Dispatches from the Illinois River

The following is a trip log detailing my latest foray into nature. This time, 12 brave souls took to the frigid waters of the Illinois River for a three-day trip that included Olympia tall-boys, violent rapids, White Russians and kayak-eating plants.


Let's begin by rewinding a month. It's a cold January night and I'm preparing to leave the Beau Club when in walks Grizzly Adams and the Unabomber.

Actually, it was Will Volpert and Dan Thurber, a couple of rafting/kayaking enthusiasts who had just returned from a monthlong Grand Canyon float. Both were hairy and smelled bad. Volpert would later brag that he wore only three shirts the entire trip. There also was talk of obscene amounts of Red Dog beer consumed.

A brief exchange led to the planning of a trip down the Illinois River in February. I pitched a newspaper story. I would raft the river with their crew and report back. The hook was something about cold-weather boating, or something.

I'll say pretty much anything if it means a float trip on the company dime.

I'd been on a North Umpqua trip with Volpert and Thurber and knew I could trust them on the rascally Illinois.

The river is famous for unpredictable flows, which can spike to killer levels in a matter of hours. Some people died there in the '90s.

If it be my fate to perish on a river named after my birth state, so be it.


The worst thing about outdoor adventure is the shopping involved. Every time I go on a trip it involves me heading off to a store in search of gear.

Needless to say this stuff isn't cheap. It's amazing what you're willing to pay to ensure your own survival. For this trip I purchased a new tent ($79), waterproof socks ($25), thermal long johns ($14.99) and used fleece shirts ($15).

Everything else, I borrowed off my friends in the rafting business. It's nice to have contacts on the inside. It'll be a shame if the economy tanks and their businesses go under and they have nothing left to offer when it comes time to save a buck.

I will kind of miss speaking to some of them.

More shopping

Before shipping off, I bought an 18-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. My girlfriend opted for a box of wine.

She was quick to correct anyone who mistook the wine for Franzia. It was Almaden.

We roll like that.

Pure genius

Remember that $25 pair of waterproof socks I mentioned? Golly, wouldn't it have been nice if I had actually remembered to put them on before climbing into the raft?

By the time the first hour had past, I lost all feeling in my lower extremities. I hear people talk about being so cold that they become numb. If only. Cold really burns.

When we pulled over for lunch, I immediately sprung from the raft and began running in place. My thoughts turned to Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air," where he describes what it must be like to amputate severely frostbitten limbs.

These thoughts weren't as horrifying as you'd think. At least it would stop the burning.

Amusement and voyeurism

Volpert, who guided my boat, asked me when it was all over if I had any advice to future Illinois River rafters.

"Yeah, try not to drop into the Green Wall sideways," was my reply.

That's not to say Volpert is a weak guide. I'd float the river to hell and back with him at the oars. But last Saturday, if he had it to do over again, I'm sure Volpert would've taken a slightly different line over the steep drop into the Green Wall.

The Green Wall's reputation precedes it. Before setting out on the trip, I stupidly researched a series of stories detailing the drowning of two Willamette Valley men in 1998. They put in during a storm and perished after the Green Wall mangled their raft.

Part of my Mail Tribune assignment was to get video footage of rafts taking the Green Wall. It's a disturbing feeling sitting there on a rock with a high-end digital camera watching a fellow rafter struggle over a Class V rapid.

"This carnage footage is awesome," was the first thought passing through my head.

Then: "I hope they don't die."

When it was our turn to take on the Green Wall, I was both eager and more than a little nervous. The top rapid is bad enough, a hard drop into a frothing wave, tailor-made for flipping rafts.

A bit downstream, a swirling hole roughly the size of a star going supernova awaits with evil thoughts on its mind.

I'm not an expert rafter, but I do know it's bad news to enter a stout rapid sideways. We hit the torrent and suddenly things took a turn for the surreal.

My fellow paddler — who deserved what he got after contributing a case of Coors Light to the trip — was pitched into the middle of the raft. The drop knocked the left oar from its mooring, forcing Volpert to scramble to replace it with the spare. Meanwhile, I'm digging into the wave for all I'm worth. I'll be damned if I go out without a fight.

Volpert soon managed to replace the lost oar and we broke loose and plunged into the meat of the Green Wall.

We emerged victorious.

It later occurred to me that enjoying untouched nature such as the Illinois River canyon should come with risk. If it were easy, then the river would be choked with Mom, Dad and the Kids trips. My journey down the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River earlier this winter was a tad depressing when we encountered a bear that waited patiently at the shore hoping for a food handout.

There was something sublime about roughing it next to such a magnificent river and not seeing a single human footprint near the campsite and knowing that ours would disappear soon after we left.


Sometime on our second night on the river our group hosted a blind taste test featuring Olympia and Coors Light.

Olympia won. Hands down. There is hope for the human race.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story