Rafters speed down the rampaging Rogue River
Will Volpert, Aaron Lieberman and Hunter Connolly say they're not crazy. They just wanted to experience the full force of the Rogue River, which raged at flood stage by the time they got done with their 4 1/2-hour express raft trip Saturday afternoon at Foster Bar near Agness.
It's typically a two- or three-day excursion in summer, covering 35 miles.
They even arrived before their shuttle driver, as they careened down the mocha-colored, frothing, log-laden mess of a river.
"There were small moments of terror in places, but for the most part we did a great job of being in control," said Volpert, a 28-year-old veteran river guide from Ashland. "I've heard from a few folks that it's the first time it's been done (this high). It might be."
It was so high Rainie Falls may as well have been Rainie Flats, not even noticeable, Volpert said.
Inspiration Point, that popular vista high above Mule Creek Canyon during summer? Under water.
The toilets at Foster Bar, normally 200 feet from the bank? Only the stacks on the roofs were visible.
More than 10 inches of rain fell in three days in the mountains feeding the Rogue's lower tributaries. When the trio put in at Almeda Park below Galice Saturday morning, the flow was around 25,000 cubic feet per second. When they beached at Foster Bar, the nearby gauge at Agness indicated flows still above 90,000 cfs, after peaking at over 100,000 cfs Friday night.
"For the most part, entire river bends were gone," Volpert said. "It was flowing almost in a straight line. Landmarks you'd normally use were completely gone. There were places we went, 'You think we're going over this right now? Uhh, I think so.' "
They joked that from now on they'd camp at Horseshoe Bend only at flood stage, since the campsite was at river's edge on Saturday.
Volpert, owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters, took photographs and video, while Lieberman, 26, did most of the rowing in his 16-foot SOTAR raft he named Killum, after a rapid on Idaho's Salmon River. Lieberman, of Merlin, is operations manager for Orange Torpedo Trips, which specializes in inflatable kayaks. Connolly, of Grants Pass, guides for Orange Torpedo in the summer.
On Saturday, the 18-year-old Connolly paddled a hard-shell kayak. Lieberman said, "Hunter is going to be a name we hear in the future, in kayaking."
"Hunter had some interesting rides," Lieberman went on. "He probably had to roll four or five times. At one point he got stuck in an eddy line and went halfway under the raft."
They catapulted down the river fast enough to beat their shuttle driver, Jeanne Fields, who drove through Brookings and Gold Beach, by 10 minutes.
"I can't definitively say this is the highest anybody's ever done it, but I don't know of anybody else who's run it that high," said Erik Weiseth, manager at Orange Torpedo. "There haven't been many opportunities when the water was that high."
Since 1960, the Rogue has hit 100,000 cubic feet per second at the Agness gauge in 15 different years, or almost once every three years, according to USGS records. Flood stage is approximately 55,000 cfs, which has happened in 36 years since 1960.
Five of those 100K-plus readings were epic floods, above 200,000 cfs, including the 290,000 cfs during the 1964 flood, and 240,000 cfs in the New Year's Day Flood of 1997.
Clearly the 100,000-cfs-benchmark is uncharted territory for rafting.
Volpert said it didn't feel that way the first 15 miles below Grave Creek, where the popular Wild Section starts. But at Quail Prairie, below Winkle Bar, a series of rocks the size of houses that please swimmers in summer turned the water into a swirling dervish.
"Both of us felt like if we made a mistake, put the boat in the wrong spot, we could end up in the river and that's going to be a bad deal," Volpert said of he and Lieberman.
Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar, the Rogue's most notorious rapids, were surreal. Lieberman said they got below the Coffee Pot at Stair Creek Falls — at flood stage no longer a falls — where there was "an incredibly ugly set of hydraulic rapids — these incredibly large boils and hydraulics like I've never seen before. We got caught on one and surfed in a way that's not even possible. It let us out after a couple of seconds."
They went left at Blossom Bar to avoid smashing along the outside of a sweeping curve, and avoided a wave train down the middle. At Foster Bar, Volpert said it was a feat for Lieberman to pull the raft into the bank.
Volpert said he's received mostly positive comments from folks who saw the photos and video online, along with some negative ones.
"That was from folks who are concerned about other people copying it, or who thought it was a stunt," Volpert said. "I've thought a lot about it. I don't think it was a stunt. The three of us have a tremendous amount of respect for the river. It would be a stunt if we weren't aware of the risks. But we were very much in tune with what we were doing."
Weiseth said it was quite an accomplishment.
"It was three highly skilled paddlers who took on a big challenge and successfully navigated it," he said. "All three would admit it's a high combination of skill with a little bit of luck thrown in."