Rob's Forest Service permit gave River Roam permission to run the upper reaches of the Umpqua on a Monday and Tuesday. I decided to drive up ahead of time, on Sunday afternoon, to fish that evening and early Monday morning, before we put in.
I hooked and landed two steelhead each time out. I also took a close look at the white water as I walked the trail between the slicks and pools, and was startled to realize that I'd never really seen the North Umpqua's rapids before. For 15 years I'd been carefully studying the river's fishable water but had simply dismissed as useless any stretches that were fast, white or shallow. When I began to imagine bouncing down those chutes, crashing through those waves, barreling by those immense boulders in a 11-foot inflatable boat, the river began to assume a new dimension for me. For the first time in my life, I was frightened by it.
When we started downstream from Boulder Flat Campground shortly after 10 o'clock on Monday morning, I kept my fear to myself. Partly this was the normal posturing of an American male, and partly—I like to think—it was consideration for my hosts. What good would it do to bother them with my misgivings?
There were six of us—Rob, his partner, Reider Peterson, Rob's son and daughter, David and Jennifer, both licensed guides, and a college boy named Chris Clark, also a River Roam guide. With stops to scout the most difficult rapids and a short break for lunch, it would take us about five hours to cover 15 miles of river.
Within five minutes I realized that this was going to be even more difficult than I'd imagined. Though I've always felt at home in the water—swimming in it, diving in it, wading in it—I didn't feel at home on the water, alone in a small boat with a light aluminum paddle in my hands. Even through the first few rapids, which probably rate a mere I on the river-running scale, I felt as helpless as a discarded wine-bottle cork.
By the time half an hour had passed, I'd survived several close calls. Halfway down one long, narrow, boulder-strewn channel I was spun around in midstream by something that Rob later explained was called a "reversal." I'm still not sure exactly what a reversal is, but suddenly I found myself facing upstream and traveling down, bouncing off rocks, waves nearly swamping the boat.
At the bottom, in an eddy, I emptied the boat out. Rob, who was leading the way, had waited for me.
"You're doing fine," he said, smiling, apparently sincere.
Three or four more rapids, one of them the most difficult we had navigated yet, passed without mishap. I began to build a little confidence. As so often happens, the confidence was a prelude to disaster.
I was third in line as we started down a long chute with some large waves at the top end, a gray, house-sized boulder near the middle and a shallow stretch over gravel down below, which dropped into a deep, slow pool. Rob went first, David followed, and I was next, bouncing over the large waves, taking a gallon or two of icy water in my face from one of them, but watching Rob and David up ahead, trying to follow their exact route as best I could. Each of them approached the boulder head-on, and, to me, it appeared that the current carried them easily off to the left and around it.