Is Blossom Bar Oregon's deadliest rapids?
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Blossom Bar on the Rogue River.

Blossom Bar rapids are the most challenging part of any trip through the Rogue River’s wild section between Grave Creek and Foster Bar. But five deaths there since 2007 have raised concerns about the inherent risks poised by the Class IV boulder garden.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Blossom Bar rapids have long had a notorious reputation on the lower section of the Rogue River.

The massive power of water flowing through huge boulders creates a churning, twisting Class IV rapid that’s the most challenging part of any trip into the river’s 34-mile “wild” section between Grave Creek and Foster Bar.

While the majority of boaters navigate this garden of stones without issue, two deaths this month highlight the serious consequences of missteps in this dangerous section of river.

Five people, all wearing life jackets, have lost their lives here since 2007.

No other rapids in the state have such a high body count, according to American Whitewater’s accident database. Interviews conducted with the Oregon Marine Board and 15 different river experts across the state also support that fact.

“There’s a couple of places on the Deschutes River where we see serious accidents, but in terms of one rapid, I’d have say that it’s Blossom Bar,” said Marty Law, Boating Safety Program Manager for the Oregon Marine Board. “You have to look at the high level of use, the technical nature of the rapids and the fact that even if you have a life jacket on, the force of the water and hydraulics can make rescue difficult.”

Does this mean Blossom Bar is Oregon’s most dangerous rapid? Absolutely not. Numerous Class V rapids across southern Oregon are far more difficult and dangerous.

But the sheer number of people who run the Rogue's wild section, the percentage of boaters with limited experience and the potentially serious consequences of a mistake can be a lethal mix.

“When you look at the numbers, 99.9 percent of the people make it safely,” said Brad Niva, owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures in Merlin. “And a lot of the clients that we bring through Blossom Bar say ‘Wow, that’s it?’

“There’s just one move that’s very important to make, and if you don’t make it, there can be serious consequences.”

At the top of the rapid, boaters must make a left-to-right move to avoid a lineup of jagged rocks called the Picket Fence.

The maneuver isn’t necessarily difficult, especially for experienced boaters with knowledge of the rapid. But the consequences of getting swept into the Picket Fence can be a nightmare.

In 2008, Kathleen Mills of Portland was rafting with her husband when the boat hit the Picket Fence and bounced her into the river. The 57-year-old was pinned under water by a rock and drowned.

A similar fate befell Cynthia Vontungein of Irvine, Calif., — except that she fell out of an inflatable kayak — and Valerie A. Casey of Phoenix, Ariz., in 2007.

“There’s a hole on the backside of the fence that sucks things in and doesn’t release them,” Niva said. “There have been bodies stuck in there for seven days.”

Last week, William Martindale, 68, of Sherwood got his drift boat stuck on the Picket Fence and drowned when he apparently tried to swim to shore and was tangled in rope.

Then, on Wednesday, Robert Nynam, 68, of Eugene overturned his raft on the river’s north side. He was swept into the water and apparently suffered a heart attack.

“It’s always a momentary mistake,” said Zach Collier, general manager at ECHO River Trips. “And it happens so quickly.”

An average of 12,744 people floated the Rogue’s wild section during each permit season — May 15 to Oct. 15 — from 2000 to 2010. That’s essentially a small city of people going through a technical, dangerous rapid each summer. Many of those people are inexperienced.

Sunset Magazine featured a story on rafting in June in which it referred to the Rogue as “the mild trip.” The author wrote, “I try out one of the inflatable kayaks we’ve been towing. Nobody, including me, seems to care that I can barely steer.”

While the author almost certainly was taken through Blossom Bar in a raft, there’s a notion that the Rogue is a mostly harmless river.

“A significant number of people who paddle or row the Rogue do not have the knowledge or skill to navigate Blossom Bar, and an alarming number of people do drop into the Picket Fence,” said Jim Boeckl, a Rogue veteran and former river guide who lives in Ashland. “The majority flush out with their pulse intact, but occasionally, one or two get stuck.”

All of which raises the issue: Should something be done? If so, what?

Any physical change to Blossom Bar is unlikely. Although Rogue pioneer Glen Wooldridge created the current passage by blasting out rock with dynamite during the 1950s, the Rogue’s designation as a “wild and scenic river” would make a similar change all but impossible even if people wanted it to happen.

Which, by and large, they don’t.

The most common suggestion from river guides and local officials is education.

“We are very careful to educate people about the river before we issue the float permits, and to find out what type of experience they have,” said Jeanne Klein, Rogue River manager at the Grants Pass Interagency Office. “If they don’t have a lot of experience, we strongly suggest they go with an outfitter.”

Despite the number of fatalities seen in recent years, serious accidents at Blossom Bar are still extremely rare.

There were zero deaths from 1998 to 2007 at the rapids. And even if you take the past five years' elevated numbers into account, the chance of drowning at Blossom Bar still is around 0.007 percent.

“The Rogue River is such a beautiful place,” Collier said, “but Blossom Bar is there. If you want to float the wild section, you’ll have to go through it. People just need to make sure they have the skills to run the rapid, make sure they scout the rapid and just respect the river.”

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