By MARK FREEMAN
The pristine waters of the upper Chetco River, which flows through some of the most remote lands in the lower 48 states, captured kayaker Zachary Collier like nothing else he has experienced.
In the spring of 2011, Collier and three friends spent several days dragging their kayaks and gear through the raw and unfettered majesty of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and navigating the upper Chetco drainage, all the while in awe of the hardscrabble lands and wild rapids.
"I knew it was a gem," Collier recalls, saying it was something he wanted to share with other people.
Collier is poised to get his chance.
The 39-year-old owner of Hood River-based Northwest Rafting Co. has tentatively secured the first commercial outfitting permit granted in more than a decade for kayaking the Wild and Scenic segments of the federally protected Wild Chetco, including sections within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest officials last week signed off on the permit after more than a year of review that led to a laundry list of restrictions to ensure Collier's commercial presence meshes with wilderness features protected by federal laws.
Collier now awaits a 30-day public comment period that ends Feb. 9 before he receives the permit, according to the Forest Service.
If his small party of paying guests and guides launch as planned in June into upper Slide Creek, it will be the first commercial voyage there since before the 2002 Biscuit Fire roared through the Kalmiopsis in western Josephine and eastern Curry counties, according to the Forest Service.
Collier's group would begin at Chetco Pass and hike about four miles through downed timber and other obstacles to Slide Creek, then kayak down the remote creek to its confluence with the Chetco. The kayakers would then travel 18 to 24 miles before taking out at either the Chetco's Steel Bridge or near Tolman Creek Ranch, depending upon flows.
Collier's crews will be required to practice leave-no-trace backcountry ethics, highlighted in the forest's "decision memo," which includes requirements such as "no noise above ambient levels."
The company would be restricted to no more than four commercial trips per season. The trips could last no more than five days and include no more than 12 people at a time, according to the forest's decision memo.
Collier's season would be June 1 through Sept. 30, and he would be relegated to 80 "person-use days" per year -- a party of five traveling five days would use 25 of those days.
The permit is written only for 2013, but it could be extended "if things go well," says Bill Blackwell, acting ranger for the forest's Gold Beach Ranger District.
"It's an opportunity for the permittee and the Forest Service to see how things go," Blackwell says.
Collier's permit has the support of the group Friends of the Kalmiopsis, despite the group's concerns about spreading Port Orford cedar root disease, introducing invasive species, and ensuring that commercial use there meshes appropriately with wildness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections.
"I believe the district ranger spent a lot of time trying to look into the future and make sure there are provisions to protect the wild there," Friends of the Kalmiopsis coordinator Barbara Ullian says.
"I really feel the decision is a good one, as long as there's a limit on the number of commercial outfitters and the restrictions remain in place," Ullian says.
Ullian says Collier's limited presence could turn out to be a positive, simply by providing an eye that could look out for others who might be abusing the wilderness.
"The area is so remote and so difficult to access that things can happen there without anyone finding out," Ullian says.
Collier says the logistics are so difficult for carrying out this kind of backcountry trip that he expects to do just one trip per year, probably in early June. He envisions two to four paying guests and four to five guides on that trip.
Collier says he doesn't know how much he will charge his paying customers, but he expects at best to break even financially -- and that's OK with him.
"There are some things we do to pay the bills and there are some things we do because it's our passion," Collier says. "This is the passion side."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.