BROOKINGS — After two long days of bushwhacking through some of the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states, Zachary Collier stepped toward the base of rarely seen Slide Creek and marveled at the sight below.
The upper waters of the Chetco River, rarely seen by humans, rushed by him with all the raw and unfettered majesty of the hardscrabble Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which encapsulates the Chetco's headwaters.
"It was a pretty special sight," recalls Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Co. "To say it's crystal clear isn't enough. This is a whole other level of clarity. It's like being on bottled water."
Collier drank in the view then plopped his kayak into the roaring Aquafina and paddled a mile of rowdy rapids for a taste of wilderness whitewater that the vast majority of even gonzo kayakers will never share.
Collier and three friends — J.R. Weir, Andy Maser and Billy Miller — launched their expedition to the Chetco's backdoor last month, and they brought back photographs and videos that cast light on a world few will ever see — from both above and below the river's surface.
"What they brought back was amazing," says Barbara Ullian, a Grants Pass activist working to protect the Kalmiopsis and nearby roadless areas from activities that she believes would disturb the land's uniqueness. "I've never seen photos like that before."
Very few have seen the Kalmiopsis the way Collier and friends experienced it.
Designated a federal wilderness area by Congress in 1964, the Kalmiopsis encompasses slightly more than 180,000 acres of steep canyons and rocky ridges accessible only by foot or hoof.
It's been even harder to access the deeper recesses of this wilderness since 2002, when the raging Biscuit Fire enveloped the area and made the already rugged area virtually inaccessible except for some barely maintained trails.
Parts of the remote Smith River Basin lie in the southern portion of the wilderness area, and the Illinois River gets part of its water from the northern portion of the wilderness. In the middle sits the entire headwaters of the Chetco, which flows through the Siskiyou Mountains and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Brookings.
"It's right there in our backyard," says Weir, head kayak instructor at Sundance Kayak School. "We've been looking at that for a long time. It's been super-high up on my list for a long time."
Weir and Collier were joined last month by kayaking buddies Maser and Miller for the unusual and difficult entry into the upper Chetco from the Josephine County side.
The foursome carried their kayaks over more than eight miles of rough or non-existent trails from western Josephine County and into the heart of the Kalmiopsis, where no mechanized items — not even a spoked wheel to make dragging a hardshell kayak easier — are allowed.
They walked five miles uphill with their boats strapped to their backs, then dragged them three miles down through thick brush and over boulders and downed logs to reach little Slide Creek, which flows into the wild Chetco.
"We were so stoked," Collier says. "It was so inviting. It was begging us to go."
The group took two days to paddle 24 miles through about 30 water features that would be classified in the expert Class IV level or higher, Collier says.
"Once we got to the river, the flows were just right," Weir says. "They turned out to be ideal for our first trip down there."
To give others a chance to experience what they saw, the men shot reams of images that are now posted on Flickr. They also shot three videos — including one with a camera strapped to the bottom of a kayak — that allow viewers to see the Chetco's incredible clarity.
"It's definitely my favorite river in Oregon, even the country," Collier says. "I love this. It was a fun trip for people who like that kind of thing."
The group plans another excursion into the upper Chetco next spring, possibly to film a documentary that Collier hopes will help protect the region from mining and other activities that could damage its unique and untainted aspects.
"We really want to raise awareness about how rare and special this river is," Collier says.
But simply repeating this year's adventure won't be enough, he says.
"We're going to go higher up next year," Collier says. "The accessibility can't be any worse than what we did."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email email@example.com.