Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Going Rogue

Oregon river canyon offers adventure without the risk

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When I was a young man, I took some fearless -- and perhaps inadvisable -- trips.

I rode freight trains from Jersey City to St. Louis, Mo. I bummed my way across the Sahara on lorries and Land Rovers. I hiked eight days through an African jungle so remote money had no value and small children wanted to touch my skin because they had never seen a European.

But I'm not a kid anymore. I'm 65. I still love hiking and adventure, but I fractured my fibula a couple of years ago, spraining my ankle so badly it took six months to (mostly) heal. So I've been looking for adventures that are a bit tamer -- and recently found a terrific one.

My companion, Cindy, and I hiked and rafted 60 kilometres in four days along the Rogue River Canyon in Oregon. We signed up with an outfitter, Rogue Wilderness Adventures, that leads hiking trips through a designated wilderness area under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Each week, just 120 visitors are allowed into the area that includes one of eight rivers first protected by the U.S. Wild Rivers Protection Act of 1973 (there are now some 220 protected rivers in the U.S.). Sixty visitors are allowed into the area through a lottery conducted each January and the rest are allowed in if travelling with an outfitter that contracts with the federal agencies.

The Rogue River, in southern Oregon, is largely unspoiled. There are a few camps and lodges that were built before the area became a designated wilderness area, and these have been allowed to continue operating.

We stayed three nights in wonderful funky lodges built during the 1950s. And although we saw a couple of motorized boats on the last day, the first three days were so remote and the river so rocky that only rafts -- and fish -- can go down it. Early settlers are said to have thrown sticks of dynamite into some of the rapids to make them more navigable.

Our trip began at the Grave Creek Boat Launch and continued to Foster Bar, 60 kilometres downstream. In the late 1800s, the area was filled with gold miners who brought supplies in -- and their riches out -- by mule.

We followed their trail, which wends its way some 30 to 60 metres above the river. In places, the trail was made fit for mules only by using dynamite to chip away at the bedrock of the steep hillside. No roads follow this canyon, no cellphones work and there is electricity only at the lodges that have generators -- and then generally only in the evening until 10 p.m.

This was a comfortable trip. We had two guides -- knowledgeable, helpful, funny and full of lore -- and two rafts supporting the six of us hiking (though often the trips include as many as a dozen hikers). We stayed in lodges with comfortable beds, hot showers and plenty of good food. The trail climbed and descended, but was never uncomfortably steep. The precipices were scary, but safe.

Each day at lunch time, we met the rafts at a sandbar and were treated to a buffet lunch set up under a three-metre-by-three-metre tent. We had folding canvas chairs to sit on, Gatorade to replenish our electrolytes and a raft to carry us if we were tired. And, best of all, we did not have to carry our gear. I carried a day pack with rain gear, camera, snacks, extra clothes, a journal and wildflowers books. The rest of our stuff went on the rafts.

Spring in Oregon is full of wildflowers. We hiked from May 30 to June 2, when the wildflowers were at their peak. Most years, the wildflowers bloom a bit earlier, but it had been a cold, wet spring, so the flowers waited for us. There was never a moment on the hike when I couldn't see flowers in bloom. And many of the wildflowers were related to those that I know as garden flowers: iris, poppies, coral bells, larkspur and sedum.

I was struck by the sheer exuberance of the wildflowers -- and their number and diversity. The irises were at their peak and blooming magnificently in full shade. The colours of iris changed as we proceeded: from yellow to pale yellow to purple. And coral bells (Heuchera spp.) grew in rocky faces where no self-respecting garden flower would want to grow. The meadows were filled with soft grasses and uncountable California poppies. It was a gardener's dream.

If you go now, there will be few (if any) wildflowers blooming, but the trees will be reward enough: Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine that tower above the trail. Pacific madrone trees with bark you'll just have to touch. You'll see Big Leaf maples with leaves that make our maples seem undernourished. And the ferns will be luscious in the shady gullies, including some that gardeners buy at nurseries (you can see maidenhair fern, for example, in its native environment).

The rain and drizzle of Oregon -- though not always welcomed by hikers -- helps to create a lush habitat. There are also bears, rattlesnakes, deer and birds. We saw deer and osprey every day, some bald eagles and one golden eagle (my first ever) -- but no rattlers or bears.

The biggest hazard was the poison oak, which was omnipresent. Fortunately, there is the equivalent of a "morning-after pill." We purchased little packets of Tecnu cream that we rubbed on our skin after our evening showers. It's useful not only in preventing poison oak allergies, but allegedly is good for curing it. I was careful, so I never contracted it.

I jumped onto a raft a couple of times to get a taste of the river. It's full of rapids, from Class II to IV, and the guides negotiated the steep bits the way cabbies drive in rush-hour traffic. Wet gear was provided for the more extreme parts. The guides encouraged hikers to hop on a raft before blisters formed or anyone got too tired. Quite the luxury.

I liked the fact I could take this hike in a remote area, a place where no one is texting (or telling, via cellphone, their child to feed the parakeet or discussing their relationship with their mother), and yet know if something bad happened, someone was there with a radio to call in the helicopters. Our group had two-way radios at the lead and tail-end of our group, ready to tell our guide that the bears had us surrounded.

But, of course, the bears are timid and hid from us. I returned home ready for another, similar adventure.

-- Postmedia News


-- WHERE: Rogue River Canyon, in Oregon, in the northwest United States. Trips depart from Merlin, Ore., which is just outside Grants Pass.

-- HOW TO GET THERE: Fly to Portland, Ore., (at the north end of the state, near the border with Washington state), then rent a car for the four- to five-hour drive to Grants Pass (near the south end of the state). Or fly to Medford, Ore., which is less than an hour by car from Grants Pass.

-- WHEN TO GO: Raft-supported hiking trips are available in May and June or in September and October. Summer is too hot for hiking.

-- COST: US$989 includes all hiking, food and accommodation (except liquor and tips), but not getting to Oregon.

-- CONTACT: Brad Niva at Rogue Wilderness Adventures; see or call 1-541-479-9554.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 D2

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