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A fine June day spent along, on and in the Wood River

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in a canoe on the Wood River.

OK, so the toothsome water rat in the wonderful 1908 classic, "The Wind in the Willows," didn't actually mention the Wood, but he would have, had he been on our June 23 canoe trip.

He would have been right — for two-thirds of the day, that is.

Joining me in the annual canoe trip down the Wood were friends Jim Craven, John Decker and Stuart Osmus. We were a happy group of river rats eager to mess about in canoes on the mellow Wood.

In my book, few summer activities are more pleasant than floating down a stream in a canoe. And no waterway beckons a summer canoeist like the meandering Wood flowing into Agency Lake in Klamath County.

We're talking about a lazy stream in which you drift past beaver lodges and encounter all manner of bird life. No worries on the river mild.

True, you may have to work a bit when you reel in a lunker rainbow or German brown trout. But it is catch and release. No sweat if the big one gets away before reaching the canoe.

There are no technical challenges on the Wood, no Class 5 rapids. No rapids at all, actually. In this river, the only riffle is little more than a sniffle.

So I always tend to let my guard down as we drift along.

While I'm no whitewater expert, I've floated enough rivers over the decades to know there is always potential for problems. I've paddled canoes down glacially fed streams in Alaska as well as rafted rivers in the Northwest, including the Lower Rogue. I've done the Wood more than a dozen times, beginning in the mid-1970s.

You may recall that last weekend was unusually chilly for June. As we put in, we could see a dusting of fresh snow on the Cascade Mountains to the west. Snow squalls periodically cloaked the mountains.

Jim joked it would be a mighty bad day to take a plunge in the frigid water. After all, the headwaters of the Wood is Sun Creek, which flows off the snowy southern flank of Mount Mazama. The mountain blew its top eons ago, forming Crater Lake.

The good thing about the cold was that most of the mosquitoes called in sick for work that day.

Floating the Wood late in June usually means giving up a pint of blood when you run the gauntlet of flying phlebotomists. Some say that when vampire parents want to tell a scary story to their blood-sucking offspring to give them a nightmare, they tell them a tale about the Wood River mosquitoes.

As we floated along, Stuart quickly earned the bragging rights for catching the largest and most trout. Jim, a former MT photographer who now freelances, was busy snapping away with a camera.

In my canoe, John caught the most, although I did pull in a rainbow I figured must have been 18 inches. Fine, if you want to quibble, it was actually closer to 16 inches. Like most of my fish, it was big for its size.

Since the river was brim full of snowmelt, it carried us quickly along. We stopped at one point for lunch but couldn't find a dry spot to stretch our legs.

We pushed on.

Just downstream, a tree had fallen partially into the river, its limbs forming a trap for canoes. John and I applied the paddles to skirt the limbs.

Unfortunately, a large limb that submerged below the surface extended farther than we anticipated.

The canoe slammed into the submerged limb, executing half an Eskimo roll. I remember gasping as I hit the cold water.

It was one of the few places on the Wood where the water is over my head. I didn't touch bottom but managed to bob up to the surface and grab a limb. I may have said a bad word concerning the water temperature.

John calmly swam alongside the canoe as it drifted past the tree. One of those rare folks who keeps his cool in an emergency, he flipped over the water-filled craft. While I clung to the branch, he was busy saving our gear. He gathered up everything except for the fishing rods, which sank to the bottom.

Stuart and Jim carefully maneuvered the other canoe up into the downed tree, where I was able to grab the bow, latching on like a leech.

Inexplicably, I burst out laughing as they paddled for the opposite bank. Perhaps it was relief that I wasn't at the bottom of the river. But likely it was just because it seemed so ludicrous to be dumped in the Wood.

The humor quickly faded into cold reality when I crawled up on the bank and stood up in the cold wind. We had no dry clothes and more than an hour of paddling to reach our takeout point.

I have been in brittle cold in the Alaskan Arctic in winter, including 48-degrees below zero. My frozen face has been so numb you could have pulled a tooth sans any painkiller. I wouldn't have felt a thing.

But the cold that June afternoon sank into my very marrow. It was a teeth-chattering, gnawing cold that would have chilled a water rat. We paddled furiously to keep hypthermia at bay.

As the great outdoor humorist Pat McManus would have put it, it was the finest of miseries.

We learned a few lessons that day: never underestimate any river, always wear your life jacket and bring a change of clothes in a dry bag.

But we agreed there is still nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in canoes on the Wood.

Providing they stay right side up, of course.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.