I have always wanted a time machine.
And I’ve been looking for one ever since childhood.
Greg Hatten has built one.
It’s pretty simple. Not the sci-fi version you might imagine — with the flashing lights and whirling gizmo parts and mish-mash of wires.
This one is made of wood. Just wood.
And brass oarlocks.
On dry land, it’s static — beautiful and static — like a piece of fine furniture. The attention to craft can be seen in alternating colors of wood, patterns of grain, fit precisely in joints. The hull is symmetrical, flared in the middle and coming together with an elegant sweep into points at either end.
It is the perfection of form and function. Just big enough for for a boater and gear, but small enough to row with delicate finesse between rocks. Its flat bottom makes it stable enough to stand in and well-suited for shallows.
It is a descendent of fishing boats from ancient times called dories. And this one is a historic replica dating back to the 1930s, when wooden dories were being adapted to Oregon rivers, creating what is now known as the iconic McKenzie River drift boat.
Like any time machine, this one needs a special, magical fuel. For the drift boat: it’s a river. A swift, rocky river. A deep canyon of wild rapids, mixed with languid stretches and sandy shores to pitch camp under a wash of stars.
On this crisp fall morning we’re pushing a handful of wooden drift boats into the current of the Rogue — to head down this classic river in a classic way.
It’s not all drift boats on this trip — within the flotilla are a couple modern rafts. The rafts help carry all the conveniences of a fully-stocked river camp: cook stoves, coolers, firewood for chilly evenings to gather in a circle around a campfire.
These are “river rats,” as Hatten calls his group. Back home they may be called doctor, manager, consultant, mechanic, realtor… but those identities are left behind as soon as the boats slip into the water.
“We’ve run hundreds of river miles together and spent hours around a campfire but I can’t tell you the specifics about what they do for a living or the location of their offices,” Hatten says. “On a trip like this, what you do for each other on the river is more important than what you do for others to make a living.”
They return to the Rogue every fall for this annual float. It’s the last trip of the season for them — a little more brisk and a little less comfortable on joints that seem to get stiffer each year. But in the final weeks before winter, these guys get the river more or less to themselves, like it used to be.
They’ll share this stretch of water with heron and beaver and bears.
Also, this year the annual trip is a little more poignant for them. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Rogue was one of the original eight rivers to be included in the 1968 act.
The headwaters burble from high in the Cascade Mountains near Crater Lake National Park, then braid together until they form the Rogue. The river carves through solid basalt, twisting, dropping, pinched in places by canyons, and then opening to gentle forest valleys. Eventually it winds its way some 200 miles to the Pacific, making it one of the longest rivers in Oregon.
The “wild and scenic” section is a 35-mile stretch, renowned by boaters for its rapids and fishing and sheer beauty. Around 30,000 people float this section of the Rogue each year, but Hatten and his buddies do it a little differently, an homage to river running’s golden era.
The drift boats push into the current. The pace of the trip is now set by the river’s flow.
We’ll spend four days and three nights, traveling downriver, and back in time.
I’ve been invited to join this tight-knit circle of river rats. My credentials: love of rivers, love of history, hip flask and ability to tell a good story around a campfire.
I grew up in Oregon, and my dad, a river runner, took me down the Deschutes, John Day and a handful of other Northwest classics. But never the Rogue. I've always wanted to. And for years, ever since running the Colorado in historic dories with Hatten and several of the "do it yourself" boat builders, I've been hoping to join him on the Rogue.
Slipping into the Rogue is exactly as I imagined. Oak leaves are starting to turn bright orange. A wispy mist hangs low.
Kicking It Down The Stairs
Alongside of Hatten’s small drift boat is a slightly larger one, rowed by Randy Dersham, and joined by his dog Remi.
His drift boat is so new that you can still smell the final coat of varnish drying. “This is the first time it’s been wet,” he announces as his hands get the feel of the oars.
This is classic Randy. Just how he rolls. When we ran the Grand Canyon together, at the Lee’s Ferry put-in, he was still painting his oars.
For that trip, and dozens since, Hatten, Dersham and their friends have been taking their wooden dories down wild and ragged rivers.
“The number one question I get is why take a wood boat down rock gardens that could smash your boat with any mistake?” Hatten says with a chuckle.
“They’re like building a beautiful piece of furniture to kick down the stairs,” Dersham adds. “And kicking it down the stairs is the point. That’s why you build it.”
Within an hour of launching, is the first obstacle — Rainie Falls. It’s a roaring rapid that plunges over rocks. The lower autumn water expose more rocks, making it impossible to run. “It’d just smash your boat to pieces,” Hatten says.
To the right side is a small channel, literally a stair step of rocks, called “the fish ladder.”
They can’t take their heavy wooden boats up river. The canyon is too steep to hike out; and because this is the wild and scenic section, there are no roads. The only way out is down — through the fish ladder.
It’s too narrow to be in the boats. So they stop, get out, and tie a rope to each.
“It’s a delicate dance you do. You have 150 feet of line and you literally wrangle the boat through the chutes. And hand off the boat one to the other,” Hatten explains.
The boats bump down. Each time they strike a rock is a thump. Sometimes the boats pick up too much speed and the rope hisses as it slips through their wet gloves.
In Dersham’s boat sits his dog Remi. The dog looks concerned but is taking the bumpy ride in stride. He looks on as the men shout and scramble over rocks.
At last, the final boat has safely passed.
“That wasn’t pretty,” Hatten says and chuckles as he steps back into his drift boat and picks up the oars again. “But we’re through.”
Canvas and Wool
It’s dusk as we pull the boats onto a gravel bar. Hatten drops his anchor and then unpacks his boat. Soon, a canvas tent is glowing. Inside is a cozy bedroll made of woolen blankets.
He calls his style “canvas and wool.” It is an homage to the style of the “golden age” of Oregon river running.
“When you see a canvas tent set up in a place like this, it’s another reminder of the history and the guys who came before us and the way they camped and the style they camped,” Hatten says. “It’s nostalgic.”
Before the sun sets, he rows his boat into the slack water of an eddy. He stands, silhouetted in dusk, and casts his fly rod. There is a simple rhythm to his casting. The thin slice of his line whipping through the air, joining the chorus of insects.
Soon someone will retrieve firewood and get a campfire started to warm the numb fingers. Soon a flask will be passed and whoever’s turn on dinner tonight will cook up a famous meal. Each night they try to outdo the others. Tonight it may be huli huli chicken or cornbread in a cast iron dutch oven.
Exhausted from a good day, the men circle around the fire, laugh about rapids they ran and talk about the rapids to come. Cast in the glow of the fire, this scene could be any year. This last fall, or the fall before or 75 years ago.
I have been drawn to the idea of being able to break free of chaos and commotion of the contemporary world and step into a past moment that’s both slower and simpler. The fire wanes and someone adds a log. Embers pop and twine into the sky. Above us there are a wash of stars too numerous to count.
The Cabin Hideaway
Our river trip would be incomplete if we didn’t stop at a small cabin.
The guys pull their boats onto a gravel bar at a wide bend in the river. From the river, you can’t see the cabin, but we follow a thin trail up tall grass.
The one-room log cabin is weathered grey and leans a little. It looks like the former shack of an anonymous 19th century prospector. But it was once the retreat of author Zane Grey, one of the most popular writers of western action adventure books. Through his writing, Grey introduced an American public to the Rogue.
“I can see how he was inspired here,” Hatten says as he peeks into the window. There’s not much: mattress springs, a wood table. But the view from the front is a meadow facing the river. It’s a sunny, open spot in the canyon. It feels remote, but it's a natural place to stop, soak up the sun, sip a cup of coffee, and contemplate writing, or fishing. Or both.
In a way, Hatten is following the footsteps of Grey. For the past several years, he's been writing about his own adventures, as he's rowed and fished his way down wild and scenic rivers and through the national parks of the West.
The stop here is a brief homage. The all-too-short daylight of autumn is waning and the rapids of the river call the boaters back.
Visit From the Great Pumpkin
As we continue down the river, we notice pumpkins precariously perched on river rocks.
“Looks like the Great Pumpkin has visited,” says one of the boaters.
Hatten shakes his head.
This annual tradition happens every October near Halloween.
River history is an oral tradition and the origins of the tradition are vague. “I think it started out as a guide tradition,” he says. “And ten years ago when we were doing this you wouldn’t see very many. You’d see a pumpkin here and a pumpkin there. And it was kinda cute, kinda clever. And be in hard to reach places and make you think: how did that get there?”
Some are small gourds, others the full Halloween-orange type. Some are clearly set up by skilled boaters, able to slip in and out of eddies in “bony” rapids.
But the more river miles we float, the more we spot. More. And more.
We come across two small rafts. They are bright blue with large letters reading: "BLM." At the oars are Bureau of Land Management river rangers. In the back of the rafts are dozens of pumpkins.
“We’ve probably pulled about 40 pumpkins off the water this trip,” says ranger Katie Gregory.
“This is unusual. This is unusually increasing amount of pumpkins,” adds ranger Gitta Ziegler. She’s been coming down the river for years, and while she feels that the pumpkins are whimsical, leaving them in the river violates the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace.”
“In my opinion pumpkins have become graffiti down here,” Hatten says.
Inspired by the river rangers’ clean up, the wooden boaters begin testing their skills to eddy out and bat pumpkins off the rocks with their oar tips. We fish out the bobbing gourds and start our own collection.
It’s day three — and up to now, the mood has been lighthearted. Now the boaters get quiet.
There are two major hazards in the river ahead: the first is the turbulent Mule Creek Canyon.
Here the river cuts through the solid basalt of the mountains; the entire volume of the Rogue river is now churning as its forced through the narrows. The boaters don’t know how deep the river is here, only that it’s likely very deep, and if the hydraulics sucked someone under, that person could be down for a very long time and drown.
Most folks do this in rubber rafts that can bounce off the rocks. But wooden boats don’t bounce; they break.
“This is improvised river running at best,” Hatten says. “You are literally making up every move."
In the middle is a section where the water churns called “Coffee Pot.”
“It decides what it wants to do,” Dersham says. “It is literally sitting there percolating.”
His new boat gets buffeted off the canyon walls, the tips of his oars scrape. And then the current slams the tip of his bow into the rocks with a loud thump.
Luckily his shiny new boat is not cracked, only scratched and dinged. It survives its first big test.
But there’s not much time to relax. Ahead is the largest, most technical rapid on the whole trip: the notorious Blossom Bar.
It’s a bend in the river, strewn with massive boulders. It often snags rubber rafts, stranding boaters and forcing rescues. But for a wooden boat, the boulders can splinter them and sink them in seconds.
Hatten has stared into the frothing white water of hundreds of rapids, and when he stares into this one, it's with the past knowledge that people have lost their lives here. In fact, in the seven years between 2007 and 20013, seven people died here, causing some people to consider Blossom Bar Oregon's most deadliest rapid. All seven people were wearing life jackets.
The canyon walls are too steep to circumnavigate the rapid. Every boat must weave through it.
From the scouting point, Hatten traces the line he’ll need to take. He skipped breakfast this morning for a reason. “Standing at the scouting point, it’s more than butterflies,” he says. “I mean I want to puke.”
Hatten will start at the top of the rapid, to river left, and then, as his boat slips down the V of the rapid’s entry point, he’ll have to pull to the right. If he pulls back on his oars too late, too little, the rapid will slam him into a line of rocks called Picket Fence. If he misses his timing or pulls too hard he’ll slam into the rocks to the right, clipping his bow, getting spun backwards.
This is the delicate finesse of a wooden boat oarsman: the river is always greater in strength. The rower’s job is to find the perfect placement of an oar in water, knowing when to pull hard to position the boat, knowing when to let the water work its course. Knowing how to read the water and how it changes, day to day, even second to second.
“Every rapid speaks plainly just what it is and what it will do to a person and a boat in its currents, waves, boils, whirlpools, and rocks – if only one will read and listen carefully,” wrote Buzz Holmstrom in his river journal back in 1937.
In the world of historic river runners, there are few more revered than Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom. He is one of Hatten and Dersham’s heroes, and they are literally following in his footsteps.
Holmstrom grew up in southern Oregon, in the small timber town of Coquille, just north of the Rogue. From the local Port Orford cedar, he built his own DIY drift boat in 1934 — a small dory similar to the one Hatten is rowing. He was one of the early recreational river runners — heading down rivers not to trade, trap, map or prospect — but simply for “the doing of the thing,” as he called it.
Holmstrom ran his local river, the Rogue, in 1934 and again in 1935. In 1937, he made a river trip that would set him forever in river running history: he successfully made the first solo descent of the mighty Colorado. Unsupported.
He’d planned to go with a buddy, but his buddy bailed at the last moment. So he packed up his boat in Oregon and headed alone to Arizona.
As Holmstrom successfully slipped through the final rapids of the Grand Canyon, he reflected:
“It demands respect and will punish those who do not treat it properly. Some places it says ‘go here safely if you do it just this way’ and in others it says ‘do not go here at all with the type of boat you have.’ …but many people will not believe what it says.”
These words are the echo of the wooden boats as oarlocks creak, as the bows bob and slice through splashy waves. As jagged rocks come up terrifyingly close and then safely slip away. As Hatten pulls back on the oars hard once, twice, and then lets the river carry him.
His face is a little ashen at the bottom of Blossom Bar, but he is beaming. The adrenaline has drained. Hatten’s hands, still shaking a little, reach for a victory pull from his flask. Above, the sun gleams. The fall weather crisp and clear. This is what he has come for, again, and again and will call him back — there are no words eloquent enough. It is, simply, as Buzz Holmstrom said, "the doing of the thing."
The final stretch
With Blossom Bar behind them, the river, and the boaters’ moods relax. There are no more rapids to run.
The river widens, and sweeps lazy turns with little riffles. The current, and the oars, slow, as if neither want to let go of the mountains just yet.
Ahead, their cars await them, ready to whisk them back to cities and day jobs. So they savor this final stretch.
“What a good day,” Dersham, and sighs.
Hatten lets go of the oars and pulls out his fly rod.
The guys get one last chance to fish, and, more importantly, one last hour experience this moment where river running’s present and past overlap seamlessly, synchronized by the river’s pull.