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The River Mild
First appeared in the San Francisco Examiner
 

At 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 the bottom.

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 Ninebark.

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 cooled.

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 the experience.


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“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 Bandon cheeses.

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 wilsona@mail.harborside.com or visit the web site at http://www.wilderness-canyon-ex.com/

 

 
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