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North Umpqua River

*Boulder Flat to Gravel Bin*

I've heard people remark that Oregon paddlers tend to exaggerate the difficulty of rivers.  I won't debate whether this is true or not, but if it is, one could look at what the Forest Service calls a class IV rapid on the North Umpqua River for proof.  The stretch of river from Boulder Flat Campground to Gravel Bin Boat Ramp is a beautiful run, with spectacular scenery and clear blue water and quite a few surf waves, including a few with eddy service.   North Fork Umpqua River     North Fork Umpqua River

The only problem with the run is it causes amnesia, because every time I paddle it I can't seem to remember paddling through anything harder than basic class III.  But in the Forest Service brochure they refer to a rapid called Pinball Rapid as a class IV.  Every single obstacle is easy to avoid and the hydraulics are not the least bit violent, with the exception of an easily avoidable hole at the very bottom of the rapid.  It's quite a head scratcher that anyone would call this a class IV rapid.

There are a multitude of options for put in and take out, so you can make the run as long or short as you want.  There are also plenty of options for camping in the area, which is highly recommended since this run is a long way from just about anywhere, and you might as well spend some time here if you are going to make the drive.  The season for this run is also pretty long.  It flows pretty much all year, though flows below 1000 cfs are a little bony and tame even for a tentative class III paddler.

Watch out!  I'm about to go off on a tangent.  Some people downgrade the difficulty of rapids, saying things like "Burnt Ranch is really just class III" or "49 to Bridgeport is class IV." It's easy to downgrade a run if you are well accustomed to it and you often run harder rivers.  But the fact that the top 1% of the paddlers run rivers way harder than these and continue to run harder rapids and higher waterfalls doesn't make the entire classification scale obsolete.  It just means that class V+ and VI includes quite a bit more territory than it maybe did in the past.  The obvious danger of downgrading (or sandbagging) a run is that the wrong people might end up paddling it and or walking out once they figure out what they got themselves into.  What is the danger of exaggerating a run?  Witness the following scenario:  A guy who is new to paddling goes to the North Umpqua River and after running it a few times comes to the conclusion that since there is a class IV rapid on the run that he has run with great style and panache a good number of times, he must be a class IV paddler.  We'll call him Mr. Ego.  Another paddler is a solid class V paddler, and he often downplays the difficulty of rivers, perhaps in an effort to be macho and cavalier.  We'll call him Mr. Sandbag.  They have never met up until now.  Here is their conversation.

Mr. S.   "Hey man, I'm going to run the Green Truss on the White Salmon next week".
Mr. Ego   "Oh yeah? What's that like?"
Mr. S.   "It's the most awesome class IV run in the state.  Totally epic!"
Mr. Ego   "Really? I love class IV"
Mr. S.   "You should go, I have room for one more in my car."
Add some marijuana and alcohol and this conversation could result in some serious carnage.  In fact, it might have already.  Many of the class IV rapids on the Green Truss run deserve a plus in their rating, and the continuous and boxed-in nature of this run means it is not a great first time class IV river by any stretch of the imagination.  Throw in a couple class V rapids and waterfalls and Mr. Ego is going to get his ego crushed, if not a whole lot more.

It is often said that rating rivers is very subjective; that one person's class III is another's class IV etc.  But the rating system is not completely subjective and if you apply a little common sense you don't have to end up splitting hairs.  There are things in the rating system like wave height, and things like "narrow passages" might sound subjective, but a little common sense helps if you are willing to forego the hairsplitting.

Perhaps when you consider the difficulty of a rapid you should take into account certain things that might be easy to overlook.  If you look only at the crux move and discount the lead in and run out of the rapid, you might be downgrading the rapid because the overall length and complexity of a rapid should be a factor in its difficulty.  Conversely, a long rapid might not be as demanding as you might think depending on how crucial the moves are.  If you look at that one dangerous part of the rapid where only 5% of the water goes and base your decision on that, you might be exaggerating the rapid.  Plusses and minuses are very descriptive.  The difference between a class IV- and a class IV+ can be immense, so leaving out these modifiers can be very deceptive.  Finally, if you've run a river multiple times, try to see the river through the eyes of a first timer before you rate its difficulty.  It's a thin line between sandbagging and crying wolf, but it's worth trying to find an accurate rating for the rapid.

With this in mind, yes, I did put a fair amount of thought into rating this run before deciding that class III is entirely appropriate.  Aside from paddling opportunities in the area, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, and mountain biking.  I won't even attempt to rate the difficulty of the trails since I have to stop writing somewhere.

Shuttle - There are many take-out options, but Gravel Bin is the farthest downstream.  To get there from Roseburg drive southeast on Hwy 138.  Gravel Bin river access is just after you cross Steamboat Creek.  To get to the take-out from Medford and points south take Highway 62 (crater lake Highway) to 138 and go northwest from there to Gravel Bin.  Boulder Flat Campground, the put-in, is 13 miles up 138 from Gravel Bin.  However, multiple options exist for alternate put-in and take-out points between Boulder Flat and Gravel Bin.

Narrative and all photos copyright 2012.  Contact Peter Gandesbery.  This page was last updated December 17, 2018.