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
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.
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