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MailTribune.com
  • 'Pucker Rapid' lives up to its name

    New stretch on the Rogue River downstream from old dam isn't fit for casual rowers
  • Holding a driftboat upstream of the new Rogue River feature created by the removal of Gold Ray Dam gives ample evidence why this messy and ever-morphing water corridor could very well become known as Pucker Rapid.
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  • Holding a driftboat upstream of the new Rogue River feature created by the removal of Gold Ray Dam gives ample evidence why this messy and ever-morphing water corridor could very well become known as Pucker Rapid.
    That's just what your back cheeks do when you try to decipher exactly how to row through this mix of boulders, rocks, logs, root-wads and turbulent Rogue waters immediately downstream from the old dam site near Gold Hill.
    The safe passage through it is tough to see from above on Gold Ray Road, and it looks even different from river level. What's beneath the frothy water always is a mystery and, as new boulders and new logs fall in, it becomes different week to week.
    "The river hasn't clearly defined itself as to what it's going to be like," says Keith Coddington, a Medford fishing guide who has run the rapid regularly. "At any given time, a log can wedge in there, and it could easily become a tragic event for someone. It could become a news-maker."
    While the name Pucker Rapid might not live forever in the river-runners' lexicon, this potential boat-eater clearly is now the key obstacle for driftboaters, rafters and kayakers seeking to explore this stretch of the Rogue blocked by the dam since 1904.
    In its current arrangement, this one rapid is not safe for casual driftboaters and inflatable kayakers who likely will descend upon this newly opened river stretch next summer.
    That worries Lt. Pat Rowland, who heads the marine program for the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.
    "We haven't had a problem yet, but I foresee it coming," Rowland says.
    Rowland plans to approach the Oregon State Marine Board next week for money to clear this rapid of enough debris to make is safer to negotiate without the requisite pucker.
    "I'd rather get that cleared now before the high water comes," Rowland says. "If we don't, it's going to be a pain in the butt later on."
    Until then, Pucker Rapid likely will live up, or down, to its new moniker.
    "That's a good name for it," Rowland says.
    Rivers are fluid by nature, and subtle changes to riffles, holes and rapids are common after winter freshets toss rocks, gravel and downed trees around.
    Larger flood or near-flood events can cause dramatic shifts in flow patterns, such as creating new islands or channels through areas not boated in the past.
    But nothing creates a sea-change like removing a 106-year-old dam and draining the reservoir and sloughs behind it.
    This summer's breaching of the dam turned the stagnant upstream habitat into a perpetually changing adventure. Logs long submerged were exposed and moved while banks eroded and rocks that haven't seen light since the first Roosevelt administration found themselves exposed.
    It used to be that the only people to fish or boat below TouVelle State park were jetboaters who could motor back upstream or a select few with access to a private ramp upstream of the old dam.
    Since the dam's demolition and the end of a boating ban Oct. 15, the new stretch has become a favorite playground for summer-steelhead anglers who, at the end of their day, have to negotiate Pucker Rapid.
    The rapid formed on the north side of what used to be a rock ledge just downstream of the dam and upstream of the old angling deadline. There, rocks and logs piled as flows shifted and debris settled from the reservoir's draining.
    At low levels in late October, driftboaters could avoid the rapid by walking their boat around the shallow, rock-laden water on the river's south bank. The bulk of the current, however, flows down the north bank through a series of rocks and wood piles.
    Driftboaters like Coddington realize the safest way to row it is to start on the river's right bank, cut left just below an exposed rock and just above a wave over rocks that flows into a boat-sinking trough full of rocks and logs. To avoid the trough, they cut just left of it and shoot safely downstream.
    The flows are fast and the drop is tenuous enough that any boat dropping through sideways runs the risk of swamping, lodging in the rocks or sinking.
    "It has all the great characteristics for doing nasty things to your boat," says fly-fisher Bob Hunter, who has negotiated the rapid four times in his driftboat. "I'd like to see somebody do it wrong to see if you can get away with it in your driftboat. But I don't want to be the one to experiment."
    In recent weeks, new logs and debris have moved in and out of play, causing regular changes in how best to tackle it.
    "I make sure I do my own shuttle just so I could take a look and see there's not a new log to cause trouble in there," Coddington says.
    For some, the growing reputation of Pucker Rapid is a good thing. Those with the skills and grit to tackle it gain access to fine steelhead water with very little pressure from casual anglers.
    And they get a little adrenalin as a party favor.
    "Just having something like that down there adds an edge to the whole thing," Hunter says. "I feel really good once I get through it."
    The one sure thing is the rapid will change this winter. But how much change will be determined by the level of upper Rogue flows and where the water-pushed logs and snags settle out.
    Until then, it's pucker up and row.
    "On the river, you always get that pucker factor now and then," Coddington says. "It keeps you on your toes. It helps make you safe."
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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