Two Days on the

A Mail Boat ride to a remote wilderness lodge affords
adventure and relaxation to a father and
his daughter.      Story by Larry Bacon

Copper Canyon on the Rogue River.
Copper Canyon on the Rogue River.

Somewhere along the way during that glorious day on the Rogue River, we picked up our duck escort—a perfect chevron of seven mergansers wheeling in unison as we skimmed over the water behind them in the Wildcat, one of the hydro-jet boats in the Mail Boat fleet headed upriver from Gold Beach on a cool spring day with 24 passengers aboard.

The 32-foot vessel, powered by three 366-foot cubic engines, was moving at speeds in excess of 25 mph, following the twists and turns of the river, bouncing over riffles, and occasionally splashing spray over the windshield to bring exuberant shrieks from the front-seat passengers.

But we never caught those ducks. For miles they stayed out in front of us like a formation of fighter jets escorting a bomber. Often we would slow as our captain, Hugh McGinnis, a 30-year-veteran Mail Boat driver, pointed out wildlife and landmarks along the river.

Then the ducks would settle into the water and wait for us to begin moving again before taking flight and resuming their escort duty. I watched the graceful birds and pondered how great it would be to spend my days like McGinnis and the ducks flying up and down this beautiful river.

THE ROGUE RIVER Mail Boat trip was
an adventure that Willow, my grown daughter from Portland, and I had looked forward to for months. This trip was special because it wasn’t going to be just one day on the river.

Our previous Mail Boat excursions, taken separately years before, had been upriver 32 miles from Gold Beach to the little hamlet of Agness, where we had enjoyed a family-style chicken dinner at Lucas Lodge and returned the same afternoon.

This time we were taking the long trip—52 miles upriver past Agness to the Blossom Bar Rapids, as far as the jet boat trips go. We would get off at Half Moon Bar Lodge, one of three wilderness lodges reachable Map Half Moon Barby jet boat, and spend the night. The next day we would catch the boat on its downriver trip and stop overnight at Agness before heading back to Gold Beach the next day.

Not only would we see new and beautiful country, but we would be doing it together. That was special to me because after little girls grow up to become career women, father-daughter outings happen all too infrequently.

It was still overcast with a little nip in the air when the Wildcat pulled away from the dock near Gold Beach about 8 a.m. But already, the sun was glowing through the clouds and you could tell it was going to be a nice day.

Over the loudspeaker, McGinnis introduced himself and told about the Wildcat, how the big engines drive pumps that push water through jet nozzles to propel the boat and allow it to maneuver in shallow water. He warned it could get windy.

“So if you wear a hat, make sure you pull it down good and tight.”

Windy, it was, and a little chilly. Soon I was pulling a windbreaker from my daypack, and my camera too.

Because as we traveled upriver, McGinnis made sure we saw all the sights. Osprey nests. Blue herons
winging their way lazily across the river. Turtles sunning on a rock. Canada geese with little fuzzball babies. Sleek river otters. A bald eagle perched majestically on a stump.

In the downriver section of the trip, the Wildcat passed dozens of anchored boats full of fishermen trying to reap the rewards of the Rogue’s spring chinook run. Passengers applauded when one angler held up a 20-pound trophy fish.

“You keep catching them like that and you’re going to have to get a bigger boat,” McGinnis shouted.

Along the way, he related some river history. How the first Mail Boats, which began carrying mail upriver in 1895, had no motors. The boatmen used oars, sails, or poles to push the boats upriver to Agness, and sometimes they had to get out and pull the boats over the riffles.

In the beginning, he said, people used to hitch a ride on the mailboats to get up and down the river. Fares were 50 cents each way, and passengers were expected to help with the poling. Over the years, McGinnis said, more and more people just wanted to ride along to enjoy the river, and eventually the Mail Boats’ primary focus turned to hauling people rather than mail.

The privately-owned Mail Boat fleet now numbers nine boats—the largest of which are 56 feet long and carry up to 80 passengers. They operate from May 1 to the end of October and carry 20,000 to 25,000 passengers a year. Since 1958 another business, Jerry’s Rogue Jets, has also hauled passengers on the river.

But the Mail Boat drivers are proud they still have a contract to haul the mail after all these years. Each day during the season one of the boats delivers the mail to Agness. “Usually it’s three or four bags and a couple of boxes,” McGinnis said.

Mailboat ride on the Rogue River
The vessel was following the twists and turns of the river, bouncing over riffles, and splashing spray over the windshield.
View from the bow of the boat on the Rogue Mailboat Trip
Mail Boat Hydro-Jet Trips
800-458-3511 -

Wilderness lodges reachable
by jet boats from Gold Beach:

Clay Hill Lodge

503-859-3772 -
Half Moon Bar Lodge
888-291-8268 -
Paradise Lodge
541-247-6968 or 888-291-8268 -

A LITTLE BEFORE 10 a.m. we docked at Agness for a half-hour stop at the Singing Springs Ranch. Some of the passengers, as they walked up the hill toward the restrooms and snack bar, wobbled a little and said it felt like the boat was still rocking even though they were on dry land.

The sun was out and its warmth felt good as we looked down on the river from a wooden deck and walked among flowering trees and plants. I took the opportunity to talk to McGinnis about what it’s like to drive the big jet boats. “Every day is different,” he said. “There’s always a challenge of some kind
or another.”

McGinnis, 49, grew up in Agness, the son of a fishing guide and boat builder. He’s been a guide himself, built his first boat when he was 10, won trophies racing boats, and knows the Rogue like the back of his hand.

The channels, especially in the downstream portion of the river, change when winter high water pushes the gravel around, he said. He and the other boat drivers keep track of those changes. Moving up and down the river, drivers must expect the unexpected, like coming around a blind corner to encounter one of the many rafts that float the river.

McGinnis likes his job. It’s giving him a chance to meet people from all over the world. One of the things that impresses them most is the wildlife they see, especially the bears. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve gone to Yellowstone, Canada, or even Alaska and never seen so many bears,” he said.

The river narrowed and the riffles turned to rapids through which the Wildcat bounced like a rock skipping on the water.
View of mailboat through the trees

WE ALL PUT lifejackets on before we left the dock at Agness for the final 20-mile leg upriver. To me, this was the most beautiful and exciting part of the trip. The river narrowed. The riffles we had been riding before turned to rapids through which the Wildcat bounced like a rock skipping on the water. Cascades of spray showered passengers who held on and whooped with excitement.

Our boat passed house-size boulders, steep canyon walls, waterfalls plunging into the river from side creeks, rock-strewn meadows that looked like they might have been old homestead sites, and hillsides with trees ranging from twisted madrones to statuesque black oaks.

People waved from rafts headed downstream. McGinnis stopped for passengers to take pictures of grazing deer. We passed three wilderness lodges—Clay Hill, Paradise, and Half Moon Bar—and finally stopped at Blossom Bar.

“This is the end of the line for power boats during the summer months,” McGinnis said. “Up ahead is a big pile of boulders and it’s quite difficult for jet boats to navigate even in high water.”

We turned around and bounced downstream through Devil’s Staircase Rapids and soon were back at Half Moon Bar Lodge, where Willow and I were to get off.

THAT'S WHEN Willow fell in the river.

The river had been high that winter, and the lodge’s dock had not yet been moved in for the summer. So McGinnis nosed the Wildcat up to a big rock near some stairs going up to the lodge grounds, and some passengers helped off-load our luggage.

Willow and I stepped off the boat onto the rock. She turned to wave good-by and lost her balance, bouncing about six feet down the side of the rock. The water was quiet where she went in, and she’s a good swimmer so she was in no danger as she floated on the surface. But there was no place to climb out.
A young man jumped from the boat, grasped a spike driven into the rock, and hung down far enough to reach Willow’s hand and pull her out. Wet and embarrassed, she assured everyone in the boat she was all right. Then she waved good-by again.

We left our luggage and walked a trail to the lodge, which sits at the edge of a huge meadow that also serves as an aircraft landing strip, a driving range for golf-loving guests, and a grazing spot for a herd of deer that shows up most evenings.

At the main lodge building, we were greeted by Rebecca Lind and Dan Webb. Webb helped me carry up the luggage and Lind checked us into rooms. After Willow changed into dry clothes, we feasted on huge BLT sandwiches, hot coffee, and cake.

SOON WE WERE out on the lawn, basking in the sun, listening to birds twitter in the trees, and marveling at our good fortune in being in such a quiet and beautiful place—a homestead dating back to 1920 on more than 80 acres nestled among tree-covered hills.

We wandered through the meadow, stopping to watch a group of boys jumping into the chilly river. Then we relaxed in the main lodge, a rustic building featuring a big fireplace, comfortable couches, and big tables where meals are served family style. The lodge offers 16 cabins and rooms, some with shared baths. Beds number 45.

Initially, we thought we would be the only guests. But that night all those beds were full and some people were sleeping on the floor as two rafting parties floated in—one of them a 40-person contingent from the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) at Klamath Falls.

That evening the meadow was alive with young people drying wet clothes and playing Frisbee, soccer, and volleyball. They gathered on the porch to watch the sun set behind rocky crags and breathe the delicious night air.

“This is just amazing,” said Jody Renfro, a 25-year-old OIT student from Florence. “It’s the seclusion that really gets to you—the fact that you can’t get here except by boat or air. I could live out here. I don’t need a town.”

Bill Benavente, property manager for Half Moon Bar Lodge and Paradise Lodge across the river, said most of the business for the wilderness lodges comes from rafters and fishermen, but the opportunity is there for people to come up on the jet boats from Gold Beach and stay. There are plans to improve both lodges and offer guests more amenities and things to do, he said.

He and his wife love living at Half Moon. “It’s great,” he says. “Look at what we wake up to.”

THE NEXT morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then hiked up the half-mile Vision Quest Trail leading to a spot locals say has religious significance to Native Americans. I made it only partway up the steep trail, but Willow went all the way and said the view of the meadow, lodge, and river was beautiful.

She and I watched the OIT rafts depart, and soon McGinnis and the Wildcat arrived to pick us up. This time nobody fell in. A bit wistfully, we headed back down the river toward Agness, Gold Beach, and lives in a much busier world.

We’ll both miss the river.

Oregon Coast May/June 2007



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