A full day out on the water ain’t a bad way to spend a summer afternoon, especially when yet another Pacific Northwest heat wave barrels down the tracks. (Cross our fingers it’s the last this summer.) You could take a dip in one of Oregon’s many lakes or cool off at a nearby swimming hole, but have you ever tried whitewater rafting?
Novices who have never even touched a paddle (pro tip: don’t call it an oar) might shy away from images of raging rivers and turbulent currents, but Mark Zoller of Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys urges you to reconsider, saying those who are unfamiliar with rafting tend to be “the best student in the class,” so long as they properly prepare for and listen during the trip.
Zoller, a second-generation river guide, says this summer’s heat waves, particularly the heat wave in June which shattered Pacific Northwest temperature records, helped the outfitting business break records of their own. “April through July we set records on how many guests we’ve entertained, and one of the reasons was the heat in June,” Zoller says. “June is one of our slower months because kids are in school and all of that, but with that extra heat, it went nuts.”
With the unprecedented heat and a global pandemic still very much in effect, Zoller says the business is seeing more family and friend trips out on the rivers, as opposed to corporate retreats.
“The absolute vibe is thankfulness. I have never in all my years of doing this professionally had people be more genuine about how thankful they are to be outside on the water,” Zoller says. “I’ve never felt more blessed by the customers as I have this year.”
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So where to begin? Here are a few nearby rivers and guides to help get you started. Whether going individually or through a commercial outfitter (such as the ones we’ve listed below), here’s some friendly advice from Zoller: “Always wear your [personal floatation device], always research what piece of water you’re going on to make sure it’s appropriate for your skill level, and never combine alcohol when you’re rafting.”
Note: The chance to bounce on some fun, splashy rapids is the central point of rafting, but it’s best to know a little about what you’re facing before you head out. Rapids are ranked on a difficulty scale of I to V—a class I river is going to feature riffles and small waves, but nothing that would bounce you out of your boat. Class V, by contrast, means long, deep, dangerous rapids with hidden obstacles—in other words, for experts only. Most Oregon rivers fall somewhere in between, and any certified guide should be able to keep you safe and sound (no guarantees you won’t get wet, though!).
19 miles from Portland, class III+
Mount Hood stans will delight in the Clackmas River’s picturesque region, which falls entirely within Mount Hood National Forest. This 47-mile river runs northwest, just west of the Cascade Range in northern Oregon. Whether going on a half- or full-day trip, prepare for scenic forestlands, wildlife sightings, and challenging rapids.
North Santiam River
70 miles from Portland, class II-III
A trip down the North Santiam River offers a great introduction to whitewater rafting for the novice and a relaxing experience for families—though veterans still have fun on this 92-mile river, especially during spring, September, or October when water levels rise. Expect mild but exciting summer and fall excursions, plus plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife, like osprey, bald eagles, and white salmon.
White Salmon River
75 miles from Portland, class III-IV
This 44-mile Columbia River tributary is one of the region’s most popular boating, kayaking, and rafting locales for its year-round navigability, and it’s perfect for a late-summer, early-autumn adventure. From the slopes of Mount Adams to the Columbia Gorge, you’ll get glacial runoffs, serious rapids, breathtaking canyons carved by lava flow, and wildlife scenery that’ll make you forget that Portland’s just over an hour and a half away.
100 miles from Portland, class II-III
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A true river for rafters of all ages and abilities, the Deschutes River (about 250 miles) is located in Central Oregon. For Portlanders, the most popular starting point is in Maupin in Wasco County. From there, expert rafters, first timers, and everything in between can find half-day trips, full-day trips, and even day-long trips on the river—plus plenty of options for a post-rafting beer and burger.
140 miles from Portland, class II+
Both the upper and lower sections of this 90-mile Willamette River tributary offer mild and consistent rapids, which are great for first timers and family trips. About two hours south of Portland, the McKenzie River, named after Scottish Canadian fur trader Donald McKenzie, flows westward to the southernmost end of the Willamette Valley. The water is clear, cool and not too tough for first-timers, depending on your put-in point.
Call ahead or check websites for pricing, booking information, and more.
Blue Sky Rafting, (503) 630-3163
Northwest Whitewater Adventures, (503) 380-1599
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Oregon River Experiences, (503) 563-1500
Ouzel Outfitters, (541) 385-5947
Portland Rafting Company, (971) 380-1204
River Drifters, (800) 972-0430
Wet Planet Rafting and Kayaking, (877) 390-9445
Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys, (509) 493-2641