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River of Dreams: Packrafting Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Mike Curiak’s adoption of ultralight techniques and philosophies evolved slowly, he says, as garage gear and his own DIY stuff became increasingly available. But now, Curiak, who owns and operates , a company that builds high-end, hand-built wheels for 29-inch bikes, fat bikes and 650b bikes, simply lives light. Mike’s also no slouch behind a camera. Case in point: this astoundingly gorgeous account of his recent trip to Southwestern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, an ambitious itinerary that included running some pretty serious water in an inflatable packraft. Dreaming of rivers isn’t a recent thing for me. It’s been an ever-increasing constant for many years. For awhile, the watercourses about which I dreamed were narrow, scenic, and engaging, albeit flat but for an occasional riffle. At some point the reveries began to include whitewater, and recently that whitewater has gotten steeper and more challenging with a requirement of skill and judgement that I’m only beginning to possess. Oregon is home to an unlimited number of world-class whitewater steams. I’ve paddled and learned on some of these, but the one that rises to the top of my dream list over and over is the Wild and Scenic Chetco. Jeny and I hiked in and floated for some "extremely low flow" boating three years ago, and what we saw (through fog and rain) on that traverse brought yet more dreams in ensuing years. The most recent illusions involved much more water than previous, and included a savvy crew.

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Doom, Burr, Bailey and I began the nine-mile hike on a scorching bluebird afternoon. 85 degrees in SW Oregon? In April?! Hard to imagine, but that’s what we had, and over the course of our seven+ hours afoot, we found ourselves consistently wishing, craving, and dreaming of shade.

Live trees are scarce in this corner of the Kalmiopsis, consumed by a fire that scorched about a half a million acres. Burr referred to the relief we found as "stick shade." Hiding in the narrowest slices of coolness that were cast by the trunks of skeletal conifers, we kept our core temps just shy of redline. That and Bailey’s sharing of the precious water he brought out of concern for our kidneys saw us drop packs at riverside in the last direct light of day, and then wade in for relief.

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Rejuvenated by the impossibly clear water, we made our camp, kindled fire, and settled in to the evening. Libations were shared, constellations were guessed at, meals and desserts were consumed, and the jokes flowed. Earlier than later, we drifted off to conjure new fantasies about what the morrow might bring.

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My previous trip taught that the mere ~30 miles of river ahead would not go quickly at the rate they were moving, thus I’d lobbied for a three-day itinerary. I wanted nothing to do with feeling rushed in this place, and wanted to savor every sensory aspect. Our group decision to spend the extra day ensured leisurely mornings of contemplation, conversation, and focused wandering out in the woods. Lingering snow at the higher elevations was a distant memory, replaced by the sweet certainty of an exploding Spring at river level. We broke camp, stashed gear, inflated and packed our boats, and and donned our dry-gear. With fresh camera batteries installed, we floated out into the minute amount of current in the Upper Chetco. No choice but to scrape and scootch through the first few rapids, though every few moments a fresh trickle, creek, or stream added to the overall padding between our butts and bedrock.

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Any fanciful dreams were washed away by the first cold splashes to the face. A special note needs to made here about the clarity of the Chetco’s water. Granted, I come from a landscape where the water ranges from grist-mill-brown to sausage-lasagna-orange, but still, this water is inconceivably clear and impossibly pure. Never did five minutes elapse without one of us exclaiming some version of, “Jesus, would you look at that!”

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Engaging read-and-run class III rapids ate the lions share of the day, punctuated by an occasional IV, and a rare, notable V. None of us profess to possess top-shelf skills which made the decision to portage the lone V on this day an easy one. Late afternoon, a thin riffle deposited us into a deep green pool below a coarse sand and cobble beach. We stepped ashore and hung gear to dry with an hour of direct sunlight to spare, glowing at least as brightly from within.

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Camp chores included mending a leaky sleep pad and leakier boat, refilling our vessels with yet more liquid sunshine, and preparing ourselves for the onset of evening. This largely included pulling on a hoody and finding a comfy spot to sprawl and spectate the unfolding celestial scene. Camping with this crew was a lesson in efficiency, courtesy of the massive amount of time each has accrued outdoors within their lives. Tents could be pitched, fire kindled, and wood gathered within a few easy moments, without breaking conversation, and without noticing that ‘work’ was being done.

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The tilt of the river decreased and the rapids may have come at greater intervals too, giving this day a less intense, more easy-going feel than the first. We filled the time by lifting our gazes to appreciate the rainforest, a visiting black bear, a raptor that had all the markings of an osprey but with a nine-foot wingspan, and the remarkable clarity of the water.

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Did I mention the water?! Again, we bobbed into camp with a solid hour of sunlight to spare, allowing time to wander up into the forest and appreciate our terrestrial surroundings before turning attention to camp craft.

Typical rainforest cycle-of-rot-and-rejuvenation shot. Meh. Dime a dozen, views like this.

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More engaging III and IV rapids greeted us on day three, and one even provided an easy opportunity to session and learn from its pinched curling lateral drop that fed into a boulder garden slalom.

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The afternoon featured heaps of flat water punctuated by a rope swing and two V’s. None of us could see a clean line through either, but the portages were relatively easy.

The overall view and vibe in the pool below the last big rapid stamped an exclamation point on a trip that had already overflowed with them. It is this vibe—languid water, fascinating geology and geomorphology, and seemingly impenetrable rainforest—that has stuck with me the longest, and that has been the cause of the continued obsessing over the Chetco.

It is a place I cannot help but to dream about, whether awake or asleep. I’ll be back.

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Intrigued by Mike’s adventure? Head over to our packrafting gear page to see the packs used on this trip. You can also visit the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid page to learn more about the pyramid tents that they retreated to each night.

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