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‘Retro Team’ rides Upper Klamath rapids

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Editor’s Note: Lee Juillerat earlier this week was part of a three-day Upper Klamath River Safari multisport outing with Ashland-based Momentum Expeditions. He was joined by Larry Turner, a freelance photographer. This is the first of a two-part series.

[Photo by Larry Turner] Nate Whittey, right, of Medford, runs Caldera, a Class 4 rapid on the Upper Klamath River.
[Photo by Larry Turner] Caldera is a Class 4 rapid on the Upper Klamath River.
[Photo by Larry Turner] Upper Klamath Bush Camp has tents atop wooden platforms, a kitchen, outhouse and showers.
[Photo by Larry Turner] Stars light up the night sky on a three-day multisport expedition along the Upper Klamath River.
[Photo by Larry Turner] Kathy Cook is all smiles at the evening meal prepared by Momentum Expeditions.
[Photo by Larry Turner ] Sabrina Swainson relaxes alongside during a break on the three-day Upper Klamath River Safari.
[Photo by Larry Turner] The “Retro Team” runs the Upper Klamath River.

It began innocently enough.

We put in our whitewater rafts alongside a mellow section of the Upper Klamath River below the John C. Boyle Dam. Our short warmup included paddling along a gentle stretch of river where pelicans, just like the day before, were lounging — some on, others alongside — mostly submerged tree branches.

It was day two of our three-day multisport trip on the Upper Klamath. Our group of 17, plus four guides, had put in along the river off the Topsy Grade Road not far below John C. Boyle the day before.

Our team of six paddlers — dubbed the “Retro Team” because all of us are 60-plus years old — had already done this stretch of river, notorious for its extremely challenging rapids, so we were ready. Under the guidance of our guide, Micah Hayes, we had been tutored in paddling as a team. It was time to focus. Ahead was Caldera, a notorious, boat-busting Class 4-plus rapid.

“Paddle forward,” Micah ordered. Then, “Get ready.”

All hell broke loose.

Walls of frothy, pounding whitewater poured over us. Waves rocked the raft from side to side in an uneven rhythm. Abruptly the raft dipped, spilling walls of water that washed over us. The river seemingly disappeared, hidden by the maze and chaos of turbulence.

“Hold on!” shouted Micah, so we did, reaching inside the raft to grab hand holds.

“Paddle!” she commanded, so back on the side of the raft we scooted, dipping our blades, trying to stay in sync with each other as we paddled forward.

“Get down! Get down!” she yelled even louder, so we slid down to the floor of the raft, holding on as walls of water rumbled the raft randomly hither and thither.

We followed orders as Micah, from her perched position at the back of the raft, angled around semihidden rocks and obstacles. Eventually, after more get commands, came a softer: “Relax.”

Our crew, like those on the other rafts, did just that as we entered calm waters. When someone shouted, “high-five,” we all raised our paddles high, clapping them together in unison.

We celebrated, ready and aware there was more to come, including two more Class 4 rapids — Satan’s Gate and Hell’s Corner — and a series of wildly turbulent rapids rated as Class 3: Triangle, Upper and Lower Stagecoach, Branding Iron, Dragon and Jackass, where we paused for lunch.

Micah joined the other guides — Jorge Esquivel, Rey Vargas and Vikram “Vik” Joshi — in preparing a sumptuous lunch. Incredible meals and snacks were the norm over our three days.

Lunch was followed by more rumbling rapids: Scarface, Dance Hall, Ambush, Bushwhacker, Rainbow Rock and Snag Island, where we pulled to the riverside and departed our rafts while the guides tied rafts to trees and rocks. A path not noticeable from the river led up to an open area, the Upper Klamath Bush Camp. The camp has tents atop wooden platforms, a kitchen, outhouse and showers.

The company we were rafting with, Ashland-based Momentum River Expeditions, has an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management to operate the camp during the rafting season. When the season ends, all the camp facilities are packed and trucked to an Ashland warehouse.

Some of us rested and swapped stories. Along with Larry Turner and me, the other members of our Retro Raft Team were Carlton and Kathy Cook from Houston and Jim and Sabrina Brooks, expats who live in Mexico.

Combined with the other teams, it was a diverse group. Micah is from Boston. Vik is from India. Jorge and Rey are from Costa Rica.

Other paddlers included a Wall Street stockbroker who was with his daughter, celebrating her high school graduation. A large family group lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Two others were from Portland.

While the guides prepared appetizers and, later, another delicious dinner, we relaxed, sipping Rogue Valley wines, fly-fishing, reading, playing cornhole, swimming in the river, showering and sharing stories of past adventures.

The day actually started hours earlier. We had been ferried across the river and taken a trail up to the Topsy Grade Road where other guides had driven in with mountain bikes.

From there it was six miles of biking or hiking to where the second round of whitewater had started. Our “safari” began with biking, hiking and, best of all, paddling individual kayaks — or “rubber duckies” — to the downstream Copco Reservoir.

But those are tales for another day.

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

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Micah Hayes’ and Rey Vargas’ first names.