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150 rapids in four days

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Guided rafting trip down the Illinois River measured up
Photo by Bruce Hope Shana guides a raft through the Little Green Wall.
Photo by Bruce Hope A member of the expedition floats the slack water above Horse Sign Creek.
Photo by Bruce Hope Momentum guides take a raft through the Green Wall without passengers because of low water.

The Illinois River stretches some 56 miles from its headwaters east and south of Cave Junction to its confluence with the Rogue River near Agness.

Its Wild and Scenic Section flows through a steep canyon for 29 miles between Briggs and Nancy creeks, featuring 150 rapids, of which 11 are Class IV and one is Class V. It is reputed to be the most remote, inaccessible river segment in the continental United States.

Compared to bigger rivers we’ve rafted, the Illinois is very technical, with a great deal of skill (the guides, not ours) required to weave through its boulder-strewn rapids. Getting over and around these rocks means a rafting journey down the Illinois is highly flow dependent, so we were doing some fretting — given our drought — about whether flows would be adequate when our turn finally came. When we finally got our chance, the river wasn’t exactly gushing, but it had just enough water in it to float our boats (so to speak).

In 2016, I backpacked the Illinois River Trail #1161 west from Briggs Creek to Oak Flat. It soon became apparent that the trail, despite its name, came close to the river in only a few spots and is well above it most of the time. I was left with a strong desire to experience the Illinois more directly. So, in 2019, we signed on with Momentum River Expeditions to raft the Illinois in early 2020.

The day we made our final payment was the very day that Oregon went into its COVID lockdown. Fortunately, Momentum was willing to let us move our plans (and payments) forward to 2021.

April 2021 rolled around, and day one of our four-day trip got underway when our four Momentum guides — Jonathan (trip leader), Shana (who had guided us on the Owyhee River in 2019), Derik, and Alex — gathered us up with four other guests and drove us to the put-in at Miami Bar west of Selma. There we were met with clear, sunny skies and warm breezes, which would be with us for most of the trip.

Given that there are 150 of them, most of the rapids on the Illinois are not named. Between our put-in at Miami Bar and our first night’s camp at Pine Flat, we plowed or bounced or plunged through No. 11 , No. 12 , No. 13 , Labrador Creek, Rocky Top, York Creek, Clear Creek, Rapid No. 29, and Pine Creek, plus several without names.

The forests through here had been incinerated by massive wildfires in 2002 (Biscuit complex), 2017 (Chetco Bar), and 2018 (Klondike). Brown, burnt, snag-littered hillsides predominate. There are just a few places where enough trees remain to give you a feeling for how lush this area must have looked before the fires.

From Pine Flat, on day two, we floated down to a camp at South Bend. This stretch hosts several rapids, but no named ones. Two of us (me included) managed to test the waters when our raft got compressed against the side wall in one of the rapids and then sprang back, hurling us out in the process.

I was expecting to have to ride the waters to the eddy below the rapid but Jonathan managed to pull both of us back aboard fairly quickly. Still, it was a character-building way to start the day. And it did clear up any lingering personal hygiene issues.

We reached our camp at South Bend while there was still plenty of sunshine to get everything dried-out in anticipation further wettings — hopefully in the raft rather than out of it — the next day.

Breakfast on day three was tinged with a hint of anxiety as we anticipated getting through the famous (or infamous) Green Wall, the river’s one Class V rapid, plus eight other named rapids. If yesterday had been a wet, but easy, day, today was expected to be a hard and wet day.

Soon after leaving camp, we came to Prelude Rapid (aka Fawn Falls). By now the flow had fallen to 496 cfs and the line was tight. Much pushing and pulling and walking ensued, but we managed to get all the rafts through without any mishaps.

Prelude Rapid is a prelude to the Green Wall. After much scouting, the guides determined that the flow was too low to safely float guests through the Wall. Instead, they would take the rafts through while we walked around to the bottom of the rapids. It was a little disappointing to not run Green Wall, but being on shore allowed for better photos of this famous rapid.

The heavier gear rafts were able to make it through but the lighter passenger rafts had to be hauled around some obstacles. Additional pushing and pulling and lining ensued. Right after we said farewell to the Green Wall, we ran through Little Green Wall. Fortunately, it was slightly less complicated than its predecessor and we were able to run it with everyone onboard and no lining or portaging.

Two more rapids followed — Sweeney Todd (aka Rapid No. 97) and Holey Pohle (aka Rapid No. 104). One of our group got thrown out of her raft in one of these and was pleased to find that her dry suit was in fact dry as she clung to a rock in mid-river waiting to be lined back to shore.

Then came Submarine Hole, where we again had to resort to pushing and squeezing. After that, the day got much less intense. By late afternoon, we were losing sunlight to an overcast that was streaming in ahead of a wet storm due the next day. So, after some glorified riffles and two more named rapids (No. 131 and Horse Sign Creek), we were all glad to pull into camp at Horse Sign Creek, some 12 miles and nine hours after leaving South Bend.

We expected the storm to strike us before we reached camp. It didn’t. A few passing sprinkles that barely got anything wet arrived while we were setting up camp. Those soon went away — thanks, no doubt, to all the effort we expended erecting a giant tarp. With dryness assured, we had another great dinner in the open and sat around the campfire solving the world’s problems until overcome by tiredness. Then to bed, to be soothed by the white noise coming from Horse Sign Creek. It had been a long, but excellent, day. Tomorrow would be a short run to the takeout at Oak Flat and then a long drive home.

Our fourth and last day on the Illinois involved a somewhat leisurely start (with Momentum’s signature pastrami eggs Benedict for breakfast) followed by easy rowing on slack water. We soon reach Oak Flat (which is also where the Illinois River Trail ends), and Momentum’s van and trailer arrived not too long after. With rain clouds loitering not far away, it didn’t take long for the guides to get everything loaded. We drove back via Highway 199 (Bear Camp Road being closed) and were home by early evening.

And thus, our excellent adventure on the Illinois, with its stunningly clear water and many boulder-strewn rapids, came to an end. Once again, we owed the positiveness of this experience to the professionalism, skill and experience of our four guides. They are really good, affable people — and good cooks.

This was our second trip with Momentum and we remain impressed that this small, local company can attract such skilled and personable people. We were also lucky in that our fellow guests were good, easygoing people with interesting stories. We were also very fortunate that the Illinois flowed high enough for long enough to allow us to have this adventure.

Bruce and Linda Hope live in Medford and recount their adventures at https://vanmarmot.org.

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