Rafting Oregon’s Illinois River I 21-Apr-2021

Oregon’s Illinois River stretches some 56 miles (90 km) from its headwaters east and south of Cave Junction, Oregon to its confluence with the Rogue River near Agness, Oregon. The Wild and Scenic Section of the Illinois flows through a steep canyon for 29 miles (46 km) between Briggs and Nancy Creeks. This section features 150 rapids, of which 11 are Class IV and one is Class V. It is reputed to be the most remote, inaccessible river segment in the continental United States. Compared to the bigger rivers we’ve rafted, the Illinois is a very technical one, with a great deal of skill (the guides, not ours) required to weave through its boulder-strewn rapids.

The wild section is roughly below “Illinois River”

In 2016 (before it was restored by the Siskiyou Mountain Club), I backpacked the river’s namesake trail – Illinois River Trail #1161 – west from Briggs Creek to Oak Flat. It soon became apparent that the trail, despite its name, only came close to the river in a few spots and is well above it most of the time. I was left with a strong desire to experience the Illinois more directly. So, in 2019, we signed on with Momentum River Expeditions to raft the Illinois the following Spring. The day we made our final payment was the very day that all of Oregon locked down because of the Big V. 😥 Fortunately, Momentum was willing to let us move our plans (and payments) to 2021. 🙂

A rafting journey down the Illinois is highly flow dependent. So there was some fretting, given our current drought, about whether flows would be adequate when our turn came. We lucked out in that, while the river wasn’t exactly gushing, it had just enough water to float our boats (so to speak). Our four Momentum guides – Jonathan (trip leader), Shana (who had guided us on the Owyhee River), Derik, and Alex – gathered us up with the other four guests and drove us all to the put-in at Miami Bar. There we were met with clear, sunny skies and warm breezes – which would be with us for most, but not all, of the trip.

Looking downstream from Miami Bar, with Point 3195 on the horizon
Probably the most striking feature of the Illinois River is the amazing clarity of its water
Rigging the rafts at Miami Bar

Given that there are 150 of them, most of the rapids on the Illinois are not named. Between our put-in at Miami Bar and our first night’s camp at Pine Flat, we plowed or bounced or plunged through the following named ones: Number 11 (Class II+), Number 12 (III), Number 13 (III), Labrador Creek Rapid (III), Rocky Top (IV), York Creek Rapid (IV), Clear Creek Rapid (IV), Rapid #29 (II), and Pine Creek Rapid (IV).

Our first riffle, with Point 2216 on the horizon (L)
The clarity and various colors of the water are stunning
Clear water below York Butte
Near Labrador Creek
Alex drives one of the gear boats out of a rapid

If the hills look unusually barren here, it’s because almost the entire length of the wild and scenic section was impacted by massive wildfires in 2002 (Biscuit Complex), 2017 (Chetco Bar), and 2018 (Klondike). There are just a few places left where enough trees remain to give you a feeling for what this area looked like when it was fully forested before the fires.

The view downstream from our lunch stop at Nome Creek
Nome Creek
Umbrella Plants (Indian Rhubarb) were abundant around the creeks entering the river
Near York Creek
Alex takes one of the gear boats over a drop
Alex pulls ahead
Near Clear Creek
The brave rafter smile remains intact
Moonrise over Pine Creek Rapid
Pine Creek Rapid (IV) from the Illinois River Trail (2016)
Looking across the Illinois to Pine Creek
We camped on the portion of Pine Flat on the left bank of the Illinois
(L-R) Steve, Rebekah, Sherrl, Alex, The LovedOne, and Derik relaxing in camp at Pine Flat

Our next day on the river was to be a short one. A wet one, for me at least, but a short one…


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