ROGUE RIVER JET BOAT
Early morning – when the air is still and nature is waking up Oregon rivers like the Rogue River are a marvel. As daylight grows, people come out to play at Jerry’s Rogue Jets and Rogue Mailboats along the Rogue River waterfront at Gold Beach.
Jet boat pilot, Jeff Laird, keeps the century-old tradition alive as he launches our tour at 8am sharp – it’s 104-mile round trip journey into the Rogue River Canyon – longest trip that’s offered.
The journey was outrageous fun as Laird deftly steered and throttled his 32-foot long specially designed jet boat, powered by three 450-horsepower engines.
We plowed through white-water cauldrons, splashed and swung right, then left, over skinny shallows to avoid bulging boulders, and rocketed across two-foot standing waves.
“Hang on, guys--should we go faster? Little bumpy here--whoo hoo!!!” Jeff shouted to us.
Everyone onboard was wet and grinning with delight.
The jet boats can reach speeds of 60-mph – but we motored along at less than half that speed in half a foot of water – it was shin deep shallow and amazing.
Then he throttled back the powerful engines and we slowly cruised through the deep shadows of the Rogue’s calmer stretches.
Cliffs and canyons are the rule along the river’s course through the Oregon Coast Range, where eons of water and wind have eroded the exposed rock into smooth, unworldly sculptures.
Along shore, small waterfalls spout across rocky rims, slap a shelf here and there, and plummet into deep, swirling whirlpools.
Settlers arrived in the canyon of the Rogue River by the mid-nineteenth century, following the trails left by early trappers and miners.
As I gazed up the steep forested walls, it was hard to imagine anyone scratching out a living in such remote terrain but as Laird said to me:
“Really, Grant, this part of Oregon is defined by its remoteness and rugged geography. It has never been an easy place to live--many have tried and failed--but there is something about this canyon that speaks to an individual’s soul and says, ‘Without trying, what’s the point of living?’”
Laird told me that he had been leading the watery escape for Jerry’s Jet Boat Tours for nearly 25 years. He is a jet boat pilot with family roots that run as deep as the river canyon. You see, his uncle is Jerry Boice, one of the men who started jet boat touring nearly half a century ago.
It is an awesome collection of wilderness: From forest hilltops that touch the sky to remote, to steep canyon walls that touch the hard charging whitewater rapids – easy to see why Jeff laird comes to work each day.
“How many guys get to do this? Look at the people out here – they’re smiling and having fun – and a lot of people cannot say when they go to work – they give people a smile – and that means something to me. It’s really why I like my job so much and hope to keep at it for another 25 years.”
JOHN DAY FOSSIL BEDS
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a landscape of enormous vistas and endless horizons along one of the longest undammed rivers in the Lower 48.
From its headwaters in the Blue Mountains to its salmon-rich confluence with the grand Columbia more than 225 miles away, the John Day River twists, turns, and carves a path through a 14,000-acre treasure trove of colorful volcanic history and some of the world’s most important fossil beds.
The national monument is a three-unit preserve that draws professionals and amateurs alike from many different fields--as well as the generally curious who want to learn more about Oregon’s geologic history and a fossil record dating back 45 million years.
The Sheep Rock Unit (thirty miles west of the town of John Day) is home to the monument’s main visitor center and fossil collection. Colorful Sheep Rock looms above the narrow valley and its green fields on either side of the snaking river.
That’s about all the green you’ll see at a place that turns time on its head. When you stare up at the brown and tan rock walls in the sweltering heat that cooks like an oven, it’s hard to imagine that a lush, near-tropical forest once existed here.
But according to the monument’s curator and paleontologist, Josh Samuels, “the records in the rocks don’t lie.”
Samuels added, “This is a wonderful area to study changes in plants and animals or biological evolution. We see animals coming into existence in these fossil beds and, millions of years later, disappearing. It’s also an area where we have abundant fossils, so we go out and collect fossils there It’s a very important place.”
Josh Samuels said that visitors are best served to begin their adventures at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center.
Samuels added that classes and lectures teach you more about the region, while the center’s murals and fossils give perspective on periods that reach back 50 million years.
“You really have a jungle in those times with things like crocodiles that truly contrast with today’s dry, arid environment of open sage brush and grass land environments with things like deer, mountain lions and elk running around.”
The center is administered by the National Park Service and also serves as an active research area, so you may chance upon the laboratory and see how specimens are prepared for analysis: the past is revealed in front of your eyes – one grain of rock and sand at a time.
Technicians use patience and critical care to remove the rock so to expose fossilized animals that lived so long ago.
Sheep Rock is a good starting point for your journey through time. It prepares you to understand the remarkably vivid colors of the ash deposits at the Painted Hills Unit about sixty-five miles south of Sheep Rock and near Mitchell, Oregon.
The Painted Hills Unit lies at the end of a three-mile paved access road.
It’s a popular site for photographers who wish to capture the brilliantly colored ash deposits that range from rose to pink, from gold to bronze, and seem splashed across the eroded contours of nearby hummocks and hills.
This is the kind of treasure Oregon legends are made of, and I never tire of an early morning or late evening visit when the light is just peeking up or winking down the hillsides.
Several short hiking trails allow closer inspection, and you will also find shaded picnic tables, water, and restrooms, as well as exhibits and trail guides.
At the “Painted Cove Trail” you’ll appreciate the fact that they have built a boardwalk above the environment in order to protect it – in this case, it’s ash fall dating back 33 million years.
“Leave no footprints and take only memories,” is a standard and strict rule inside the parkland, but fifty miles to the northwest, the Clarno Unit sits on the banks of the John Day River.
You may have the most fun up the road a piece at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Oregon, where you can dig the fossils--for keeps. Kids especially love that activity.
Stroll through the back gate at the high school - where donations are kindly accepted - and pass under the goal posts to take up a hand full of fossils that you can actually keep.
School Superintendent, Brad Sperry, told me, “It has been kind of a local secret, and the community knew about it; would come up and kick around in the rocks and pick up a fossil. Got on a couple websites and before long, it looks like today: busy.”
All you need to dig your own fossils are simple tools, a strong arm, keen eyes, curiosity and a ton of patience.
For just a few minutes, I dug, pried, and separated the layers of muddy shale and found perfectly preserved imprints of ferns, cedar fronds, and an unusual leaf.
Brad noted, “None of these plants survived the era, of course, but it is the record of this tremendous diversity of life and the record of a totally catastrophic end that, taken together, really make you think.”
Just down the street from the school, the new Paleo Lands Institute will teach you much about the fossils that you collect and perhaps provide a new way to look at the high desert.
Institute spokesperson, Anne Mitchell, said, “I think a lot of people come out and go –‘I want to dig up a fossil.’ But when they actually get here, they start learning how it all goes together. This center was designed to be sort of a hands-on, get dirty and get comfortable with science and learn about fossils and geology.”
It really helps to present what people have right in their own backyards – there are fossils really,” added Samuels. “These fossils are something that we can highlight and help others to appreciate the history of the area and the valuable natural resources that are here.”
CROSS CASCADES ESCAPE
Cross-Cascade links such as Oregon State Highway 58, connecting Oregon’s pastoral Willamette Valley with the vast high desert, can be busy blurs unless you slow your pace and get out of the race from here to there.
It connects Oregon’s pastoral Willamette Valley with the vast high desert and we found riverside campsites, mountain bike trails and family adventures waiting for you in the Upper Willamette River watershed.
You’ll discover amazing secrets and a surprising amount of elbowroom for stretching out and playing at the Black Canyon Campground.
This is a splendid Forest Service area with eighty campsites for either trailer or tent, and it parallels the Upper Willamette River.
Here, the river has a swift, free-flowing character that is quite different from the broad-beamed, slow-moving waterway most downriver residents know so well.
From this convenient base camp you can also explore a region that’s somehow been missed or forgotten by many travelers.
That’s certainly been the case for mountain bike adventurers Ben Beamer and Randy Dreiling.
“The mountain bike capital of the northwest – that’s the brand we use,” noted Dreiling, a leading force in the trek toward establishing this area as a mountain bike mecca over the past decade; part of the popular Oregon cycling phenomenon.
An area that boasts five hundred miles of Cascade Mountain trails near Oakridge, Oregon.
Beamer said, “People come and experience it and they go tell all their friends and they’ll be back next week.”
Dreiling owns and operates “Oregon Adventures” a touring and shuttle company centered in Oakridge.
He said the blend of plentiful trails with the Cascade Mountain elevation changes offer something for everyone:
“You can really test your skills here; testing yourself to see how long you can ride, trying to improve, testing your skill sets to see if you can get better at rocks and roots/”
Beamer added that the Oakridge area has become famous for cross-country rides that last all day and you never see the same terrain twice:
“We’re also known for having really ‘flowy’ trails that tend to be in really good shape all summer long – they don’t turn to dust because we have good moisture in our soils. For example, here on Salmon Creek - you can go ride on 40 miles of continuous ribbon of trail here and you just cannot do that everywhere.”
Near Oakridge, Oregon, explore another site you can’t find “just anywhere.”
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Willamette Salmon Hatchery is in the big business of raising fish--specifically salmon, and by the millions each year.
You’re free to roam the five-acre hatchery grounds and gaze into the raceways and other “show” ponds to marvel at ten-pound rainbow trout or six-foot-long sturgeon.
The real treasure in this neck of the woods is when you head indoors to learn about salmon and other wildlife at a unique museum on the state hatchery grounds.
Though small in size, the hatchery’s museum is large in scope with its varied information displays and exhibits that show off the hatchery’s history and the fish and wildlife of the region.
The centerpiece is a 2,000-gallon aquarium that contains nearly every fish species you can find in Oregon. Here you can go eyeball to eyeball with rainbow trout, bass, kokanee salmon and many others.
Dan Peck, the hatchery manager, modestly noted that visitors can see fish from a fish’s point of view.
“When you’re looking down on a fish you can never see how truly beautiful the distinctive markings of a fish can be, since you only see their backs. The crimson bar of a rainbow, the red eye of a smallmouth bass--all of those interesting characteristics are lost on us. We’ve tried to change that.”
Peck told me he wanted visitors to see fish and other “critters” they usually never see in the wild, but funding such a facility from his small budget was nearly impossible.
So, his staff donated materials and volunteered to create the entire remarkable museum:
“We wanted folks to have a better understanding of Oregon and the role that ODFW plays in Oregon’s outdoors. From fish hatcheries to non-hunted species, wildlife viewing opportunities and we’re hoping to educate in one area.”
Back out on the Salmon Creek Trail, Dreiling and Beamer agreed that the region has much to offer- whether afoot or rolling along so many miles of trails
In fact, Oakridge is so special a place, the town has taken center stage for two major summertime bike events called simply “Mountain Bike Oregon” and each event attracts hundreds of riders from across the entire country for the multi-day riding experiences.
“You could spend a month here and not hit every trail – there’s that much here. When you have 62 trails in this area, it’s pretty special.”
RAZORS ON THE BEACH
Local resident, Steve Fick, likes to say, “when the tide goes out, his dinner table is set --- with razor clams.”
Fick grew up in Astoria and he really digs this recreation:
“Oh, Grant, there are clams galore this season – one of the best, most plentiful clam “sets” in recent history. The biologists say the harvest could exceed one million clams. Wow, huh?”
That much is certain, but if you’ve never dug this sport – how do you get started?
Fick handed me a “clam gun.” – it’s the tool of choice for beginners learning the ropes of clam digging.
It’s a hard plastic tube, with a covered top that has handle built into it, plus there is a small hole on the top so that the tube act like a siphon.
You press the tube or “gun” down into the soft sand up to three feet deep, and then place your thumb over the hole, lift and pull the tube full of sand – and hopefully, the razor clam – back up to the surface.
“Try that clam hole right there, Grant,” noted Fick.
He pointed to a small, quarter-sized dimple in the sandy surface.
“The clam’s neck is just under that dimple. It’s a giveaway sign that there’s a clam down there. Go for it!”
And so I did – the tube easily slid down its length, I covered the hole and lifted the tube full of sand that held a dandy four-inch long razor clam.
It was slick and it was easy!
So easy that anyone can do it!
Flick is an old hand at the clam game – he can even spot the critters in the surf:
“Well, sometimes when they’re feeding, they stick their neck up and out right in the shallow surf line – it makes a little v and we call those ‘knickers.’ Once you get the knack for spotting them, it’s easy.”
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the clam resource and there are important rules and regulations to note:
A state shellfish license is required for clam diggers fourteen and older.
Each clam digger must dig their own limit of 15 razor clams and you cannot put any back.
Remember: even if you break a shell or dig a small clam, the first 15 that you dig you must keep.
It wasn’t long before each of us had dug our limits when Steve smiled and said, “I never met a clam I didn’t like --- to eat. Let’s go!”
With that, we were off to his kitchen for a quick lesson on how to prepare our clams.
“First, I like to rinse them off – get as much sand off the clams as possible.”
Fick is as skilled in the kitchen as he is on the beach and makes quick work of our 30 clams.
He offered a tip – he gives the clams a quick dousing of hot water – enough to open the clams but not cook the clams and he quickly followed the hot water with a cold-water shower. The icy-cold water stopped any cooking of the clam.
A few quick flicks of his small sharp knife and he cleaned each clam of its stomach contents.
Then he doused each in an egg bath; that was followed coating each side of the clam in soda cracker meal.
The combination provided a nice coating to both sides of the clam.
The preheated (medium high) frying pan contains a generous amount of vegetable oil.
Flick cooked the clams less than two minutes a side (golden brown on each side) and he cautiously advised that overcooked clams taste “like rubber and are too chewy.”
The meal of cooked clams provided a satisfying reward; the sort of activity that builds strong memories of the Oregon outdoors:
“It’s the whole process – to me, said Flick. “It’s a lot of enjoyment to come down here to the beach early in the morning, dig clams, walk around – take the whole family down. “You feel like you’ve really accomplished something at the end of the day…I enjoy that.”
For more details on how to dig razor clams.