dawn of the third day, sunbeams filtering through the cathedral
trees are dappling my sleeping bag. But I’ve been roused
not by light but by darkly aromatic tendrils invading my nostrils.
I trace them through the cool morning air to a pot of thick “cowboy”
coffee burbling on the hissing stove. I slip out of my sleeping
bag, stand, and deeply inhale the fresh, bracing air.
A few yards away, the sun is prismed by spume spurting from
the restive river that has been the focus of our journey. I walk
to its edge and dip a hand into clear water flowing over striated
stones, splashing refreshing droplets onto my face.
The Chetco is not a raging torrent. It is a river animated by
moods varying from hissy and irritable to mesmerizingly tranquil,
with long flat stretches that invite contemplation. Like a drainspout,
the 44-mile-long stream empties the southwestern corner of Oregon,
carrying the moisture of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness down a narrow,
uninhabited valley, and through the small town of Brookings before
its tongue tastes the tang of Pacific salt. On its journey, it
stairsteps down the Siskyou Range, a delightful series of crystalline
rapids rushing from one deep pool to the next, water so green
and clear you can see the rust-colored salamanders resting on
My ears detect soft shushing sounds to my left and trace them
to a side creek where I find Allen Wilson panning for gold. He
rises from his crouch, dumping worthless sand back into the creek.
“I know it’s there; I just can’t find it,”
he says with ruefully, drying the pan on his shirtsleeve. But
although he can’t locate its gold, he’s already found
the Chetco’s true worth.
Rivers are roads into trackless wilderness, a magical journey
into remote regions not reachable by other means. The Chetco is
just such a river. It has been his backyard since childhood, and
now he introduces others to its delights. Allen, a seasoned Colorado
River guide, is the perfect person to take us through it. His
outfit, “Wilderness Canyon Adventures”, lets visitors
explore one of the country’s unique geologic wonders the
only way they can; each in his own inflatable canoe.
We’re on the final day of a typical trip. Two days ago,
we put in where an old forest road ended at the Chetco’s
shore. Few of the half dozen participants had ever paddled a boat
and thoughts of rocketing through “River Wild” rapids
had everyone looking downstream with queasy eyes. Spurred by Allen’s
enthusiasm, they pumped up their inflatables and their courage,
and dragged to the water’s edge the 11-foot boats that would
be their homes for the next three days. Now, on Day Three, we’ve
bumped into rocks and slid down chutes, and the previously trepid
travelers have become intrepid veterans who marvel that they could
have thought the Chetco so daunting.
Blessedly, our most persistent complainer has become our most
ardent paddler. On Day One, 12-year-old Brian had moaned about
being so far from his friends and what a “dumb idea”
it was to use a boat without an engine. He’s now the group’s
most proficient paddler, the one who tries to lead us through
each of the rapids. He’s also the first one overboard when
we reach the pools, diving deep to see if he can pick slow-moving
salamanders off the bottom. His older brother climbs the massive
boulders which rise 20 feet out of the water, diving from them
into the deep pools. The 65-degree water takes the sting out of
an entry, enveloping one in warmth rather than the icy shock of
many mountain streams.
We’re about to embark on the final leg through a serpentine
gorge blocked by boulders so large we’ll have to portage
the boats. But first we fortify ourselves with a hearty breakfast
as delicious as the other gourmet camp meals we’ve enjoyed.
Luke and Stormy, Allen’s guides and cooks, have settled
the thick coffee grounds and are pouring the morning’s first
jolting cups. The scent hooks the nostrils of the other half dozen
boaters who now stir from their sleeping bags. A goshawk is crying
and metallic-hued dragonflies flit from rock to rock as the sun
touches the foreshore. Luke adds sizzle to the morning sounds
by dropping ham slices onto a hot skillet.
The Chetco, a federally-designated Wild and Scenic river, drains
the 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a unique ecological zone
harboring a host of strange plants like the carnivorous Pitcher
Plant (Darlingtonia californica) and several species of rare orchids.
The Wilderness is part of the million-acre Siskiyou Forest Reserve
established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1905. A geologic anomaly derived
from a prehistoric subduction of the Pacific plate under the American
continent 400 million years ago, its most striking stones are
the serpentines whose marble-like striations and hues range from
red to green and give the canyons a jewel-like quality.
The Kalmiopsis’ rocks and soils nurture a wealth of vegetation
that makes the Siskiyou the most floristically diverse National
Forest in the country. We’ve seen many plants nestled in
the jagged rocks hemming the shoreline. As intriguing as the flowers
are their charming names: Sugar Stick, Elk Clover, Nodding Arnica,
Goat's-Beard, Fairy-Slipper, Pussy Paws, Slender Paintbrush, Ox-Eyed
Daisy, Giant Adder's Tongue, Tinker's Penny, Chickweed Monkey
Flower, and American Speedwell.
Breakfast over, we strike camp and, led by Brian, push into
a stretch of the Chetco that flows quietly beneath overhanging
boughs. Allen’s love of the region — and his considerable
knowledge — is apparent as he points out features of the
forest. Of the many coniferous trees, the most unusual is the
Brewer, or Weeping, Spruce a tree of breathtaking beauty whose
slender branches droop like a Weeping Willow. First encountered
in 1884, it was the last tree species to be discovered in North
America. It is complemented by a variety of firs, Incense Cedar,
and numerous pines, as well as hardwoods like Maples, Alders,
Madrones, Pacific Dogwood, Oregon Ash, Oaks, and the intriguing
From time to time, Allen directs our attention to birds that thrive
along the river’s margins. “The Kalmiopsis is host
to 392 bird species,” he says, and then points out many
of them, like the Marbled Murrelets, Olive-sided Flycatchers,
and Hermit Warblers.
Ahead, we hear the crash of waves and soon find ourselves in
the most difficult stretch yet. We portage the boats and supplies
100 yards downstream into calm water, re-lash everything and set
off again. We’re rewarded for our hard work by the appearance
of channels twisting through water so turbulent that two days
before, most boaters would have elected to walk. Today, however,
they forge ahead, riding even a three-foot drop into swirling
water without a quaver.
Lunch is a do-it-yourself sandwich buffet on the beach. The
site fronts one of the many inviting green pools we’ve encountered
after each rapid. In them, we’ve relived memories of childhood
summers, diving, splashing, sunning ourselves on the rocks. When
the heat becomes oppressive, we just tip out of our boats and
into the water, climbing back in when we’re sufficiently
Soon the river enters a long valley and begins to widen. There
are still numerous riffles and rapids to keep things interesting
but the broadening river gives a pleasing finality to the journey.
Soon, below the first house we’ve seen in three days, we
crunch into a sandy beach, the journey over. As we disassemble
gear, everyone is quiet and pleasantly mellow. Many are beginning
to plan their next journey, bringing children or friends to share
“Wilderness Canyon Adventures” offers a large menu
of one-day adventures but it is on the three-day journeys that
one absorbs the full flavor of the region. Allen keeps the groups
small to make the experience more intimate.
Three-day journeys can also be combined with a five-day horseback
trip through the Chetco’s headwaters in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
Or with backpacking through an old growth forest before dropping
down to the river for a three-day paddle. Costs range from $80
for a one-day trip to $360 for three days.
The season begins in mid-May and ends in August when the river
levels begin dropping. Trips start in Gold Beach, 20 miles north
of Brookings. From San Francisco, the long drive up Highway 101
is made more enjoyable if broken into two days via Highway 1 with
a rest stop in Mendocino. Spend the night in Humboldt State Park
beyond the junction with 101, camping beneath the redwoods. That
will put you in Gold Beach by early afternoon of the second day,
time to unwind before launching on the river the following morning.
Those in a hurry to slow down their lives can fly to Eureka, and
drive 127 miles north on Highway 101 to Gold Beach.
On the homeward journey, allow time to enjoy the region’s
other attractions. From Gold Beach, drive east up the Rogue River
Valley to Grants Pass and from there to Ashland to attend the
Shakespearean Festival, and from there to Crater Lake. Or continue
up the coast to explore the many lighthouses, and mouth-watering
To book a trip, contact Wilderness Canyon Adventures at 94500
Meyers Road, Gold Beach, Oregon 97444. Tel: (541) 247-6924 or
toll-free at (888) 517-1613; e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit the web site at http://www.wilderness-canyon-ex.com/