Wide Eyed on the Illinois River – Part One

Chiloquin, Oregon, USA — February 20, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was sleepless and reading up on rafting the Illinois River. There wasn’t much sleeping while on the Illinois either. Pretty much spent my time wide eyed, awake, and focused. Maybe you relax a bit in camp, hanging out, passing the Fireball around. But go to bed and us first timers (and maybe some of the veterans) lay there most of the night anticipating Green Wall, the monster Class V rapid less than a mile down river from camp.

Dunn's Riffle - Rogue River
Warm up on the Rogue River prior to running the Illinois. Kevin works through Dunn’s Riffle. Photo by Brett Fisher.

Getting There

Launch day and time were a moving target for awhile. First plan was to meet Thursday night, February 17th, in Selma and launch Friday morning for a three day run. That changed to a Friday afternoon launch with intentions of getting eight miles down river and camping at Pine Flat. And the final change was to meet Friday night with a launch Saturday morning for a two day run.

Flexibility was all fine with Kevin and me. The Illinois had spiked to 8160 cfs at the Kerby gage on Tuesday. Waiting an extra day gave a little more time for the river to come down to reasonable flows, which meant more manageable whitewater for the boatmen, or fewer risks, or something like that.

We headed out from my place on Thursday west over the Cascade Mountains to Merlin instead of Selma. We decided to camp on the Rogue River at Almeda Campground. There was snow on the ground and it was a pretty cold night in the tents. Kevin’s raft had a slow leak in the floor, so first thing in the morning we went to SOTAR to get it fixed. Nice folks there, skilled and quick with repairing the raft, and a great rafting gear retail store.

We then ran a little shake down cruise for the raft and our rented drysuits from Hog Creek to Galice on the Rogue. The Rogue was running about 3500 cfs at the Grants Pass gage. Dunn’s Riffle just past Hellgate Canyon had some big waves and was pushing a Class II+. The water moved quick and we floated the 7.3 river miles in about an hour and a half.

Illinois River Road
Working through snow and downed tree limbs on the Illinois River Road. Photo by Kevin Buck.

Then off to Selma where we met up with the group. Several of the guys had rafted together including on the Illinois. Kevin and I and Steve had never boated with them. This, I think, is part of being a river runner. You meet some folks, maybe in person or maybe online. They talk about the rivers they’ve run. You share your river stories. Pretty soon you’re headed down river together. We stacked the boats up on the trailers in the snow in the dark, traded stories and lies around the kitchen table, and then caught some shut eye.

Class V Put In

We got rolling to the Miami Bar put in the next morning around 8:30 AM. Last checks of the Kerby gage via smartphones showed the river running 2230 cfs. Ideal conditions the guys said. Okay.

The Illinois River Road is a long, slow 16 mile drive to the put in in good weather. Will and our shuttle drivers kept remarking that this is the most snow they’d ever seen in Selma. We were pushing through eight inches of snow at times, sawing our way through downed trees, and clearing logs and rocks off the road as we went. We dropped out of the snow zone as we reached Miami bar. We made the put in around 10:00 AM, rigged up the boats, and were on the water around 10:30 AM.

Miami Bar - Illinois River
Rigging the boats before launching on the Illinois River. Photo by John Bartoz.

Five Miles and a Swim

Miami Bar to Briggs Creek is a little over two and a half river miles and offers up four Class II rapids. These were a good warm up. Will and Harold led in an Avon raft, followed by Mike in a Sotar cataraft, then Kevin and I in Kevin’s Sotar raft, and John and Steve rowed sweep in John’s Aire raft. Kevin was on the oars and I was up front paddling right side (I had surgery on my left hand a few weeks earlier so wasn’t up to paddling left side).

Briggs Creek is where the 18-mile Illinois River Road ends. We saw some anglers there. One of them had a big fish on a line that was caught on a branch out in the river. A couple of the guys untangled the line for them. Wonder what they would’ve done if we hadn’t floated by. Swam out to get the fish? Probably not.

The next two and a half miles throws up five Class III and three Class IV rapids. We were working great together as a team. Running clean lines. Feeling high. On the Illinois River in February. Snow on the banks. The sun breaking through the clouds.

Class III Rapid on the Illinois River
Mike drops into a Class III rapid on the Illinois River behind Will and Harold. Photo by Brett Fisher.

Will had us gather up in the pool before the last Class IV rapid in this section. He said we needed to stay river right and clear of the “smoking hole” and huge rock (as in bigger than a mini-van) river left at the bottom of the rapid. Will led and we all followed in order. The river pillowed over a boulder river center. Will and Mike had sort of gone over the top and to the right of this with their boats facing river left. We started moving too far left in the current. Kevin and I were both yelling “back” (as in “back paddle” and “pull back on the oars”). Then I heard Kevin’s oars skip a couple times – just missing the water or hitting the top of waves. That’s a really lousy thing to hear in the middle of a big rapid. And then it was all over.

Down in the hole we went and up on the rock sideways. I high sided. The boat didn’t flip and I was thinking “good.” Then I looked back. Kevin wasn’t in the boat anymore. Now what was I going to do? The boat slipped back in the hole and was pushed back up on the rock. Vertical this time. That’s all it took and I was ejected. Right into the hole.

I did a meet and greet with the rocks at the bottom of the hole. It’s nice when your training kicks in. I tucked up in a ball since extended limbs are at risk of getting entrapped in rocks. I was pounded around a bit, then the river flushed me out and I swam to the surface. As I broke through the water, I got in the whitewater position, rode a few waves, looked for an eddy, and swam out of the current. Kevin was getting picked up by Mike. John and Steve came behind and hoisted me into their boat.

Kevin’s raft surfed a bit until John and Steve knocked it loose. They hadn’t seen the line Will and Mike took so they had followed us. Fortunately our boat was in the way and bumped them clear of the hole.

Will said let’s take a break. Good idea. I was spent. As we headed to shore I asked him what rapid that was. “Big F-ing Rock Rapid” he said. And added, after the pause for effect, “But the guidebooks call it Rapid No. 18.” Yeah, I think the boatmen have the more accurate name. That was a big f-ing rock we had rolled up on.

South Bend Camp on the Illinois River
Boats pulled up and tied off at South Bend camp on the Illinois River. Photo by Kevin Buck.

As we rallied I noticed my hand was hurting and I was starting to feel the beating I had just taken. Feeling it all after the adrenaline wears off. The doctor wasn’t going to be pleased. I said I didn’t think I was going to be of much help to Kevin. We had two more Class IV’s coming up (York Creek and Clear Creek). So we reorganized – I rode with Will, and Harold went with Kevin giving him more power up front and previous experience on the Illinois.

We stopped for lunch at Pine Flat. No more high adventure. I teamed back up with Kevin and away we went. In the next nine river miles from Pine Flat to South Bend camp there are about 24, read and run Class II and III rapids. We pulled into camp at South Bend around 3:00 p.m.

Camp was set up, a campfire started (in a fire pan, of course), and soon we were enjoying Will’s specialty – spaghetti with spicy Italian sausage – recounting the day, and back to telling river stories and lies.

Green Wall

It rained that night. Then the moon came out. Through the tent it looked like morning and time to get up. But it wasn’t. I noticed all this because there wasn’t a whole lot of sleeping going on. The Green Wall was just around the river bend. I imagined I could hear it’s roar. Or maybe I could really hear it. A deeper sound rumbling below the splash of the little rapids beside camp.

Camp wasn’t rushed in the morning but seemed purposeful. Coffee was made and a campfire started again. We fortified ourselves with pancakes and bacon and a little Irish coffee, cleaned up, broke camp, and rigged the boats. Harold would boat the first stretch with Kevin and I would ride with Will again. Time to go.

Prelude or Fawn Falls Rapid - Illinois River
That’s not Greenwall Rapid. That’s its Class III entrance rapid, Prelude. Photo by Kevin Buck.
Green Wall Rapid - Illinois River
This is Green Wall Rapid, Class V. You can only look so long. Photo by Kevin Buck.

First up was Fawn Falls (also called Prelude, as in prelude to Green Wall or disaster). We ran a cheat line down the right side that was open at the flows we were seeing then pulled to shore above the Class III entrance rapid into Green Wall. Scrambling through brush and over rocks and boulders we got down to the scout point. We studied the lines. There was a lot of discussing and pointing. There were comments about the Green Wall Ledge and the “mankin’ hole” under it. “Don’t go there, that could be an end game.” And things like, “If you swim, don’t go in that boulder sieve. Try to stay in the main current. Don’t go in the bottom hole. The river pushes out left at the bottom of the rapid, so swim out left in the slow water as soon as you can. Don’t stay in the current, there’s more below here.” I didn’t care to look any longer. My stomach didn’t care for it either. Let’s just go do this.

Will and I went first followed by Mike. The rest of the group stayed at the scout point to watch our lines. Will had put on the helmet cam and remarked that it was pushing the helmet down over his eyes. Not a good idea. We put it on my head instead. The video seems so serene especially with nice piano accompaniment. It wasn’t like that. The whitewater was roaring. My heart was pounding. But you take a deep breath and go. All I could do was shift my weight to help steady the boat if a tube happened to lift on a wave or by a boulder. I kept my eyes (and the camera, apparently) on the line we were supposed to be taking. Power of positive thinking helping Will at the oars was my hope.

Will rowed a clean, nearly perfect line. Maybe it was perfect for water this big. Will is a master at his craft. He moves the boat with grace, finesse, and strength. Using this wave and that to put us where we need to be, finding this slow water and that to pause a second or move us quickly across to stay on the line. Just an outstanding run.

Mike came in behind us (you can see the finish of his run in the video as well), then John and Steve ran it clean. Kevin and Harold came last. They finished the top portion and took a breather in an eddy, then pushed out to finish the run. They got pushed up against a boulder river left for a moment but Kevin was able to spin the raft around and they finished their run without mishap. Everyone was riding high – Green Wall was behind us!

But our work wasn’t done yet. There were still a number of Class III and IV rapids coming up. Little Green Wall Rapid was next (affectionately known as Pimp Slap Rapid to the boatmen). There’s a cheat river left, but it wasn’t open for us. So down river right we went. The river takes you over a boulder, then you have to pull hard right to avoid going over the next one into the hole below. If you miss on this one, the bottom hole slams you hard into the canyon wall – thus the pimp slap. Will ran it clean. Everyone else was pimp slapped to some degree or other.

After a series of Class III rapids and a read-and-run Class IV comes Submarine Hole. This is another smoking hole right in the middle of the river. Usually the rapid is ran river left and you just slide down and by the left side of the hole. I guess Kevin didn’t see us move to the left, because he ran head on into the hole. As they dropped in Harold raised his paddle with both hands above his head roller coaster style. Yee-Ha! The 14 foot raft disappeared into the hole then we saw it again as it barreled up and out the other side.

After Submarine Hole the helmets came off. Nothing but Class II and a few Class III rapids in the ten or so miles down to the take out at Oak Flat. I teamed back up with Kevin. Everyone relaxed enjoying the waterfalls and river canyon vistas. We even passed by a patch of Cobra Lilies (Pitcher Plants, Darlingtonia) growing on a cliff side. Usually you see them in the flats and swamps. I even took a turn rowing until my hand started complaining a little much.

Oak Flat - Illinois River
Dealing with a broken trailer at the take out. Photo by Kevin Buck.

Class IV Take Out

I think we got to the take out around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. I don’t really know since I don’t generally wear a watch on rivers unless working on them. There we were greeted by three trucks and only one trailer. And that trailer was headed with John and Steve from the take out back to California. Where was the other trailer? More fun.

Mike’s trailer had taken a couple rocks to the axle on the drive to the put in and was bent. The tires rubbed and one blew out about a mile before reaching the take out. At least the shuttle folks got the trailer that far. So we deflated and rolled the rafts, packed gear and rafts in the truck beds, and lashed the raft frames down on top of them in the two trucks headed back to Selma. When we got to the trailer, we unloaded the frames, stacked the trailer on the top of the truck bed, and then lashed the frames down on top of the trailer. Finally, we were on the four hour drive south down the coast then over the mountains on Highway 199 back to Selma.

At some point on the float, I noticed a Jack’s Plastics (maker of the Paco sleeping pad) sticker on Will’s dry box. Sums it all up:

One life. One chance. No regrets.

Have you floated the Illinois River? What was your trip like? Let us know about this or any other thoughts you have on this post in the comment sections below.

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

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