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Clear Creek was the clear favorite

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Michele Africa paddles through frothing whitewater in ClearCreek. (Photo courtesy Trish Stebbins)
Alex Crombie carries a two-person paddle raft to Clear Creek. Photo by Lee Juillerat

This was different.

Years ago I eagerly aimed my whitewater canoe into Class 5 rapids on the Rogue, Salmon and other big-water rivers. More recently I’ve mellowed, claiming the front seat in paddle rafts through bursting whitewater on the Illinois, Cataract and Upper Klamath rivers. In between I’ve kayaked calmer but scenically beautiful areas like the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia and Glacier Bay in Alaska.

But this was different.

After descending a 200-foot trail with our inflatable rafts, or “rubber duckies,” from the appropriately named Slippery View River Access, the water we reached was evocatively different. Its clarity was amazing. Translucent. Bottomless. Crystalline. No wonder it’s named Clear Creek.

Clear Creek is a tributary of the lower Klamath River. Few people know it exists. That’s part of its allure.

Set in a deep canyon, the downstream distance from the Slippery View put-in to the Klamath is a little more than four miles. Four miles of crystal-clear water that rumbles and meanders with twists and turns through a narrow channel gouged through a sheer canyon cloaked by a thick forest canopy and, because the timing was right, colorful blooming wildflowers.

Clear Creek is no broad, glacial-carved passage. In sections it’s only about 10 feet wide. While not regarded as seriously challenging, Clear Creek’s flow moves quickly, shifting angles as it rambles downstream, providing paddlers with both continuous challenges and serene pools to rest for the next plunge.

Clear Creek was the main attraction of a three-day kayaking trip from a riverside base camp along the Klamath River south of Happy Camp, California. Our first day began from Indian Creek to our glamp-site about 10 miles downstream.

Although the Klamath parallels Highway 96, the road is mostly unseen, partly because the wide-flowing Klamath is flanked by tall trees — a mix of Ponderosa pine, madrone, various oaks and firs. The paddling was often watching-the-river-flow gentle, but there are enough big, bouncy rapids to require focus and attention.

A time when I wasn’t attentive enough, while paddling Rattlesnake Rapids, a series of up-and-down waves that drenched my boat, I flew out of my duckie. It was my first, but not last, involuntary swim. Before our trip ended, only one of seven kayakers didn’t swim.

The whitewater was fun and challenging but not dangerous. The riverside delights included turtles sunning themselves on rocks. But truly fascinating was the bird life — Canada geese, mallards and turkey vultures and, more frequently, osprey soaring in overhead thermals.

Along a laid-back stretch, nature started happening. An osprey flew above, alternately soaring upstream and downstream, searching for fish. It momentarily hovered then — Bam! — it abruptly angled 45 degrees, plunging smack-dab and disappearing into the river. Seconds later it re-emerged, holding a small fish in its toes.

Dramatic, but then the real drama began. A bald eagle suddenly appeared overhead, flying like a fighter jet toward the osprey. Bald eagles are beautiful, majestic birds, but they are opportunists. It had watched the osprey and wanted its fish. We watched as the eagle and osprey put on an aerial display, whipping back and forth, the osprey’s flashy maneuvers matched by the determined eagle. Eventually the osprey, overpowered by the speedier and stronger eagle, yielded, dropping its catch and flying away. The eagle scooped the fish from the river, clutched it in his talons and flew away.

Our meals were less dramatic. I was part of a group offered by Momentum River Expeditions, a small guide-owned and -operated rafting company based in Ashland. A trio of guides led the way on the river and creek, and provided delicious meals. On Clear Creek, after a scrumptious lunch, it was back to Clear Creek.

Before lunch at one section our group did limber-river-limbos, bending to slip under a tree hanging only a foot or so above the creek. Because of extremely low water conditions, along some sections we paddled frantically over rock-butt-rumpy sections. After lunch, two channels were so shallow we carried rafts to passages deep enough to paddle. Back in the duckie after one portage, we blazed a new passage, generating a cacophony of noise from suddenly freed, rumbling-tumbling rocks.

Returning to the Klamath was relaxing, with an easy, familiar paddle back to camp.

The trip was three days of adventure, from the exhilaration of the kick-butt rapids to the kick-back time at camp to experiencing the nature of nature. But traveling Clear Creek was the clear favorite.

Because of low water, no more Clear Creek trips will be offered this unusually short season. Several other river excursions, from gentle family outings to expeditions for serious, experienced boaters, are still available from Momentum River Expeditions. For information, visit its website at www.momentumriverexpeditions.com or call 541-488-2525.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.