A rare glimpse of the upper Chetco

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate September 02, 2013 07:30 pm

4-day journey is far from a leisurely float downstream

Ryan Saevitz navigates the Upper Chetco near charred remains of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.  Photo Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
Ryan Saevitz navigates the Upper Chetco near charred remains of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Photo Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
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.

Serene 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.

“It’s 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.”

That 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 business.

“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 else.”

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.

Slide Creek, 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

A 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.

During low flows, many rapids in the Upper Chetco require strategic use of ropes to “line” kayaks to the bottom. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
During low flows, many rapids in the Upper Chetco require strategic use of ropes to “line” kayaks to the bottom. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
After 20 miles of backpacking, the Northwest crew was feeling a bit haggard, but their excitement for the trip ahead left them little room to demonstrate their exhaustion. 

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. 

For 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.


Chetco obsession

Collier, 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. 

The 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 River.

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.

“We 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

Wilson 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. 

Allen Wilson, left, and Zach Collier, right, are the only two outfitters to ever hold commercial permits for the Chetco. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
Allen Wilson, left, and Zach Collier, right, are the only two outfitters to ever hold commercial permits for the Chetco. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
After 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 public.


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.

When the trail to enter the Chetco from Babyfoot Lake trailhead was cleared by the Siskiyou Mountain Club, commercial trips became more of a reality.

Inflatable kayaks double as comfy beds at a riverside campsite. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
Inflatable kayaks double as comfy beds at a riverside campsite. Courtesy of Northwest Rafting Company
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.

“His 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.

The 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

During the 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.

Although 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.

Wilson 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.

“I’m 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.

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