Upper klamath rafting

Upper klamath rafting
Video Upper klamath rafting

We’re pulled over on river left to scout Caldera, the first large rapid of the day. A 100-yard, class IV+ boulder choked chute with holes everywhere and churning brown water obscures any signs of a clean route. Erik explains the run from memory and we all nod in acknowledgment. When Will asks me if I’m ready, all I can do is raise my eyebrows and let the corners of my lips curl in a tight smile. This rapid is outrageous! And it’s only the beginning. We climb back in the boats, paddle-five, and drop into the torrential water. Paddling with force I wasn’t aware I had, we zig-zag through the rapid, left, right, back to the left, past the mushroom rock, punching through the holes. There is constantly water splattering my face, drenching my glasses and making me wish I had wiper blades on my lenses. My vision is inhibited but I maintain the repetitive paddling action, thankful I’m providing power and not steering. This is a rapid that truly isn’t over until you are in flat water. No time to breathe, I let out a deep sigh when we’re comfortably in the eddy.

The Klamath River crosses a plateau formed by volcanic rock and this causes the boulders in the Klamath to be more abrasive and jagged than, say, the rocks in the Rogue River, which have been worn smooth. Because of this, an already complicated rapid morphs into that game that kids play while climbing from couch to couch – the carpet is hot lava and to touch it would be disastrous. Swimming in the Upper Klamath amidst a rapid is simply a bad idea. The incentive to stay in the raft is obvious: the river, raging forward at 80 feet per mile, is a maelstrom of rocks and waves.

Because of the mining history of the Klamath Basin, many of the rapids have names reminiscent of the Wild West days. Gunslinger, Branding Iron, Gunsmoke, Ambush, Ol’ Bushwacker, and Pony Express. Who has the quicker draw? The rafter or the river? Before all hell breaks loose, we enter Satan’s Gate: a 150-yard, 90-degree right hand turn with large holes, large waves, and large rocks river left. Satan’s Gate is the first of three rapids that make up Hell’s Corner. The current sweeps into Hell’s Corner Rapid and charges downstream. Hundreds of yards of whitewater lay ahead sprinkled with haystack waves, potential wrap rocks, and sharp turns.

Eventually, just as I’ve started to feel confident in my paddling abilities, I take a stab at the oars — my first love when it comes to conducting a raft. Stern frames in steep drops are the catalyst for a “memorable” experience – for the guide. When the raft is vertical in the wave, you’re 14 feet up in the air with no seat belt and the full force of gravity and momentum pulling you down. Next thing I know, I’m face planting on the thwart in front of me and trying to regain my seating before the next drop. In this case, a “get down!” command may be more for the guide than the guests.

We cross the Oregon-California state line, the canyon opens up, the river widens and the flow slows. We pass cattle fields and logging claims. I’m gazing at the open blue sky, taking full breaths, and already re-running the rapids in my head. In the distance I can see our take-out and the big white van that delivered us to the put-in. The Upper Klamath is a river frozen in time, with rapids as chaotic as its history and a canyon haunted by past inhabitants. As visitors to this river canyon, we have had the good fortune to experience a slice of a true western gem via pin-balling our way through some of Oregon’s best whitewater. With the boats and gear loaded, we ramble down a dirt road leaving a trail of dust lifting in the air. Off into the sunset and back to Ashland – it’s the perfect closing to a day spent in the Wild West.

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