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Kayaking the Northwest

Are you a kayaker at heart? Does the idea of coursing through water under your own steam intrigue you?

In Southern Oregon and Northern California, the kayak season is yearlong and the possibilities for adventure are nearly endless.

A skilled kayaker like Matt Dopp, owner of Kokopelli River Guides in Ashland, might ply the Applegate River after a winter rain or venture onto the Smith River as it swells with snowmelt. In summer, he takes beginners to the dam-controlled Klamath River, because "it's warmer than the Rogue and less crowded." He chooses approachable rapids from a 60-mile stretch between Portuguese Creek and Green Riffle.

"Being out there is calming. You have to focus on the task, because even if it's easy water, it's potentially dangerous," says Dopp. He loves the remoteness of the sport. "You can get to places you can't go on foot or by car." He also loves its flexibility. "I can make it as calm or as rowdy as I want."

Nearby rivers attract some of the best instructors in the world, so you'll be in good hands when you go.

Rush Sturges grew up on the Salmon River near Forks of Salmon in Northern California, where his parents, Kristy and Peter, own Otter Bar Kayaking School. He's a pro kayaker who pushes the limits of the extreme sport of playboating. He is also an instructor at this remote school.

Most of us will never playboat, but Otter Bar covers all the kayak bases. From mid-April to June, advanced kayakers come to challenge the free-flowing Salmon's surf waves, holes and ledges. The resort is equally enchanting for those who dabble in kayaking. The season for beginners is July through mid-September, when the Klamath's reliable water levels are just right for learning to steer and balance.

Don't let age stop you, because kayaking works for "anyone who loves the river and has a willingness to learn," says Kristy Sturges. "It's more a sport of finesse than strength."

When you are not kayaking, you can seek a private swimming hole on the Salmon and explore a 60-acre wonderland snugged up against the rugged Trinity Alps. Otter Bar generates its own power, but does not lack for luxury. Guests ease sore muscles in an outdoor hot tub and wood-fired sauna, and two chefs add the pleasure of gourmet cuisine to this vacation off the grid.

From Grave Creek to Foster Bar, the Wild and Scenic Rogue winds 38 miles through steep mountain terrain, inhabited by bears, river otters and osprey. Rafting or kayaking here is strictly controlled.

In kayaking, what you know has a lot to do with where you can go, and kayaking into the Rogue wilderness takes skill, logistics and support. Joe Dabbs, owner of Sundance River Center in Merlin, figures it takes five full days of instruction for a beginner to learn enough to take a four-day guided kayak trip into the wilderness.

On day six, the kayakers begin their raft-supported journey. "The progression of rapids on the Rogue is ideal for beginners," says Dabbs. "You can go a long way without having to leave the river for a hard rapid." Between bouts of whitewater, the river slows, allowing rest, sightseeing and swimming. You'll find ample time to explore on foot from camp.

By the time you carry your boat around the daunting Blossom Bar and move into calmer water, you've watched your instructors barrel over Rainie Falls, and most of you have maneuvered through everything, including the long and challenging Mule Creek Canyon.

Youngsters adore kayaking, but they are not the only ones suited to the sport. "Kayaking is a lifelong activity," says Dabbs. "It's easy on the body and promotes flexibility."

Diehards know that you could kayak on Oregon's lakes, marshes and estuaries every weekend of the year and never lack for variety. Flatwater kayaking gives you "the time to look around, enjoy the scenery or talk to each other," says Dopp. Yes, you can take a kayak out on flat water without instruction, but some technique will improve your cruising ability.

Practice your stroke throughout the year at Emigrant or Lost Creek Lake. When the snow clears, head east to Hyatt Lake or Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. If you are willing to carry your boat half a mile, you can launch into Applegate Valley's Squaw Lake. Campsites on the shoreline are available by reservation with the Forest Service.

Is this the summer to get away from the every-day and live a little closer to the area's wild side? Take a kayak lesson and find out.

For Covey Baack of Gold Hill, there's nothing better than a day in a playboat. Covey, a river guide and champion freestyle kayaker, is the organizer of the Nugget Whitewater Rodeo, an event that's had a 24-year run on the Rogue River.

While most of us try to stay out of major holes in the river, it's the drive of kayak athletes like Covey that turns whitewater kayaking into a spectator sport. And you don't have to do this sport to enjoy watching it.

The object of the rodeo is to perform as many tricks as possible during three 45-second rounds in the hole. Oregon's rivers hold many holes, but few that are reliable every year and next to roads. Spectators can see the action while an announcer describes the tricks.

The athletes here helped create a new Olympic sport and powered innovations in kayak design. Upcoming rodeos and races include:

May 4 - 13: Deschutes River Festival, near Bend

May 4 - 6: Oregon River Games and Bob's Hole Whitewater Rodeo, upper Clackamas River at Carter's Bridge, 15 miles south of Estacada

Aug. 24 - 26: Clackamas River Slalom, a Northwest Cup Whitewater Race. www.nwwhitewater.org

Oct 6 - 7: Nugget Whitewater Rodeo, Gold Hill.

You can get to the Nugget Rodeo by following signs from the Gold Hill exit off I-5 on the first weekend in October.

Kayaking the Northwest