Megan Janssen, left, of Ashland, Beth Nolan, of Ashland and Sam Thackeray, of McCall, Idaho, raft through Nugget Falls Tuesday, guided by Tyler Pohle, of Ashland-based Momentum River Expeditions. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Go with the (low) flow

GOLD HILL — One of the wrinkles Rogue River boaters may discover during this year's summer rafting season involves the aptly named "Monkey Fist" rock that comes into play when rowing down the famed Nugget Falls.

Guides steering from the rear of rafts normally have their customers row hard in front as they slide just over this chunk of basalt that's barely under the river's surface. While doing so, it gooses the guide upward in the rowing seat. The up-front customers get their adrenalin rush running through the Class IV rapid's watery bucket, unaware of the human percolation behind them.

"It tends to flip the guide in the back, but the guests don't really notice it at all," says Tyler Pohle, a veteran guide for Ashland-based Momentum River Expeditions.

River runners like Pohle will be making extra moves when running the Rogue this year because of low-water conditions, and one of them might involve sliding around, rather than over, Monkey Fist. The lower flows will probably change how weekend warriors run stretches of the upper river, but those running the big-water stretches with guides will hardly notice a difference.

The Oregon Water Resources Department has come out with its draft recommended releases from Lost Creek Lake into the Rogue, and the proposed flows this spring and summer are forecast to again be low thanks to persistent drought — but they won't be appreciably different from last year.

The releases are crafted annually based on federal law that makes enhancing the Rogue's migrating salmon runs a priority over recreation, so the Lost Creek Dam spigot is set first to aid spring chinook salmon, and later fall chinook salmon, as they migrate through the warm lower Rogue.

Though rafting and other recreational boating on the Rogue isn't listed as a primary purpose for dam operations, downstream river-runners tend to benefit because the summer flows supplemented from stored Lost Creek Lake water can be significantly higher than natural no-dam flows — especially in drought years like this one.

As with most years, the rafting season on the Rogue is a tale of two rivers and two user groups who view and use their chosen river stretches differently in low-water years.

Members of the orange armada of rental boats plying the upper Rogue will be scraping butts and bouncing into rocks much like they did last year during the popular run down to Shady Cove, a stretch pockmarked with extra exposed rocks that would be submerged under standard summer flows.

The relatively low releases from the reservoir and poor natural tributary flow still made for a full season last year, and the small shavings of water off last year's levels should allow for another full summer season for the amateurs.

"Last year we got through the year OK," says co-owner Carolee Enriquez of Rapid Pleasure rentals, one of Shady Cove's oldest liveries. "I know the releases are for the fish, but it worked for us. If it's like last year, we'll be OK."

When flows got their lowest in late July and early August, some Shady Cove liveries had their rental customers run the Rogue Elk to Shady Cove run, Enriquez says. That shaved 5 miles off the traditional 11-mile float from the Cole Rivers Hatchery launch to Shady Cove, but it averted some of the most troublesome stretches where low-water exposes more rocks that can strand boats or separate floaters from their inflatables.

For those who find themselves high-centered on upper Rogue rock-spots such as the aptly named Rock Garden downstream of Casey State Park, help is on the way ... but maybe not right away.

Sgt. Shawn Richards from the Jackson County sheriff's Marine Patrol says low-water years like this one not only can increase the numbers of stranded rafters who need rescue but also delay response times.

Low flows severely reduce where marine patrol and Jackson County Fire District No. 3's swiftwater rescue team can launch their powerboats and how far up or downriver they can run, Richards says.

"It just causes delays and what kinds of equipment we can use when it gets real shallow," Richards says.

However, floaters likely will barely notice a difference when running the guided trips within the Gold Hill recreation area and the famed Wild and Scenic stretch known as the Lower Rogue Canyon.

Most visitors taking the three-day wilderness float won't realize flows are down, largely because most have no frame of reference for the bucket-list trip.

"For those of us out there every day, we'll notice a difference," Pohle says. "But for those guys who've never seen a particular stretch before, it's a negligible difference."

Most guides and other seasoned boaters will make slight in-river adjustments to avoid rocks that normally don't come into play during regular water events — such as Monkey Fist in Nugget Falls.

"When the flows get lower, it'll be something you can't just run over," Pohle says. "It's not a game-changer, by any means.

"You kind of have to get dramatically low to change the rapids," Pohle says.

 Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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