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Stay-cation recreation

Devon Stephenson believes a fragile economy, $2.50-a-gallon gasoline and consumers' "stay-cation" attitude will result in about the same number of customers as usual for his Rogue Rafting Co. rental service this summer.

But renters looking to soak up the sun along the upper Rogue River likely won't be making toll calls to reserve his rafts and inflatable Tahitis, he says.

"People who normally go on big vacations will probably stay closer to home and do this," Stephenson says.

"Those too broke to do this will stay home.

"It's hard to figure out what people are going to do, but this is cheap entertainment."

Cheap and close are the concepts upper Rogue businesses are banking on to lure Rogue Valley residents upriver as the summer recreation season kicks off this weekend.

From Forest Service campground hosts to local rental outfits like Stephenson's to A-list tourist stops like Crater Lake National Park, businesses catering to summer tourists believe locals looking for respite will fill their Memorial Day to Labor Day calendars.

"It starts this weekend and ends Labor Day weekend every year," says Dick Goodboe, whose Rogue Recreation firm operates Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest campgrounds around Union Creek, Fish Lake and Willow Lake. He says his operation hovered around 50 percent full on weekdays and about 90 percent full on weekends all last year.

"We were up because people didn't travel so far," Goodboe says. "We got a lot more people from Oregon, Northern California, Idaho and Washington.

"Once everybody's out of school, it's camping time."

Crater Lake National Park tends to host its normal complement of 500,000 visitors annually regardless of the economy's state, says Mike Justin, the park's concession specialist.

"Some of the business might shift from hotel occupancy to campground occupancy," Justin says. "But there's still a lot of business and people are going to come."

Much of northern Jackson County's tourist business centers around, in and on the upper Rogue River. A half-dozen companies rent rafts daily to hundreds of visitors who negotiate the upper 11 miles of the Rogue from Cole Rivers Hatchery to Shady Cove.

In the past, that meant plenty of business for Capt. Bob Miller and his swift-water rescue team at Shady Cove-based Jackson County Fire District No. 4.

The team once averaged a rescue every three days, he says. But rental firms have helped curb on-the-water accidents by urging more wearing of life jackets, curbing in-raft drinking of alcohol and schooling renters on basic rafting rules, such as staying in the middle, avoiding the rocks and steering clear of "strainer" trees that can sink rafts and take lives.

"Before, you'd see them (rental employees) race up the road," Miller says. "Now, they'll pull over along the river and give them (rafters) directions, tell them where to go. Most of them are doing a very good job."

But Miller warns that Memorial Day's high out-flows from Lost Creek dam can ratchet up the danger. Higher flows mean faster raft speeds and less time for novice paddlers to steer clear of dangers like over-hanging tree limbs, he says.

"Regardless, we're ready to go. We'll see what this summer brings us."

Stephenson says peddling safety is just part of helping visitors enjoy themselves.

"We have a lot more problems when the river's high like it is now," Stephenson says. "But the equipment is so much better now, and that helps."

He understands that an afternoon rafting the upper Rogue likely won't highlight next fall's how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation speeches.

But it will offer an afternoon out of the heat in Southern Oregon, and that will be plenty good for many this summer.

"Where else can you get four hours of entertainment for $12 or $15?" he says. "You can't do Disneyland that cheap."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Devon Stephenson of Rogue Rafting Co. in Shady Cove says he expects that local residents staying closer to home will offset any tourism dropoff in the rental rafting season on the Rogue River. - Bob Pennell