SELMA — Deep and emerald green in the canyons, boiling and ill-tempered through the rapids, the Illinois River begins in the wilderness and never surrenders that independence.
The river is wild at its birth, tumbling down the Siskiyou Mountains with the reckless energy of an adolescent, through a sunlit forest of weeping spruce and tiger lilies along the Oregon and California border.
Even when the Illinois bubbles into the mainstem near Cave Junction, in southwest Oregon, the stopover near civilization is brief. The reclusive stream wraps itself around Eight Dollar Mountain and swings west — at last turning toward the ocean — where it slices into a gateway of reddish-orange mountains that mark the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
That was the place I greeted the Illinois River last May, along with a scattered collection of river guides and kayakers, at Miami Bar west of Selma.
Protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1984, the 31-mile wilderness run between Miami Bar (near Grants Pass) and Oak Flat (near Gold Beach) takes boaters into the isolation of Oregon’s most remote country.
Rattlesnakes patrol the shores and black bears roam the edges of the river, which got its name from miners who hailed from Illinois around 1847. The ultramafic rocks that rise above the Illinois originated in the basement of the planet — pushed up nearly 50 miles from the Earth's upper mantle — and are found almost nowhere else in the world.
But geology aside, what brings people to the wild Illinois is the chance to camp, raft and kayak this homicidal beauty queen of a river.
Both beautiful and dangerous, the Illy will seduce you with her sights, sounds and smells, then pummel you across more than eight Class IV rapids and one notorious Class V.
Above all, the Illinois is an adventure. When you set your boat upon that emerald water and head into the mountains, you’re officially leaving civilization behind.
Onto the river
Will Volpert, 30, of Ashland has run the wild Illinois 39 times, getting to know the river at high flows, low flows and even with 4 inches of snow on the ground.
He grew up in a family of rafting outfitters, manning the oars when he was 13 years old. His ability to organize trips isn't shocking.
Still, his reputation on the Illinois has grown, and it's easy to see why.
“If Will Volpert ever invites you on an Illinois trip, just go,” local kayaker Nathan Barnard said. “Doesn't matter what you have going on, work, school, whatever, just go.”
I took that advice, and by 5:30 p.m., our boats had launched from Miami Bar.
It was a late start, but after a quick 8 miles, we reached Pine Flat and made camp below a purple-orange sky. Tents were erected on grassy ground, as the smell of wood smoke and chicken soup wafted through the air.
Going on a trip made up almost entirely of river guides is an interesting experience. They’re simultaneously the most mature and immature people you'll ever meet. One moment they'll harass you about the danger of your inadequate life jacket. The next, they'll tell you a story about the time they accidentally got their dog stoned. In the end, you’re always glad to have them, in case you need to be saved from a watery grave.
Their expertise seemed especially apt on the second day of the Illinois, where the river begins to show its teeth.
Beginning at Fawn Falls (Class IV), there's a section of nasty, technical rapids that seem to take pleasure in punishing boats that didn’t take clean lines.
But there’s one rapid, above all others, that punishes boaters without requisite skill or experience — the Green Wall.
Just above the notorious rapid, Volpert dipped his oars into the water and looked up to where two of us were paddling in the front of the boat.
“You ready?” he said.
With that, he pulled out of the eddy and launched our raft into the dark alleyway of the Class V rapids. As the river roared, Volpert navigated past a boiling hole, squeezed between a picket-fence of rocks and paddled through a frothing, greenish-white cauldron into the final chute.
“Wooo,” he said at the bottom.
As quickly as it began, the Illinois River's famous rapid was behind us.
And to be honest, I was disappointed.
Type the phrase “Green Wall Carnage” into a Google search, and you'll find videos featuring a comedy of rafts being flipped and flung by the Green Wall, while the poor saps manning the oars flail around like ants in a swirling toilet bowl.
Sadly, there was no drama for us. Volpert navigated the rapid with such a smooth progression of moves, he could have been walking around his house with the lights off.
Which isn't far from the truth.
But it doesn't always go according to plan.
At Green Wall, one of our group mates got stuck in a boiling hole, was tossed out of his boat and held on for dear life as his raft pin-balled into the churning rapid. Luckily he climbed back into his boat with enough time to avoid serious calamity, but it was touch-and-go for a moment.
Submarine Hole also required some unique teamwork. After one boat got stuck in a narrow rock gap, another came up from behind and knocked it free.
“The consequences of error out here are substantially higher than rivers that are more accessible,” Will said. “There’s no road access or air strips. Even the trail is inaccessible for most of the way, so you really have to be careful.”
The Illinois River roughly is a 56-mile tributary of the Rogue River, but according to local scientists, that might not have always been the case.
John Roth, chief of resource management at the Oregon Caves National Monument and a local geologist, believes the Illinois and Smith River — located almost entirely in California — actually were connected in the not-so-distant past.
Both rivers have headwaters in the Siskiyou Wilderness, have similar geologic features and are home to a unique fly species found almost nowhere else.
The split between the two rivers likely took place during uplift in the High Siskiyous, perhaps as recently as 2 million years ago, Roth said.
“It could have been a tributary of the Smith, or it could have been a main part of the river,” Roth said. “But we think they were connected. The High Siskiyous are very jagged, which often represents a recent uplift. That could have been the cause for a split between the two rivers.”
Once the two rivers were split, Roth believes, the Illinois was eventually captured by the Rogue River’s drainage.
As our group floated into the lower canyons, it was difficult to imagine the Illinois ever running through a different location.
In the sunlight, the water appeared deep and emerald green between narrow rock walls. Silver waterfalls ornamented the cliffs, and glassy creeks tumbled in to join the final descent toward the Rogue.
“What I love about the Illinois is the sense of adventure,” Volpert said. “The canyon walls are phenomenal, there’s waterfalls around every corner, and the rapids are a lot of fun. But it’s that sense of the unknown, of planning a trip through the wilderness and camping with your friends, that makes the Illinois so much fun.”
— Zach Urness wrote most this story for the Grants Pass Daily Courier in 2011 and recently revised it. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801.