By Kanako Iwata-Eng
The Illinois River in Oregon had been on my bucket list for a few years. As this is a challenging Class 4 32-mile stretch, we were aiming for the optimal 1000-1500 CFS range and a nice warm weather. Bill Petty, Doug Nicholson, Bob Metzger and I chose April 20 as our launch date and headed to Grants Pass, OR the day before. Bill has run the river about 10 times, Doug has several times, Bob once about 20 years ago, and this was my first.
In the morning, the water level was 1800 CFS, slightly higher than the easiest range, but I didn’t worry at that point, as the flow was supposed to drop. We drove to the Miami Bar where several raft groups were getting ready. We packed our kayaks. Bob got a new T Canyon a few weeks ago for this trip. This old model with a long hull and no stern pillar is easy to pack. Bill, Doug, and I brought large, medium and small Jackson Karmas, respectively, and meticulously packed them. At 11:30 a.m., we launched.
With Doug’s wristwatch-style GPS and the maps from the Handbook to the Illinois River Canyon by Quinn et al, we could identify where we were and what to expect most of time. At Mile 3, back-to-back Class 3 and 4 rapids started. Scouting the first Class 3, I realized the Class 3 here are harder than what we call Class 3 at home. They were big, steep, scattered with huge holes and boulders at that level, and eddies were quite turbulent at times.
We soon got to the York Creek 4+. Incorrectly thinking it was Rapid #19, Bob and I went to the right shore to scout. Doug went into a turbulent micro eddy in the river left and managed to get out to scout. Bill recognized the York and had run it before anyone got out of their boat. The York has a couple of ledges and big holes in the left channel. The middle channel was pretty bony but gradual. From where we were, Bob and I could only bounce through the middle. The last Class 4 of the day was Clear Creek. This rapid has rocks in the left side and the right side has big waves and holes. Without scouting, Doug and Bob ran it. I followed Bill, but immediately I was blinded by big breaking waves, and went into the big hole at the bottom. I flipped but rolled up in the pool below.
We took out at the Pine Flat at 2:15 p.m. This is a huge campsite spread on both shores. We chose the left shore because of the shorter walk. After setting up tents under the bright sun, Bill and I strolled to a nearby bar, a.k.a. a rafter camp, where free drinks were offered by nice young men. Our self-support dinner was modest freeze-dried meals. We hung our food from a tree to avoid animals, bears in particular, and went to bed.
As usual, Bill got up the earliest. By the time I got up, he had lowered the food and finished his breakfast. Bob came to us with a puzzled look and asked, “Did you see my spool?” When we hang the food, we used Bob’s string. He tied it and the remaining string on the spool was left on the ground. Bill untied the string and lowered the food but didn’t see the spool. Though our food was safe, some animal chewed the string and took away the spool.
Taking advantage of the hot sunshine, we dried our tents before launching at 10:20 a.m. The second day started with continuous Class 2-3 rapids. I found the famous Pink Boulder, too! Soon after that, we were at the Fawn Falls, a.k.a. Prelude to the Class 5 Green Wall. Doug leading the group eddied out, saying he couldn’t see a line, and I eddied out, too. Meanwhile, Bill went down center right punching through a big hole. Bob saw Bill and took a little better line. Doug and I chose the sneak line at the extreme right.
We took out in the river left and scouted the lead-in to the Green Wall. This is rated Class 3, but if you mess up, you may go into the Green Wall upside down or backward, which is not desirable. I first chose the left shore line with the most quiet water at first and made two sharp turns to reach the river left eddy above the Green Wall, however, changed my mind to take the center line. A group of kayakers came and all ran the center line, tucked behind a center rock, ferried into the aimed eddy. One couldn’t ferry fast enough and went into next to the eddy but still caught the eddy at its bottom. We ran the same way, and it was easier than it looked.
We all got out and scouted the Green Wall. It has a cliff on the right side and two ledges. The first ledge with a humongous hole had a sneak line on the left. The second one with two humongous holes has no sneak line and a violent boil before reaching the quiet water. Without looking, Bill started portaging. When I was scouting with Doug, a kayaker ran it but flipped in the boil after the bottom two holes and swam. I decided to run the sneak line next to the first ledge and paddle into a slot right above the second ledge. I executed this ultimate chicken line impeccably with no splashes on my face and portaged about 10 yards. Doug and Bob ran the Green Wall with no problem but with lots of splashes! We saw a catarafter swim the entire rapid. It was a brutal swim and the boater was submerged for a long time under the second ledge. We were happy none of our crew swam.
We were not done yet, though. The Little Green Wall, Class 4, came up quickly. You enter from the center, go right, and then exit to the left avoiding a huge hole at the bottom right. We ran it without scouting. Doug maneuvered between holes fine. Trying to avoid the bottom right hole with a bigger margin than Doug, I tried to tuck behind a center boulder, only to go into a small but deep hole which flipped me. I went into the bottom right hole upside down, but the very hole rolled me up. Bob did the same flip-and-roll drill there.
The #107, Class 3 (yeah, right), had huge waves and holes rafts had go through. But not me! I scouted and chose an ultimate chicken route on the left shore and led Bill down. Doug and Bob went on the hero line from the right.
Finally, the Submarine Hole, Class 4, is a short but intimidating rapid with a wide hole. As soon as we eddied out in the river left, Bob said, “I know where to go,” and was gone. He did a big stern squirt at the bottom, and Bill decided to walk. I scouted, and again, I saw a sneak line on the left shore. Seeing me run it so easily, Bill walked back to the eddy and ran it the same way.
Instead of the originally planned Collier Creek, we camped at a small beach on the river right. It was after 4 p.m., and was a very long day.
Before the dawn, we were woken by a goose screaming to claim back the beach. We didn’t get up then but put in before 9 a.m. We still had a few Class 3’s but started encountering our first still water in winding canyons. It was foggy when we got up, but by the time we put in, it was sunny and the side creeks and waterfalls were gorgeous. We took out before noon and drove home. The Illinois was a great river with almost 150 rapids in 32 miles. I enjoyed it so much I am already looking forward to running it next season.