'Strainer' alert

Marine officers say an unusual number of boating obstructions have appeared on the upper Rogue River
Marine safety officer Darryl Valentino chainsaws away woody debris from an upper Rogue River navigational hazard, called a “strainer,” as marine Deputy Justin Preston pilots the jetboat.Jamie Lusch

Darryl Valentino leans awkwardly out of the front of a jetboat onto a large pile of brush and logs, meticulously chainsawing away while trying not to fall into the swift stretch of the upper Rogue River below him.

Sawed-off chunks of woody material float downstream as a pair of steelhead anglers float by wondering why the Jackson County marine safety officer is temporarily ruining their plans to fish a hole immediately downstream.

Summer boating tips

Here are some tips for keeping your summer floats on the upper Rogue River fun and safe.

Float in groups: You're best off floating in groups so there will be people who can help if you find yourself in trouble. If floating a stretch for the first time, make sure others in your party have navigated that area before so they know what's in store.

Wear a life jacket: The law says adults should have a jacket accessible, but they don't work when they're not worn. And cinch them up properly, because roiling water can easily tear away an improperly worn jacket.

Boat sober: Leave the alcohol at home. It slows reaction time, saps strength and impairs judgment.

Scout the rapids: Eyeball what you're running before you run it whenever possible, especially on a maiden voyage through a stretch. While under way, keep a close eye out for possible obstructions and avoid them.

Pay attention: Woody debris just under the surface can easily puncture and sink an inflatable boat.

Share your plans: Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be home. That way, if you get lost or stranded, marine officers have a better chance of rescuing you quickly.

— Mark Freeman

"Want to see why we're doing this?" marine Deputy Justin Preston asks from behind the jetboat controls.

Preston eases off the power and drops slightly downstream to reveal a shredded inflatable kayak and a life jacket attached to the debris pile — grim reminders of how one man's fishing spot can be another man's dangerous, if not deadly, navigational hazard.

Valentino and Preston are removing what rafters and kayakers dis-affectionately call a "strainer," logs or branches that hang horizontally over the river channel that are ready to separate a rafter from his craft.

The pair have removed about two dozen such strainers in the past two weeks as marine deputies grapple with what they are calling an unusual number of boating hazards in the upper Rogue this summer.

More than a dozen of them have been in a roughly 31/2;-mile stretch between the Takelma Boat Ramp off Upper River Road downstream of Shady Cove and Dodge Bridge, where Highway 234 crosses the river.

"We've never had that many between those two points," says Lt. Pat Rowland, who runs the marine program for the Jackson County Sheriff's Department.

Already at least a half-dozen reports of rafts and kayaks having sunk at strainers have made their way into the marine patrol offices in White City, and that doesn't include the blue raft and life jacket whose owners have so far remained unidentified.

Similar problems have surfaced on the nearby North Umpqua River, where a teenage girl drowned after being tossed from a raft and getting caught beneath a debris clog at a place eerily called Snag Rock. Her body was recovered there Monday.

"We've had double or triple the numbers of people calling in telling us about strainers, how they got stuck in them," Preston says. "We're not cutting every one of them that's in the channel, but we have a responsibility to keep the main channels open."

Strainers become navigational hazards in part because of where they are and those who attempt to boat past them. Limbs that hang low in portions of the river where the current tends to funnel boat traffic are the biggest potential problems.

Strainer management is based on helping the lowest common denominator of rafters — the occasional boater who rents a tahiti or buys one thinking that navigating the upper Rogue is child's play.

"It's not the people who do this all the time," Preston says. "It's the people who just think all they need to do is sit in them and go down the river. Unfortunately, for our part of the river, that's 60 to 65 percent of the people," Preston says.

Intensive strainer removal worries people such as Brian Barr, a biologist with the Geos Institute in Ashland who has worked extensively on Rogue streamside riparian projects.

Log jams and piles of woody debris create excellent in-river habitat for juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead, Barr says. They help create deep, cool-water holes important in the summer, create cut-bank habitat and offer protection from predators, he says.

"They really do create excellent habitat," Barr says. "And a lot of them are easy to avoid if you're doing what you should do as a boater."

Barr says he hopes strainer-removal is done judiciously.

"I certainly wouldn't be a good judge deciding which ones to remove," Barr says.

Preston says boating is inherently dangerous, and their efforts are focused on protecting boaters with an eye toward keeping fish habitat intact.

"A human being is always more valuable than the fish," Preston says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

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