As an Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division sergeant in Lincoln County, Greg Plummer’s driftboat experience on the somewhat tranquil Trask River is minor league compared to the upper Rogue River.
“This is my first time on a river like this,” Plummer says.
During a recent Oregon State Marine Board training session, Plummer was about to be coaxed through the Rogue’s Rattlesnake Rapids, a technical rapid upstream of TouVelle State Park that most upper Rogue driftboaters avoid their entire lives.
But with an early summer river flow that is higher than most years, Rattlesnake Rapid was as easy as the Monday crossword that day for Plummer. Rocks that could sink his boat were comfortably under water.
“I rubbed against a couple rocks on the way down, but it was fun. I feel like I did all right,” he says.
Rogue rafters and other floaters will find a relatively forgiving river during the summer rafting season, which is hitting its full stride.
The snowy late winter and persistent April rains that drew curse words all spring are now paying off in spades, creating strong summer Rogue flows close to 20 percent higher than last year.
Flows out of Lost Creek Lake — which dominate summer flows in the upper Rogue — have been as high as 3,000 cubic feet per second throughout much of June, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That’s at least one-third higher than drought years, and about 50 percent more in late June than if the reservoir were not there, according to Corps data.
Water releases are planned in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they are intended to help migrating spring chinook salmon, and later fall chinook salmon, make their way upriver from the ocean in water cool enough to stave off disease outbreaks triggered in hot, low flows.
The Corps plans to walk down releases to the Rogue to about 2,000 cfs the first 10 days of July, then drop to about 1,700 cfs until Aug. 10, when a spike up to 2,100 cfs will help cool the Lower Rogue Canyon while fall chinook make their way through there for the rest of August.
While strong water years are a positive for the Rogue’s wild chinook, they don’t necessarily make the Rogue better, or worse, for rafters.
It simply makes it different, because different river levels have both pluses and minuses to rafters depending on their likes and needs.
Some rapids such as Rattlesnake tend to smooth out in higher water, losing some of their yippee ingredients. Others like Class 4 Ti’lomikh Falls near Gold Hill, formerly know as Powerhouse Rapid, develop a little more spunk.
This rapid typically is tackled with the help of professional guides who start on the right side and cut across the face of an island to a series of two drops on the left. In lower water years, the drops are more pronounced.
“Instead of these really sharp drops, what you find are the drops kind of fill in,” says Will Volpert, owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters in Ashland. “Instead of small holes and small waves, you get these really big holes and big waves,” Volpert says. “It’s a really fun ride.”
Also at Ti’lomikh Falls, higher water means the right-side channel known as Muggers Alley can come into play. Named for Muggers Rock, which protrudes in the rapid, the rock can regularly separate paddlers from their rafts. But in higher flows, the rock can be under water and not come into play.
“When that happens, it’s a really fun wave trail,” Volpert says.
Both rapids are rated Class IV and should be tackled only by experts. They are the prime attractions in the 5.5-mile float from Fishers Ferry boat ramp near the former Gold Ray Dam site downstream to Gold Hill.
“For a quick splash with some good whitewater, this stretch is a good option,” Volpert says.
But it’s not a good option for the skill sets of the vast majority of rafters paddling and grinning their way through hot summer days.
Higher water means faster water and more chances for trees and brush overhanging the river’s edge to pose dangers for boaters.
These branches are commonly called “strainers,” because they can scrape paddlers off rafts and inflatable Tahitis, or even puncture them and leave boaters stuck in their grip — sometimes perilously.
Water rescues are common occurrences along the upper and middle sections of the Rogue regardless of the water year, and many could be avoided if boaters better matched their abilities to the sections of river they choose.
“We have a lot of people who get into an area, maybe with their family, and they’re not prepared for it,” says Deputy Ernie Fields of the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office’s marine program. “They get in areas where their skill levels mean they shouldn’t be there. So make sure you only row areas that you should be in, based on your skills.”
The Marine Board took its marine deputies and OSP troopers — including Plummer — on the run from the Takelma boat ramp to TouVelle State Park on their first day of driftboat school.
Casual rowers like Plummer may be asked to run a rough rapid in a lifesaving situation, so they better learn they can do it.
“If they get into a sticky situation, there are 50 cops here trained to deal with that,” says Ed Persichetti, the Marine Board’s law-enforcement training coordinator. “What better way to train on difficult whitewater?”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.