The Cambridge Dictionary defines Rogue as “behaving in ways that are not expected or not normal, often in a way that causes damage.”
So why would we want to take six precious, decades-old, irreplaceable heirloom dories down the Rogue River? Good Question.
It started back in the eighties when Martin Litton sold Grand Canyon Dories. He had championed long river trips–greater distances at a slower pace. I decided to try and charter a few trips like that in Grand Canyon and rivers in the upper Colorado Basin. We developed a crew and a following. My then-wife Jeri took it over for a while in the 1990s when I took a break from boating to write. By and by Andy Hutchinson and Kate Thompson picked up the reins. We are still picking out one or two goofy trips to offer each year, under the mythical name of Dory Moon Expeditions. Last year we decided we should take the dories back to their roots–after all, they are modified Rogue River drift boats. (Alcohol may have been involved in this logical jump.) So to the Rogue we went.
We did a quick test run to see if we could figure out how to get down the rocky Rogue. This is Andy, Chief Eccentric Officer of Dory Moon.
On this trip we had four Briggs boats–Andy in the 1981 Cottonwood, Kate in her sister ship, the Skagit–a boat close to my heart, as I rowed her for her first seven years, Tim Cooper in the 1972 Celilo Falls, and me in my 1972 Cataract. RJ Johnson had the good sense to bring a raft for the test run to learn the moves a little better. Kind of cheating, don’t you think? Our friends Julie and Roger rafted along as well, contributing to the music fest each night.
Miraculously, we made it, but not without a few contusions, abrasions, abusions, and confusions. We figured out how to line Rainie Falls, scared ourselves witless in the Coffeepot and Blossom Bar, but for some reason we still thought we should turn around and do it again with nineteen passengers.
Our outfitter for the commercial run was Bret Clark, who married the daughter of Jerry Briggs, builder of our boats, and eventually took over the boatshop and guiding business. Bret guided us down on a similarly ridiculous trip back in 2002, but that’s another story. This time Bret couldn’t make it so he sent Billy “Inky” Inkrote, a boyhood friend and lifelong boatman, who knows more and has lived more Rogue River history than most books could contain. He, too, brought a Briggs–his own aluminum Rogue River Special, an earlier Briggs design upon which our Grand Canyon boats were based. Inky took incredibly good care of our AARP boatmen. Here he is in a thoughtful moment at dinner.
For this run we launched at Grants Pass, where all six boats were built, where Zane Grey launched in 1925, and where Buzz Holmstrom followed in 1934 and ’35. Like them, we planned to row to the sea. RJ brought his 1975 Surprise Canyon, and Vince Welch rowed his 1974 Music Temple. All six boats still proudly fly the old Grand Canyon Dory fleet colors–Willys Beryl Green, Cadillac Aztec Red, and Refrigerator White. What a treat for us old Litton boatmen to see that palette again.
We decided to try the Rogue concept of lodge accommodations each night. It certainly lightens the boats. And check out the dinner arrangements:
After breakfast Bret rolled in with the guest of honor: Jerry Briggs himself. Although retired and no longer boating or building, Jerry is still a barrel of laughs. It was inexpressibly precious to us to have him there to send us off on this fool’s quest, taking one-sixth of the total number of Briggs boats ever built into a giant high-speed rock pile..
And off we went. Rainie Falls was far too busy to even think of pulling out a camera (again) but we got them all lined through in short order. Then we got down to business. A lot of crazy-tight moves in shallow water and tight chutes. I’ll be honest–we made some bad noises, both with our boats and our mouths. Upper Black Bar Falls was the only one that actually bit, however. Skagit threw herself on that grenade, prompting the story that night of how Buzz Holmstrom hit what might have been that very rock, flipped, threw his clothes ashore to aid in swimming, missed, swam ashore, and late that night, naked, found Black Bar Lodge. Kate opted not to do the flip and strip part, but we did stay at Black Bar Lodge.
Inky is regaling us with tales of the Rogue as we patch, and filling us in on the next day.
At Winkle Bar we pulled ashore to fix… four dories. It reminded us of a particularly bad day at Hance Rapid back in the ’80s with a similar number of boats on the beach at once. On good trips, when we hit no rocks, we called the trip “golden.” The ledger for that one read, “Golden schmolden; we wrecked ’em all.”
Winkle Bar was once owned by Zane Grey, and one of his old boats remains there. 23 feet long, rowed by two men at once–or rowed by one man while the other pushed off rocks with a sixteen-foot pole. Good lord.
A selfie in Zane Grey’s mirror.
The next morning we had all totally forgotten how to smile. We were just above the ridiculously narrow Mule Creek Canyon, which culminates in a boiling slot called the Coffeepot, so narrow that drift boats occasionally get caught crosswise, bridging from wall to wall, snap in two, and sink. Shit. That’s not a fun thing to contemplate, especially coming into something so turbulent and narrow that you have virtually no control. Coffeepot had given us quite a run for the money on our first trip, when a bunch of knotheads in blue rafts pushed in on top of us. At least this time we had no one on our tails.
But today’s coffee was not so bitter and we squirted on through. We are pausing here for a moment to stare at Stair Creek Falls.
Around the bend is the boulder field called Blossom Bar, where Glen Wooldridge and Inky’s dad blasted a channel for boats back before that was considered sinful. I was a little too busy there as well for photography. Common sense and and increasing agitation from insurance companies made us do the sane thing here and have the passengers walk around while we squiggled through the boulder slots.
Lucas Lodge was home for the night–currently run by a seventh generation of the Lucas family. This place has some serious heritage.
Pardon me–my camera set itself for twinkly pictures for a day or so here before I noticed. But they are awfully nice twinkles. Here are seven generations of twinkly union suits.
The next afternoon the wind commenced in earnest about the time the paltry current died out. How to get to our next lodge fifteen miles downstream? Inky pulled our fat out of the fire once more with a small motor and towed us for a ways in a great, long snaky (twinkly) parade
By evening we could smell the sea breeze, see the fog rolling up the valley, and hear the fog horn away toward the sea. We stayed at Rogue River Lodge and RJ made us burgers and dogs.
Our final morning was breezy and foggy as we rowed into Gold Beach. Dozens of curious seals popped up to see what we might be up to. We rowed toward that bridge for nearly an hour without it getting visibly closer.
But we finally got there.
Our original plan had been to row into the ocean and surf ashore near our lodging, but a quick pre-trip scout revealed that to be utterly idiotic. And the night before we reached the sea we heard from a fisherman that the waves were so bad outside the harbor that the bar was closed to all boats less than 22 feet. That made our decision pretty easy.
So we inched out to the spit that separates the harbor from the Pacific and tied up. The fog lifted. The wind stopped. The sun beamed. On the other side of the the spit waves thundered, exploded, and crashed. Seagulls squawked, sea lions rolled and surfed. Dory Moon, with Inky’s guidance and a whole lot of luck, had pulled off our most preposterous caper yet. Our joy, as Major Powell once said, was almost ecstasy.