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MailTribune.com
  • Run for your Life

  • Peering down the North Fork of the Rogue River from the Mill Creek Drive bridge is a vision that defies description by anyone but the best nature poets.
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  • Peering down the North Fork of the Rogue River from the Mill Creek Drive bridge is a vision that defies description by anyone but the best nature poets.
    Cold, clear water cascades around room-sized chunks of Mount Mazama blown there during the creation of Crater Lake. Century-old logs crisscross the water amid waterfalls framed by a thick forest.
    "You stand up on that bridge and there aren't a lot of sights like that in the Pacific Northwest," says Judd Lehman, of nearby Prospect. "And it's local. It's right there."
    But getting on that water in a plastic kayak is another story, experienced by only a small cadre of kayak extremists who consider this stretch of whitewater to be the most extreme in Jackson County.
    The Avenue of the Boulders stretch is as terrifying as it is beautiful — and potentially deadly for paddlers testing their mettle.
    "The water's fast, the drop is steep," says Lehman, a 32-year-old kayaker. "There's a lot of false channels. You have to make fast decisions.
    "There's a fine line where one bad mistake can get you in big trouble real fast," he says.
    The run starts at the Mill Creek Drive bridge at river mile 171.4. The actual Avenue of the Boulders, also known in some recreation guides as the Avenue of the Giant Boulders, is the first half-mile of the 2-mile paddle to the PacifiCorp powerhouse.
    It's about a 600-foot drop from start to finish. Most who have tackled it have done so in sections.
    If flows are too low, the run isn't passable. Too high and it's like riding out of a fire hose. Optimum flow, kayakers say, is about 300 cubic feet per second.
    "The level has to be perfect," says Eagle Point kayaker Josh St. John, 32. "Even at optimum flow, that's the most dangerous (run) in Jackson County."
    The aesthetic elements of the run also happen to be the most dangerous.
    This reach is wrought with what kayakers call sieves — spots where two boulders lean against each other, siphoning water between them. These can pinch or pin a boat, and rescue is extremely difficult and dangerous at best.
    "Getting out of control means going through a sieve," St. John says. "You definitely don't want to swim in there. The potential for getting hurt or dying is pretty high in there."
    Whitewater experts list the Avenue of the Boulders as Class V-plus, or only for the most expert of the experts.
    So why do people like St. John and Lehman risk having a rock or sieve named after them posthumously every time they launch into that landscape whose image is captured off the Mill Creek Drive bridge?
    "That's a question you can ask a lot of people about a lot of things," Lehman says. "You just have to manage the risk, just like you do when you drive your car to work."
    But the typical commute doesn't generate a quart of adrenaline and the best ever water-cooler story about getting to the office.
    And after hearing himself tell it too many times, St. John is starting to agree with those who ask, why the hell do you do it?
    "The adrenaline rush and the sense of accomplishment," St. John says. "But that's a question I've started asking myself the past couple years.
    "That's why I'm not a real big fan of it anymore, honestly," he says.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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