BLM park ranger Shawn Clark removes a tire from below Rainie Falls on the Rogue River Tuesday. - Jamie Lusch

BLM's 'garbage barge' keeps wild Rogue floating smoothly

Like a surgeon preparing for a major operation, Jamie Stacey carefully wiggled her fingers into a pair of elastic surgical gloves.

"What do you think, Shawn, brush or no brush?" she asked.

"We're going to need a brush for this one," replied Shawn Clark, who had also pulled on a pair of protective gloves.

With that, they brought out the big gun — an industrial-strength toilet brush equipped with a 3-foot-long handle. Backing it up was disinfectant powerful enough to kill the nastiest germ hanging out in an outhouse. Finally, they pulled out a bucket of deodorant capable of making the foulest facility smell as fresh as a petunia.

They would need it all. Awaiting them was the heavily used pit toilet on the north bank of the Lower Rogue River immediately upstream from Rainie Falls.

For the next 22 miles on the Wild and Scenic Section of this nationally known whitewater river, the floating clean-up crew from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would scrub toilets, pick up trash — which included everything from old tires to fishing line — snuff out one illegal campfire and check for float permits.

The "garbage barge" was cleaning up during its weekly run on the whitewater section of the wild Rogue.

"This is one of the most popular rivers in the country," observed Jeanne Klein, river manager for the BLM's Medford District, who also pitched in with park ranger Clark and seasonal park ranger Stacey in the clean-up effort. "With people coming from all over who love this river, there are a lot of challenges to protecting the resource."

Consider this: 11,742 people floated the 34-mile wild section of the Lower Rogue River from the mouth of Grave Creek downstream to Watson Creek during the permit season from May 15 to Oct. 15 of 2010. And some 5,000 hikers trek along the Rogue River Trail between the two points each year, Klein estimated.

The BLM's wild river jurisdiction covers roughly 22 river miles from the confluence of Grave Creek to the mouth of Mule Creek. The remaining dozen miles in the lower wild section run through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

All told, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service collected more than $300,000 last year from commercial and noncommercial use of the lower river during the permit season. The wild and scenic river draws millions of tourist and sports-fishing dollars to the region, according to one recent estimate.

Much of the trash found in the wild section is flotsam from civilization upriver, said Clark, after fishing a Baja Wide Trac tire from the river near Rainie Falls.

Next to the big tire was a Budweiser beer can, a broken kayak paddle and fishing line snagged to a bush. The tire is strapped to the raft; the other trash goes into a big garbage bag.

Before the trip is over, three tires would be loaded into the raft. Two others are located and will be picked up by next week's crew.

"One year, we collected about 350 tires," offered Clark, a native of Pennsylvania who served 20 years in the Air Force.

Trash isn't their only concern.

Just downstream from Rainie Falls, they spot a wisp of smoke rising from an illegal campfire on the south bank. The campers are long gone.

It is about 11:30 a.m. and already hot and breezy.

Clark quickly grabbed a shovel while Klein filled a 5-gallon bucket with river water. While they put the fire dead out, Stacey is busy picking up Styrofoam worm containers and yards of fishing line.

"This could have been a real bad situation," Klein observed as she soaked the ashes with water.

A mile downstream the crew points out a 12-foot driftboat wedged in among the willows. The aluminum shell is cracked and broken. Willows grow between its ribs.

"It probably sank on them and just turned up here — the river doing its magic," Clark said, noting the boat has been there at least a year.

There are no plans to remove it.

Much of their time is spent cleaning toilets and resupplying toilet paper. Cleaning a toilet during the dog days of August is not a job for the squeamish, they will tell you.

"It can get pretty dirty sometimes," acknowledged Stacey, a 2005 graduate of Grants Pass High School who has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from the University of Oregon, 2009.

Floaters are required to carry portable toilets, but the campground facilities receive a lot of use, said Klein, originally from Peoria, Ill. A biologist with a master's degree in recreation management, she came to the Rogue as a seasonal worker 21 years ago and was hooked.

Two weeks ago, the crew brought picks and shovels to dig a new pit for a toilet at Horsehoe Bend some 11 miles downstream from Grave Creek.

"When they fill up, where we can, we dig a new pit," Klein said. "But there are some places where we cannot dig anymore. At those sites, we are not replacing the toilets."

Canby resident Frank Despain, leader of Boy Scout Troop 505, was happy to see the toilet sparkling like new at Rainie Falls. The 10-member scout group had started at Grave Creek four days earlier, hiking some 151/2; miles down the Rogue River Trail to Kelsey Creek.

"Tell you what, I'm impressed how clean it is," Despain said. "And new rolls of toilet paper inside. Wow!"

A few miles farther down at Whisky Creek, another popular gathering spot for hikers and floaters, the crew ran across a 12-member float group headed by veteran river runner Tom Gerow, an emergency-room doctor based in Coos and Douglas counties. Gerow first floated the Lower Rogue 40 years ago and has returned nearly every summer since.

Like Despain, he expressed appreciation for the clean-up crew's work.

After all, the attraction is the camping along the way, he said.

"The river is a way to get to some place," he said. "Some people come down for the whitewater. But I like to come down, lay over for a few days and spend some time on the river."

Unfortunately, he had a little accident while navigating the fish ladder at Rainie Falls.

"I took a tumble — the boat ran over me," Gerow said with a chuckle. "It was the worst swim I've had in a long time. I'm still recovering from it. I'm hurting everywhere."

But the doctor expected the camping and floating will heal him by the time they arrive at the take-out at Foster Bar.

"I'll be fine," was his prognosis.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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