Two deaths raise hard questions on Rogue

Rowing a driftboat or raft through Blossom Bar is the wildest ride on the Wild Rogue River, a rapid so wrought with pitfalls and intensity that every piece of water, every rock and every maneuver has its own, often ominous, name.

Stop briefly in Purgatory Eddy to check your oars and measure your mettle because the next set of oar strokes are the most crucial you'll ever make on the Rogue.

Pull hard and pull fast to slip the boat left-to-right across the front of a series of rocks called the Picket Fence that clog the left channel. Do it right and you can take a break in Entrance Eddy before slipping down the Beaver Slide, then pick your way past the Clamshell and Volkswagen Rock to redemption.

"I've probably run it 800 times, and I can tell you that every time I'm at the top I feel nervous," says Bret Clark, 49, a veteran Grants Pass river guide and outfitter. "And every time I'm at the bottom of it, I'm relieved."

In the past month, two rafters have experienced Clark's nervousness without ever tasting that relief, and their deaths at the Picket Fence have veteran river-runners and outsiders alike wondering aloud just what's happening this year at Blossom Bar.

Whether it's the unusually high summer flows, some slight shifting in the rocks, experience factors or simply a slight technical glitch while negotiating the toughest rapid on the Rogue, the Picket Fence has become a watery headstone for two rafters.

Kathleen M. Mills, 57, of Portland, died Saturday morning when she was thrown from a raft rowed by her husband.

On June 27, Cynthia Vontungeln, of Irvine, Calif., died when the inflatable kayak she was riding with another person overturned at the Picket Fence, which is about 11 miles upstream from Foster Bar and 23 miles into the Rogue's Wild and Scenic section.

Their deaths have the river community buzzing and river managers questioning whether the Wild Rogue's personality and popularity are drawing more rafters with less experience and knowledge of these waters.

"Even personally I'm reassessing that," says Chris Dent, the Wild Rogue river manager for the Bureau of Land Management, which shares management of the Wild and Scenic section with the U.S. Forest Service. "I hope people understand the risk they're getting into, but even I'm not sure they are," Dent says. "I'm hoping this is an anomaly."

Seeing a few inflatable kayaks, rafts and even driftboats wrapped around the Picket Fence or sunk behind it are relatively common sights most summers. In most cases, the rowers, passenger and gear all get tossed from the crafts.

The struggle then is to float with your head up and your feet pointed downstream to bounce off boulders before you and your coolers are fished out by rafting partners before you hit the Devil's Stair.

In this year's tragedies, the Picket Fence not only is claiming its victims, it's keeping them as well.

Vontungeln's body was pinned for a week before it became dislodged on its own and was recovered. Wells' body remained trapped as of Wednesday.

Both were in the same cluster of rocks, unreachable by rescue crews.

"I'm sure people have washed through there before," Clark says. "I'm not sure something moved a little to create a body trap."

One of the theories floating among rafters is that the current flows of about 2,900 cubic feet per second — about 900 cfs more than most summers — have altered Entrance Eddy, causing some boaters to bounce out and more toward the Picket Fence than usual this summer.

Clark says most regular Wild Rogue rowers easily adjust to nuances like this.

"But, with more flow, you have to be right on," Clark says.

Just one misstroke can bring disaster.

"Sometimes you're behind the gun before you've even started," Clark says. "If you miss one pull there you can be in real trouble real quick. You just have to get at it, keep rowing."

Different rapids act differently under differing flows.

The dreaded Coffee Pot 11/2; miles upstream of Blossom Bar can be horrific on average flows, slamming rafts and driftboats repeatedly into a rock wall before perking them out, one by one. At low and high flows, the churns are barely noticeable.

Regardless, the changes this year at Blossom Bar have certainly been noticed. Clark this week had four clients cancel their upcoming trips over fear of the Picket Fence.

The BLM also is getting cancellations of launch permits for the wild section, which are capped to allow only 120 rafters a day.

Yet, others might be drawn to Blossom Bar for the very same reasons and snatch up those tough-to-get permits for summer trips.

"There are an awful lot of thrill-seekers, and that's a huge thrill," Clark says.

In the end, more than 99 percent of the rafters are able to muscle past the Picket Fence and into Entrance Eddy for that slip down the Beaver Slide.

"With 120 people a day moving through there, it's still safer than I-5," Clark says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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