BROOKINGS — Tom and Misti Bischoff have tried every available avenue to penetrate the hardscrabble backcountry of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, but to no avail.
Trails crisscrossing the edges of the nearly 180,000-acre expanse of southwest Oregon are unkept and so choked with brush that the Smith River adventurers have been thwarted on each foray into the forest.
"We've always wanted to go across the Kalmiopsis, but we get so discouraged because of lack of trail maintenance," says Tom Bischoff, a 62-year-old nurse anesthetist.
Come June, the Bischoffs will get their wish during a daring trek that is destined to begin showing up on the bucket lists of backwoods lovers' and river runners.
The couple will be among the select few to float the remote section of the upper Chetco River with the help of an outfitter who is personally introducing this rarely seen area to a handful of adventurers each year.
The Bischoffs will be on the Northwest Rafting Co.'s second guided expedition next June down the upper Chetco, hiking and rafting five days through a rarely seen wilderness so unmolested by humans it remains one of a handful of places in the lower 48 states that still qualifies for the adjective "pristine."
The two will join a handful of others slapping down almost $1,600 to join company owner Zachary Collier and his team of guides on a trip that USA Today this year called one of the world's 10 best new adventures of the year, the only one in North America to hit that list.
"This is going to be the greatest — going right down the middle of the Kalmiopsis, one of the most beautiful places around," he says.
Collier last spring garnered the only commercial permit to float the upper Chetco, with next year's trip the second in his probationary period. If all goes well, the permit will be extended for five years.
Last June's inaugural, five-day trip included just two guests and five guides, who had to carry all their gear — including boats — 10 miles through the rugged Kalmiopsis to reach the Chetco's remote headwaters.
"We need a lot of guides to make it work," Collier says.
Next June's trip will have as many as six customers and up to six guides, Collier says. He screens would-be customers for fitness and to ensure they have the mental toughness to tackle such a remote landscape, where the premium is on solitude and not white-knuckle whitewater.
"They have to be physically and mentally into it," Collier says.
The initial trip came during a low-water period, which created conditions that called for more dragging of boats through gravel bars than shooting troublesome rapids.
This is no "float and bloat" trip down the wild Rogue River.
"The trip is for people who want to see the Kalmiopsis, not to see the Chetco," Collier says. "A real adventure ... and not cooking steaks every night."
Still, Collier has developed a backwoods menu far beyond dried fruit and trail mix. They've worked in morning omelets and even calzones cooked in a Dutch oven in a campfire.
"It was, actually, pretty amazing food," he says.
But not part of an amazing business venture.
With all the logistics needed to pull off the trip and the small party size, the adventure is a business trip, but nary a money-maker.
"For us, it's sort of a break-even endeavor," Collier says. "But all the experiences we have make it totally worth it."
And it's more than worth it to Bischoff, who read about Collier's adventure and instantly signed on.
"We jumped at it, for sure," he says.
He knows the wilderness area is a fickle mistress, whose beauty can be as intoxicating as it can be lethal.
"You know, it's the kind of trip maybe we could do ourselves," Bischoff says. "But if we get hurt, there's no way to get out alone."
Bischoff says they are seasoned hikers who have taken kayak lessons, but they're no whitewater cowboys.
"I'm not afraid of the water," he says. "I know my limits and I don't want to do anything beyond them."
The Bischoffs plan to soak up every aspect of the inner Kalmiopsis, from its iron and serpentine soils to its crisp waters and moonscapes rising out of the ashes of the 2002 Biscuit fire.
"We like to do peaks," Bischoff says. "Rivers are interesting, too."