River man

In 1915, a 19-year-old commercial gillnetter named Glen Wooldridge got perhaps the wildest of his wild hairs when he decided to become the first person to float a boat down the impenetrable Rogue River from Grants Pass to the Pacific Ocean.

A year earlier, two men had died in separate attempts to tame the Rogue, but that didn't curb Wooldridge's zest. He built a 20-foot-long dory out of cedar planks, enlisted the help of pal Cal Allen and set off to make history.

For five days they oared, dragged and swam their way over 120 river miles to Gold Beach, selling to a cannery the chinook salmon they caught in the river along the way.

"We were just a couple of green kids, didn't know half as much about boating as we thought we did. But we sure learned," author Roger Fletcher quotes Wooldridge in his book, "Drift Boats and River Dories: Their History, Design, Construction and Use."

The pioneering Wooldridge is the patron saint of the Rogue's river rats and fishing guides, who owe him for defining the river and its sport-fishing potential from Jackson County to the surf.

He was the river's first professional guide, with the likes of President Herbert Hoover, Zane Grey and Clark Gable as clients. He opened many of the surliest Rogue riffles and falls to boat passage during dangerous dynamiting expeditions, and in 1947 he retraced his inaugural downstream float of the Rogue by becoming the first person to motor upstream from the ocean to Grants Pass.

Both accomplishments continue to astonish those who know about Wooldridge's story.

"Think about a teenager building a boat and going the Rogue with a friend, wondering if your boat's going to hold up and what's in store for you," says Grant Wooldridge, Glen's great-grandson. "For all you know, it's Niagara Falls around the corner. He was a real adventurer, a man's man."

Wooldridge, who was born at this grandfather's placer mine along Foots Creek near Gold Hill in 1896, showed an affinity for the Rogue at an early age. His run down the Rogue in 1915 elevated his status among anglers, and two years later he became the river's first commercial fishing guide, a group that boasts hundreds of professionals today.

He was as well-known for his boats, fishing and river-running prowess as he was for his gift of gab, often serenading his clients with fish tales and stories of running the Rogue and dynamiting safer passages that Wild Rogue boaters still use today.

Blossom Bar used to be relatively impassable, with half-day portages the norm. Wooldridge made Blossom Bar passable by using strategically placed charges of dynamite. He would row up to a rock, drop a gunnysacked charge onto the other side of the rock, and then quickly row away. He repeated the process many times until Blossom Bar was configured the way it is today.

Wooldridge guided anglers on the Rogue into the 1970s. He died in 1986.

The family boat business was moved to Seattle in 1970 by a grandson — with the family's blessings, says Grant Wooldridge, who works there. But the name Wooldridge still abounds in the Rogue Valley.

A creek in Josephine County is named after Wooldridge, and now a winery is named after the creek.

Wooldridge references in books about boats, salmon fishing and the Rogue run deep. A recent Oregon Field Guide story about the Rogue, shown on Oregon Public Broadcasting, was full of Wooldridge references and lore.

Field and Stream writer Ted Trueblood cut to the quick about Wooldridge in the forward to "Rogue: A River To Run," which Wooldridge wrote with author Florence Arman in 1982.

"This is the story of a unique man. One of the definitions of unique in my dictionary is 'being without a like or equal.' That fits Glen Wooldridge to a T. He is a river man. There are none like him, and I contend he has no equal."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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