Wild & Scenic Rivers Act 50th Anniversary: Rafting rapids and tying flies on the North Umpqua River

Fly fishermen practice with a guide on the North Umpqua River

People seem to agree there is something special about the North Umpqua River.

The water is sometimes blue and sometimes green, and so clear you can see through to the smooth stones of the riverbed, below. The current, alternately placid and rapids, tumbles under bridges and over boulders as it winds through a modest canyon and across portions of the Umpqua National Forest.

Why it’s special it’s harder to pin down; or rather, the reasons are as varied as those who are drawn to its sun-dappled, tree-lined banks.

two kayakers paddle downriver

Outfitter-guides lead groups of white water rafting and kayaking enthusiasts down the north Umpqua River towards Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018. A 34-mile stretch of the river is designated for recreation under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year. 

For fishing guide Dillon Renton, the special nature of the North Umpqua River is deeply rooted in the river’s century-old ties to fly-fishing.

A 33-mile stretch of the river was federally designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1988. The act, which passes the half-century mark later this year, identifies rivers to be managed and protected to preserve outstanding wild, scenic, or recreational values.

For the North Umpqua River, the list includes water quality, fisheries, recreational opportunities, cultural significance, and overall scenic value.

“It’s quite different from other rivers, in terms of ease of access. You can pull right off the highway and start fishing, in some places,” Janie Pardo, a Forest Service realty specialist on the North Umpqua Ranger District and manager of the river’s outfitter-guide program, said.

A fishing guide helps a woman practice casting from a sandbar along the North Umpqua River

Fishing guide Dillon Renton helps visitors Rob Lynn and Shelley Phillips practice their cast at a Bureau of Land Management day use area on the banks of the north Umpqua River July 19, 2018.

Fly fishing is what the north Umpqua is most famous for – specifically, the wild Columbian steelhead.

The river attracted fly-fishing sportsmen beginning in the 1920s. Anglers pursued wild Columbian steelhead from its banks; including some famous names like Zane Gray and Jack Hemingway.

Catching the fish is notoriously difficult. Some anglers even call it “the graduate school of fly-fishing,” Jim Woodward, who co-owns the Steamboat Inn with wife Melinda, said.

Fishing is what drew the Woodwards to invest in the half-century old fishing lodge on the banks of the river, about two years ago. The couple met while working together at another resort, but dreamed of running a lodge of their own.

The owner of Steamboat Inn discusses fishing flies

Jim Woodward, owner of Steamboat Inn, discusses the history of fly fishing for wild steelhead on the North Umpqua River July 20, 2018. The inn, built in 1957 has operated on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) for more than 60 years, and is the successor to the North Umpqua Lodge, which operated from 1934-1952. Prior to that, the site was home to a fishing camp established by Maj. Jordan Mott in 1929, and also used by angler Zeke Allen.

“We walked in, and we were like, ‘this is it,’” Melinda Woodward said.

But like the fish that ply its waters, the river valley’s weather can also be fickle. Just months into the Woodward’s first season, a lightning storm set wildfires across surrounding portions of the north Umpqua National Forest.

a fishing fly with black and white skunk fur

A Green Butt Skunk fly lies on a table at the Steamboat Inn July 20, 2018. The fly pattern was specifically created for fishing wild steelhead on the North Umpqua River by Dan Callahan, a founder of the Steamboaters – a private flyfishing and conservation organization founded for the protection of the river and its fishing heritage.

Some fires burned right up to the river’s banks. Officials closed the highway, then the river, north of the lodge. And what visitors the lack of traffic and river didn’t kill, the smoke drove away.

“We called it our ‘trial by fire,’” Melinda Woodward said. “If we could get through that, we can make it through anything.”

A chef plates entres while a member of the waistaff assists in the kitchen

Justin Smith plates entrees in the kitchen at the Steamboat Inn July 20, 2018.

Justin Smith grew up in Glide, Ore. and is the first in four generations of his family not to work in logging.

In the 1980s, before the Endangered Species Act was passed, fishing was how his family filled their freezer during lumber mill strikes.

His first job was working in the kitchen of the Steamboat Inn, and cooking became his career. For several years, he worked Portland, specializing in farm-to-table cooking, before returning to the inn last year as its chef.

In late July, summer squashes and wild morels were featured alongside cocktails and desserts that were made with local berries.

The fishing library at Steamboat Inn

The fishing library at Steamboat Inn, pictured here on July 20, 2018. The inn’s ties to a century of fly fishing and wild steelhead runs on the North Umpqua river are apparent in the historical photos and fishing equipment on display, the decor, and the inn’s extensive library of books on fly fishing, many by authors known to have fished on the river.

Smith was mid-transition, from the last of the winter vegetables to summer fare – a phone call from one of his farmers to let him know she had fresh tomatoes and peaches meant he’d be pivoting to new menu items as soon as his order arrives.

“I’m going to have a ton of beets left over, but that’s OK,” he said. “I’ll pickle them, and then we can serve them this winter.”

Smith spoke of “his vendors” much the same way Renton spoke of favorite fishing holes – with a note of local pride, tempered with the slightly guarded tone of a secret not readily shared.

“I want the flavors to remind people of where we are, and what this place is,” he said. “That’s where the morels come from, the berries. As much as we can, it’s all local.”

A fly fisherman on the banks of the river

Rob Lynn practices his cast at a Bureau of Land Management day use area on the banks of the north Umpqua River July 19, 2018. Attempting to catch steelhead on the North Umpqua River is sometimes referred to as the “graduate school of fly fishing.”

One thing that isn’t on the menu is wild steelhead from the North Umpqua River. The fish is protected, and today all fishing for it is catch-and-release.

That doesn’t stop fly fishermen from coming from all over to test their skills against the famous fish. They don’t have the river to themselves, though. The anglers share the river with a growing community of boaters, primarily drawn to opportunities for whitewater rafting and kayaking.

The fishing guides, suited in waders and wielding flies and rods, are out from sunup to around 10 a.m., when the rafting parties begin to gather at places like the Boulder Flat boat launch. Many anglers return in late afternoon, and continue to fish until dusk.

rafters paddle downriver through rapids

Outfitter-guides lead groups of white water rafting and kayaking enthusiasts down the north Umpqua River towards Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018.

But in the middle of the day, it’s boaters who rule the river, paddling kayaks or swooping over rapids in rafts along much of the Wild and Scenic recreation corridor.

Portions of the river are managed by the Forest Service, and others by the Bureau of Land Management.

rafters listen to safety instructions

A group of rafters listen to a Sun River Tours outfitter-guide give safety instructions at the Boulder Flat boat launch on the North Umpqua River, Umpqua National Forest in Oregon July 20, 2018. A 34-mile stretch of the river is designated for recreation under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year. USDA Forest Service photo by Catherine Caruso (Pacific Northwest Region, Office of Communications and Community Engagement staff)

Land managers describe the river corridor by dividing it in five sections, each roughly five or six miles in length.

Each segment is dominated by unique scenery, from basalt columns in the first segment, Boulder Flat to Horseshoe Bend), to old growth forest and water falls on the fourth, Boulder Creek to Susan Creek, and smooth running river interspersed with rapids that ranging from a relatively gentler Class IIs and IIIs to challenging Class IVs and Vs.

From overhead, rafters paddle downriver

Outfitter-guides lead groups of white water rafting and kayaking enthusiasts down the north Umpqua River towards Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018. 

Visitors can raft or kayak on the river without a permit, or access the river through one of several companies with outfitter-guide permits (check out the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s new outfitter-guide finder).

“As outfitter-guides, we’re really ambassadors for the river,” Erik Weiseth, owner of Orange Torpedo Trips, said.

A kayaker paddles through rapids

Outfitter-guides lead groups of white water rafting and kayaking enthusiasts down the north Umpqua River towards Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018. A 34-mile stretch of the river is designated for recreation under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year. USDA Forest Service photo by Catherine Caruso (Pacific Northwest Region, Office of Communications and Community Engagement staff)

Not everyone has the confidence or tools to take up a new outdoors activity on their own. Outfitter-guides provide the gear, and the expertise, to try something new — and do it safely, he said.

The company also operates tours on the Rogue River, one of eight rivers designated 50 years ago, when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act first passed.

A wildflower

A wildflower grows on the banks of the north Umpqua River, through the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) at Horshoe Bend campground July 20, 2018.

The inherent tension between maintaining the natural wonder visitors value when visiting outdoor spaces, while introducing more people to those special places, is one that he, like others who work along the river, is sensitive to.

“But these places won’t survive, if people don’t know them and appreciate them,” Weiseth said. “As outfitters and guides, we provide an accessible way for people to do that.”

Recreation on the

From left, April Clayes, her son Gil Sidro, and sister Sierra Vandonk enjoy lunch at the Falls Creek Falls trailhead on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018. 

At the Falls Creek Falls trailhead, April Clayes, her son Gil Sidro, and sister Sierra Vandonk enjoyed a family picnic after a short hike to the falls.

“(Gil) first came here when he was a baby, and we come back every so often,” Clayes said. “It’s a nice hike, not too steep… it’s special to us. He has memories of his grandpa on this trail, with him.”

A mossy tree

Moss drapes from a tree on a river bank behind Steamboat Inn along the North Umpqua River on the Umpqua National Forest July 20, 2018.

Behind the Steamboat Inn, guests took in the sights and sounds of the river while dining on the restaurant’s patio as Melinda Woodward reflected on what drew her, and her husband, to the North Umpqua River.

What makes the river unique might not be something that can be shared, only experienced, Woodward said.

“There is something special about this river. I don’t know how to put it into words. One guest said ‘if there’s any magic left, it’s here,'” she said.

More information:

A river cuts through a steep canyon

The North Umpqua River’s rapids drop to class II as the river approaches Horseshoe Bend campground and boat launch on the Umpqua National Forest (North Umpqua Ranger District) July 20, 2018.


Source information: Catherine “Cat” Caruso is the strategic communication lead for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement, and edits the “Your Northwest Forests” blog. You can reach her at ccaruso@fs.fed.us.

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