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Rafting the North Umpqua 

Sebasian Foltz speaks of the nerves and inner conflicts of kayaking class IV rapids.

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On the verge of paddling into a class IV rapid, there is always a thought that wells up in the back of my mind:

Is this really such a great idea?

It'd be a cakewalk in my inflatable kayak, but my little hardshell playboat raises the flip factor exponentially.

You're solid on class III+,' I think to myself. 'But man, your track record on class IV's, less than stellar.

It's okay, this is the North Umpqua; you've run it before. It's Pinball rapid, you know it. You rolled just fine earlier. You can flip back.

Man, I don't want to swim it.

Less than an hour ago, I watched my friend Sean fall out of an inflatable kayak, too far ahead of me to catch him. He had to swim a long class III boulder garden, before getting picked up by friends in a raft.

The nerves fire. The river picks up the pace. That odd mix of excitement, apprehension and a strange sense of calm take over. A little fear is good; it keeps me focused. I look around and take in the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere deep in the Umpqua National Forest, then check ahead to make sure the rest of our group is on the right course.

Time slows down. The rapids get closer. I blast through the list of consequences and possible outcomes. Okay, worst-case scenario, no, not happening. I'm not swimming this. I pick my line.

What if I flip?

'Stop it. Remember last year when you flipped on the Rogue and got sucked under in that other class IV rapid? Man, that was dark green water. 10 seconds under felt like a lifetime.

No matter how many times you run a river, there's always something at least a little intimidating about approaching its biggest rapid. If you aren't a little nervous, there is probably something wrong with you. That nervous excitement is part of the draw to whitewater paddling, I guess.

If you're ever going to give kayaking or rafting a try, try it on the North Umpqua. (Well first, learn how. Or go with someone who knows what they're doing.) There's something special about it. It's out there, off the beaten path, northwest of Crater Lake, about two and a half hours from Bend on the way to Roseburg, it's far from anywhere, especially bigger cities like Eugene and Portland. That's probably why it never seems crowded. To play on the old Robert Frost poem, the river could easily be described as, the one less traveled - and that makes all the difference. Unlike the McKenzie or the Deschutes, on the Umpqua you often feel like you're the only group on the river.

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The "wild and scenic" upper portion of the river is completely free of development. From the river, you rarely even see Highway 138, which runs parallel to the North Fork. Even riverside campgrounds are hard to spot. "You get that sense that we're kind of heading into the wilderness. It creates a pristine experience from the get go," says John Cramp, operations manager for Sun Country Tours out of Bend.

Cramp considers running the river an exclusive experience. "Capacity is limited in terms of commercial use," he says. "It's a lot less traffic than other rivers."

In fact, The Forest Service caps the number of commercial trip rafters allowed on the river at around 2,300 per year. According to the agency, last year the Umpqua only saw around 1,800 commercial users (passengers on guided raft outings). By way of contrast, the McKenzie entertained around 8,000 commercial users.

With a number of class II and class III rapids, and one class IV, the popular 13-mile scenic upper stretch from the Boulder Flat put-in to Gravel Bin can be challenging, but its pool-drop character breaks up rapids with calm stretches and large eddies. So even if you flip your kayak and have to swim, it'll be over soon. But know your limits; do your research. It's always best to go with someone who knows the river or has more experience.

There are a number of options for running the North Umpqua. Bill Blackwell, assistant forest recreation coordinator, says that there are stretches of the river for all ability levels, "You can go where your skill [fits]." Sections below the 13-mile upper stretch are less intense. The upper half can also be cut into two shorter segments to avoid the class IV Pin Ball Rapid. When you go, keep an eye out for a number of great spots to eddy out and do lunch. There are even a few spots where it's safe to cliff jump, if you are so inclined. Check the depth first and scout for rocks.

If the idea of sitting in a hard-shell flip machine isn't your thing, an inflatable kayak is a great first step, they are much more stable. A number of friends who were first-time paddlers have safely run the river in them. And of course, there are also professional guides operations that'll run you down the river with all the same excitement and the added safety of a nice big raft with an experienced guide. Bend's Sun Country runs day trips twice a week. If you leave from Bend, it's a long day that starts around 7:30am and doesn't end till 7:30p.m. If you choose to stay at one of the campgrounds along the Umpqua, it is also possible to meet a tour group at the put-in.

To get a real feel for the area, make a weekend of it. There are four or five great, forested campgrounds right along the river. The Umpqua valley has a unique forest with numerous large rock formations, interesting river geology and crystal clear, almost turquoise, water.

"It's one of the most amazingly beautiful rivers. The color is spectacular," says Cheryll Caplan, spokesperson for the Forest Service.

The area is also a renowned fly fishing destination. At the right time of year (usually June-August) you can watch wild steelhead leap up the falls on Steamboat Creek on their way to their historic spawning grounds. In addition to floating and fishing, the 79 mile North Umpqua trail runs along the river. Large portions of it are open to mountain bikers and equestrians. Much of the trail is pretty technical for biking, though. The area is also home to some hot springs and waterfalls.

Fourth of July weekend our fleet was quite the flotilla: one raft with six people, a single and a double inflatable kayak, our crazy friend running the river solo in a canoe(not recommended), and me and my little hard-shell playboat that looks like an oversized yellow clog. After the first nine miles of hype, I ended up running the class IV rapid without incident, as did our friend in the canoe. It turns out he knew what he was doing, though I still wouldn't recommended it. We spent the whole weekend running sections of the river, occasionally stopping at some of our favorite spots for a break and some cliff diving.

So check out the North Umpqua. But don't tell anyone, it'll be our secret.


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