4-day journey is far from a leisurely float downstream
Nestled in the southwest corner of Oregon lies the Chetco River, a remarkably clear stream with hints of emerald green, known for 50-pound salmon and described by many as one of the last places to experience a truly wild and remote river trip as its upper reaches cut through the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
Because of its little-known nature and difficult access, only two river outfitters have ever offered trips on the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River, with the latest company, Northwest Rafting Company, just completing its inaugural commercial trip this summer.
"There are very few places left like the Chetco where you just won't see anybody else there," said Zach Collier, co-owner of Northwest Rafting Company, who worked tirelessly to get the first commercial permit for the river in more than 10 years. Northwest's trip was rated as one of the top 10 new travel adventure trips of 2013 in the entire world by USA Today - the only American trip on the list.
Northwest's four-day Chetco trip is not for those who enjoy an easy river trip.
paddling through calm, mesmerizingly clear, deep pools is common and
maybe the most rewarding part of the trip, but the pools are divided by
many shallow riffles that require paddlers to hop out and drag, push or
pull their boats while carefully walking the rocky river bed.
not even really whitewater. It's traversing these narrow slots and
chutes and walking around rapids," Collier said. "It's almost like half
canyoneering and half river running."
But it is a whitewater river
trip rated as a Class IV stretch, and plenty of the rapids can be run.
Four- to 5-foot drops and chutes are common and Collier would
recommend the trip to even novice kayakers, as long as they're athletic
enough for the rock-hopping portages through shallow spots.
"We're not going to the Chetco for the rapids," Collier said. "We're going because it's a really special and beautiful place."
special nature was also recognized by Collier's predecessor, Allen
Wilson of Gold Beach, who ran trips on the Chetco for 10 years before
the 2002 Biscuit Fire scorched much of the Kalmiopsis and put him out of
"The first time I paddled there, I thought 'Man, this
place is on a small-scale equivalent to the Grand Canyon,'" said
Wilson, who river guided through the Grand Canyon for 10 years. "The
Chetco has its own spectacular features that are hard to meet anywhere
Weaving through giant boulders in clear pools up to 40 feet
deep and watching a bear or river otter casually look for dinner
downstream are part of the draws of the Chetco.
But one of the
most surprising features of the Upper Chetco trip is finding those same
characteristics in the river's major tributaries.
Babyfoot Creek, Tincup Creek, Box Canyon Creek, Boulder Creek and
numerous unnamed creeks have astonishing high flows and deep pools
themselves. Climbing up small creeks quickly becomes more like
canyoneering and rewards the persistent with crystal-clear waterfalls up
to 20 feet high.
"This is why we're here," said river guide J.R. Weir, as he marveled at one of the unnamed waterfalls.
Reaching the river
remote river trip rarely comes easy, but Northwest Rafting Company's
guests only have to bear a fraction of the load. By the time Collier
and his river guides met their lone guest, 65-year-old Ed Marlatt of the
Bay Area, at the Ray's Market in Selma, most of the heavy lifting had
already been done. Collier's crew had already backpacked 10 miles each
way to the put-in with the group's transportation, 10-foot, 5-inch
inflatable kayaks that look more like miniature rafts, designed by
Collier and custom built by Merlin, Ore.-based SOTAR.
miles of backpacking, the Northwest crew was feeling a bit haggard, but
their excitement for the trip ahead left them little room to demonstrate
Northwest uses a different access point than
Wilson used with his company, Wilderness Canyon Adventures, by entering
the Kalmiopsis through the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead, 15 miles up Eight
Dollar Mountain Road, which meets U.S. Highway 199 just outside Selma.
The destruction wrought by the Biscuit Fire dominates the scene soon after the road starts its climb to 4,000 feet.
the majority of the 10-mile hike, a giant graveyard of black and white
snags towers above, while the floor of the forest is full of
tropically-green undergrowth and brightly colored wildflowers, including
some endemic to the area like the Kalmiopsis Leachiana that gives the
Wilderness it's name. The dichotomy of dead trees above and vibrant
plants below is striking, allowing hikers to change their view
dramatically with a slight tilt of the head.
About a third of the
way into the hike, the trail crosses through a small patch of forest
that was somehow saved from fire. "It's like going back in time in the
Kalmiopsis," said river guide Ryan Saevitz.
At the trail junction
in the land-before-fire, Chetco-seekers take a right onto an old Forest
Service road that leads to Emily cabin. Well before reaching the cabin,
you must take a trail on the right that climbs to the top of the pass
dividing the Illinois and Chetco river watersheds. Near the pass is a
demonstration of the area's unique geology. The spot that Northwest's
crew dubbed the "moonscape" is covered with blue-grey rock that chokes
out any plant life.
The final descent down a steep, loose trail in the drainage of Chetco-tributary
Carter Creek finally brings the put-in into view. At this point, after
30 miles of hiking for everyone but the lone guest Marlatt, the
Northwest crew reminded themselves that "yes, this is actually a river
trip" - the backpacking is finished.
Once the paddlers hit the water, there was no debate that it was all worth it.
co-owner of Northwest Rafting Company, became obsessed with running the
Chetco after seeing a presentation about gold mining threats on the
Chetco during a meeting of river enthusiasts in Portland.
photographs were enough to hook Collier, but what sealed the deal was
the Chetco's location: smack dab in the middle of two of Collier's
favorite whitewater rivers, the North Fork Smith River and the Illinois
One of Northwest's river guides, J.R. Weir, son of
Del Norte County retired judge Robert Weir, was familiar with the Chetco
from growing up near it, but he had never paddled there.
independently study maps all the time to find new places to paddle and
the Chetco was this big black hole and it had been on both of our
radars," Collier said about teaming up with Weir.
Accidental river guide
was raised in Gold Beach but didn't discover his life passion of
running rivers until he left home and "accidentally got a job as a river
guide on the Grand Canyon," he said. After several years on the
world-famous big waves of the Colorado River, he eventually found
himself back in Gold Beach around 1980, where he started to research the
plausibility of running commercial trips on the Chetco.
poring over maps to discover several mining roads near the
Chetco-tributary Slide Creek, he convinced a friend to hike several
miles with boats and paddle the river. The next year he tried the trip
with some friends from Ashland and took a group of high school kids down
the same stretch the year after that.
Partially thanks to a grant
that Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest had to increase tourism, Wilson had
his permits in place by the early '90s and was guiding guests down the
Chetco, but his bread-and-butter trips were not the upper section
through the Kalmiopsis that so enticed Collier. "That one was not a good
seller for me," Wilson said.
In 1999, Wilson's Upper Chetco
through the Kalmiopsis trip was written up in the San Francisco
Chronicle, a significant boon for his business.
In 2002, Wilson
took a crew from Oregon Field Guide, who made a short video documenting
the wilderness trip for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Coincidentally, the
video-documented trip would be Wilson's very last as only two weeks
later, the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire, the second-largest in Oregon
history, entered the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, closing off the area to the
Scouting the trip
Collier and Weir became
further inspired to do the Chetco after watching the 2002 Oregon Public
Broadcasting special. But their attempt to enter the Upper Chetco at
Slide Creek became a hellacious bush-whack through creek bed that took
so long it forced them to camp out before reaching the river.
the trail to enter the Chetco from Babyfoot Lake trailhead was cleared
by the Siskiyou Mountain Club, commercial trips became more of a
Alan Vandiver, former Gold Beach district ranger of the
Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, was so inspired from a Chetco river trip
he took in 2010 that he made it a personal goal to help Collier receive
his permit before he retired.
Collier also had the support of Wilson, who saw something he liked in the young outfitter.
environmental philosophy is some of the best I've ever heard from a
commercial outfitter and I really thought he was the perfect person to
do that," Wilson said.
Northwest Rafting Company has a strong conservation element to its operations, and specializes in wilderness trips.
"We need some places that are left in a somewhat natural state; we come as visitors and then we leave," Collier said.
Forest Service set a high bar for Northwest's trips. The company is not
allowed to use horses or mules to pack in gear like Wilson did. All
human waste must be packed out, and fires must be made in a fire pan,
with the ashes packed out.
Passing the torch
Biscuit Fire in 2002, Wilson's curiosity inspired him to paddle upstream
four miles from the steel bridge on the Chetco during the blaze. Even
though the flames were burning several miles away, Wilson said the
effects of the fire grew more intense the farther he paddled upriver.
Pieces of ash up to a foot wide were floating down to the water.
"It was a pretty shocking experience," Wilson said.
the trails Wilson used to access the Upper Chetco were impassable due
to numerous fallen snags, he could have continued his more profitable
lower river trips, but 2003 turned out to be one of the lowest water
years he had ever seen - too low for trips. The combination of the
Biscuit Fire followed by the drought year forced Wilson to close shop.
Wilson and his wife took it as a blessing in disguise, allowing them to catch up on other adventures.
"We didn't travel for 10 years; we didn't do anything but run the Chetco River," Wilson said.
still runs the Chetco with his wife, and he's been heavily involved
with Northwest Rafting Company's first venture into the watershed, even
going as far as picking up the crew from the Tolman Ranch take-out.
glad you're the one doing this," Wilson said to Collier as the crew
started to load up the van, enjoying a celebratory "whiskey Chetco." One
part whiskey, two parts crystal-clear water of a world-class river.
Northwest Rafting Company plans only a limited number of Upper Chetco trips per year.
For more information visit nwrafting.com.
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.