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Return trip to the North Umpqua River reveals new perspectives

It felt strange to be heading to the North Umpqua River without fly-fishing gear.

For a few years, my wife and I went at the sport with gusto, and the North Umpqua was our favorite destination. We would fish in the morning, rest in the afternoon, then wade into the river for a second round in the evening.

Those days are long behind us. Until last week, we hadn’t been to the North Umpqua for 20 years. Instead of fishing, we would devote this trip to well, we weren’t sure, exactly.

Charlotte and I took up fly fishing shortly after arriving in Southern Oregon 30 years ago. An avid outdoorsman, Mike Baughman, showed us how, and he continued supplying us with advice — and his own hand-tied flies — as our interest and enthusiasm grew. Spending weekends on the North Umpqua with Mike and his wife, Hilde, became a regular part of our lives.

A book that belongs in every Northwest collection, “A River Seen Right,” tells some delightful fish tales, while exploring the 30-mile run of the North Umpqua designated strictly for fly fishing. These are sacred, legendary pools and riffles to people like Mike, who approach fly fishing as art and ritual. Mike wrote “A River Seen Right.” What luck to have him as our friend and guru.

Through no fault of Mike’s, neither Charlotte nor I ever landed the grand prize of a steelhead — only trout. And we never achieved the Zen state of being at one with our rod and reel, and at peace with the river.

The North Umpqua is no placid stream but a swift, deep, rambunctious expressway. One misstep on its slippery underwater rocks could lead to disaster. We never quite got over our fear of being swallowed alive.

After you’ve retired from fly fishing, what’s there to do in North Umpqua country? Turns out, plenty.

We spent a few hours one day hiking the North Umpqua Trail through stout cedars and Douglas fir — specifically a segment that heads north from Toketee Lake. The voice of the river accompanied us, becoming louder or softer with every bend in the trail.

Back in our fly-fishing days, we were always in a hurry to get to the river, then worn out on the drive home. This time, we had no excuse for missing the five waterfalls between Mount Thielsen and the Forest Service campground at Boulder Flat, where we stayed two nights.

“Waterfalls” is a broad term, covering everything from rapids streaming down a gently sloping rock to a torrent plummeting over the edge of a cliff. The five falls along, or close to, Highway 138, the main road through the Umpqua National Forest, cover both ends of the spectrum, and some between.

The effort required to reach them varies, too, from nearly none at all (Clearwater and Whitehorse) to some steep hiking (Watson, Toketee and Lemolo).

Of the two falls on the North Umpqua itself — Toketee and Lemolo — Toketee is more popular, one of the most-photographed cascades in Oregon, supposedly. Its waters surge through a basalt opening, spill into an upper pool, then drop elegantly for 100 feet or so.

Unfortunately, we found its viewing platform too crowded for comfort in this summer of COVID. We didn’t stick around.

We were glad that Lemolo, equally as photogenic, wasn’t as popular. The trailhead is about seven miles from Highway 138, including a stretch of dirt road too narrow for RVs to turn around. We didn’t encounter another person on the one-mile trail down to the falls or back.

You can hike right up to Lemolo, even take a dip in the pool. For us, it was enough to feel the breeze generated by its plunging waters and to soak up the spray.

Another highlight of our North Umpqua getaway was peaceful Boulder Flat campground. Its nine sites are spaced generously apart, and you can see and hear the river from all of them.

In mid-summer, when the river runs low, it’s possible to sit on a rock, close to the bank, and not have to cling for your life. That’s how I passed some time one afternoon, while Charlotte read a book at our campsite. I soaked my feet, and emptied my mind, true to Herman Melville’s words in “Moby-Dick”: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

Our fly-fishing days may be over. But heading home from the North Umpqua, we felt we had made new connections with the river.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer who lives in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

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Lemolo Falls Umpqua National Forest photo