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Original Issue


For a long time I've considered myself a serious fisherman and a reasonably skillful one. Therefore, the enormous increase in the popularity of river rafting and kayaking that began a few years ago and continues unabated strikes me, as it must nearly all river anglers, as disastrous. When I go to a stream I love anticipating a quiet afternoon—and maybe even a few good fish—instead I find huge rafts filled with screaming beer drinkers or sometimes 15 to 20 fluorescent orange inflatable kayaks bouncing down the riffles. When that happens I feel much as a dedicated golfer might if he arrived at his favorite course only to find it converted into a circuit for trail bikes.

Four years ago the issue was complicated for me when Rob Carey, one of my best friends—best fishing friends, too—went into the river-running business himself. His outfit in Ashland, Ore. is called River Roam, and Rob, his partner and his guides take parties in inflatable kayaks, otherwise known as Tahiti boats, down sections of Oregon's Rogue and Northern California's Klamath rivers.

Rob and I remain friends, and we continue to fish together, but I've always stayed away from the subject of River Roam. Last year, though, Rob came out point-blank and invited me along on a River Roam expedition.

"We're thinking about scheduling some trips on the North Umpqua next year," he explained. "But first we'll have to spend a couple of days checking it out. You're welcome to come along if you'd like."

The invitation wasn't as simple as it sounds. For one thing, the North Umpqua, which is about 100 miles up from the California-Oregon border, is my favorite fishing stream of all. For another, even I knew it would be a difficult river to navigate in an inflatable kayak, with rapids rated up to Class IV (on a scale of I to VI), lots of rocks and year-round cold water. My experience running white water had been limited to a few short trips on easier streams, and Rob knew it.

"You want me to be your guinea pig," I said. "If you can get me downstream in one piece you can probably get your guests down, too. Is that it?"

He smiled. "Well, sort of," he said. "But I figured you know the river fairly well. You'll probably make it O.K."

"But the North Umpqua's a fishing river."

"We have it all worked out with the fishermen," he said. "We've had meetings up there about it. We'll stay off the water until 10 a.m. and finish by four in the afternoon. We won't even run through the prime spots, between Island Campground and Bogus Creek. There won't be any conflict."

"O.K.," I said, thinking I'd be able to prove to myself that river-running wasn't much fun. "I'll go. I'll try it."

Rob's Forest Service permit gave River Roam permission to run the upper reaches of the Umpqua on a Monday and Tuesday. I decided to drive up ahead of time, on Sunday afternoon, to fish that evening and early Monday morning, before we put in.

I hooked and landed two steelhead each time out. I also took a close look at the white water as I walked the trail between the slicks and pools, and was startled to realize that I'd never really seen the North Umpqua's rapids before. For 15 years I'd been carefully studying the river's fishable water but had simply dismissed as useless any stretches that were fast, white or shallow. When I began to imagine bouncing down those chutes, crashing through those waves, barreling by those immense boulders in a 11-foot inflatable boat, the river began to assume a new dimension for me. For the first time in my life, I was frightened by it.

When we started downstream from Boulder Flat Campground shortly after 10 o'clock on Monday morning, I kept my fear to myself. Partly this was the normal posturing of an American male, and partly—I like to think—it was consideration for my hosts. What good would it do to bother them with my misgivings?

There were six of us—Rob, his partner, Reider Peterson, Rob's son and daughter, David and Jennifer, both licensed guides, and a college boy named Chris Clark, also a River Roam guide. With stops to scout the most difficult rapids and a short break for lunch, it would take us about five hours to cover 15 miles of river.

Within five minutes I realized that this was going to be even more difficult than I'd imagined. Though I've always felt at home in the water—swimming in it, diving in it, wading in it—I didn't feel at home on the water, alone in a small boat with a light aluminum paddle in my hands. Even through the first few rapids, which probably rate a mere I on the river-running scale, I felt as helpless as a discarded wine-bottle cork.

By the time half an hour had passed, I'd survived several close calls. Halfway down one long, narrow, boulder-strewn channel I was spun around in midstream by something that Rob later explained was called a "reversal." I'm still not sure exactly what a reversal is, but suddenly I found myself facing upstream and traveling down, bouncing off rocks, waves nearly swamping the boat.

At the bottom, in an eddy, I emptied the boat out. Rob, who was leading the way, had waited for me.

"You're doing fine," he said, smiling, apparently sincere.

Three or four more rapids, one of them the most difficult we had navigated yet, passed without mishap. I began to build a little confidence. As so often happens, the confidence was a prelude to disaster.

I was third in line as we started down a long chute with some large waves at the top end, a gray, house-sized boulder near the middle and a shallow stretch over gravel down below, which dropped into a deep, slow pool. Rob went first, David followed, and I was next, bouncing over the large waves, taking a gallon or two of icy water in my face from one of them, but watching Rob and David up ahead, trying to follow their exact route as best I could. Each of them approached the boulder head-on, and, to me, it appeared that the current carried them easily off to the left and around it.

As I shot over another wave and straight toward the flat wall of rock, I relaxed to let the current do the same for me. It didn't. The bow of the boat hit the rock squarely, then bounced off and spun to the left. I kept going straight and barely had time to use my paddle to brace against the boulder and push myself away from it. I was in the water then, sucked under it, tumbling along head over heels, absolutely powerless. I had the presence of mind not to fight it. There was a feeling of rushing speed, a roaring in my ears, and, even as it happened, I remembered what it had been like when I surfed in Hawaii as a boy and was wiped out by large waves. The river, though, seemed more powerful and relentless than those waves had ever been.

When it finally spit me out, David was there, and he hauled me into his boat. Downstream, Rob had grabbed my boat, and Reider had picked up my badly bent paddle.

Within a couple of minutes I was back in my own boat with a straightened paddle, and we were on our way again. And by then I was actually glad to have been tumbled about by the river. Nothing much worse was likely to happen to me, and I had come through it shaken and chilled, but perfectly healthy. Somehow, the end result of it all was that I felt neither fear of the river nor confidence in my abilities, but, instead, a calm respect for the river and satisfaction in the knowledge that, if necessary, my companions were capable of using their expertise to compensate for my lack of it.

The rest of the trip went very well. Pinball Canyon was the highlight of the first day—a long, narrow stretch where the powerful current zigs and zags among a series of large boulders. I felt like a spring-driven ball as I bounced my way through it, nothing but white water on all sides, the churning roar of the river in my ears. I have no idea how it happened, but I made it and felt good about the fact, as if I had accomplished something significant—something like reaching a mountain peak, or finishing a long run, but without the physical discomfort that inevitably goes with those endeavors.

On Tuesday the rapids were separated by longer stretches of calm water, but they were also somewhat more difficult. The major challenge we faced was called Double Drop, about halfway through the day. I survived it, too, but barely. Two-thirds of the way down I plowed into a barely submerged rock and shot off to the side at a dangerous angle, then hit a wave that half-filled the boat, but once through the wave the current straightened me out again and, low in the water and paddling hard, I slogged the rest of the way through. After that, the afternoon seemed easy.

Two days on the river gave me a new concept of the sport, and a tolerance for it, too. We had covered nearly 30 miles of river. Out there between 10 and four—certainly the most pleasant hours for river-running, usually, the least productive for fishing—we had passed only two anglers, both late on the second day, and we hadn't interfered with either of them. Clearly, with some common sense and compromise the two sports can coexist.

The experience also taught me a lot about the North Umpqua. In fact, I think I learned as much about the river in two days in a kayak as I had through the previous 15 years of walking its banks, wading its shallows and casting into its riffles, slicks and pools. Now the river is whole for me, not just a disjointed series of spots where fish happen to hold, and I understand something about its unyielding power, which must be somewhere very near the heart of unspoiled nature.

The River Roam people have decided to restrict trips on the North Umpqua to those who have had previous white-water experience. I hope to go again, assuming they think I qualify.