Sleepless and the Illinios River

Chiloquin, Oregon, USA — February 5, 2011

When I can’t sleep, sometimes I think about whitewater rivers. Sometimes I review highlight reels in my head of past whitewater rafting trips, and sometimes imagine upcoming ones. Not that whitewater rivers are necessarily a relaxing thing to contemplate. Just passes the time waiting for sleep to come.

Illinois River Trail
One of the few places the Illinois River Trail gets close to the Illinois River. From a May 2009 backpacking trip. Photo by Natalie Fisher.

I’m also one of those people who experiences trouble sleeping as a side effect when taking narcotic opiates. No, not recreational. Prescription pain meds for surgery I had on my left hand a few days ago. So, I’ve been sleepless and thinking about the Illinois River these past few hours. Might as well get up and write about it.

In late fall, Kevin, my rafting buddy, and I usually start planning our next year’s river adventures. This time around, Kevin remarked that in his thirty years of rafting, he’d never been down Oregon’s Illinois River. I’ve been backpacking in the nearby Kalmiopsis Wilderness and along the Illinois River Trail, but never floated the river. He tells me the Illinois River from Miami Bar to Fox Creek is 32 miles and has 34 Class II rapids, 35 Class III, 12 Class IV (with Pine Flat IV+), and one Class V. That will be some work.

The Illinois was designated a Wild & Scenic River in 1984 and is administered by the US Forest Service’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The protected section is 50.4 miles long and runs from the boundary of the Siskiyou National Forest downstream to its confluence with the Rogue River. The river has 28.7 miles designated wild, 17.9 miles scenic, and 3.8 miles recreational.

When planning a river run, I like to have as much information as I can get. I guess I’m pretty conservative about my adventures. I want to know before I go, be prepared, and reduce my risks. The more intel the better.

Hitting the Books

For Oregon rivers, I often start with the classic Soggy Sneakers. On the Illinois, Sneakers provides a small map and 2-1/2 pages of description with a wake up call:

The Illinois is truly a wilderness river that tests both the skill and strength of boaters. Once a trip on the river is undertaken, boaters are on their own. The only trail is miles from the river, and very difficult to reach except at Pine Flat. The whitewater is tough, even for the best boaters.

John Garren gives an overview of the Illinois in his book Oregon River Tours:

The Illinois River is a 79-mile tributary of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. Both the East and West forks of the Illinois begin in the rugged Siskiyou Mountains at an elevation of 4,800 feet, then drop into a valley area near river mile 57, merging and continuing to the confluence with the Rogue River near Agness, OR. Twenty-seven miles downstream from Agness, the Rogue discharges into the Pacific Ocean.

His book also contains an excellent log on the flow of the river, the location of rapids, and where to camp.

Rafting the Net

Next up, I go online. I often start with American Whitewater’s (AW) National Whitewater Inventory. I find it easiest to search the site by clicking on the state map and scrolling down the state list of rivers to the river I’m interested in. Some rivers have lots of info, and others not so much. Volunteer paddlers make up StreamTeams who run the rivers and keep the information up-to-date, or incorporate comments others leave for them. If you notice something wrong with a river description you can leave a comment or notify the river editor. If you notice that a river has gone a while without an update and you want to maintain it, you can become a StreamTeam member.

There’s a wealth of material here on the Illinois River: tabs with a guidebook style overview, lists of rapids with descriptions and photos, weather, maps, and links to USGS river flow gauge data. I did notice that AW’s link to the National Weather Service’s Illinois River Forecast didn’t work. Click here to go to the working Illinois River Forecast and here for an interactive map to check out all of the national River Forecast Centers. (And, yes, I sent AW a comment with the working forecast center link).

For Oregon rivers, I also like to check out Will Volpert’s Oregon Rafting. I like Will’s tagline: “For the boatmen, for the thrills, but really just for the rivers.” Well said. You can find river descriptions, trip reports (including a pile of them on the Illinois), outstanding photos, and a great blog, The Riverness, on the site.

To get a visual feel for the Illinois, you can check out the Illinois River on YouTube.

I also found an excellent guest blog written by Will Volpert entitled The Aftertaste of Adventure on Clavey Paddlesports’ blog, Clavey News. Will writes about a “sideways-sleet-snow” kind of float on the Illinois River in November 2010. He points out that trips like this and why people go on them again are because of the “aftertaste of adventure … the antithesis of a hangover.”

Will also goes in to some detail about planning and logistics for running the Illinois. He points out that the Illinois’ season runs mid-November to mid-May. This is a six month season that is mainly through the cold weather months and the “most consistent free-flowing multi-day river trip in the West, which is probably the exact opposite of what you’ve ever heard” about the Illinois. Will adds that the weather will never be ideal, so “nice” weather should not be a criteria for an Illinois trip. Will also covers timing an Illinois trip with river flows since the river isn’t typically boated below 800 cfs and is very dangerous above 3,000 cfs or when it is spiking. But, he notes, that shouldn’t be a reason for not going because if the Illinois is low, high, or spiking, the nearby Smith River or Rogue River will be runnable.

Have you floated the Illinois River? If so, what were your sources for planning? Let us know about this or any other thoughts you have on this post in the comments section below.

Happy rowing or paddling or however you get yourself down rivers!

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