It was our third day in the Rogue River canyon, and we were sipping coffee and watching the sunrise from our campsite, when an osprey flew overhead with a steelhead clutched in its talons.
You become accustomed to views of wildlife on this wilderness river, and so we saluted the osprey for its morning catch and began thinking about our own breakfast, when one of those made-for-a-nature-documentary moments took place.
From the northeast, a bald eagle streaked across the sky like a Harrier Jet directly at the osprey. In what could only be described as a midair mugging, the eagle slammed into the osprey and dislodged the fish, swooped around, plucked the falling fish out of the sky and took off with its successfully plundered breakfast.
We sat in silence, not sure what to say.
"Man," said Will Volpert, general manager of Rogue River Journeys. "Imagine the kind of morning that fish is having."
When people write about the wild section of the Rogue River — the 34 miles of rafting paradise from Grave Creek Bridge (near Galice) to Foster Bar (east of Gold Beach) — they typically focus on its rolling whitewater, narrow canyons, sandy beaches or historic lodges.
But for me, what makes the Rogue the best multiday trip in Oregon — and among the best family vacations in the Pacific Northwest — are those moments of wildness. It's the black bear appearing on the river's edge, salmon leaping upstream at Rainie Falls or bald eagles acting like Mafia dons of the river.
I try to make one trip down the wild Rogue each summer — normally by getting my own permit and doing a small self-supported kayak trip.
But last summer, I had a problem.
My wife, Robyn, was deep into her second trimester of pregnancy and made clear that any attempt to abandon her for days of sunshine-filled boating on our favorite river would result in a swift kick to that most unpleasant of places. (Robyn is normally very supportive of my rambling, but she loves the Rogue as much as I do, hence the threats of violence.)
Our solution was to go with a commercial outfitter, where she could sit in a raft guided by an expert, partake of restaurant-quality meals and simply enjoy the river.
The decision put us in good company with the majority of Oregonians, most of whom don't have the equipment or experience to run a three- or four-day trip through the Rogue's Class III, IV and V rapids.
While the cost can seem high — $750 to $1,200 per person depending on the trip — it does include three meals per day, safe passage down the river and an experience that works particularly well for families with children.
On our trip, we had a pair of 13-year-olds who'd never so much as dipped a paddle in a river and listed "playing video games" among their favorite activities. Even so, Rylan and Eli spent almost the entire trip in inflatable kayaks, navigating a multitude of Class III rapids with names like Grave Creek Falls, Wildcat and Tyee.
Rylan got knocked out of his boat once, but our guide Will was there to pick him up almost immediately and there was never any danger. When the most dangerous rapids arrived — Class IV Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar — he had them ride in rafts.
Meanwhile, Robyn laid back in the raft and enjoyed soaking in the sunshine.
While safety on the river is probably the best reason to go with an outfitter, a close second are the meals and activities offered at the campsites or lodges each night.
There are so many outfitters on the Rogue that it has become almost an arms race to see who can concoct the most exotic meals and most enjoyable activities.
Food can be gluten-free, cooked in a Dutch oven or include something as exotic as a leg of lamb with a demiglaze of zinfandel, mint and mushrooms. Drinks include craft beer and local wines.
At campsites, outfitters have also come up with different ways to entertain guests. Some play music. Others bring stand-up paddleboards for guests to play around on. Some guides will lead visitors to a swimming hole below a waterfall or a natural waterslide you can dive down head-first.
For all these quirks and benefits, the Rogue River remains the star of the show.
Despite all the fun he had paddling his inflatable kayak, Rylan said his favorite part was Mule Creek Canyon, where rafts are swallowed into a crevasse so deep and narrow it feels as though you've dropped into a subterranean labyrinth.
At night, there's a silence in watching the sunset turn mountains bright orange, and listening to a campfire crackle as the stars come out in an ink-black sky. In the daytime, you might see a black bear, otter, salmon or bald eagle.
The upside to experiencing the Rogue River with an outfitter is that all of this can be enjoyed without stress. There's no fear of navigating your family (or pregnant wife) through Blossom Bar rapids, no worry about getting the right equipment or preparing meals.
When you go with an outfitter, all that work is already done. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the whitewater, scenery and moments of wildness that make the wild Rogue among the best family vacations in the Pacific Northwest.
Zach Urness is the author of "Hiking Southern Oregon." He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801.