Our team of four was abuzz with uncertainty during the drive to the Chetco—a remote, rarely run Wild & Scenic River in southern Oregon. We knew that we had, at least, a 3-mile hike to get to the river from the top of Chetco Pass. What we didn’t know was whether the road to the top of the pass would even be open. If it was still too wet, then the road would be closed and we’d have to hike 6 miles uphill before starting our descent to the river. Brad, our local shuttle driver, was optimistic and excited to navigate the 4x4 road to the top off the pass. Unfortunately, we arrived at the base of the hill to find a locked gate blocking the road.
The Chetco is lucky if it sees one group of paddlers every couple of years, so a hike wasn’t about to deter our crew of three kayakers and one pack-rafter from this remote, gorgeous class IV run. The Chetco Valley also faces a major gold mining threat that would involve suction dredging the river by helicopter, so we knew that we had to take this opportunity if we ever hoped to paddle the Chetco. Our crew—Zach, JR, Billy, and myself geared up, said goodbye to our shuttle driver, and started up the hill.
As far as hikes with boats go, the hike to the top of Chetco Pass was straightforward—we had a forest road to walk on, lots of streams for water, and low elevation. That said, it was still a 6-mile hike to the top of a pass with loaded kayaks. As great as kayaks are for backpacking, they’re generally more fun to float in than lug up a huge hill, something we were reminded of every time we awkwardly lost our balance or stopped to rest. Midday, we reached the top of the pass and celebrated—only 2 or 3 more miles downhill left! We expected to make it to the river by nightfall.
Wrong! The maze of old logging and mining roads soon faded, and we found ourselves scrambling down a steep scree slope to a tributary of the Chetco, that we hoped we could paddle down. A massive forest fire left the landscape wide open, so everything seemed deceptively close—our GPS put us only 1.9 miles from the closest point on the river. By nightfall, we finally made it to the creek and realized that it was too small and choked with wood to paddle.
It took us a full day of portaging steep boulder gardens to get to the river, but there was still enough daylight to put in and paddle a few miles on the Chetco before making camp. The river was everything that we’d hoped it would be—fun, steep boulder gardens in a spectacular landscape, all to ourselves.
The hike in to the Chetco was more than any of us had expected, but the crystal clear water, isolated canyon, and fun whitewater made us forget all about our trip to the river. If you ever have a chance to paddle the Chetco, jump on it! If the gold mining proposals go through, the river will certainly never be the same.
All photos in this post by Zach Collier + Andy Maser.