Life on the Applegate River
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Below the Applegate bridge on the Applegate River.

The Applegate River below the reservoir is one of the least kayaked sections of river in Southern Oregon. On a day in June, I decided to check it out during a two day trip.

Here’s a photo gallery of the Applegate River and here’s video of kayaking the river.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

I lost a good friend on the Applegate River.

After putting in just below the reservoir, I kayaked into a canyon that squeezed all the humor out of the river, turning the water into twisting turquoise jets and quick-dropping waterfalls between narrow rock cliffs.

I tightened my life jacket and paddled into the Class III rapids at full speed, bouncing atop the first section of whitewater, digging deep against the current for a hairpin turn left and finishing by shooting down the mouth of a three-foot drop.

As the water mellowed into a rolling dark current between rapids, I bailed water from the kayak with my Minnesota Timberwolves baseball hat and conversed with fishermen standing above me on the canyon's silver-gray walls.

“Having fun?” one asked.

“Ask again in about 20 minutes,” I replied.

With those words I swept into the largest rapids. I picked up speed across two small drops, narrowly avoided a fallen tree, and prepared myself for a frothing mass of water piled high against a tight, boulder-plugged gap in the canyon ahead.

I popped over the gap and dropped down a turquoise falls so swiftly my stomach seemed to jump into my chest.

The current spit me down a second whitewater drop like a shotgun ejecting buckshot. But I whiffed on an important paddle stroke, got twisted around and was launched up a steep canyon wall. My kayak flipped and I abandoned ship, before quickly pulling myself upon the upturned craft as the river pinballed us downstream.

Eventually I grabbed hold of a rocky outcropping and pulled myself and my boat to shore. I did a quick check for damage. The dry bag remained dry. My inflatable kayak remained inflated. But my Minnesota Timberwolves baseball hat, which had been with me since high school — through five different homes, four different states and countless outdoors trips — was gone.

I lost a good friend on Applegate River, and the trip had just begun.

o o o

The idea of kayaking the Applegate River popped into my head while laying in a dentist's chair and enjoying a root canal.

The key to enduring a root canal is to imagine a river. As your gums are shot with Novocaine and the drill rips into your aching molar, close your eyes and think of that beautiful stream, the sound of its rushing hum, the smell of trees and cool water, and the glassy surface catching the glint of sunlight.

Each time I closed my eyes during that dental surgery, I thought of the Applegate ... which might come as a surprise. Josephine County is home to the world-famous Rogue River and the rugged Illinois River, the pair of which turn the Applegate almost into an afterthought.

The Applegate is known for winter steelhead fishing. But it has zero “Wild and Scenic” protection, is buffered almost head to foot with private land, and stays in close contact with Highway 238.

Yet this Siskiyou mountain-fed stream has plenty of charm. During high flows this narrow, overgrown river features sections of fun rapids and profoundly beautiful views. There are two unique bridges, a nice campground and — though steelhead season is closed in the summer — good trout fishing.

The Applegate won't ever reach the status of the Rogue or Illinois, but then again, that's sort of the point.

o o o

I had to make a decision, and quickly.

After finishing the McKee Bridge’s section of Class II/III rapids — a glorious little stretch — I’d assumed the most challenging water was behind me.

Wrong.

As the current swept me along at a quick pace, I couldn't help but notice a footbridge sitting across the water at a height almost perfect to slice my head clean off.

The choices were either to paddle relentlessly to the shore and portage around, or to try and slide underneath by attempting a perfect imitation of a wooden board laying across my kayak.

The latter choice seemed the most interesting, and as I slid below the bridge I could swear my nose brushed the iron beams.

But it wasn't finished.

Yet another bridge appeared on the river just ahead, only this time, my wooden board impression put me completely out of position to handle the waterfall drop and tangle of tree branches on the opposite side.

Flat on your back is not the optimal way to navigate rapids, and it was only allowing the downed tree's branches to rake across my face as I swept down that I avoided being dumped for a second time.

These back-to-back bridges highlight how the Applegate becomes very similar to an obstacle course during high flows. The river might not feature anything resembling Blossom Bar of the Rogue or Green Wall of the Illinois, but it does test you with sections of tightly plugged chutes, downed trees across fast water and rock-bar currents that push you into the shoreline.

o o o

It was 10 p.m. at Cantrall-Buckley campground, and I was beginning to get nervous.

The sound of the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction” was blasting through the walls of my tent while I attempted to get some much-needed sleep.

I thought of walking over to the offending campsite armed with my paddle, but having met the occupants’ very large dog and seen their collection of beverages earlier that day, I decided that probably would not end well.

On a river of almost wall-to-wall private property, Cantrall-Buckley is the only downstream campsite on the Applegate and one of the only parks with river access.

Perhaps the strangest part of kayaking the river was the fact that I saw more “no trespassing” signs than people. It was a glorious June day, and the river rolls past towns such as Ruch, Applegate, Murphy and Grants Pass, yet the Applegate maintained an almost solitary feel.

There were occasionally groups of fishermen along the shoreline — you're not allowed to fish from any boat on the Applegate. When the parks do appear, there are children, parents and rowdy 20-somethings swimming and picnicking and partying along the shoreline.

But the overall sightings of people are sporadic at best.

o o o

The two main drawbacks to the Applegate are how shallow it becomes and the long patches of slow water. Sure enough, I crossed plenty of rock bars that grated against the bottom of my kayak, and I occasionally had to stand up and walk.

The slow water was less of a problem and actually allowed me to take more enjoyment in the views.

Drooping trees cast a soft shade upon mellow sections of water, and patches of sunlight shimmered atop the riffles. Through the water I could see the rocky river bottom slide in-and-out, as I traversed from shallow to deep water.

One of my favorite slow stretches was between Applegate and Murphy, where there were wide sweeping views of old wooden farmhouses sitting below the green mounds of the Siskiyou Mountains.

At the same time, though, there's little denying that construction of Applegate Reservoir (1976 to ’80) has changed the river, and probably not for the better from an aesthetic point of view.

As longtime resident Janeen Sathre told me last year: “It’s not the same river I grew up on. The river was more open before with many rock or sand bars. There were wonderful swimming holes where the water hardly moved and then very shallow fast water between.”

Still, the Applegate's mixture of fun rapids and wild shores made it a trip that, despite the hassles, was worth taking.

By 10:15 p.m., the music pulsing through Cantrall-Buckley campground was switched off, and I slowly dropped off to sleep, thinking about the trees and the rapids, and imagining the day I'd find my poor drowned Minnesota Timberwolves baseball hat on a sunny bank somewhere along the Applegate River.


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