SOLITUDE AND ADVENTURE ON THE WILD ILLINOIS RIVER
Posted below is my story about the Illinois River that was published in Saturday’s edition of the Daily Courier. The story is mainly about the 31-mile wilderness run from Miami Bar to Oak Flat — and the people that raft there — but there’s a fair amount of geologic information mashed in as well, including the interesting idea that the Illinois and Smith River were connected at one point in history.
The story was a fun one to write, mainly because I got to enjoy a two-day trip on the Wild Illy, but I’m also sort of glad to have it finished. My goal this spring was to finish in-depth stories on the wilderness runs of the North Fork Smith and Illinois River, along with the upper Applegate. And while it was amazing to be on the river, it was a ton of work to say the least.
Before you hit these runs, which largely dry up during the summer, you have to buy a dry suit (around $800) and get the correct type of boat, in my case a SOTAR kayak*.
*The kayak worked very well, as I detailed in this story about inflatable kayaks.
Most importantly, though, you have to find the right people to hit the rivers with. The danger of the rapids in all three runs required going with people who know what they’re doing — who can show you the best lines and save your sorry behind from drowning. Luckily, the best boaters usually make the best stories, so I’d like to say thanks to Brock Nelson, Marcelo Leyva, “Bearfoot” Brad Camden, Grant Werschkull and most especially, Will Volpert (who you can read about below). There were plenty of others, too.
Now it’s officially summer, and while I’ll obviously be spending plenty of the time on the river — I have a big story on the Rogue and the writer Zane Grey a-coming — the focus will shift a little bit toward hiking and mountain biking.
So one more word of thanks to all the boaters that got me on the river and the scientists that explained how they work. It was a blast. And so, without further ado, here’s the story about the wild Illinois.
For a gallery of pictures, click here. For video of the trip, click here.
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Illinois River - Wilderness Run
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
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By Zach Urness
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).