Guide's brush with death on river floats in his memory

Veteran fishing guide Jeff Wilkerson is eager to return to his seasonal job on the Rogue River.

After all, he knows fall chinook salmon are now running in the middle section and summer steelhead are farther upriver. "I really look forward to fishing the Rogue again — can't wait to get back on the river," says Wilkerson, a likeable fellow who has been guiding for four years on the river he began fishing while in elementary school.

But he accepts that he has to mend a bit before resuming the guiding work he loves.

Wilkerson, 36, a 1996 graduate of Crater High School in Central Point, has yet to fully recover from a river trip that nearly cost him his life earlier this year.

It's a harrowing story, one in which he was a boat passenger, not the guide.

Before we launch, a little background.

The Navy veteran works as a field helicopter mechanic for Helicopter Transport Services, based in Aurora. His fishing guide service on the Rogue and Umpqua rivers is done during his time off.

The Eagle Point resident and his wife, Deanna, have a blended family that includes five children, the oldest 13.

After working on HTS helicopters fighting wildfires across the nation last year, he accepted a job last winter with the firm in South America. The helicopters were mainly transporting crews and equipment to and from gas and oil wells.

He spent a month in Ecuador late last year, then was sent to Peruanita, a remote jungle site in Peru east of the Andes, on Jan. 12.

After a monthlong tour, he was slated to leave Feb. 12 for a month of rest — and fishing — back in the Rogue Valley, but bad weather grounded the helicopter that would have flown him out.

The next morning a plan was hatched to send the crew out on the nearby Umubamba River, a tributary to the Amazon.

"The river was brown," he recalls. "There were trees coming down. It didn't look safe."

While the river guide in him was dubious, he figured the locals knew what they were doing. Still, he pulled on a large, orange life jacket and cinched it up.

The aluminum boat was about 25 feet long and perhaps 5 feet wide with a small cabin, he says.

A dozen passengers filled the six seats on each side of the boat. Wilkerson sat on the back seat, right side. One of the boat's crew was perched on a steel drum full of gas, out of which ran a rubber hose to feed the engines.

When the boat nosed out into the river, the water had already crested its banks and was about a quarter of a mile wide, he says.

"The boat had twin 125-horse engines, so we got going pretty good upriver," he says. "We're probably going 40 miles per hour. The river was roaring — black water, going fast. As we bounced along, I could hear stuff hitting the bottom of the boat. There were trees going by. I knew this was not a good place to be.

"That's when there was this crash — it sounded like a kid hitting the side of my garage door with a basketball," he says.

Wilkerson flew forward, his head striking the seat ahead of him. Or he may have been hit by the makeshift fuel tank.

"I remember the impact, the sound of the outboard motors screaming, the boat rolling over to the left," he says.

Then he lost consciousness. When he came to, it was pitch black. He could taste muddy water.

"I thought I was drowning," he says. "When I finally got my senses, I realized I was inside an air bubble, inside the hull. The boat was upsidedown."

He could see a little light each time the boat rocked in the current, revealing a little daylight. He took a deep breath, grabbed the side of the boat, pulled himself under and popped to the surface.

"There were four or five guys sitting on top of the boat that was bobbing down the river," he says. "So I had been down there a while."

Blood flowed from his nose. His right eye was bloody. And the teeth on the right side of his mouth were chipped.

"As we bobbed down river, I see guys hanging from trees in the water," he says. "That big, orange life jacket save my life, I'm sure."

What he didn't see but knew lurked in the water were crocodiles, piranha and poisonous snakes. He began making his way to shore.

After finally crawling up on land, he sat there taking stock of the situation.

"That's when I realized all my stuff was on that boat — my computer, my passport, wallet, all my identification, my clothes," he says. "Here I was stuck in the Amazon jungle."

An hour or so later, a small fishing boat pulled up, carrying two young teenagers and a fellow who had also been on his boat.

"This was two teenage kids in a hollowed-out log and a five-horse engine," he says. "There was probably 3 inches on the bottom of the boat. It took every ounce of courage I had in my body to get back in there."

He was taken upriver to a village, where a 60-foot rescue boat arrived several hours later to take him and others to a nearby town.

"The whole right side of my face was really hurting," he says. "But I had no idea how I was going to get out of Peru."

By this time, a company representative was able to contact him. The firm also called his wife to let her know what had happened.

He was taken to the helicopter pad, where a flight was scheduled. Two bags recovered from the boat wreck were waiting.

"I had a camouflaged bag I had got in the Navy," he says. "And there it was. They had found it ... floating in a huge river."

He was flown to Lima, where he was able to call his wife, then caught a jet back to Oregon, where he finally received medical attention.

"I got sick three times on the plane," he says. "When I talked to the doctor back here, he said it was the result of being knocked out, the concussion and the altitude."

He arrived back in Medford on Valentine's Day.

He has been medically released to work six hours a day, but the firm wants him to be 100 percent before he returns to work, he notes.

"I'll never put my family through that again — ever," he says. "It was that close."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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