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Taming Savage Rapids

ROGUE RIVER — The silty Rogue River flowing through the top of the newly reconstituted Savage Rapids sounded like rain as it peppered my driftboat, a soothing sound for pounding hearts as we sized up the best path forward.

Then came the curious clapping of thunder, not from above but from below.

It was as boulders bounding downstream beneath us, each unearthed and catapulted downstream as the Rogue roared through decades of silt and debris once captured behind the freshly removed Savage Rapids Dam.

Suddenly rowing the first boat blindly and without pre-scouting through Savage Rapids in 88 years in front of a throng of gawkers wasn’t just about trying not to hit the rocks.

It was trying to keep the rocks from hitting us.

That eerie sensation at the top of Savage Rapids is now a decade old, with Wednesday’s 10th anniversary of the removal of the earthen coffer dam so the Rogue could flow freely through the old dam site for the first time since 1921.

In a way, we didn’t have much choice. That’s what happens when you set out to chronicle history but instead end up accidentally becoming part of it.

The dam was the first removed from the main-stem Rogue for wild salmon benefits, and Oct. 9 was set for crews to remove the temporary earthen coffer dam used to dewater the old dam’s concrete base so it could be broken up and hauled away.

At the time it was the largest dam ever removed for wild salmon benefits, and surely the moment the Rogue returned to a free-flowing river there would draw a flotilla of boaters looking to be the first ones to run it.

I was there, along with Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch and videographer Siboney Lusch, to cover that story.

We launched at Coyote Evans Park and drifted down to the pool upstream of the coffer dam waiting for the rafters parked along Highway 99 overlooking the site to launch.

They make history, we make a story. Simple stuff.

People lined the road while dignitaries and throngs of media manned the new catwalk across the river downstream of the rapid to watch an excavator dig away the coffer dam and send the Rogue flowing past the site.

As the water dropped the 20-plus feet, it cut through silt and freed debris stuck behind the dam over the decades.

But no boats came.

Since a project like this had never occurred, no one knew exactly what was about to happen, but we had the only front-row seat.

Then a little V in the Rogue’s surface appeared, and it grew and grew until up popped a submerged tree that floated over the top lip of the developing rapid and disappeared downstream. If or where it stopped we couldn’t tell because the lip was high enough that we would have to be right on it for a downstream view.

Still no boats.

We waited as more trees and rocks popped up and bounced downstream out of sight, and over the ensuing 90 minutes the conditions appeared to worsen than improve.

And still, no one dumb enough to test it.

We had two choices: Run it, or hire a tow company to haul out by driftboat in front of a few hundreds gawkers, most with cameras.

“I still gotta live in this town,” I told the Lusches, who just recently had married.

Jamie Lusch, an experienced whitewater runner, insisted we put the boat on the bank, walk down and scout it. But it conditions likely would change so fast that a chosen line through the rapids would be blocked before we could get back to the boat.

I got a few “I think you can make it” answers to cellphone calls to people on the catwalk just before we pushed off.

Demolition crews stopped. Flash cameras popped. Go time.

We dropped over the first lip and stopped in a small eddy, took in our first look. Not good.

A string of large and still creeping boulders revealed that the right two-thirds of the rapid clearly was not passable.

We’d have to pick our way down the left side along a high sandy bank that was still eroding.

With the thumbs-up from an excavator operator, we picked through the chocolate water toward the unknown.

Then came the rainy sound of the sand hitting the aluminum boat and then the thunderous bounding boulders.

I realize that over my then 20-plus years here covering the Rogue I write stories about people doing stupid things like this.

Should the large boulders move into our path, someone else writes this story.

As we approach them Siboney Lusch holds her video camera high and right over the nose of the boat, in my line of sight. I can’t yell at her to move it because, well, it’s good video.

The slipped past the boulders, which remained in place. That turned out to be the least of our worries.

As we floated toward a large, exposed root-wad, the river looked calm and inviting to the left of it.

We headed left, but at the last second I spun the boat and went right of it.

As we floated past it and under the catwalk to safety, I looked upstream to discover a long tree attached to that root-wad and barely under water.

It would have sunk us for sure.

The river suggested zig, but we chose zag. And for that brief moment when the new Savage Rapids was its most savage, this fresh piece of the Rogue was all ours.

Here’s a link to the video of Savage Rapids’ first decent 10 years ago: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SblBiBMgTzg

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Crews work to breach Savage Rapids Dam 10 years ago this week. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch
A drift boat navigates through the Rogue River's restored Savage Rapids for the first time in 88 years after the removal of the dam Friday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch