GOLD BEACH — Jet-boat pilot Jeff Laird was showing off.
Skipping across the rapids of the lower Rogue River at about 35 mph, Laird suddenly slowed and shifted the boat into reverse. His constant companion, a yellow Lab named Sadie, looked at him inquisitively as he sharply turned the steering wheel and locked the boat into a 360-degree spin.
The boat's prow dipped. A young family riding in front shrieked when a sheet of cold water doused a protective window. Three rows behind them, nervous laughter erupted.
Then someone shouted: “Look! On the shoreline! There's a bear!”
Indeed, a juvenile black bear had been drinking from the river. Startled by the alert, he looked up and turned away from the water, clambering into a thicket of live oak and azaleas in full bloom on a hillside above Huggins Canyon.
Boat passengers quickly forgot the thrill of the spin and began snapping away with cameras and iPhones.
Jet-boating on the Rogue River is a nature cruise with all the excitement of a theme-park ride. The 52 miles upriver from Gold Beach to Blossom Bar, in the Wild Rogue Wilderness, comprise a natural reserve that bears, black-tailed deer, cougars, beavers and river otters share with bald eagles, ospreys, mergansers and great blue herons.
Yet unlike Disney's Jungle Cruise, this is not a quiet run up a sleepy river. It's a playful, rapidly paced run through a corridor of spruce, hemlock and Douglas fir trees. Wind whips through your hair, the chilly spray of water lightly stings your cheeks, as the broad, flat, powerful boat careens through the Rogue's curves, dodging rocks and salmon fishermen as it goes.
Jerry's Rogue Jets
I traveled with Jerry's Rogue Jets, direct descendants of the Rogue River mail boats that began operating upriver to pioneer homesteads as early as 1895.
Laird's grandfather, Jerry Boice — inspired by the development of jet boats in New Zealand — brought hydro-jet technology to the Southern Oregon Coast in 1958. He found the shallow-draft boats, previously unknown as commercial craft in the United States, to be perfect for navigating the rocky Rogue River waters.
Instead of having a protruding outboard motor, a hydro-jet uses a pump that takes in water through an impeller, mounted flush to the hull of the boat, then forces it out through a nozzle on the transom.
Thrust is provided by the volume of water projected from the boat; steering the highly maneuverable vessel is merely a matter of directing the water nozzle to one side or the other.
Jerry Boice and his older brother, Court, were the original pilots and tour guides. A third brother, Alden Boice, was a marine mechanic who built and maintained the company's original fleet of two wooden jet boats. (The 12 boats in the the current fleet are all aluminum.) In 1972, Alden and Bill McNair — a University of Oregon graduate whose family owned a cabin 20 miles upriver from Gold Beach — purchased control of the company.
The original boat tours ran upriver 32 miles to Agness, a tiny former mill town with a population of fewer than 100 people. Travelers would break there for lunch before returning back downstream to Gold Beach.
Jeff Laird, 47, said he learned to run jet boats when he was 10. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was about the time — in the mid-1970s — when pilots began testing their mettle on the river waters upstream from Agness. The narrow, rocky section had long been thought to be unnavigable in a motorized boat.
But Alden Boice had purchased the Paradise Lodge, nearly 20 miles above Agness, and young Jeff learned to navigate the way to “Uncle Alden's.” The upper section of whitewater was added to the Rogue jet operations soon thereafter, and by the time Laird turned 21 and went to work as a river pilot, he was already a seasoned veteran.
“I can run in 6 inches of water when the boat is fully loaded,” boasted Laird, adding: “I'd rather have this job than a 9-to-5.”
Today, Laird is one of several Boice descendants who work as commercial pilots for Jerry's Rogue Jets. But everyday operations are in the hands of McNair's sons, Scott and Nic. Bill McNair himself can often be found upriver in a drift boat, casting a line for the spring chinook or fall steelhead that make the Rogue one of the most popular fishing rivers in the West.
Gold Beach to Agness
My all-day excursion began on the Rogue riverfront in Gold Beach, a town of 2,500 people that is a six-hour (275-mile) drive southwest of Bend.
The ominous, half-submerged wreck of the Mary D. Hume, a historic schooner that plied Pacific waters for 97 years before coming to rest here in 1978, is a colorful introduction to the harbor area. But it is hardly indicative of the river experience ahead.
I joined a group of about 30 travelers on the 104-mile trip to Blossom Bar and back. (Shorter trips are also available for visitors who might not want to brave the upper-river whitewater.) The McNair brothers provided a safety briefing in the ticket-sales area, offering the use of fleece-lined, waterproof jackets to passengers not properly attired.
Then we marched out to the dock. Laird's friendly dog watched as we found seats on seven padded benches within a broad, 12-foot beam.
We had plenty of observers as we powered out into the tidal estuary. Cormorants spread their wings atop each piling in the water. Harbor seals followed us under the historic Patterson Bridge, which was considered the most advanced concrete bridge in America when it was built by noted designer Conde McCullough in 1932. Scores of swallows swooped from nests built beneath the structure.
A mated pair of bald eagles roosted in a large cottonwood tree on the riverbank, as a herd of Guernsey cattle grazed beneath. Laird, a keen-eyed observer of wildlife, pointed out a beaver lodge at Cannery Riffle, site of a former salmon cannery at the upper limit of tidal inflow.
A little farther upstream, he spotted a Columbia black-tailed doe and her two spotted fawns near the river's bank. Despite speeds averaging more than 30 mph, Laird always looked for animals, slowing or stopping to share the sights with passengers.
About six miles above the Patterson Bridge, on the north side of the Rogue, Laird indicated the rustically elegant Tu Tu' Tun Lodge. Taking its name from the native Tututni Indians, the original residents of the lower Rogue River region, the Tu Tu' Tun has been acclaimed as one of the finest hotels in North America since opening in 1970.
Nearby, teepees rose on the grounds of an RV park and resort. As we wove through a fleet of private fishing boats — one angler proudly held up a weighty chinook he had caught that morning — Laird pointed to undeveloped, forested acreage that he said was owned by Pete Sampras. The retired tennis star's wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, was born and raised in Gold Beach, moving to Hollywood after winning a Miss Teen USA contest in 1990.
Another celebrity resident of the Gold Beach area, Laird said, is 93-year-old Bobby Doerr. As we passed, he pointed out the remote home of the Baseball Hall of Fame second baseman, a former Boston Red Sox teammate of the great Ted Williams.
Wild and scenic
Perhaps it should have been no surprise that celebrity athletes like Sampras and Doerr would find refuge on the Rogue River. More than 200 miles long, the Rogue was one of the eight original streams designated as “wild and scenic” in a congressional act in 1968. That list has now grown to 156 rivers in 42 states, but the Rogue remains unique.
The river rises near Crater Lake, pours through a narrow gorge above Union Creek, drifts gently past Medford and through Grants Pass, then enters rugged landscape along the northern edge of the Siskiyou Mountains. Two years ago, I rafted 45 miles of wilderness below Grants Pass; the jet-boat excursion provided the final link to the Pacific.
We stopped twice — once for a rest stop, once for lunch at the Cougar Lane Lodge — in remote Agness, where the temperature was a good 10 degrees warmer than it had been amid the misty sea breezes of the coast.
The river divides the hamlet in two; a paved road from Gold Beach, which follows the south bank of the Rogue, was linked by bridge to the north bank (with its historic post office) only in 1962. A rough gravel road continues north from here 35 miles to the logging village of Powers, itself linked to Coos Bay and Roseburg.
Just above the Agness bridge, the Rogue is joined by the Illinois River, a wild and scenic stream in its own right. A little farther, we passed Foster Creek, the usual takeout point for whitewater rafting trips. Then we moved into the Wild Rogue Wilderness.
Suddenly, we were dodging giant boulders and sweeping past brush-covered islands. Each time that it appeared we might have a perilous collision, Laird swung the boat sharply to the left or right. A beautiful double waterfall tumbled from one rocky canyon wall just before we reached Blossom Bar, named for the wild azaleas that flourish above the riverside rocks.
But although its name suggests serenity, Blossom Bar is the most hazardous of any Rogue rapid. Jet boats cannot penetrate its rocky picket fence. After a quick look, we turned around to run the Devils Staircase.
It went against common logic, but the 345-foot elevation gain between Gold Beach and Blossom Bar wasn't half as thrilling as the descent of Devil's Staircase. “There may be a little bump here,” Laird said, as he navigated the hellish cataract. Sixty seconds later, there wasn't a single person aboard the boat who wasn't drenched from head to toe.
But the 70-degree warmth of the spring day, coupled with the drying effect of the boat's velocity, quickly flushed the moisture from our skin and clothes. And our afternoon return to Gold Beach, following our lunch stop, was a delightful run. We even saw four black bears on three different sightings.
All smiles, we were back in Gold Beach by about 4 p.m. And after a stop at the Jerry's Rogue Jets museum and gift shop, across the parking lot from the ticket building, we were ready to return to our hotels to relax before dinner.
Tu Tu' Tun Lodge
I split my two nights of lodging between two inns.
Having heard much about the Tu Tu' Tun, I splurged to stay there on my first night in Gold Beach. It isn't cheap — from now until mid-October, prices begin at $255 per night, not including a $67.50-per-guest meal package — but it delivers top-end service, comfort and luxury in a location where that might be considered hard to come by.
Pronounced “Two Tootin',” the riverside lodge has 16 beautiful rooms and suites along with three private houses. Most of the rooms have private patios or balconies and wood-burning fireplaces; some also have outdoor soaking tubs.
Guests get acquainted daily at an early-evening hors d'oeuvres reception in the main lodge building. Immediately after, gourmet meals are served family-style. The main entree on my visit was a baked sturgeon that could have been pulled from the waters of the Rogue itself. Breakfast, meanwhile, may be delivered to your room on request.
From my room, I could see deer wandering the grounds of the lodge, walking around the edge of a fenced herb-and-vegetable garden and across a six-hole, pitch-and-putt golf course. Kayaks are available for river play, and a heated lap pool invites serious swimmers. There's also a private cabana where spa treatments may be arranged.
Following a change of ownership to Kyle Ringer in 2009, the cedar-planked hotel remains a destination for visitors from around the world. A member of the Unique Inns hotel group, it is annually ranked by Condé Nast Traveler magazine among the “World's Top 25 Small Hotels.”
In Gold Beach
Wanting to explore the little town of Gold Beach, I also spent a night after jet-boating at the Pacific Reef Resort, a delightful in-town property with a back-door trail that leads just a couple of hundred yards through bunchgrass to a Pacific beach.
Modestly priced — especially compared to the Tu Tu' Tun — this “resort” offers a choice between motel rooms and two-story condominium rentals by the side of U.S. Highway 101.
The condos have full kitchens, and the hotel owners are about to open a renovated restaurant next door to the property.
Besides jet-boating, the town offers horseback rides on the beach, nature walks in old-growth cedar and myrtle forests, and a well-organized historical museum.
And I found a couple of intriguing restaurants. The Barnacle Bistro is a casual cafe with good sandwiches and a couple of nightly gourmet specials. Anna's by the Sea Wine Bistro is a quirky off-the-highway spot with European wines and preparations its owner-chef designates “Nouvelle Canadian Prairie Cuisine.”
I'm not sure what that means. But I'm quite certain it didn't include Rogue River bear.