Early in July, Cecilia and I go on a rafting trip down the Rogue
River in Oregon for and with our 15-year old grandson, Jonah. This
was his call when we offered him a free spin, but I also made it my
own experience. The river’s name derives from Karuk and other
long-time native inhabitants who in the 1850s mounted such fierce
resistance to white settlers and miners that they became known for
their "fierce and roguish behavior."
Normally, I wouldn’t do something like this. I’m not a camper,
I don’t like to hang out with strangers, and I can get anxious around
water and heights. The four-day trip includes multiple rapids –
including a challenging class 4 – and stops at high rocks that invite
us to jump into deep, clear waters, disappearing into nothingness.
We assemble at Galice, close to Grant’s Pass in southern
Oregon, a group of five guides and sixteen folks who, given the price
tag and resources provided by Ouzel Outfitters, are inevitably white,
middle class, and grown up, with kids and grandchildren on board.
There’s an age and political diversity, however. I start off by talking
politics only to the hip and left-of-center guides, and stick to the
River with everybody else until I get their bearings. And what an
amazing river, gorgeous and powerful! We see bears, eagles,
ospreys, much more. It's a federally protected wilderness, only one
hundred and twenty people allowed on the river each day. "I agree
with this kind of regulation," says the realtor from Orange County,
surprised at her own words. "I'm becoming a tree-hugger."
Before long, to my surprise, I’ve found common ground with
the realtor about family stuff, even as her husband pointedly reads the
wit and wisdom of Glen Beck, the book propped up on his knee after
meals. I find their young kids endlessly entertaining. No rock is high
enough for them to jump off. And while I jam my foot deep into the
seat ahead, risking gangrene as our communal raft jumps the rapids,
they stand on the prow, hanging on to a rope and daring the white
waters to knock them off their perch.
Jonah also takes to the river like a natural, his body well
prepared by a year of wrestling. And he’s greatly amused to see his
normally in control grandfather trying to put up a tent. He
encourages Cecilia to jump off a twenty-foot rock, but can’t cajole
me into taking the leap. I’m game though to take on some of the class
3’s in a kayak by myself. At one rapid, I end up in "the hole," and
get stuck for what seems forever, probably two seconds. My fellow
travelers and guides cheer me on and congratulate me for "surfing
the rapids." They don’t seem to care that it was not by choice that I
entered a "boiling eddy."
It is not until after the trip that I hear stories about the "elderly
woman" who was flown out by helicopter in a coma, suffering from
dehydration in temps that reach a 100; and the young woman who
drowned in the class-4 rapid, her body stuck for days between
There are five guides, who work together as a seamless team,
bringing out the best in us. The whole trip is a subtle lesson in
gender-bending. Only one woman among the five, so she has to
make sure nobody takes her for granted. We don't, and then she
lightens up. When we set up camp, two of the male guides wear
sarongs, and there’s no snickering from the lads in our group.
Of course there's a social history embedded in the natural
landscape, but as in most places in the West it’s disappeared from
public view. Our guides know the back story and subvert the official
amnesia whenever they can, but most visitors to the river don’t want
to tarnish beauty and pleasure with the sorrowful past.
We glide through Big Bend, the site of the last defeat of native
peoples in the wars of 1855-1856, and Battle Bar, named for Colonel
John Kelsey who led cavalry against out-gunned Takelma natives. It
was these battles, a Bureau of Land Management website tells us,
that "led to the extraction of American Indians from the Rogue River
country." Extraction like a bad tooth or for their own safety? We’re
told nothing about the reservation the natives were forced to occupy,
a long way from home, or the miseries and missionaries they
At our second over night camp, we take a short hike to the
Rogue River Ranch, a national historic site and museum, set in a few
acres of manicured lawns, close to the river. Here we learn that native
peoples lived in this region for some nine thousand years. According
to a brochure provided by the museum, "after a bloody war" the
survivors were moved to reservations. There is nothing in the
museum – no texts, no artifacts, no photographs, no names, no
culture, no ghosts – to evoke nine millennia of life and living, of
creativity and beliefs, of changes over time.
Instead, the museum’s space is filled, thoughtfully and
evocatively, by the settlers and their descendants who occupied this
conquered territory, beginning in 1868. They have names, images,
tools, diaries, and fully lived lives. If you look carefully at the
photographs, you’ll see that some of the settlers look remarkably like
the people they’ve displaced. Not surprising given that one of the
first settlers married a Karuk woman, identified only by her Anglo
name, Adeline Billings. Her story is not told.
Back on the river, we go through Tyee Rapids where,
according to the BLM, some three hundred Chinese miners once
extracted a million dollars of gold dust. There’s nothing in the
"Rogue River Float Guide," issued by the Bureau, about their messy
disappearance. On the fourth day, we dock at Foster Bar, named
after a lieutenant in the "Indian wars." And so on.
The preserved wilderness we have just traveled was once home
and workplace to thousands, as well as a place of bloody tragedies.
A National Historic Site, such as the Rogue River Ranch, should
trust us with this information, and make these people and events as
visible as the river that runs through their history.