MERLIN, Ore. — Before my 23-year-old son, Matt, entered high school nine years ago, his mother and I signed him up for an Outward Bound sailing course in the Gulf Islands west of Vancouver, Canada.
It was rugged, but he still talks about the good time he had on that adventure.
In mid-June, when he graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., with a degree in recording arts, his gift was a three-day rafting trip on the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon.
But there was no way I was going to let Matt have all the fun this time. Besides, it was a great chance for the two of us to celebrate this major milestone in his life, as well as do some father-son bonding.
It was also an opportunity for me to get back on the Rogue, which I first kayaked 30-plus years ago. I still have fond memories of that trip, which was the beginning of a decades-long love affair with Western white water.
The Rogue, one of the first streams protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, is below the small burg of Merlin. It has a 40-mile stretch of mostly Class III (moderate) rapids, with a Class IV (dicey) drop at Blossom Bar and a Class V (death-defying) rapid near the start of the trip at Rainie Falls. There's also plenty of calm water and deep pools for swimming.
Though I'd once kayaked Rainie — when I was younger and not yet responsible for children — this time I chose the considerably easier fish ladder on the right of the stream. Carved out of rock, this series of steps offers a Class II (mild) way for rafters and kayakers to move downstream and spawning salmon to head upriver.
When I reached the bottom of the ladder, I glanced back at the falls to see what I'd missed. And gulped.
The entire river seemed to be funneling into a giant hole at the bottom of the 15-foot drop.
"You made the right choice," said Joslin Fritz, head guide on the trip for the OARS rafting and adventure travel company. "No commercial outfitters run that rapid. And only a few kayakers and catarafts (two-hulled rafts) chance it that I know of. It eats most boats."
Meet the guides
Matt and I had met our small group of fellow paddlers two hours earlier at Morrison's Rogue River Lodge, a famed fishing retreat where we had all spent the night.
After a 45-minute shuttle, we met Fritz and fellow guide Nicole Smedegaard, a pair of outgoing and outdoorsy twentysomethings. When I began kayaking in the late '70s, female rafters were a rarity. Now, Fritz told me, up to 40% of the guides on the Rogue are women.
With an osprey circling in the sky, Fritz gave us the mandatory safety talk, while Smedegaard secured the last of the gear in the rafts.
Then I checked out the hard-shelled kayak I'd borrowed for the trip, practiced a few rusty Eskimo rolls and reacquainted myself with what I think is the best way to boat a river. (Alas, I now live in Wisconsin, so my white-water options are limited.)
Soon we were drifting down the Rogue through rugged terrain that once was home to the Coquille and other Native American tribes before bloody conflicts with miners and settlers led to their forced removal to reservations.
Pine trees and shrubs climbed the sides of the canyon, offering a range of green hues. Here and there were splashes of red and orange in the form of madrone trees, a bigger version of the manzanita bush.
At one point, a bald eagle swooped in to check us out, and several great blue herons, looking to me like something from the Jurassic age, flew back and forth across the river, much to our delight. And in a calm eddy, a six-pack of Western pond turtles basked on a tree branch, oblivious to our presence.
The best Class III rapids of the day were Tyee, Wildcat and Black Bar Falls, all of which we managed with no flips — though we had a couple of near misses. Before lunch, we passed Black Bar Lodge, one of several grandfathered in the Wild and Scenic section of the river, where boaters and hikers often stay.
By the time 1 p.m. rolled around, we were hungry. Our guides prepared a delicious meal that included fruit and veggies, hummus, peanut butter, jam, wheat bread and several juices.