Blossom and the Black Bear

Springing from the headwaters of Crater Lake, the Rogue River carves its way through basalt canyons surging towards Gold beach and the mighty Pacific Ocean. A section of the Rogue from Galice, Oregon to Fosters Bar is protected under the national wild and scenic river act. This section of the Rogue River is the most beautiful place I’ve seen on the planet. It is full of lore and history of war between settlers and natives, gold mining and white water adventure. Nature abounds with bald eagle, osprey, turkey vulture, blue heron, salmon, green sturgeon, trout, river otter, beaver, deer, and black bear. Riddled with class three, four, and five white water, the wild and scenic section of the Rogue is a thrill seekers’ paradise. This summer I’ve run the Rogue twice. The first with my brother in inflatable kayaks, and the second with my sister and six of our friends in kayaks and katarafts or pontoon style thirteen-foot gear rafts

The river can be a place of great rejuvenation, celebration, a test of will, skill and courage. The river can also be a place of great sorrow and loss. The final class four rapid on the Rogue is called Blossom Bar. Blossom is infamous for its’ picket fence where large cylindrical boulders act like fence post across the width of the river. Even the most skilled guides have had their rafts pinned or sunk on picket fence. The lucky ones climb to a boulder if  water levels allow, or get swept through the narrow chutes between rocks, making their way to a rescue boat or the shore. The unlucky make Blossom their final resting place. Within the last few weeks three people have died at Blossom Bar. God rest their souls. This last weekend, my good ole’ buddies Josh, Andrew and me led five inexperienced rafters down the Rogue river, which culminated in dramatic fashion at Blossom Bar.

Normally when I go on adventures it is with people who have a lot of experience in the outdoors. After two huge class three rapids within the first half-mile of the trip, Josh, Andrew, and I quickly realized we were in a serious situation, guiding the less experienced rafters down a powerful body of water. The three of us were on high alert constantly making sure every one was safe, life jackets snug, rafts properly inflated, and nutritional needs met.  During the first day, for the most part everyone did great. Several people flipped their kayaks in small standing waves and easily climbed aboard and paddled on.

Day two of the trip we began our descent to Blossom. Winding through the tumultuous coffee pot of Mule creek canyon, we made our way with moderate drama through the narrow canyon as the river narrows from one hundred feet across to a constricted twelve feet. While the river walls confine the water quickly deepens from a few feet to a swift but gradual hundred feet plus. This creates massive hydraulics and turbulence that pull boats and people underwater for long periods of time. We had a few people flip on a standing wave at the threshold of the coffee pot. Our entire party made it through the tight canyon a little shaken up ,but relatively unscathed. The terminus of Mule creeks’ still waters open to the expanse of Blossom Bar.

Back at the BLM ranger station in Galice, I asked ranger Todd about the recent deaths at the famed rapid, he said that one of the boats was still stuck on picket fence. Sure enough as we rounded the corner to Blossom a huge antique wooden drift boat mounted the picket fence resembling a jewel wedged perfectly in its prongs.  The river level had subsided since the accident, elevating the beautiful boat out of the water several feet. It was an ominous, eerie sight. With the water level so low, navigating the picket fence had to be very exact. We scouted the rapid for some time, watching three guide boats and a kayak flawlessly and gracefully eddy out into the channel to the right of picket fence and slide smoothly into the slender opening onto the main flow of the river below. After several minutes of planning and instruction from Josh,  it was our turn.

Josh would lead with two people in the front of his kataraft, followed by Andrew and two other kayakers and I would pick up the rear. Josh being the most experienced drew a perfect line, avoiding the picket fence and gliding in to the six -foot waterfall onto the rivers’ main flow. Andrew and crew set off to cross the main channel to enter Blossom river left. My sister as wild and free as she is followed Andrew but was unable to cross the swift current to the petroglyphs river left. Instinctively and intelligently she came back toward me on the rivers right hand shore. I climbed over a cliff and down to her. We hiked kayak in tow, back to my kataraft. Trying to keep my cool, I was a bit shaken up by the last minute change of plan, and additional weight to my raft.

Moments away from running a very technical Blossom Bar with two people I love very much, my heart pounded visibly through the life jacket. I was filled with a mix of emotions, exhilaration, terror, love, joy, anger and grief. I’ve been in dangerous situations surfing, but nothing where I had so much time to think. While strapping her raft to the back of my boat, and unpacking and repacking the dry bags and trashcans, the summer heat beat down on my shoulders. I could not cool off, with so much adrenaline surging through my system. I dipped myself in the cool river, did some breath of fire, inhaling and exhaling sharply through my nose, and just as we were about to push off, standing on a rock below picket fence I heard Andrew yelling “bear, bear!” Hearing the words of my friend, I felt Natures’ blessing surround us.

I pushed off the rocky shore with my sister and dear friend Juliette on the front of the kataraft and eased across the channel bearing river left. We ferried into the mouth of Blossom Bar, starboard side of the raft looming closer to the teeth of the picket fence and the remains of the antique drift boat. I pulled hard on the fiberglass oars to make the eddy just right of the fence. The kataraft heaved towards the unmoving waters. Still in the current, I pitched the oars once more, giving them my full strength and then heard a frightening noise. It rang out identical to a gunshot. My right oar broke in half, dangling like a snapped twig. Shit, I remember thinking. My raft spun 180 degrees now heading toward the last post of the picket fence. The right oar attached by a few fiberglass threads provided just enough resistance to lick the water, floating the kataraft near the chute before breaking off completely. Everything was happening so fast. My sister and Juliette didn’t know what was going on because they we’re facing away from me. I gazed down at the kayak paddle strapped to the dry box just below eye level. I remember thinking that maybe I could unstrap the paddle and use it for my right oar. I didn’t have time. Somehow with the positioning of the raft amidst the weave of hydraulics, I didn’t need the oar anyway. The left oar clawed at the rivers flow and nudged us against the last post of the picket fence. We were not pinned. The kataraft kissed the flat granite boulder as if in jest and we slid into slender chute onto the rivers main flow. We made it through the legendary rapid. With one oar, we pinged our way through the boulder field below before beaching the kataraft river left on an outcropping of small boulders. Our friends cheered awaiting with a spare oar and the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.

Andrew was able to catch the whole thing on video. You can’t see it from the angle of the camera but right below Andrew is the tattered old drift boat, which we’re heading towards. After my oar cracks in half, Andrew drops the camera and yells an expletive. So you actually don’t get to see the most dramatic part. Hopefully, I’ve painted the picture enough for you to fill in the gaps. Very exciting!

Check it out:

We regrouped below Blossom Bar in celebratory fashion. Looking into each others’ eyes, we shared a feeling of gratitude for life, nature and friendship that I will never forget. We ate the remainder of our food and pushed off for the long row out to Fosters Bar and what would be a goose chase of a five-hour drive home to Eugene. We all needed a little healing after Blossom Bar as the black bear repeatedly graced us with its shinning dark fur coat. Within minutes of lunch we rounded another majestic corner of the Rogue to see a beautiful midsized bear climbing across a steep incline river left. Thirty minutes later a huge mama bear eating salmon twenty feet away from the river smiled at us as a warm breeze swept over our party. A little later Andrew found himself just twelve feet away from a cub with his mom in tow. Five bears in three hours. Words cannot capture the beauty of the river. To live the river is to know it.

I gained a deep respect for everyone on the trip including myself, and especially for my friend Josh, who I’ve known longer than anyone since I moved to Oregon almost twenty years ago.  As a healer by birth and trade I really appreciate the ability to hold space for others to move through challenges. Josh gracefully and quietly held a space for all of us to float safely down the dynamic waters of the wild and scenic Rogue River. He demonstrated compassion, guardianship and generosity. Thank you brother! The trip itself was a powerful as any ashram or spiritual experience I’ve had. I was tested emotionally, physically and spiritually. Looking back there are a few things I will do differently for reasons of comfort and leisure. To all of you seeking adventure and communion with nature, greet the black bear with an open heart, laugh as much as you can, and watch over each other with tears in your eyes.

Love… Luke

8 comments on “Blossom and the Black Bear”

  1. Paula Taylor says:

    Oh my. I can hardly breath! Bless the Black Bear, good friends, and embracing nature. Love. pt

  2. Paula Taylor says:

    WTF! Bless the Black Bear, good friends, and embracing nature. Love and gratitude that you are all safe. pt

  3. luke + melinda says:

    Paula, it was so amazing. You have to come next year.

  4. Susan Weeks says:

    re: video of Tim McGraw
    It’s a small world. I went to junior high and high school with Phyllis Kline who married Tug McGraw. So Tim is her step-son. Have you read Tug’s book “Ya Gotta Believe”? You can borrow it if you want.

  5. Paula Taylor says:

    I’ll be there! I’ll need several life jackets, however…….Love you guys!

  6. Joan says:

    Hi you guys I’m one of the best friends of the “antique” driftboat man who drowned Sept. 2nd swimming to shore. Realizing you were in the middle of your own challenges I would really appreciate it if anyone has a photo of the driftboat, suspended. Thank you for your kind use of the word “jewel”.
    He built that boat years ago as he was a skilled builder in general–and had just retired from McCormick and Schmick where he had built almost 40 restaurants for them. He missed one oar stroke coming in to line up. His paddles were really old–heavy–. There is no explanation for his drowning other than as he was making his way to shore he was “jerked” backwards about 100 ft. downstream from the boat and then went under. I wish I knew for sure. There is talk of a “hole” or multiple hydraulics in picket fence but I really was surprised and scared picturing that scene. Anyway, as I write this I am growing very sorry and sad still. And for sure seeing this boat must have been like seeing tombstone.

  7. luke + melinda says:

    Hi Joan,

    Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of the boat. The image of the boat will forever remain etched in my mind. It was a beautiful boat. Thank you for sharing what happened to him. It eases my mind to know all of the pieces of the story. I had run blossom bar a month earlier in a tahiti, and didn’t think much of it. This last run was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. The turn between picket fence and the boulder field was so technical, I was out of my class. Fortunately, I had just enough momentum to make it through the chute. It is a very sad situation. That part of the Rogue is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s a blessings to know that river. Thanks for the share. Blessings..

  8. tim buccola says:

    @Joan
    Joan,
    I went down the river right around the same time. Send me your email and I’ll send you the pictures I have.
    Tim@buccolagroup.com

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