1904.
State marine officials closed boating access to within 1,000 feet upstream of the dam beginning Tuesday morning, just hours before construction crews began building the first temporary coffer dam needed to dismantle the last of three Rogue dams to disappear in the past three years.
That new boating closure includes the historic canoe access just upstream of the dam's southern end off Gold Ray Road near Gold Hill.
So, when Jackson dragged his fiberglass canoe back across the railroad tracks at dusk — as two others carried their inflatable kayaks — he became the last canoeist to follow that paddle trail that dates back well before World War II.
"The access to paddle across the river and go up there, I'm assuming, will be gone forever," Jackson says. "So, if (Monday) night really was the last night, then we were it."
Next to be gone will be most of Kelly Slough, which largely will drain when the dam disappears under a $5.6 million project to remove the decommissioned hydropower dam and adjacent powerhouse owned by Jackson County since 1972.
The National Marine Fisheries Service signed off on the project Monday, saying removal of the 30-foot-tall structure will cause no significant negative impact to the Rogue and its habitat.
That opened the door for this week's preparation for eventual restoration of the Rogue to its original channel, which is scheduled for later this summer.
With the dam gone, most of the slough will either dry up or fill with moving water during most of the year.
For decades, boaters like Jackson drove to the dam's south edge, launched their canoes near the railroad tracks and paddled across the impoundment to work their way upstream through the slough.
Since he was first introduced to the slough by his uncle in the late 1970s, Jackson says he's been drawn in by the blue herons, the occasional bobcat and muskrat, as well as the seasonal blackberries and mass robin roosting sites.
"There's a ton of wildlife that live around here that you don't see anywhere else," Jackson says. "It reminds me of what I think the Florida Everglades are — without the alligators."
But unknown to most visitors, Kelly Slough was a slowly dying backwater.
For years, overgrowth of nonnative Himalayan blackberries have choked off much of the slough's banks and the bed has largely silted in, says Scott Wright, from Corvallis-based River Design Group, which conducted the environmental assessments that led to Monday's NMFS decision.
A Grants Pass native who grew up frog-gigging in Kelly Slough, Wright says the backwaters are running their course and eventually will fill in with silt and encroaching vegetation.
"People think that leaving this dam in will keep Kelly Slough here forever, but that's just not the case," Wright says.
After dam-removal, Wright says, canoers may find new access spots on the Rogue's north banks.
But they'll no longer follow Jackson's path from south-side access because the ensuing rapid will not be suitable for canoes.
That made Monday's adventure historic. Unfortunately for Jackson, he didn't remember his camera until he and wife Linda had already dragged the canoe over the railroad tracks.
"No pictures," he says. "Just memories."
Memories like that fated duck-hunting trip of 1978, when he and his uncle Wayne Jackson flipped the canoe and sent the pair overboard and their gear into the silt.
"He lost his eyeglasses," Jackson says. "I never felt bad for his eyeglasses, but I felt bad about losing my shotgun.
"It's a Savage pump, if you find it," Jackson says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.