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