Because of its little-known nature and difficult access, only two river outfitters have ever offered trips on the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River, with the latest company, Northwest Rafting Company, just completing its inaugural commercial trip this summer.
“There are very few places left like the Chetco where you just won’t see anybody else there,” said Zach Collier, co-owner of Northwest Rafting Company, who worked tirelessly to get the first commercial permit for the river in more than 10 years. Northwest’s trip was rated as one of the top 10 new travel adventure trips of 2013 in the entire world by USA Today — the only American trip on the list.
Northwest’s four-day Chetco trip is not for those who enjoy an easy river ride.
Serene paddling through calm, mesmerizingly clear, deep pools is common and maybe the most rewarding part of the trip, but the pools are divided by many shallow riffles that require paddlers to hop out and drag, push or pull their boats while carefully walking the rocky river bed.
“It’s not even really whitewater. It’s traversing these narrow slots and chutes and walking around rapids,” Collier said.
“It’s almost like half canyoneering and half river running,” he said.
But it is a whitewater river trip rated as a Class IV stretch, and plenty of the rapids can be run.
Four- to 5-foot drops and chutes are common and Collier would recommend the trip to even novice kayakers, as long as they’re athletic enough for the rock-hopping portages through shallow spots.
“We’re not going to the Chetco for the rapids,” Collier said. “We’re going because it’s a really special and beautiful place.”
That special nature was also recognized by Collier’s predecessor, Allen Wilson of Gold Beach, who ran trips on the Chetco for 10 years before the 2002 Biscuit Fire scorched much of the Kalmiopsis and put him out of business.
“The first time I paddled there, I thought ‘Man, this place is on a small-scale equivalent to the Grand Canyon,’” said Wilson, who river guided through the Grand Canyon for 10 years. “The Chetco has its own spectacular features that are hard to meet anywhere else.”
Weaving through giant boulders in clear pools up to 40 feet deep and watching a bear or river otter casually look for dinner downstream are part of the draws of the Chetco.
But one of the most surprising features of the Upper Chetco trip is finding those same characteristics in the river’s major tributaries.
Slide Creek, Babyfoot Creek, Tincup Creek, Box Canyon Creek, Boulder Creek and numerous unnamed creeks have astonishing high flows and deep pools themselves. Climbing up small creeks quickly becomes more like canyoneering and rewards the persistent with crystal-clear waterfalls up to 20 feet high.
“This is why we’re here,” said river guide J.R. Weir, as he marvelled at one of the unnamed waterfalls.
Reaching the River
A remote river trip rarely comes easy, but Northwest Rafting Company’s guests only have to bear a fraction of the load. By the time Collier and his river guides met their lone guest, 65-year-old Ed Marlatt of the Bay Area, at the Ray’s Market in Selma, most of the heavy lifting had already been done. Collier’s crew had already backpacked 10 miles each way to the put-in with the group’s transportation, 10-foot, 5-inch inflatable kayaks that look more like miniature rafts, designed by Collier and custom built by Merlin-based SOTAR.
After 20 miles of backpacking, the Northwest crew was feeling a bit haggard, but their excitement for the trip ahead left them little room to demonstrate their exhaustion.
Northwest uses a different access point than Wilson used with his company, Wilderness Canyon Adventures, by entering the Kalmiopsis through the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead, 15 miles up Eight Dollar Mountain Road, which meets U.S. Highway 199 just outside Selma.
The destruction wrought by the Biscuit Fire dominates the scene soon after the road starts its climb to 4,000 feet.
For the majority of the 10-mile hike, a giant graveyard of black and white snags towers above, while the floor of the forest is full of tropically-green undergrowth and brightly colored wildflowers, including some endemic to the area such as the Kalmiopsis Leachiana that gives the Wilderness it’s name. The dichotomy of dead trees above and vibrant plants below is striking, allowing hikers to change their view dramatically with a slight tilt of the head.
About a third of the way into the hike, the trail crosses through a small patch of forest that was somehow saved from fire. “It’s like going back in time in the Kalmiopsis,” said river guide Ryan Saevitz.
At the trail junction in the land-before-fire, Chetco-seekers take a right onto an old Forest Service road that leads to Emily cabin. Well before reaching the cabin, you must take a trail on the right that climbs to the top of the pass dividing the Illinois and Chetco river watersheds. Near the pass is a demonstration of the area’s unique geology. The spot that Northwest’s crew dubbed the “moonscape” is covered with blue-grey rock that chokes out any plant life.
The final descent down a steep, loose trail in the drainage of Chetco-tributary Carter Creek finally brings the put-in into view. At this point, after 30 miles of hiking for everyone but the lone guest Marlatt, the Northwest crew reminded themselves that “yes, this is actually a river trip” — the backpacking is finished.
Once the paddlers hit the water, there was no debate that it was all worth it.
Collier, co-owner of Northwest Rafting Company, became obsessed with running the Chetco after seeing a presentation about gold mining threats on the Chetco during a meeting of river enthusiasts in Portland.
The photographs were enough to hook Collier, but what sealed the deal was the Chetco’s locations: smack dab in the middle of two of Collier’s favorite whitewater rivers, the North Fork Smith River and the Illinois River.
One of Northwest’s river guides, J.R. Weir, son of Del Norte County retired judge Robert Weir, was familiar with the Chetco from growing up near it, but he had never paddled there.
“We independently study maps all the time to find new places to paddle and the Chetco was this big black hole and it had been on both of our radars,” Collier said about teaming up with Weir.
Accidental river guide
Wilson was raised in Gold Beach but didn’t discover his life passion of running rivers until he left home and “accidentally got a job as a river guide on the Grand Canyon,” he said. After several years on the world-famous big waves of the Colorado River, he eventually found himself back in Gold Beach around 1980, where he started to research the plausibility of running commercial trips on the Chetco.
After poring over maps to discover several mining roads near the Chetco-tributary Slide Creek, he convinced a friend to hike several miles with boats and paddle the river. The next year he tried the trip with some friends from Ashland and took a group of high school kids down the same stretch the year after that.