GALICE — Ash rained on the water and the sanguine sun peeked occasionally from behind heavy shrouds of smoke as Rachel Bennion and her fellow St. Mary's School students paddled down a Wild Rogue River that was turned surreal last week by wildfire.
"It was insane," says Bennion, 16, of Medford. "We're used to this bright, colorful world when we're on the river, but everything was black and white."
Then around a bend near Kelsey Creek they finally spied the cause of the drabness — flames of the remote Jenny fire flickering in brush along the river's edge.
The group eyed the flames with a mix of excitement and awe, then pushed on. They paddled around one more bend in the river and Bennion got her Rogue back.
"Getting out of the fire was like a Wizard of Oz moment," Bennion said. "It went from black and white to wildly colorful. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
The last of the rafters of the past week made it out of the Rogue's Wild Section over the weekend. The section had been closed to the public since Wednesday for safety concerns as the Jenny fire, part of the Big Windy fire complex, burned along its south banks and threatened to jump the river.
Firefighters feared flames had leaped the Rogue late Sunday and entered the remote forest north of the river after infrared satellite imagery collected Sunday night showed what appeared to be two spot fires there.
But crews inspecting the area found no fires, and experts chalked up the images to the rough contour of the land, fire spokesman Jim Whittington said.
"We don't think it's crossed the river yet," Whittington said. "I think it's a very good possibility that it will."
However, winds out of the north are helping push the fire away from the Rogue and toward containment lines that are being fortified by firefighters, Whittington said.
The Jenny portion of the Big Windy complex was listed early Monday at 2,114 acres, with the heaviest fire activity occurring when late-afternoon winds flow upstream through the canyon waters, Whittington said.
No direct attacks on Jenny's flames have occurred because of the rough terrain there, and only fire crews and outfitters hired to ferry them down river remain on the Wild Rogue, he said.
Whittington said the closures remain in place, but they are being re-evaluated daily.
"It's still closed for pretty good reasons, I think," he said.
Perhaps the last private party to witness the fire up close on the Rogue included Greg Plitt of Vancouver, Wash. His eight-person party was the second-to-last group to launch from the Wild Section's upper boundary at Grave Creek before the federal Bureau of Land Management closed boat and foot access to the 34-mile remote stretch, which ends at Foster Bar near Agness in Curry County.
They were passed by that last party before Plitt's group happened upon the flames around noon Wednesday.
"It wasn't burning right down to the water, but it was close enough to scare us pretty good," Plitt said by telephone Monday evening. "We saw trees on fire falling down the hill. It got us going."
Vancouver's Toby Beck, who led Plitt's group, said he never felt truly in danger when he rowed through the first wildfire he's ever seen up close.
They saw clusters of flames as high as 15 feet burning around the bases of snags but no flames roaring from treetop to treetop as Beck envisioned.
"It was both impressive and not what we expected," Beck said. "In my mind, I thought whole hillsides would be on fire. But it was pockets."
Beck said knowing the river was closed made him sad for the outfitters, shuttle drivers, lodge owners and others who one outfitter said were collectively losing about $100,000 a day. The summer months are the river businesses' version of the Christmas holiday shopping season.
Still, Beck was glad for the experience.
"It was eerie and interesting, " Beck said. "How often do you see a blood-red sun?"
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.