Jet boat trips were not on Colleen Zimmerman's bucket list when she first discovered Hellgate Jetboat Excursions on the Rogue River more than two decades ago.
The insurance underwriter from Bonney Lake, Wash., was on a leisurely trip down Interstate 5 when she and her husband, Gene, stopped off at Wildlife Safari in Winston.
"We finished our tour and went into the gift shop, and I saw one of the Hellgate brochures," Zimmerman recalls. "I thought, 'Man, that looks like fun.' We were headed south anyway, so I called ahead to see if we could get on the dinner trip. We hightailed it south, made the trip and we were hooked."
More than 85,000 visitors each year ride the jetboats, which are based in Grants Pass. You can take 36-mile tours through Hellgate Canyon, with or without a meal at OK Corral, or ride the 75-mile whitewater trip from Grants Pass to Galice with a no-host stop for lunch at the Galice Resort.
After her first trip in 1989, Zimmerman turned the jetboat excursion into a multigenerational affair. Every year, nearly 30 family members, from the Canadian border to Surprise, Ariz., make the pilgrimage to Grants Pass for a family reunion ride.
"If it's hot, me and my grandkids are out there squirting pistols cooling off the other people," Zimmerman says. "It's so much fun, even when we're not on the boats."
Zimmerman, known to the Hellgate staff as "Big Red," earned her sobriquet a few years back when she landed on a boat piloted by someone other than her favorite guide, Randy Seals.
"He's a sweetheart," Zimmerman says. "He was scheduled on a different boat and I raised a fuss. I had a red tank top on and Johnny was our driver that day. I told him the size of my tip depends on how wet he keeps me. It was like 104 out there that day, and in the middle of his spiel, Johnny called out, 'Big Red, tell 'em what you told me.' People started calling me Big Red all the way back and they still know me by that."
Since then, every family member arrives at the dock decked out in red.
Hellgate Jetboats owner Robert Hamlyn says repeat customers make up "maybe 60 percent" of his business.
"People remember exactly who they were with the first time they were here, even years later," Hamlyn says.
Hamlyn says his boat captains know what to watch for at the right time, adding to the basic script as they see fit.
"We encourage them to add their own material so people get a different talk with each ride," he says. "The river changes day to day. You might see fishermen out there and they'll wait to see what they've caught. They'll pull over to see turtles, eagles and osprey."
Experienced eyes help passengers see things rafters don't necessarily see.
"Boats come upon wildlife quicker than rafts," Hamlyn says. "Our drivers have a great eye for seeing things where people wouldn't know to look."
The jetboats operate from May to September from 966 S.E. Sixth St., Grants Pass. Costs range from $39 to $64. For more information, visit http://www.hellgate.com/ or call 1-800-648-4874.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.