Smoke on the water

Floaters, hikers and campers banned from the Rogue's wild section because of blazes
Boaters near Grave Creek float above the entrance to the wild section of the Rogue River Tuesday, just hours before BLM ordered it closed. BLM said people already on the river will be permitted to finish their trips, but the closure will remain in effect “indefinitely.” Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

GALICE — Mike Robillard's guided float trip down the wild section of the Rogue River had all the makings of an epic family adventure.

Ten people and three days on the wild Rogue beginning Saturday. One night sleeping on a beach, the next in a rustic backwoods lodge. In between, they'd see such fantastic sites as Zane Grey's cabin at Winkle Bar and the majesty of Mule Creek Canyon, while experiencing the exhilaration of zig-zagging through the Class IV rapids at Blossom Bar.

The family did it two years ago to celebrate his father-in-law's 70th birthday, and this could be the last chance for his mother-in-law to ride the wild Rogue.

"That's a pretty important part of it because you just never know," says Robillard, 43, of Sisters.

But the Robillards — along with 110 others who have permits to launch into the Wild Rogue on Saturday — will be staying home or rafting elsewhere.

Federal river managers Wednesday closed the Rogue's 34-mile wild section indefinitely after a lightning fire burned to the river bank and threatened to jump the canyon, which means no one, including floaters, hikers or campers — can enter the section.

"There's fire at the river," says BLM spokesman Jim Whittington. "We've got a lot of that, and we think by the weekend we'll have it at both sides of the river.

"It just seemed to be the best decision to take the public-safety concern off the table," he says.

The last time a wildfire jumped the canyon was during the infamous Quail Creek fire of 1970, and this week marks the first time a fire closed access to the lower Rogue canyon since 2005, when a fire upstream of Blossom Bar closed access for 11 days.

Those incidents seem like a hiccup compared to what may lie ahead. The Jenny fire, burning about 10 miles downstream of Grave Creek, is one of three fires in the Big Windy Complex, which had burned 3,700 acres as of Thursday, and one of about 75 fires burning across more than 55 square miles in Southern Oregon.

"We're in for it," Whittington says. "We're going to have fire on the landscape in this part of Oregon until we get a pretty significant event. I'm thinking October."

That's more than grim news to Brad Niva, whose Rogue Wilderness Adventures business in Merlin owns one of 17 permits for commercial traffic in the canyon and is the largest outfitter there.

When word of the closure came Tuesday, Niva and other outfitters considered it premature and instead wanted access — with the understanding that the fire area be a pass-through zone.

But while looking at new fire maps Wednesday afternoon that showed the fire reaching the wild Rogue's south bank, Niva reached a grim understanding.

The closure "is probably the right call," Niva says. "We'll have to wait and see."

But waiting comes at a great cost.

Still reeling from the Great Recession, the wild Rogue's outfitter industry was just starting to pull out of its dark financial times, Niva says.

"This was going to be our catch-up year to make up some lost ground," he says.

Now the industry is likely losing about $100,000 a day, and August is the busiest month for outfitters, Niva says.

"I'm still kind of dazed right now," he says. "I don't know what to do. I just hope wind blows the fire away from the river."

Some outfitters this week have been ferrying firefighting equipment downstream to crews manning Black Bar Lodge, the Rogue River Ranch and Winkle Bar, where Zane Grey's cabin will get fire-wrapped to preserve it should flames from the Jenny fire turn around and threaten it, Whittington says.

The smoke has been so thick fire crews can't see the fire, but that's not the worst of it, he says.

Once winds blow out the smoke, the fear is that those cool winds will fan the flames and send the fire roaring upstream and eventually to the north side across a river bend, Whittington says.

As word of the closure loomed Tuesday, some floaters with permits left Grave Creek knowing they were entering a fire area.

If his family's permits were for Tuesday instead of Saturday, Robillard says he probably would have launched.

"All the smoke would have been disappointing, but we would have gone," Robillard says.

Dave Strahan of Grants Pass believes Robillard is lucky he didn't make that call.

A veteran river-runner, Strahan was in the canyon in the fall of 1987 when smoke from the 96,460-acre Silver fire filled the canyon. Camping at Tacoma that last night, Strahan says, they could feel the weight of the smoke and heat engulf them, burning their eyes and throats.

"You could barely see across the river," Strahan says. "I have been down there many, many times, and that trip was the only one I can say I really didn't enjoy that much."

Strahan was prepped to cancel his canyon trip next week because of smoke even before the BLM took care of that for him.

Gayle Donsky also would have done the same.

The Mill Valley, Calif., woman was supposed to launch today as part of an eight-person family trip that would have mirrored one she took 24 years ago.

The guided party was to include two young Southern California nieces who have never rafted.

Instead, they'll get their first taste of rafting on California's American River, but Donsky won't be there.

"I'm sure the girls will have a terrific time, but I'm spoiled by the Rogue," Donsky says. "The Rogue River is a phenomenal, beautiful river to go on. Too bad it's closed."

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


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