The Klamath Challenge

Pioneering Rafters Journey from Oregon to California on the Klamath River
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Rafting the Klamath River at flood stage can feel like being declared fish bait in a river full of piranhas.

The big rapids have names like Satan's Gate, Scarface and Devil's Toenail. They are bank-to-bank sheets of whitewater with hidden flip holes and vortexes. In an instant, you can find yourself popcorned out of your seat and into the river, tumbling downstream, wondering when you willhave a chance for your next breath of air.

This is the Klamath River: In 200 miles, there are more than a thousand rapids. If you figure dumping your raft is a 1,000-to-1 long shot, that means your number is coming up.

Beaver trappers in the 1800s asked the Indians the name of the great river, and they answered Klamet or Tlamath, which means"swiftness." Over the years, it has been adapted to Klamath. It is one of the West's great rivers, older than the mountains around it, and it remains one of California's last free-flowing, unbridled streams, running free for 187 miles from below Iron Gate Dam near the Oregon border.

The headwaters of the Klamath start in Oregon as just trickles from a series of streams, the Sycan, Williamson, and Lost rivers. Eventually the water bores through Klamath Canyon and, afterbeing dammed at Copco and Iron Gate lakes, tumbles free in California. It cuts a path from sparse grasslands to canyons rimmed by conifer forests, and then through groves of Douglas firs and redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.

The river picks up velocity as it narrows, and gains volume with every feeder stream, the Shasta, Scott, Salmon and Trinity rivers. That combination of velocity and volume gives the river punch, the kind that can make rafting more an act of faith than a float trip.

Hell's Corner Gorge, a five-mile stretch in Oregon, is the Klamath's most scorching section. It has 15 major rapids, from Gunsmoke to Branding Iron to Bushwhacker, including many rated Class V. That's just one step below Class VI, which is considered suicide. But we had no plans to paddle the big river in the sky. We were wearing "dry suits," body-length waterproof suits with rubber seals at the neck, wrists and ankles. In addition, we were wearing the most buoyant life vestsavailable. The two in combination worked to keep us mostly dry and floating.

Our guides, Dean Munroe of Redding, Bob Claypole of Klamath River and Greg Talamini of San Rafael, had more than 10,000 miles of river between them, giving them the know-how and the instincts to take care of the rough stuff."If it gets too rough, we just go swimming," Munroe said. Photographer Kurt Rogers, myself and expedition member Rich Cottrell set out to oar 200 miles of river. We were using 12-foot, self-bailing rafts. The raft is called "self-bailing" because the floor inflates, and is tied to the sides of the raft so water can pass in and out without the paddlers having to bail. It bails the water out even quicker when it flips upside down.

We called our expedition the "Klamath Challenge" and it was the first documented attempt to run the entire Klamath River, from its savage headwaters in Oregon all the way to the Pacific Ocean on California's north coast. We were six men in three small rafts, running the river when streamflows were 6 to 10 times the velocity of summer flows, when rafting is most popular.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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