2013 Lower North Umpqua Weekend

April 27, 2013 at 11:57 AM

I’ve been rafting on and off since the 1970‘s but I’ve never flipped an inflatable or had to swim (canoes and sailboats are another story). But a bizarre encounter on the North Umpqua river involving a life jacket and an oar was my baptism to the swimmer’s world.

 The North Umpqua river is one of Oregon’s jewels. It starts high in the Cascade Mountains, spilling from springs on the flanks of Crater Lake, tumbling 110 miles before joining the South Fork near Winchester. My wife Jan and I joined 52 other Oregon Whitewater Association members along with 10 children and a healthy contingent of 15 southern Oregon rafting enthusiasts from NWRA on Saturday April 27th for river running, camping, and dutch oven cooking at Whistler Bend County Park on the river’s south bank below Glide, Oregon.

The river’s character varies greatly as it passes through dense fir forests high in the Cascades and then into oak Savannah below the narrows and past Winchester before cutting through the coast range and emptying into the Pacific Ocean near Reedsport on the central coast.

Deep in the forest above the Steamboat Inn fishing resort, the river features almost constant whitewater with eight class III drops and Pinball Rapids, the class IV highlight of the upper run from Boulder Flat to Gravel Bin, but we chose the equally interesting section from Gravel Bin to Susan creek. This run has a number of big rapids the BLM describes as class III including Steamer Lane, Burial, Bathtub, Island and Ledges. In between the river has more of a pool-drop character than the upper section.

As we launched Saturday morning the river was running just a bit low, making the entry into the first major rapid tricky. The Umpqua river’s famous rock ledges easily catch an oar blade and require good river reading skills to find the deepest spots. It is also important to maintain good spacing between boats because a number of the moves involve stopping, starting, ferrying and rock bouncing.

All 11 boats did well as we explored the river’s treasures anticipating the big drops at Bathtub, Island, and Ledges. Most of the holes were smaller than we expected because of the lower flows. We did make one important discovery: large cats move a bit more slowly than small IKs. Case in point: Mike, the only IK boater in our group ended up docking with our 16 foot Jaguarundi at the bottom of Bathtub rapids as he sped down the main drop and slid into us just as we slipped into the hole. His boat turned over, but with Jan’s help, he was able to quickly separate and continue on his way.

Then we hit Island Rapids, the biggest water on the run. Here the Umpqua splits into two channels around a large island and drops dramatically on both sides. The optimal run takes the right channel but boaters must fight to stay on the left side of this chute to avoid large waves and big holes. We turned on the GoPro camera to capture the action.

The first drop is the biggest with a hundred yards or more of churning whitewater followed by a short break before the final drop at the Island bottom. It is here where things went wrong.

I was able to pull the boat in to the island in the calm water, so I quickly opened my camera box to photograph the boats that followed. I stood up and aimed my camera up river and snapped a frame – but before I could shoot again – disaster struck.

My downstream oar hit a rock and shot up through the oar lock and impaled me. The handle went right through the arm hole of my PFD and up through the neck opening pinning me to the oar. The oar blade caught the current hard with me attached and launched me over the bow of the boat into the river still connected. I tossed the camera to my wife as she watched in horror.

But others were watching as well. Vic LeGall launched his cat over to us as we drifted helplessly toward the next drop in this class III whitewater. I was still stuck underwater unable to free myself from the oar and my wife couldn’t row with only one oar.

I lunged for the ring on the front of VIc’s boat and hung on as he towed us to shore. Just as I felt bottom under my feet, the oar popped loose from my life jacket and our cat swung free. I yelled “Row!” as Jan dropped the oar back into the lock and turned the boat to face the next challenge.

She hit the whitewater perfectly and was able to swing the boat over behind a big rock just below, as I stumbled and slipped to shore. I was finally able to jump on a raft and ride down and join her below. Watching the video afterword, it all seemed so simple and straightforward but at the time it seemed anything but. You can view the moment at http://www.oregonstreetstudios.com/Umpqua-Impale.html.

The important lesson here is that whenever you are around fast moving water things can happen quickly. Never take anything for granted if you are the one with the oars and always anticipate that the boat will move even in the calmest waters. I guess I will have to pick my picture taking opportunities more carefully in the future.

It is also obvious that it is important to surround yourself with fellow rafters with sufficient skills and poise to make the right moves when a rescue is required. Vic came to us immediately and Jan knew how to guide the boat safely through the rest of the rapids. I do not want to think what might have happened if we were alone or my passenger did not know how to row a boat in white water.

The rest of the trip I kept the camera in the case as we still had class III Ledges to navigate. This rapid has a “surprise” hole at the bottom but the lower water kept the hole small and offered the paddle boats the opportunity to “punch” the hole for fun.

What wasn’t fun was the take-out. I had expected the typical paved boat launch with a nice big trailer turnaround but what we got was a sketchy landing just below a shelf that was too shallow to boat, followed by a long, difficult, slippery ascent up a steep narrow ramp that really did not have room for hauling 11 boats. But we managed.

Luckily, dinner that night featured a fantastic dutch oven cook-off with so much food there were still leftovers after close to a hundred hungry rafters descended upon it. The judges declared that Dennis Brewster’s pork roast was the top dish, with Garry Steffy’s Sweet Spicy Beans the best side dish and his Butterscotch Pecan Cookie the best dessert. Apparently he’s be practicing his dutch oven skills.

Great prizes were handed out including a dutch oven, dry bags and lots of other rafting goodies. I even managed to snag fourth place with my lentil entrée. I consider it a reward for my entry into the “swimmers club” this day on the North Umpqua river.



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