The first time I rowed a raft was on the Rogue River. Come to think of it, the very first time I rowed - anything - was on the Rogue River.
Thirteen kayakers led by a WWU professor hired me to haul their cargo on a week long trip. But there was one glitch - I was a paddle guide. I had no idea how to row. What I knew about rowing you could put on the back of a matchbook cover.
But it was an offer I couldn’t refuse for two reasons. It was the Rogue River made famous by Zane Grey, the pulp fiction western writer, and by guide books claiming the Rogue harbored one of the country’s ten biggest rapids.
More importantly, the kayakers were paying me five hundred dollars for the week.
I saw no reason to dissuade them of their offer, or mention my deficiency. I set about building an oar frame out of knotty pine purchased at the local lumber yard.
I found a blueprint for a rudimentary frame in a river running handbook. I wisely, and assiduously, countersunk the bolts binding the planks together. I coated the planks with layers of varnish. I purchased oar stands and meticulously attached them in the best anatomical position for my height and inseam.
The trouble was, I procrastinated on constructing the frame just long enough to leave no opportunity to test my skills. Add to that the fact that what I knew about the Rogue River could have easily been added to the back of that matchbook cover detailing what I knew about rowing.
Besides, what could go awry?
I was familiar with oarlocks, but what I was accustomed to seeing on oar boats in Utah was a system called ‘oar rubbers’. Essentially, rectangular strips from a tire hose clamped, on each end of the rubber strip, onto each oar. The pin on the oar stand could be shoved between the strip of tire and the oar and, finally, capped with a plastic knob. The knob prevented the oar from popping off the pin and provided a smooth, round surface instead of a potential impaling rod.
Practical? Not at all.
You couldn’t rotate or ‘feather’ your blades. You couldn’t pull the oars across your body to ‘ship’ them on board. You couldn’t adjust in any direction.
But one positive feature was you also couldn’t - easily - lose the angle of your blade or have the oar pop off unexpectedly in mid-stroke.
In any case, I knew no better.
Overnight gear for fourteen people on a sixteen foot raft for a five day river trip was bad math. To be honest with you, I have no recollection of how it all fit together, or how I managed to strap it down. Especially since the only knots familiar to me were the half hitch and the bowline.
I probably used a plethora of straps in a spider web configuration.
Due to my experience paddle guiding, reading rivers was second nature. That knowledge and skill set sufficed from the put in at Graves Creek, around Rainie Falls, over Upper Black Bar Falls and through the turbulent Mule Creek Canyon without mishap.
But just past Mule Creek Canyon’s narrows was the crux rapid - Blossom Bar.
Once upon a time, Blossom Bar was boulder-choked and unnavigable. That was before boatbuilder Glen Wooldridge, a pioneer of the Rogue who was the first to navigate it from the town of Grants Pass to the Pacific Ocean, decided to dynamite it.
Our leader signaled me to eddy out. As we scanned the quarter mile of white water pocked with immense boulders and dubious channels, I remember he remarked how it was not uncommon to witness gear boats from the commercial outfits get wrapped on the part of Blossom Bar called “The Horn”.
The crux move within the crux rapid.
I still hadn’t admitted I was a greenhorn in terms of rowing. Maybe he suspected as much and figured, if he threw down the challenge gauntlet, my competitive nature, which, surely, he picked up on over the course of a week, would rise to the occasion. He did, after all, have a stake in my success. The fate of his and everybody else’s stuff was in my hands.
As we stood on the cliff, the kayakers picked their way through the chutes and drops. They spread out in the rapid loitering behind every boulder. They looked like they were having the time of their lives.
I returned to my overloaded boat, pushed off, settled behind the oars and locked my eyes on the path I had chosen along with the markers I needed to get me there.
I think I miscalculated how much room I had at the entrance. Or maybe I could not quite see over the hump of gear in the bow. My right oar jammed into the rocks at the apex of The Horn. I pulled with my right oar while pushing with my left oar in an effort to spin into the channel. My right oar suddenly felt free of all encumbrances including the oar stand itself. I mercifully swung backwards down the chute and flushed through. I’d line up for the next boulder in line and initiate the spin move again.
All of this with just one able oar.
In this manner, I cartwheeled through the remainder of Blossom Bar. As I caromed off and by each boulder - and there seemed to be dozens - a kayaker smiled and gave me a friendly wave. Blithely unaware I was totally out of control and his or her stuff was in mortal, imminent danger.
When Blossom disgorged me, I crabbed over to the lefthand eddy with the one useful oar and a death grip on the useless one. On inspection I discovered the reason why I rowed Blossom Bar with - effectively - one arm tied behind my back.
Instead of bolting the oar stands to the frame, I used wood screws. Lesson learned.