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Different strokes for driftboats

A driftboat floating quietly down the Rogue River well before first light is as serene a scene as they come for those of us who appreciate the strength and grace of flowing water.

Sixteen feet worth of high-grade aluminum bent and welded to take on everything the Rogue can throw at you is a mighty sight, the hidden power within the river's go-with-the-flow mantra.

This whole Zen boat thing can, however, disappear in an instant. It's the instant you notice that the boat you're watching drift peacefully past the Gold Ray Dam boat ramp is your boat.

And you're not in it.

— In fact, no one's in it.

After 15 years of driftboat ownership, I had yet to swim after a wayward boat heading downriver without me. But all streaks are made to be broken, and Thursday at Gold Ray this dry driftboater became a wet statistic.

Swimming after a boat is not the best of ideas anywhere in Oregon, where split decisions on the waterways sometimes lead to tragedy.

Do you know how many people drown doing that? says Randy Henry, the not-so sympathetic spokesman for the Oregon State Marine Board. It's, like, five or six a year.

People not tying their boats off on shore appears to be a communicable disease among Oregon's 100,000 registered boat owners who flirt with trouble every time they step out of their craft.

In my case, it was something I had done thousands of times without incident.

I was at the ramp about 10 minutes earlier than the guy who was meeting me there for a morning of spring chinook salmon fishing before work. I backed down the ramp, dropped the boat into the Rogue and pulled it up to the bedrock adjacent to the ramp.

The rocks are slippery there. Usually, you have to fiddle with the bow before the boat feels secure.

It felt fine, so I hopped in my rig and drove off the ramp, parking on the roadway nearby.

Carrying my coffee cup, I walked down the ramp, looked up and saw my boat where it wasn't supposed to be.

Floating downriver. Boat. Rods. Life jackets. Everything. Already it was about 30 feet from shore and catching the current.

The issue is, you're concerned about your multithousand-dollar investment and you don't consider what a harsh environment you're dealing with, Henry says. You have to think about it, weigh everything before you dive in.

All I did was say, Oh, @&*!


That's probably the last words of a lot of people, Henry says.

I took off my shirt, dropped the wallet and cell phone on top of it, walked into the water and thought, You know? I write stories about people doing stupid things like this.

Usually, it's a little hard to tell what happened in cases like that, Henry says. In one instance on the Columbia (River) this year, all they found was someone's shoes and the boat drifting by itself. They found the body a while later.

My body told me the water wasn't nearly as cold as I expected as I stroked downstream.

When I reached the boat, I didn't know what to do.

Trying to climb into a driftboat from the water is no easy task. I figured if I tried jumping in the side, I'd end up pulling it so low that the boat would swamp in seconds.

Great story: I swam down the river to my boat so I could sink it, instead of the rocks or rapids below. The insurance company would love that.

If I had to pick the safest place to climb into a driftboat it would be on the side between the oar lock and the transom, says Jim Bittle, general manager at Willie Boats and the guy who overslept just long enough Thursday to miss witnessing my stupidity.

If you hoist yourself up enough, you can wrap your leg around the oar lock and kind of flop in, Bittle says. I don't think you'd sink it, though.

Yeah, well, the only problem was his advise came over the telephone Tuesday, five days after I needed it.

So I grabbed the gunnel and started swimming toward shore.

Finally, my feet touched rocks. I jammed the bow into the shore and hopped in.

I was toweling off with a stinky bait rag when Bittle arrived, wondering why I and the boat were in the brush 50 yards downstream.

I wish I was here to see that, Bittle says.

Apparently, what I did was so stupid it's not even considered boating.

If I had fallen out of the boat and drowned, I would be the fourth boating fatality in Oregon so far this year, Henry says.

If I had drowned trying to get into the boat, it technically wouldn't be a boating accident, Henry says.

We go by the Coast Guard definition, Henry says. You were swimming. It would have been a swimming accident.

Luckily, it was neither. This time.

Man, Bittle says, I hope that never happens to me.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail