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Todd Clevenger, right, and Ryan Allred kayak down Bear Creek in Medford Saturday. Photo courtesy Ryan Allred

Surf City

As last week's warm rains pounded Southern Oregon, Medford's Ryan Allred and his gonzo kayak buddies of yore kept a close eye on the Bear Creek stream gauges to see whether Medford would once again turn into Surf City.

The normally staid and largely polluted creek is usually not much of an attraction for world-class kayakers, whose main obstacles are drowned shopping carts and escaping without a case of Hepatitis C.

But when the water roars like it did Saturday, Bear Creek's downtown Medford stretch sports a series big waves for expert kayakers to spin their boats and "surf" upstream in bucket-list elan.

"When it gets like that, it's just nonstop Surf City," Allred says. "It's one incredible surf wave after another.

"When the water's high, Bear Creek happens to be the best surf river within 100 square miles," he says.

Allred and four expert kayakers channeled their inner Beach Boys and surfed Medford's waves Saturday, harnessing the power of the highest urban runoff in a decade to turn the roiling creek into a royal whitewater theme park for a day.

And it's a ride the five-some has famously shared in the cyber-world.

The video Allred shot with his Go-Pro fastened to his helmet garnered more than 50,000 hits on Facebook in five days.

But it comes with a major don't-try-this-at-home disclaimer.

"It was within the margin of safety for us, but, obviously, it was incredibly dangerous if you don't know what you're doing," says Allred, a whitewater rafting and fly-fishing outfitter.

In many ways last week's rains turned into a perfect storm for the 37-year-old Allred and his long-time river rat pals John Tribble, Todd Clevenger, Dustin Knapp and Joe Jackson. They've been chasing big water since their teens, but life has a way of separating men from their kayaks more often than not.

But that doesn't mean they won't revert to their old selves when the opportunity presents itself in the form of a string of storms that dumped more than an inch of rain in Medford and close to 4 inches of rain in Ashland — Bear Creek's headwaters.

"Any time you get a lot of water you get a lot of good waves," says Tribble, a 38-year-old ER doctor in Yreka, Calif. "It makes for some smooth surfing."

Surfing happens when enough water flows over rocks, ledges or other bottom structure to force the water to peak and slough upstream. The hydrology is such that kayakers can paddle in, spin upstream and hold in the wave as it cascades below them.

Bear Creek, which had been flowing at a dull and dirty 100 cfs earlier in the week, was destined to crawl above the 1,500 cfs level that transforms Hawthorne Park into a whitewater park.

"When the water starts rising, we get pretty giddy and start calling each other," Allred says. "We drop everything we do and go."

Go-time came Saturday, when the creek peaked in downtown Medford at more than 4,100 cfs — the highest flow recorded at Natural Resources Conservation Service gauge since Dec. 30, 2005.

They launched at U.S. Cellular Park, dodging floating logs and dangerous streamside brush called "strainers," as well copious amounts of trash catapulted downstream amid water that violates several water-quality standards despite being a potent breeding ground and nursery for wild salmon and steelhead.

"There's some nasty stuff in there," Allred says. It's pretty gross. We all kept our mouths pretty tight-lipped."

Dodging strainers and ducking under low-water bridges to avoid decapitation, the group hit downtown for some rare hometown surfing.

"There are world-class surf waves there, it's amazing," Allred says. "It's such an urban creek, but there you are on this euphoric ride. It's like a theme park."

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

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