Local waterways look inviting, but can carry deadly dangers.
If you're heading for the water this Memorial Day weekend, better pack a wet suit along with your life jacket.
Streams are running high and fast as winter snow melts off the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains, and the water is unusually cold — barely 50 degrees in the Rogue River at Dodge Bridge on Wednesday.
"We've got midwinter water conditions (at a time) when people are drawn to the water," says Rod Edwards, a firefighter who heads up the technical rescue unit for Jackson County Fire District No. 3.
"Little Butte Creek and Antelope Creek are flowing muddy brown water like they do after a winter storm," Edwards says. "It's extremely dangerous conditions."
The combination of strong currents and cold water can be deadly. Sixteen-year-old Sam Safotu of Medford drowned last Saturday when he fell into the Applegate River while playing with friends on a day that brought record heat to Southern Oregon.
"I'm surprised there weren't more accidents last weekend," said Mike Slagle, senior head guide for Orange Torpedo Trips, a Grants Pass rafting company.
Cooler temperatures, with highs in the 70s, are expected across the region through Memorial Day, but families may still take to the water on a weekend often considered the beginning of summer. People who have no experience with cold, fast-flowing water can't anticipate how quickly it can leave even a strong swimmer powerless, Edwards says.
"A person who's not the fittest swimmer can be in trouble in a big hurry," he says. "You can't fight moving water. The water's going to go where it wants to go, and take you with it."
Streams are carrying several times the volume of water they had a year ago. In mid-May 2007, the Applegate River was running at 331 cubic feet per second below Applegate Dam. This week the Applegate flowed at well over 2,000 cfs before tapering off to about 1,700 cfs on Wednesday.
It's the same story on the Rogue. The Army Corps of Engineers was dumping about 7,000 cfs this week at Lost Creek Lake, compared to just 2,280 cfs a year ago, and the river was flowing at about 9,000 cfs in Grants Pass.
"We've had an exceptional snowpack," says Jim Buck, the Corps' Rogue Basin project manager, who anticipates "multiple weeks" of higher-than-normal discharges from Lost Creek Lake.
The average snowpack for the Rogue Basin was still 142 percent of average on Wednesday.
At high volumes, the rivers are flowing right up into the brush along the banks, covering many of the beaches and gravel bars where people have become accustomed to getting off the water.
"There aren't as many eddies in this high water," says Bart Baldwin, an owner of Noah's Rafting and Fishing in Ashland. "That favorite eddy you might be used to on Memorial Day weekend just might not be there."
Boaters should steer clear of bank vegetation that could flip a boat and plunge them into the water, Baldwin says.
"Stay in the middle of the river," he cautions.
The swift current means boaters have to think faster, too, Baldwin says. That means looking farther downstream to anticipate hazards, and moving more quickly to avoid them.
The big flows are changing how the rivers behave, too.
"Hydraulics and currents are much, much stronger than people are used to," says Slagle, the Grants Pass guide.
Some places that may be challenging in lower flows will be smoothed out in high water, and other places that were easy in low flows can be tough at higher flows.
On the heavily used stretch of river below Grants Pass, Slagle warns boaters to be especially cautious at the entrance to Hellgate Canyon and Dunn Riffle.
"You've got to be careful," he says. "It's a lot different river than you're used to. Wear your lift jacket and pull it tight."
Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.