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Wild Ride on the Illinois

The only thing worse than watching helplessly as the Green Wall pummels a 14-foot raft loaded with gear and three of your buddies like a punching bag is knowing you're next on its hit list. Then again, few Oregon whitewater experiences compare to taking on the Illinois River's most infamous rapid and pushing through unscathed.

Will Volpert, a Southern Oregon University business student, knows the Illinois River as well as anyone in this area. He has rafted its pristine waters 13 times, and plans on fitting in a handful more trips in the coming months.

Volpert took a 12-person group, three of whom floated the river in kayaks, on a trip last weekend down a 32-mile stretch that began at Miami Bar off Illinois River Road and ended at Lower Oak Flat, a few miles above Agness.

The gauge at Kerby reported that the river would flow at a healthy 1,500 cubic feet per second with a slight chance of rain over the weekend. Temperatures at the put-in inched up near the low 40s with peaks of sunshine squeezing through the clouds.

There was some debate early on as to whether dry suits were needed, but everyone was glad they wore them once they hit the frigid water.

The first day was mellow as we sat back and enjoyed the countless waterfalls and creeks feeding the river from both sides. The fun began just after York Creek with the York Creek and Clear Creek rapids. They are listed at Class IV, but our group powered through them easily.

The last run of the day was Pine Flat Rapid, with its gnarly "Boat Eater" waiting to the right. The kayakers took turns running it while the rest of us absorbed scenery.

We struck camp at Pine Flat, a sizeable campsite with plenty of flat areas uncorrupted by rocks. In a moment of genius, I forgot to wear the waterproof socks I bought specifically for this trip, so I spent the first hour at camp trying to stamp the feeling back into my lower extremities.

Fog oozed in as the night wore on, keeping the temperature above freezing, but there was still plenty of chill in the air, which had its advantages.

"At least you don't have to worry about keeping your beer cold," one camper said.

For Volpert, guiding down the Illinois is like taking a step back in time before settlers left their mark on Southern Oregon.

"Unlike the Rogue River, there's not nearly as much human impact on the Illinois," Volpert says. "If you're not scared by how remote it is, there's a lot of beautiful scenery and wildlife. Not to mention a lot of read-and-run rapids."

The river was named by Midwest miners who descended on the area during Oregon's gold rush of the 1850s. The put-in at Miami Bar can be reached by Illinois River Road, which runs out of Selma. Be prepared: Most of Illinois River Road is unpaved and resembles a World War II tank track. It is very steep in places, so make sure your vehicle's brakes can handle a good workout.

The Illinois presents its share of drawbacks for fair-weather rafters. For one thing, it is difficult to plan a trip based on fickle weather forecasts.

Ryan Morgan, of Molalla, has been eager to take his kayak down the Illinois for some time, but found that ever-changing weather patterns make planning a trip difficult.

"It fluctuates so quickly," Morgan says. "It's hard to get dialed in on what the weather is going to do when living so far north."

Low summer flows mean the prime rafting months sit in the dead of winter or early spring, making for painfully cold water and windy conditions.

The National Weather Service reads the flow gauge on the river at Kerby every morning at 6 a.m. and uploads it at www.oregonrafting.org/flows.html.

"You only want to take people down the river who have whitewater experience," Volpert adds. "The water is cold and fast, which means you need people who know how to rescue themselves."

The boaters' experience paid dividends when problems arose on the second day. A huge pink rock stands sentry before the canyon run. It is here where serious rafters are separated from wannabes.

The gauntlet begins at Prelude, a Class IV rapid with a steep drop to the left. Make sure not to spend too much time patting yourself on the back after surviving Prelude, because it leads directly into the famous Green Wall.

The Illinois made headlines in March 1998 when two rafters drowned and 10 more had to be rescued by the National Guard after their rafts crashed at the Green Wall.

With that historical tidbit in mind, I set about filming my compadres as they took the Green Wall one raft and kayak at a time.

The first raft ran into immediate trouble in the drop that sits at the top of the Green Wall. The front of the raft nudged a rock before plunging into the torrent, killing the craft's momentum. The raft swamped instantly and then went into a wild surf. Violently churning waves sent Volpert's roommate Leland Fulton tumbling into the current.

Fulton did an outstanding job staying close to the raft until he was pulled to relative safety by Scott Rion. Rion was then able to take the oars and pull the raft out of the rapid.

Kayaker Dan Thurber photographed the epic surf from a nearby rock. He ran the Illinois with Volpert in November when the flow was stiffer.

"To be honest, I thought the river was more challenging at the lower flow this weekend than in November," Thurber says. "The lower flow made the drop at the top of the Green Wall a lot steeper."

The next two rafts took nearly perfect lines through the rapid, though both received a crushing hit at the bottom, where a massive swirling hole had developed. The kayakers followed suit, taking the final lick in stride.

Volpert's gear-laden boat, with Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch and me it tow, brought up the rear. The fireworks began when our raft drifted sideways into the drop.

The fall dislodged the left oar as we started spinning. The raft filled with water instantly. The increase in weight may have kept us from flipping. Swimming the Green Wall was not on the itinerary.

While trying to retrieve the spare oar from the side of the raft, Volpert's head suddenly became trapped between the frame and the right oar. He escaped and managed to fasten the left oar.

Meanwhile, Lusch and I struggled to dig out of the rapid. As Lusch was flung into the middle of the raft his foot glanced off my head, ringing my bell for a moment. Finally, Volpert managed to slam the left oar into the lock and we fought our way to freedom.

Volpert roared "Go, go, go!" as we rushed toward the bottom rapid. He knew we needed a strong push to avoid the rock wall.

"Biiiiiiig hole," Volpert bellowed as we dropped into the bottom rapid.

The world turned pale white as water filled my mouth and ears. It was the biggest hit I've taken during a rafting trip. We eddied out just after the Green Wall for a breather.

More big water awaited us at Little Green Wall and Submarine Hole, each considered tricky Class IV rapids with boat-flipping reputations. Little Green Wall funnels you through a tight drop with a rock wall to the left, which Volpert and crew have come to call the "Pimp Slap." Two of our rafts endured "pimp slaps" that day.

We camped at a picturesque waterfall near Collier Creek. The mood in the camp was jovial, as we had made it safely through tough whitewater. Comfort food consisting of spaghetti and White Russians capped off a wild day.

Because there isn't a dam atop the Illinois to distribute the water evenly, rafting conditions remain contingent on the weather. The second night hit us with steady rain, but not enough to raise the water to dangerous levels.

The key to an enjoyable trip on the Illinois is staying warm, says Pete Wallstrom, owner of Momentum River Expeditions out of Phoenix, who rafted the Illinois for the first time last weekend.

"Layering is key," Wallstrom says. "In these months a dry suit is almost mandatory. And don't bring any cotton. Cotton kills."

When you pack for an over-night trip on the Illinois bring enough fleece and thermal underwear to last in case you are stuck for several days waiting for water levels to recede.

It also is a good idea to bring along a satellite phone for emergencies. It would be nearly impossible to hike someone with broken legs out of the canyon due to impossibly high rock walls.

In other words, mistakes along the Illinois could cost you dearly without the proper equipment.

We enjoyed a lazy third day, with only a few Class III rapids to make things interesting. The canyon views below Collier Creek are magnificent. Keep an eye out for patches of carnivorous pitcher plants clinging to the rock walls.

Wallstrom, a 16-year rafting guide who has organized river trips all over the world, says the Illinois is one of the most remote rivers he's seen in the Pacific Northwest.

"The rapids themselves are not particularly challenging, but the distance from a road or trail and the steep terrain creates a smaller margin of error," he says.

But if the weather gods smile upon you and you've managed to put together a dependable group of rafters with safety foremost on their minds, the Illinois' spectacular canyon walls and emerald water create an almost ethereal landscape too few have seen.

"Every region has its signature river for whitewater," Wallstrom says. "The Illinois has to be one of — if not the one — in the Pacific Northwest."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Southern Oregon University student Leland Fulton attempts to climb back into a raft while getting surfed in the largest Class V rapid on the Illinois River, called the Green Wall. Fulton was pulled back into the raft by Scott Rion and avoided a potentially dangerous swim through the another Class V rapid just below. - Jamie Lusch