The Illinois River: 1998

By Steve Stuckmeyer

Copyright © 1998, Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking Webmaster.

The Illinois river demands the utmost of respect, even from seasoned river runners. The whitewater is technical and pushy in a steep flash-flood prone canyon. This run has over 100 rapids into 33 miles-- 10 of which are class IV, one class V, and all very difficult to portage. Furthermore, the river bisects the second largest wilderness area in Oregon, so you are very far from outside help should anything go wrong. The river is starting to be run by an increasing number of people, but it still retains its wild nature and you see very little human impact outside of a couple of camps and scouting trails.

Earlier this year I had tried to get a trip down the river, but we backed away 24 hours in advance of our launch date when the weather forecast took a bad turn. Like I said before, you don't want to be anywhere near the Illinois if a big storm is imminent- dangerous flash floods are common due to fast runoff on the rocky terrain surrounding the river. Unfortunately, there were others who went ahead with their trips that weekend and paid the price-- two boaters drowned that weekend when the river flashed to 5 times normal flows. Although disturbing, this in no way discouraged me from trying to get another trip together, and on May 9 we put on the Illinois River with a flow of 1700 cfs at the put-in and a forecast calling for a continual drop. It was to become perhaps the best river trip I have been on to date.

The players in our little saga were:
Carrie Inman and Kim Pash, who were U of O students and would be rowing a 13' Protar raft.

Pete Frost would be piloting our large gear boat down river. It was a 15 Sotar Pro complete with dry box, kitchen box, large cooler, etc.

Jerry Abelin would be riding in the gear boat with Pete.

Finn is kayaker who helps teach a River Rescue course at the U of O and paddles an Eskimo Diablo.

Gabi Fischer von Mollard is a German Molecular Biologist who paddles a Perception Overflow.

Randy Turney another kayaker who works at Symantec and also paddles an Overflow.

And then there was me; I had recently traded my RPM in on a new Riot hammer, and I was looking forward to seeing how my little boat handled in the big rapids of the Illinois.

We left the Outdoor Program Trip Facility in Eugene at about 6:30 pm on May 8th (right on schedule) and headed south on I-5 for Selma, Oregon. The drive was an uneventful 2.5 hours except for a some frantic cell phone calls and a 30 minute layover at Fred Meyer in Grants Pass when Jerry realized he had forgotten his lifejacket at the OP facility.

Luckily Freddies was well stocked and provided an outstanding selection of fisherman's PFDs and one suitable class IV rafting PFD... just what was needed. Much relieved, though a bit poorer, we drove the remaining 30 miles to Selma and endured the 16 miles of jarring dirt road that would lead us to the put-in at Miami Bar. After what seemed like eons of driving at 5 mph on a winding, one-lane mountain road which was dimly outlined in the 15 passengers van (complete with 20 ft trailer) we had arrived. We promptly unloaded and proceeded to crash for the night (actually 2am in the morning) in our respective manners. I chose the most ridiculous route of refusing to unpack, and thus sleeping under (and on) the seats of the van bundled in my fleece and Gore-Tex parka. I nearly froze and ended up taking a 4 mile hike at 5:30 a.m. to get my blood flowing again. I returned to find everyone else still sleeping cozily or just beginning to roust themselves up.

The launch site just upstream of Oak Flat. Our party, plus one group of catarafters

Saturday morning, May 9th, we succeeded in loading and launching from Miami Bar at approximately 10am. We shared the company of two other groups at the put-in and for the first 30 minutes of the day, but were soon left behind and were to never see another group for the duration of our stay. The first several miles were a pleasant class II warm-up, however my driving the night before, lack of sleep, forgetting my noseplugs which were a crutch I had become dependent on, and a new, edgy boat led to lots of flips in those first miles. I was having fun, but felt a little intimidated especially when we hit the class IIIs which were feeling pretty big and pushy to me in my edgy playboat.

After those first miles the canyon narrowed down and the water became constant III(IV) for several miles typified by flat pools culminating in steep technical drops of 10-12 feet. You could tell everyone was still working to get used to their respective craft and the water, and Pete (our 5 time Illinois veteran) was obviously somewhat lost on what rapids were coming when. Everyone else was a first-timer, and quite lost despite the use of the dated Handbook to the Illinois. Typically we were running a couple of kayaks down everything first, and then signaling to the raft crews for the most open route for larger craft. Everyone was already coming together well as a team.

Kim and Carrie (in the 13 foot Protar) getting a bit sideways in a large hole in one of the early rapids.

About noon we came to a bigger rapid on a blind corner and pulled out to scout. It consisted of a very tight and shallow entrance through a boulder field, an 8 ft drop with a large hole on river left, a sweeping turn to the right along a submerged rock shelf, and a final 6 ft drop followed immediately by another large hole. Finn ran through and eddied out half-way down, followed by Randy and Gabi who ran all the way through. Pete then made a clean run through and I eddied out just below the entrance. Kim and Carrie then came through and were really having to work to move their Protar. They appeared to be heading straight for the hole at the top left, made a last minute attempt to pull right and caught the back half of the raft in the hole partially sideways. It proceeded to toss the boat and we had a couple of swimmers and an upside down gear boat to deal with.

Finn managed to get to Kim and give her a tow away from the second hole, while Carrie swam like mad for the left wall and proceeded to scramble up and out 20 yards above the last drop. I hung around long enough to make sure she was OK and then blasted downstream to chase the loose gear, proceeded to catch an edge in the eddyline below the last drop, flipped, rolled, and then helped push the Protar to the shoreline. Kim and Carrie were obviously shaken, but otherwise OK and we hadn't lost anything. We righted the boat, and the took a lunch break before heading on. At the time we thought this was just one of the standard class IVs, which worried the girls considerably since that would have meant there were many more difficult rapids yet to come. Later we concluded that this had in fact been York Creek rapids which is supposed to be a class IV+ churner. This became a big confidence boost for the Protar crew, in spite of the fact they had flipped.

Next we were looking for class IV+ Boat Eater rapids which was located at Pine Flat-- a large camping area which Pete wanted to stay at. We passed one very large hole, but it seemed easy enough to miss and not really class IV so we kept going downstream looking for Pine Flat. Well we never found it. Eventually we saw a long, narrow bench about 40 ft up on the right. Being 4pm we decided it was time to camp, even if we hadn't made it to Pine Flat yet. Carrying our gear up to that bench was a backbreaking task, but once up there it was a lovely spot.

I was convinced we had to have missed Pine Flat due to the time we had spent on the river, and after consulting my maps and memory of guidebooks descriptions I decided we were in fact at Deadman's Bar about 4 miles below Pine Flat and 3 miles above the Green Wall rapids (class V). This meant that large hole we had passed must have been Boat Eater, and even our Illinois veteran had missed it and Pine Flat. This was kind of unnerving, but we had and otherwise good day and a great spot to camp and relax in preparation for the most difficult part of the trip yet to come.

Eddying out at the top of Prelude (The top right side of Prelude is pictured)

Sunday morning, we awoke to good spirits and ended up putting on at about 10am again. We expected to hit Prelude to Green Wall (class IV) in about an hour. I for one was feeling much better and even tried hand-paddling through the IIs and IIIs for those first 2 miles. Pete was still thrown off by having not recognized York Creek and Pine Flat the previous day, and ended up missing the final eddy just above Prelude and taking the Sotar through a slot (not the correct one) just barely wide enough for a craft with tucked oars-- providing you don't mind scraping both sides of your raft.

Kim and Carrie punching the ledge hole on the left side of Prelude

Randy and Finn ran the drop blind, and the rest of us got out to look at the drop with Kim and Carrie. There were lots of options for a kayak. There was a fun slide down a slanting boulder in the middle of the rock garden, as well as the main 8 drop on river left. I tried both, first boofing off the slide, then carrying back up and running the main drop in which I got an awesome backender which I rode out of the hydraulic. Finn ran and re-ran 3 times, Gabi ran the slide, and the Protar ran the main drop quite nicely. We then eddied out and discussed our plan of attack on the Green Wall which was 1/4 mile downstream.

Pete wanted to run the first 100 yards of class III lead-in, and then eddy out at the bottom on the left just above the first big drop of the Green Wall itself. He wanted at least two kayakers down there first with throw-lines in case the rafts needed help getting into the eddy. Finn and I volunteered to run down first. I got several backenders in the holes leading up to Green Wall, but landed everything smoothly and easily caught the eddy above the Wall. I then signaled for Finn to come join me. We both looked at that eddy and the entrance and knew that the rafts were going to have trouble catching it. I set up on a rock at the head of the eddy with my throw rope, and Finn anchored himself to a rock using his tow tether half-way down the eddy.

Then the Sotar came sailing down. Pete and Jerry didn't seem to want the throw line from me, but had trouble breaking through the eddy line and ended up throwing the bowline to Finn who pendulumed them into a small moving eddy along the left bank about 40 feet above the first drop of Green Wall. Then Randy came down, flipped in a hole in the lead-in, made his roll, caught the eddy and went jumped out to help Finn hold on to the Sotar. Gabi was next and caught an eddy above me and remained sitting there in her boat. Then Kim came rowing down through the class III, and was obviously staying way to far right at the bottom to catch the eddy below me!

As she rounded the rock I was sitting on they saw the eddy and the big drop in front of them, and yelled for Carrie to help her row. There was no one for me to throw my rope to! They managed to make it back left some, but were still passing the Sotar when both Carrie and Jerry threw lines to each other. Pete caught the line that Carrie threw, and Carrie braced herself hard in the bottom of the Protar while Kim was trying to help hold herself back with the oars. So now we had Finn anchored to a rock holding onto the Sotar's bow line, with Randy helping, Pete and Carrie linking the Sotar and the Protar with a throwrope, Kim and Jerry trying to hold on, and everyone screaming for me to get down there and anchor off the Protar which was just 15 feet from the top of the first drop of Green Wall.

I reattached my throw bag to my waist belt, swam across the eddy, and climbed through the maze of rocks while trying to keep from twisting my right ankle which was already very weak from two weeks earlier. Just as Finn and Randy were starting to slip I caught the Protar's bow line and got them anchored off to a large boulder, which then allowed them to pull the Sotar further up the eddyline into a more secure position. We then got everybody to shore, and collected our wits while repacking our throwbags and thoroughly scouting all of the Green Wall. At that level (maybe 2-3000 cfs going down the channel), Green Wall basically consisted of a 10 wide slot between boulders forming an 8 drop, followed in 20 feet by a line of boulders extending from the left shore which necessitated a hard pull right, another 25 yards of screaming water, and finally a 12 drop with a big hole in the center and water slamming into the Green Wall itself on the right below the hole.

Finn and I were volunteered to run first. We both boofed off the first 8 drop, moved right of the boulders, and Finn punched the final hole directly while I did a tight left turn just above it in which only the back half of my boat hit the hole and basically knifed right through the backwash. We both then eddied out, ready to help out as the rest of the group ran the rapid. Randy was next and essentially penciled in to the hole below the top drop, endered back up, but landed it, went back right and punched straight through the last hole. Pete dropped off the first part, worked like crazy to stall out and cut back right, went over the ledge against the wall on the far right, and pillowed off the portion of the wall projecting into the rapid.

Pete and Jerry in the gear raft, punching the monster hole in the first (crux) drop of Green Wall

The gear raft (14 foot Sotar) charging down the middle of the Green Wall

Gabi did the same thing in her kayak, although she said that she had in fact be planning on going way left on the bottom stuff. And finally Kim took the first drop, wasn't able to make the cut right, got pushing into and fortunately through the line of boulders below the drop, then cut right, punched the right side of the bottom hole, and pillowed off the wall. We then took a well-deserved lunch break at 2pm, nearly two hours after leaving Prelude.

The Kim and Carrie getting pushed into the broach rocks directly below the crux drop of the Green Wall.

Kim and Carrie riding out the rollers at the bottom of the Green Wall.

Regrouping at the bottom of the Green Wall (rapid in background).

Next up was Little Green Wall (or I prefer to think of it as Little Green Nightmare). Its a IV+ that's hard to scout, and as it turns out not so easy to run. Finn dropped in first, got worked in a relatively small hole, rolled on his third attempt, got worked in another huge hole, rolled on his third attempt, and then got flipped on a small rock at the bottom, where he just barely got up after several tries. He said that he just sat there in an eddy, totally exhausted and barely able to catch his breath and his nerves. Meanwhile Pete entered a far right slot from upstream, got slammed into the right wall with his hand between the oar (out of the oarlock) and the rock, but he was able to get it back in, and dropped around the last ledge and had to do a big high-side as they pillowed off a huge boulder at the bottom right.

The Sotar riding down the middle of the Little Green Wall.

Watching this made Gabi and I want to avoid that final boulder by cutting very close to a house boulder abutting a horizon line just above the rock with all the water slamming into it. Gabi disappeared around the corner, and evidently dropped into the last hole that Finn had gotten worked in, got sidesurfed at the bottom of it, and opted for a wet-exit. Kim and Carrie then came downstream following a slightly different line than Pete and made everything look easy. Finally I made my way downstream, and crested the horizon line next to the house boulder. I was looking straight down at a 10 foot deep hole with water pouring in on two sides, the house rock on the third, and about 7 of recirculation coming back in just 4-5 feet downstream. This was the hole which had worked both Gabi and Finn (as I was to find out later). It scared the living daylights out of me!

I immediately went into overdrive, and paddled like crazy straight towards it while trying to touch my nose to my knees, continued stroking down the drop, knifing into the foam pile, and then stroking as my boat started to climb back up. It proceeded to flip me end-over-end, but I had punched through the worst of the backwash and upon a deep underwater brace, felt myself get pulled on downstream and rolled up. I eddied out just below the hole on the right and saw Gabi's empty boat floating down towards me, which was my first realization that things hadn't gone so well for the other kayakers either.

I pushed Gabi's boat down to where the rest of the group was gathered on the shore, and everyone began to converse about how nasty that rapid had been. Finn and Gabi still looked a little shaky, Pete had bloodstains on his PFD and was dressing his smashed finger, and I was contemplating the finer points of punching through holes. Only Randy, Carrie, and Kim had made the run unscathed; although, Randy had in fact found a shallow little sneak route on far left which had taken him out of all the action entirely.

From there we experienced continuous, pushy, technical, class III+ to IV rapids for the next couple of miles. The average gradient for this section was about 70 feet per mile. Eventually we got down to Submarine Hole where everyone had textbook runs, except Gabi who was getting tired and flipped in the Sub hole, but came through and made a solid roll and ferry back to the left away from some nasty whitewater on the right. A few minutes later we pulled into the camping area just below Collier Creek, and we set about making camp.

Everyone crashed pretty hard that night, but we were also ecstatic about the days run. On Monday, we again pulled out of camp about 10am under dreary, drizzly overcast skies. In fact the whitewater was so tame that everyone had to work to stay warm. There were only a couple of class IIIs and lots of flat water along the way, still the scenery was a feast for the eyes. Ten miles later we rounded a corner at 2pm to see our van and trailer parked at Oak Flat. I think everyone felt quite a let-down that the trip was actually over. I was already planning the next time I'm going to play with the Illinois.

The drive back up the coast and through Roseburg to Eugene was mostly quiet and uneventful. With a lot of reminiscing, and longing inward stares at what each of us had learned during the trip. All I can say is that it was a ton of fun, and an absolutely awesome group of people who meshed as a team. I can't wait until I can get another trip going down the Illinois, or any other comparable river; and I hope I can do it with this same group of people. Thanks a lot folks; this just made May 98 a month which I'll never forget!