Just one twist of the Rogue River into his 157-mile odyssey, Kirk Sager turned his attention away from the water toward a playful beaver and experienced a jolt no rafter wants to feel during a winter float.
His 14-foot raft, loaded with eight days of provisions, ground to a halt New Year's morning on a shallow gravel bar just upstream of the Chief Hole downstream from the Rogue's upper-most boat ramp at Cole Rivers Hatchery.
"I thought, 'Well, here we go,' " laughs Sager, from Grants Pass. "A mile down the river and already I'm out of the raft.
"I thought to myself, 'I gotta watch that,' " he says.
Less than six days later, Sager rowed the raft to a halt again. This time it was in Gold Beach at the Jots Resort boat ramp, the last take-out before the mighty Rogue flows into the Pacific.
In doing so, Sager may have became the first boater to float every inch of the 157-mile Rogue in at least 106 years, made possible by the removal of Gold Ray Dam from the river near Gold Hill in 2010.
He did it alone, in low water, through sunny days and frigid nights. He did it with wind sometimes fighting him and other times aiding him. Sager occasionally fished for steelhead, he filled his boat with water running Nugget Falls and dined at night on prime rib like it was a regular summer "float and bloat" raft trip through the Lower Rogue Canyon.
"Honestly, it was rich," says Sager, who turns 50 on Monday. "It was insightful. It was wonderful to be there alone.
"What better way to see the river I love to raft and fish," he says.
"And be first."
First, at least, in the eyes of Jots manager Amy Gaddis, who says no one else has rowed into Gold Beach saying they've navigated the entire stretch from Lost Creek Dam.
With the removal of the Gold Ray and Savage Rapids dams from the Rogue, Jots anticipates that lots of people will put river-long floats on their bucket lists. So the business plans to keep a log of successful boaters and will issue certificates to them, similar to the buttons Jots doles out for anglers who catch 40-plus pound chinook salmon, Gaddis says.
"We're excited," she says. "This is huge."
The only other boater who has made the full journey and talked about it is Ashland's Casey "Pram Man" Roland, who launched the previous New Years' Day to tackle the Rogue in an 8-foot metal pram, only to abort his mission in the Lower Rogue Canyon due to high water and pending storms. Roland returned and eventually finished the trip in late January.
"That trip hurt me," says Roland, 47. "It damn near killed me. To do it alone, unsupported, and in six days? That's the story of the year."
Sager's journey took root last August when he read in the Mail Tribune that Roland was dreaming about organizing a mass New Year's Day race from the hatchery to the sea. Roland dropped that effort after learning the race would require federal permits to operate within the Wild and Scenic Section.
But Roland instead planned an impromptu trek for whomever showed up that day.
Originally that would have included Roland, Sager and his son, Clint Sager.
Clint Sager dropped out to watch the University of Oregon win the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, and Roland pulled out because of responsibilities in his arborist business.
"So it was a race of one," Sager says.
He launched alone at 7:15 a.m., and after the initial hiccup near the Chief Hole he made it 31 miles to a gravel bar just upstream of the old Gold Ray Dam site by nightfall. After a reheated prime-rib dinner and a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the wetsuit-wearing Sager had a wet ride through Nugget Falls before passing through Gold Hill and the town of Rogue River.
Floating past his riverside home, he dashed in to check the Ducks score and swap out his leaky air mattress, then oared as far as Grants Pass' Schroeder Park by dusk.
Low water in the Lower Rogue Canyon slowed his progress at times, but by the end of Day 5 he was in Cougar Lane in Agness, just 27 miles from paydirt.
But plenty of stagnant canyon water and the threat of upstream winds off the ocean made the homestretch an iffy proposition.
"I'll take just about anything on the river except wind," Sager says. "When the wind comes up, Kirk goes home."
But the river gods gave Sager a boost when a rare tailwind helped him reach Jots at 2:01 p.m. Friday.
"I thought to myself, I'm going to do this, and I did," Sager says. "I love this river, and there's no better way to see it. All of it."