Solitude and adventure on the wild Illinois River
Will Volpert/Indigo Creek Outfitters

The Illinois River.

The Illinois River is one of the most beautiful, remote streams on the West Coast. The 31-mile wilderness run takes rafters and kayakers through Oregon’s most rugged country — the Kalmiopsis Wilderness — and the unique geology keeps those with a scientific mind interested as well. (For more information, links to video and a gallery of pictures, see blow.)

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Deep and emerald green in the canyons, boiling and ill-tempered through the rapids, the Illinois River begins in the wilderness and never surrenders that independence.

The river is wild at its birth, tumbling down the California Siskiyous with the reckless energy of an adolescent child, through a sunlit forest of weeping spruce and tiger lilies until it crosses the Oregon border.

Even when the Illinois bubbles into the mainstem southwest of Cave Junction, the stopover near civilization is brief. The reclusive stream wraps itself around Eight Dollar Mountain and swings west — at long last turning toward the ocean — where it slices into a gateway of mountains that mark the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

That was the place I greeted the Illinois River in late May, along with a scattered collection of river guides and kayakers, at Miami Bar west of Selma.

Established as Wild and Scenic in 1984, the 31-mile wilderness run between Miami Bar and Oak Flat (near Agness) takes boaters into the isolation of Oregon’s most remote country.

Black Bears roam the edges of the river and rattlesnakes patrol the shores. The ultramafic rocks that rise above the Illinois originated in the basement of the planet — pushed up nearly 50 miles from the earth's upper mantle — and are found almost nowhere else in the world.

But geology aside, what brings people to the wild Illinois is the chance to camp, raft and kayak this homicidal beauty queen of a river.

Both beautiful and dangerous, the Illy will seduce you with her sights, sounds and smells, and then pummel your backside across more than eight Class IV rapids.

Above all, the Illinois is an adventure. When you set your boat upon that emerald water and head into the mountains, you’re officially leaving civilization behind.

ON THE RIVER

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

— Kenneth Grahame, “The Wind in the Willows”

Will Volpert dipped his oars into the water, pulled out of the eddy and launched his overloaded raft into the dark alleyway of the Green Wall.

In this booming Class V rapid, Will navigated past a boiling hole, squeezed between a picket-fence of rocks and paddled through a frothing, greenish-white cauldron into the final chute.

“Wooo,” he said.

As quickly as it began, the Illinois River's famous rapid was behind us.

And to be honest, I was disappointed.

Type the phrase “Green Wall Carnage” into a Google search and you'll find videos featuring a comedy of rafts being flipped and flung by the Green Wall, while the poor saps manning the oars flail around like ants in a swirling toilet bowl.

Sadly, there was no drama for us. Will navigated the rapid with such a smooth progression of moves, he could have been walking around his house with the lights off.

Which isn't far from the truth.

The 25-year-old former Selma resident has run the wild Illinois a whopping 35 times, getting to know the river at high flows, low flows and even with four inches of snow on the ground.

Will grew up in a family of rafting outfitters, manning the oars when he was 13-years-old. His ability to organize trips isn't shocking.

Still, his reputation on the Illinois has grown, and it's easy to see why.

“If Will Volpert ever invites you on an Illinois trip, just go,” said local kayaker Nathan Barnard. “Doesn't matter what you have going on, work, school, whatever, just go.”

I took that advice, and by 5:30 p.m., our boats had launched from Miami Bar.

It was a late start, but after a quick 8 miles we reached Pine Flat and made camp below a purple-orange sky. Tents were erected on grassy ground, as the smell of wood smoke and chicken soup wafted through the air.

Going on a trip made up almost entirely of river guides is an interesting experience. They’re simultaneously the most mature and immature people you'll ever meet. One moment they'll harass you about the danger of your inadequate life jacket. The next, they'll tell you a story about the time they accidentally got their dog stoned. In the end you’re always glad to have them, in case you need to be saved from a watery grave.

Their expertise seemed especially apt on the second day of the Illinois, where the river begins to show its teeth.

Beginning at Fawn Falls (IV), there's a section of nasty, technical rapids that seem to take pleasure in punishing boats that didn’t take clean lines. Names such as Green Wall (V), Submarine Hole and Pimp Slap (IV) give rafters a pretty fair idea of what they’re in for.

And it doesn't always go according to plan.

At Green Wall, one of our group mates got stuck in a boiling hole, was tossed out of his boat and held on for dear life as his raft pin-balled into the churning rapid. Luckily he climbed back into his boat with enough time to avoid serious calamity, but it was touch-and-go for a moment.

Submarine Hole also required some unique teamwork. After one boat got stuck in a narrow rock gap, another came up from behind and knocked it free.

“The consequences of error out here are substantially higher than rivers that are more accessible,” Will said. “There’s no road access or air strips. Even the trail is inaccessible for most of the way, so you really have to be careful.”

AN ILLINOIS-SMITH RIVER?

The Illinois River roughly is a 56-mile tributary of the Rogue River, but according to local scientists, that might not have always been the case.

Chief of Resource Management at the Oregon Caves and local geologist John Roth believes the Illinois and Smith rivers actually were connected in the not-so-distant past.

Both rivers have headwaters in the Siskiyou Wilderness, have similar geologic features and are home to a unique fly species found almost nowhere else.

The split between the two rivers likely took place during uplift in the High Siskiyous, perhaps as recently as 2 million years ago.

“It could have been a tributary of the Smith, or it could have been a main part of the river,” Roth said. “But we think they were connected. The High Siskiyous are very jagged, which often represents a recent uplift. That could have been the cause for a split between the two rivers.”

Once the two rivers were split, Roth believes the Illinois was eventually captured by the Rogue River’s drainage.

As our group floated into the lower canyons, it was difficult to imagine the Illinois ever running through a different location.

In the sunlight, the water appeared deep and emerald green between narrow rock walls. Silver waterfalls ornamented the cliffs and glassy creeks tumbled in to join the final descent toward the Rogue.

The Illinois River is wild at its birth. And during a journey from the Siskiyou to the Kalmiopsis, it rumbles through the rapids and canyons of Southern Oregon’s splendid isolation.

“What I love about the Illinois is the sense of adventure,” Will said. “The canyon walls are phenomenal, there’s waterfalls around every corner, and the rapids are a lot of fun. But it’s that sense of the unknown, of planning a trip through the wilderness and camping with your friends, that makes the Illinois so much fun.”

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Notes: Will Volpert is the owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters and leads half-day trips on the Nugget-Powerhouse run of the upper Rogue River. He can be reached at 541-203-0222 or indigocreekoutfitters.com. ... Two local companies that run commercial rafting trips on the Illinois River are Momentum River Expeditions (momentumriverexpeditions.com) in Ashland and ARTA River Trips (arta.org).

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Illinois River - Wilderness Run

Adventure: kayaking/rafting

Difficulty: Class IV (V)

Distance: 31 miles

Time required: two or three days

Water level: Kayakers, 500-3500 cfs; rafters 900-3500 cfs (Kerby gauge)

Craziness factor (out of 5): 4.5

Extra points:For a gallery of pictures, click here. For video of the trip, click here.


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