Up a creek: kayakers tackle wild backcountry streams
Marcelo Leyva/For the Daily Courier

Brock Nelson launches off a 22-foot waterfall on the upper Applegate River.

When the water levels rise high enough, a group of local kayakers take to Southern Oregon’s wild, backcountry creeks for adventure. I joined them on a trip down the upper Applegate River, a wilderness stream of fast water and gorges above the reservoir. Here’s a photo gallery of the Applegate.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Brock Nelson took a long drink of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, strapped into his kayak and, after a few swift paddle strokes, launched himself off the edge of a roaring 22-foot waterfall.

In the mossy wilderness of the upper Applegate River — some 15 miles above the reservoir — Nelson tumbled through the curtain of silver water, splashed into the turquoise pool below and emerged after a few moments underwater with a slightly displeased look upon his face.

“Definitely over-rotated,” the 22-year-old Medford resident said. “I almost landed upside down.”

And so he carried his kayak back up the basalt canyon and launched himself off the waterfall yet again.

On a rainy March afternoon I embarked on a kayaking trip with Nelson and Marcelo Leyva, a pair of Southern Oregon “waterdogs” who spend their hours running whitewater that would scare the living bejesus out of the average Tahiti floater.

They run the Class IV+ rapids you’ve probably heard of — Natural Bridge and Takelma Gorge on the upper Rogue River, for example. But it's the tiny backcountry creeks that garner the most enthusiasm.

When the rain and snowmelt raise levels high enough, you'll find the 'dogs paddling everywhere from Mill Creek (near Prospect) to Carberry Creek (near Applegate). The most intrepid even backpack into the Siskiyou Wilderness and ride the crystal water of Clear Creek all the way to the Klamath River.

“It’s the adventure of going into remote, wild places you'd never see on foot,” said Leyva, a 34-year-old from White City. “You just don't think about every day life when you're running these little wilderness creeks. When you’re in that zone, nothing else really matters.”

The stream of choice for our trip was the upper Applegate, a patch of Class III/IV water that navigates narrow, curvy gorges on the California side of the border. It was my first time with what’s considered “creek kayaking,” and I couldn't have picked a better place for the inaugural run.

The Applegate River has been something of a fascination for me the past few years. I’ve written about the history of the reservoir, and floated the lower river all the way to its Rogue River outlet on steelhead and trout fishing trips. In a sense, kayaking the upper section completed a journey from the mountains to the mouth.

We reached the take-out spot above the reservoir on a day that was cool and misty, then shuttled upstream along a dirt road toward the put-in.

From almost the moment our boats touched the water we were gone, swept along by an almost nonstop string of Class II and IIIs, through a landscape far different than below the reservoir.

Rather than houses and private property buffering the river’s edges, there were pines and Douglas firs. Rather than passing diversion dams and highway bridges, we tumbled into narrow chutes of polished black canyons, riding a turquoise current that swung back-and-forth before piling into one large, frothing mass that we flipped over the top and back down with a splash.

“Woooooooo,” said Leyva, after we ran the Class III+ Upper Rapids. “You having fun yet?”

Indeed I was.

At the midway point of the 4.2-mile trip, we stopped at the entrance to the only Class V, where the river bores a nasty undercut into the cliff. While Nelson contemplated his route through a rapid that's usually avoided, Leyva set up a safety rope. The two worked together so naturally that it didn't strike me until later how different they were.

Nelson is an adrenaline-seeking young man whose father had him running Class IV-rapids when he was just 10-years-old. He’ll be attending helicopter pilot school in Bend this autumn to peruse a career that’ll keep him far, far away from the horrors of drab office work.

Leyva, by contrast, is a foreman for a metal roofing manufacturer in Medford. He got into kayaking with a friend, and enjoyed it so much that operates the website, roguekayakers.com.

“There’s a pretty big cross-section of people we got boating with,” Leyva said. “I go with guys that are 55 and 60 years old, and there are at least four women that sometimes go.”

The waterdogs are not exactly a group, but a loose network of around 50 kayakers of various degrees of skill.

“You develop friendships pretty quick with guys in your skill set,” Nelson said. “You get in some pretty hairy, life-or-death situations where you have to help each other out.”

Below the Class V, we entered the more exciting lower section of the run. The whitewater arrived in almost back-to-back bursts, as we paddled through rapids with names such as Topless Weather Girl and Hydraulics on Crack.

It wasn’t the size of the rapids that provided the most fun, but rather the tight lines that kept you weaving in between boulders, twisting around corners and shooting small drops.

The day didn’t end without incident, of course. I went swimming multiple times in the frozen water (thankfully I had a good drysuit). My poor inflatable kayak was continually flooded and by the time we reached the take-out, I’d slammed my backside across so many rocks that I anticipated a challenging few days of sitting.

Still, the pain was of minor concern. Because even after I got dumped for a third time at the final rapid — a stout Class III below the bridge and take-out point — I knew I was hooked.

And so I carried my kayak back upstream, stopped at the truck for a long drink of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and launched myself back into the upper Applegate River rapids.

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Detailed information on kayaking the upper Applegate, including directions to put-in, flow levels, river distance and a breakdown of the rapids.

Outstanding video of kayaking local creeks, including the upper Applegate, from Marcelo Leyva’s website.

More pictures from the Applegate River, including shots from downstream below the reservoir.

A story on paddling the Applegate River below the reservoir and video from the same area.

A story on the history and creation of the Applegate Reservoir.





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