Illinois River from Deer Creek to Six Mile
Photo by Justin Rohde

Barry Snitkin paddles though Crankshaft Rapid on the Illinois River.

There’s few kayaking runs in Southern Oregon that bring together the views, solitude and adrenaline of the Deer Creek to Illinois River run near Selma. The route includes a few miles on a pretty little creek and another few on a large, famous section of whitewater in an area close to Grants Pass.

Here’s a video of the Illinois River and its rapids, and here’s a photo gallery.

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

This was not good.

The only thing worse than watching Barry Snitkin explode from the Illinois River, launched skyward and sideways as though he’d triggered a mine, was knowing I was next.

We were kayaking into the teeth of Snailback Rapid, attempting the “more exciting” route that slides around a massive, washing-machine style hole known for pummeling boaters who don’t stay far enough left.

We hadn’t stayed far enough left.

The first moment brought a thundering wall of white, and the uneasy sensation of being tossed backward. Then I found myself surfing, stuck between the white wall and a powerful wave in a churning vortex of emerald green.

Still in my kayak, I flipped upside down, then right-side up, then down again. Finally I pulled off my spray skirt, exited the kayak and kicked forward just enough to be ejected like a kernel of corn from the rapid’s backside.

As I floated into a pool of water below, a befuddled expression across my face, I saw Barry wringing out his Walt Whitman-esque beard and grinning.

“That was fun!” Barry shouted. “Wasn’t that fun?”

While it would be difficult to classify getting swallowed by the Illinois River as fun, Barry was mostly on target. The run — which combines a few miles of Deer Creek with the mighty Illinois — is among the most satisfying stretches in Southern Oregon.

On a sunny day, you can weave between boulders on pretty little Deer Creek before rolling directly into the burnt orange canyon of the wild Illinois. Five sets of Class III/IV rapids provide adrenaline amid the wilderness tranquility.

The best part? The Selma area put-in is located just 20 minutes south of Grants Pass down Highway 199. A shuttle can be set up using Illinois River Road and taking out at Six Mile, Store Gulch or any number of other access points.

The run isn’t for everyone. December to May is the typical season, meaning that one needs a wet suit or dry suit to feel comfortable.

“It’s not a trip for beginners,” said Barry, who lives in Cave Junction. “But if you’re ready for large rapids, it’s a superb day trip. It’s close to home and there’s hardly ever anyone else on the river.”


So why kayak Deer Creek?

It’s not a stream that provides big rapids and challenging lines, the two things whitewater junkies crave.

Yet there’s something charming about the stream, about its crystal water, the way it cuts through the forested mountains and rolls between silver cliffs.

My desire to run Deer Creek came from a place more subtle. I’ve driven across the creek numerous times on the Highway 199 bridge south of Selma. And each time, I’d wonder where that small blade of water rambled.

Barry gave me the chance to find out in February, during one of those warm and sunny afternoons that swindles you into believing spring will arrive any day.

The creek doesn’t begin in a very scenic location, but it gradually improves downstream.

First we floated through tight spaces where trees reach across the creek, then dropped into pools where the water collects below silver cliffs.

True to its name, deer roam the shorelines. And the rapids, while not thrilling, provide a nice little obstacle course that requires you to weave between rocks and boulders and tiny islands.

Eventually Deer Creek begins to speed up and, before you know it, you’re dropping into the Illinois River canyon.


The best way to describe the Illinois River, I’ve always thought, is that of a psychotic beauty queen.

Each time I paddle onto that emerald green water, and begin floating into that burnt orange canyon, I get a knot in my stomach that’s composed of both excitement and dread. It’s the same feeling you get at the beginning of a relationship, when you know deep down there’s a good chance it will end badly.

The mountains rise straight above your head, and ominous signs appear upon the shoreline, including the rusted, mangled corpse of two cars that apparently dropped from the road above.

The first named rapid is Snailback, located at a bend in the river. Snailback is easy if you have sense enough — unlike myself and Barry — to keep right along the shoreline and stay away from the kayak-destroying hole.

After another a mile or so, the river really begins to pick up steam.

Ranch Rock, a large rock, appears in the middle of the river ushering in a wave train that at high flows feels like paddling up green cliffs and dropping down the other side.

If Ranch Rock is a place to get punched in the face, then the next rapid — the aptly named Crankshaft — is place to get punished mentally.

The river dives into a thick bedrock chute and makes an S-turn through a narrow pool, earning a Class III+/IV rating.

Crankshaft is the most intimidating rapid by far and actually gave me pause on that first trip.

My nerves were already frayed by the Snailback debacle, and as we scouted the rapid, I entertained thoughts of portaging around it.

After a few moments, though, I felt that gravitational force move me toward my boat. Soon I was on the water, mouth dry as cotton, heart beating into my throat.

The first move was a swooping turn left, threading the needle between a ledge and jagged rocks. I then twisted hard right, paddling through a swirling pool that swept me toward the opposite wall before I escaped down a narrow chute at the rapid's bottom.

Whewwww ...

A bright, multi-colored canyon opened up below Crankshaft and I paddled forward, breathing deeply and telling myself that I was never actually worried ... just focused.

The final section of Class III rapids are upper and lower Six Mile, which are straight read-and-run fun. There's a parking lot at Six Mile, which makes a nice take-out. Or, you can continue down another set of Class II rapids into a thick-walled canyon, and enjoy a victory float though some stunning scenery.

The Deer Creek to Illinois River run offers peace and violence, tranquility and fear. It’s a chance to explore a rarely viewed creek and test yourself against rapids that have no qualms about kicking your butt inside out.

o o o o

Notes: The best level to run this stretch of river is somewhere around 800 to 1,600 cfs, as the rapids tend to get larger above those flows. The place to check the flows is at the Kirby Gauge, which can be found here.


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