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An inn-to-inn, raft-supported trek along Oregon’s Rogue River

Oregon’s mighty Rogue River rises high in the mountains near Crater Lake. It then journeys more than 200 miles and descends over 6,000 ft. before reaching the Pacific Ocean. We are going to hike the 44-mile Rogue River Trail that parallels the “wild and scenic” Lower Rogue. It is one of the only long-distance walks in North America where one can travel from one rustic wilderness lodge or campsite to another. There are no roads. Access is only by foot, raft or small plane.

Each day the number of persons permitted in the Rogue River Valley is restricted to 120. We chose to join an inn-to-inn raft-supported excursion. This way we would only have to carry a day-pack and hiking poles. Our luggage would be toted downstream in dry bags by raft. Then at the end of the day, we would be able to enjoy a hot shower, comfy bed and plentiful dinner. The big question: would our group of 12 senior citizens be able to hike 10 miles or so a day? There was no need for concern. From time to time, our three supporting rafts oared by young, strong, capable guides would moor, dispense snacks for the hungry, water for the thirsty, relief for emerging blisters or hot spots and a ride to any tired hikers.

Our adventure starts at Grave Creek. The sun shines down from a cloudless sky. The temperature climbs steadily. There’s barely a breath of wind. Shielded by minimal shade, we are given a brief orientation and offered a few safety tips. Tip One: don’t touch or brush up against the treacherous poison oak as it may cause a severe allergic rash. Tip Two: slap on the sunscreen. Tip Three: drink water and then drink more water. Tip Four: the universal signs for contact with our guides in the rafts are: “I’m okay” (a pat on the head) and “I’m in distress” (both arms raised above one’s head). I sincerely hope no-one has to use this emergency signal!

At last, we’re off. Well trodden by generations of backpackers and day hikers, there’s no mistaking the route. As it winds its way along the canyon walls, the narrow trail climbs and descends repeatedly. At times we’re several hundred feet above the river. The sounds of civilization quickly recede into the distance. It must be the hottest day of the year. To cool ourselves, we dip our hats in the refreshingly cold water of a flowing creek. After plodding along steadily for 9½ miles, we’re happy to see a signpost to Black Bar Lodge.

Our guides ferry us across the river. Oh the joy of bathing one’s feet in the icy cold current before tackling a short uphill stretch to the main lodge. Here we can quench our thirst with mugs of deliciously cool lemonade. A collection of twin-bedded wooden cabins, each with its own bathroom, provide comfortable lodging. Cell phones don’t work here. There is no television, no radio. We exchange tales with our fellow hikers and our hosts tell us a little of the history of Black Bar Lodge. It was constructed in the 1930s and is named after William Black, a gold miner, who suffered an untimely death. At Black Bar, a generator powers the light supply. Ten o’clock comes and our world is plunged into complete and utter darkness. Only the beam from a small torch lights the way to our isolated cabin.

Today we will continue on to Marial Lodge, 14½ miles downstream. This morning we decide to travel by raft. We want to experience the river both from trail and from water level. One moment our guide skillfully oars the raft downriver passing multiple rapids; the next we float leisurely with the current. We pass places with intriguingly descriptive names: Horseshoe Bend, Coffee Pot. Washboard and Wildcat Rapids. On the river itself, we get a completely different perspective. The cliffs rise steeply on either side where towering trees of Western red cedar, Douglas fir and Western hemlock thrive. Stunted, gnarly madrone trees cling to the cliff edge, easily identifiable by their peeling ruddy red bark. The banks are bordered by the soft green foliage of cascading willows. Atop a dead tree, we espy an osprey nest. We sight bald eagles, blue heron, cliff swallows, common mergansers and blue jays. A jumping fish creates ripples on the water. Fisherman in metal dories, passionate about their task, cast their lines. Above turkey vultures circle ominously.

In the afternoon, it’s time to shed our life jackets and don our hiking boots. We ascend steeply past dry creek beds and over wooden bridges. A small brown (cinnamon) bear meanders along the rocky shore on the river bank. Some black-tailed deer cavort on the hillside. Luckily, rattlesnakes are noticeably absent. Nature’s orchestra is our constant companion: the crunch of dry leaves beneath our feet, the flutter of butterfly wings, the whisper of dragonflies, the incessant chatter of the birds, the burble of cascading streams, the almost perfect quiet of calm still water, the gentle riffle as the river flows gently over rocks and the roaring crescendo of whitewater.

In 1933, Marial Lodge was built high on the river bank near Mule Creek. It was named after its first proprietress who was raised on the river. The current owner has operated the lodge for almost 40 years. He is known for his wry humour and good old-fashioned hospitality. A cheerful early morning wake-up call rouses us from sleep. We’re greeted by another perfect day. While enjoying a hearty breakfast, family-style, suddenly it starts to pour with rain. Surely, raindrops don’t fall from a clear blue sky! We should have known. Our mischievous host has turned on the sprinkler system!

Close by is the Rogue River Ranch National Historic Site which started life as a trading post, post office, blacksmith’s shop and boarding house for travelers. We enjoy an early morning visit to the museum which is housed in an historic two-storey wooden structure dating from the early 1900s. The distinctive red paint of its exterior walls provides a striking contrast to the surrounding grassland and azure blue sky. The museum contains a wealth of information about the history of the Rogue River Canyon from the time when it was inhabited by Native Americans through its glory days as a small gold-mining enclave to the development of a 200 acre pioneer farm.

From Mule Creek to Paradise Bar the most picturesque leg of the trip unfolds. High above the river, the footpath hugs the cliff face. To our right, a sheer rock face rises steeply; to our left it drops precipitously. In single-file, we edge our way cautiously along the narrow ledge. Mission accomplished, we signal our guides that everyone is safe and sound. But we must step up the pace this morning. To our left, a little-used track leads to a rocky promontory overlooking the river. From here, we can watch our guides tackle the tricky Class IV-V rapids at Blossom Bar. The lead raft is safely through. Will the others be successful too? We breathe a collective sigh of relief. All three deftly negotiate the churning water. The renowned river man Glen Wooldridge first floated down the Rogue in a wooden dory in 1915. Eventually, he grew tired of the lengthy portages and dynamited the most dangerous rapids thus transforming the “river of death” into the “runnable Rogue”.

We spend our last night at Paradise Bar. Here we are welcomed by a sign which reads: “No strangers, just folks we haven’t met”. This 85-acre property, first homesteaded in 1903, was the birthplace of eight children. Other than the mailman, in those days few visitors ventured upriver. Co-incidentally, a fellow hiker’s grandfather once delivered parcel mail by horseback to residents along the trail. A short walk down a series of steps brings us to the boat moorage. En route we pass signs indicating high water marks from the last three big floods. At one time, the water rose rapidly almost 50 ft. but finally crested just below the lodge veranda.

On the last day we easily cover the few remaining miles, enjoy a leisurely lunch and jump into the rafts before the final pull-out at Foster Bar. And so ends of our incredible trek along the Rogue River Trail. Despite the heat, it was an amazing experience. For four days, we trod in the footsteps of the first white settlers and lodged where they once homesteaded. With unusual foresight, legislation passed in 1968 assured the preservation and protection of this pristine wilderness area into the future.

We take away only memories. We leave behind only footprints.

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