Northwest Travel

Northwest Travel: McKenzie River

Fishing and exploring on a journey down Highway 126

John Gottberg Anderson • For / The Bulletin

VIDA — I cast my line into slowly moving water at the edge of a riffle and watched as my Renegade, a colorful dry fly, drifted across its surface.

As my guide and oarsman, Randy Dersham, gently turned the boat into the swirling McKenzie River current, my fly dodged slightly, then disappeared beneath the water.

The Renegade had not gone unnoticed to denizens of the stream. A young rainbow trout, perhaps mistaking it for an autumn caddis-fly hatch, had taken the dry fly in its mouth — and impaled its lip on the barbed hook.

A brief struggle ensued. The fish tried to dive deeper into the river, but I kept my line taut, allowing the trout no choice but to swim in the direction of the boat. In short order, I pulled my catch from the McKenzie.

A clipped dorsal fin made it clear that this was not a native fish, but one that had been released by a nearby hatchery. Had I so chosen, I could have made a meal of it. But fortunately for the trout, it was neither large — at roughly 10 inches, it was hardly worth cooking — nor badly hooked. I removed the fly from its lip and returned it to the river.

By the time my afternoon of fishing had ended, however, I had four “keepers,” more than enough for a trout dinner for two. More importantly, I had enjoyed several relaxing hours drifting between the golden autumn leaves on trees that lined one of the most beautiful waterways in Oregon. And I was only a couple of hours' drive from my home in Bend.

The Upper McKenzie

Fed primarily by snowmelt trickling through subterranean streams, the McKenzie River begins not far from Santiam Junction in Clear Lake, then flows about 90 miles to join the larger Willamette River at Springfield. Although state Highway 126 is never more than a few miles from the river's banks, the stream is one of the most pristine in the Pacific Northwest, partly because there is no major industry or population center along its course. In fact, it is the sole source of drinking water for Eugene and Springfield.

Including the South Fork of the McKenzie — which rises on the western flank of the Three Sisters Wilderness and flows 30 miles through Cougar Reservoir to join the main stream between the communities of McKenzie Bridge and Blue River — the watershed covers about 1,300 square miles, roughly the area of Rhode Island.

The McKenzie is truly wild and scenic in its upper reaches. Clear Lake, which sits at 3,000 feet elevation at the foot of the Mount Washington Wilderness, sets the tone. So pure and cold are its waters, never much above the freezing mark, that adventuresome divers have discovered a stand of well-preserved, 3,000-year-old trees submerged in 100 feet of water.

From the boat dock of a small resort at the lake's midpoint, I could easily see the lake's white sandy bottom, perhaps 15 feet below. The still waters reflected the evergreen forest around its shores; only a family of ducks broke the glass-like calm of the surface.

Had it been summer and had I been on foot or astride a mountain bike, I might have begun a downriver trek from this point. The 26-mile McKenzie River National Recreation Trail begins here, at the river's headwaters, and runs down the west side of the river — away from the highway — to just beyond McKenzie Bridge. En route, it skirts sections of the river not accessible by road, notably the Blue Pool.

I have never seen the Blue Pool. I've only heard stories. Below the Carmen Diversion Reservoir, I'm told, the McKenzie River re-emerges from an underground channel into a stunning, turquoise-colored pool. During rainy seasons, it is fed by a 70-foot punchbowl falls, Tamolitch Falls. Hikers report the swim as “very chilly,” which I imagine is an understatement.

Above Carmen Reservoir, two other waterfalls are popular and worthy roadside attractions, requiring very short walks from small parking areas. Sahalie Falls is a powerful 120-foot cataract. Segmented Koosah Falls, with a 90-foot drop, appears somewhat more delicate.

Native red-band trout, bull trout and Chinook salmon breed as far upriver as Trail Bridge Reservoir, below the Blue Pool. A handful of picnic areas and campgrounds have been built along this section of river, above and below Belknap Hot Springs Resort.

There is ample evidence that Native Americans knew these springs 8,000 years ago. They were developed as a pioneer resort in the 1870s. Pouring from the earth at 60 gallons per minute, the spring waters measure about 190 degrees Fahrenheit — quite a contrast from the 48-degree temperature of the adjacent river. Rich in iron, calcium, potassium chloride and lithium, the springs feed two pools (greatly cooled for bathers) and provide heat for the guest lodge.

Just past Belknap, the old McKenzie Pass Highway — state Highway 242, open seasonally (now closed) — begins its switch-backing climb over the Cascade Range to Sisters.

Sportsmen's holiday

Although the middle section of the McKenzie technically begins a few miles downstream — where the South Fork and picturesque Blue River pour into the McKenzie a couple of miles from one another — it's at McKenzie Bridge, the easternmost community on the McKenzie River Highway (state Highway 126), that the river leaves Willamette National Forest and enters the residential belt.

A large national-forest ranger station at the east end of town is well worth a stop. In addition to maps and other information, there are exhibits on logging and mining history in the region, as well as a model of the McKenzie River drainage. The river, incidentally, is named for Donald Mackenzie, a Scottish-Canadian adventurer who was employed in the fur trade with John Jacob Astor.

McKenzie Bridge offers travelers an old-time general store and several lovely lodging options, of which my favorite is the Inn at the Bridge. Ten modern log cabins have been built on the former site of the historic Log Cabin Inn, which burned down in 2006. The main office building combines a cafe and espresso bar with a quaint gift shop.

The scenic Aufderheide Drive, which courses past Cougar Reservoir and through the national forest for 58 miles to Westfir and Oakridge, branches south off the highway four miles west of McKenzie Bridge. Just beyond is the unincorporated community of Rainbow. Its best-known business, the rustic Holiday Farm Resort, has the area's finest restaurant and lounge nestled amidst tall Douglas firs.

Nearby, on the main highway, is Harbick's Country Store. Kail and Darin Harbick have built a local business empire that includes a Shell gas station, a restaurant (Takoda's, next door) and a motel (Harbick's Country Inn, across the highway). They also own the Holiday Farm.

Holidays are big around here. Down the road, standing all by itself at the foot of a giant (and well-lit!) fir tree, is the quirky Christmas Treasures. The store is open year-round, but it is particularly busy in this season. Two rooms, packed with all manner of yuletide ornaments and other seasonal treasures, draw throngs of curious visitors in November and December.

You can also buy your Christmas tree and decorate your home with fresh holly purchased from businesses further along this highway. For three generations, the Spring Creek Holly Farm has been providing cut holly as well as trees to regular family customers. Other U-cut tree farms cater mainly to Eugene-Springfield patrons, as well.

One attraction that closes during the winter is the Tokatee Golf Club. Rated among Oregon's finest links, the 18-hole course is best remembered for the spectacular views of the Three Sisters from many of its fairways. It will reopen in spring.

Nearby is the United States Basketball Academy, its 46-acre grounds an unlikely location for a year-round training facility. Founded in 1997, it has extensive athletic facilities for American and international players alike.

But although the Blue River area is an hour's drive from the University of Oregon, sports achievement is not unknown. In September, in fact, McKenzie River High School quarterback Will Totten set a national high-school record by throwing 11 touchdown passes in a single game. Lowell High School wound up on the losing end of an 88-80 score.

Famous drift boats

Were you traveling this highway between late April and October 31, you might have noticed the river populated with unusual drift boats. In fact, the McKenzie River drift boat is unique in the world.

Designed with a wide, flat bottom for low draft and a high, narrow bow, it features a continuous rocker — a bow-to-stern arc along the bottom of the boat — that gives the dory high maneuverability in rapids. First developed by local fishing guides Veltie Pruitt and Prince Helfrich in the late 1920s, it appears to the uninitiated that it is rowed backwards because the oarsman faces downstream.

The boat's design was tweaked several times in subsequent decades as it was adapted for use in fast-moving rivers around the globe. Today's standard design is credited to woodworker Greg Tatman, who has been fashioning drift boats from cedar and fir since 1982. The Tatman Wooden Boats shop still stands beside the McKenzie Highway in the Eagle Rock area, between the Goodpasture Covered Bridge and the village of Vida.

Almost directly across the road is the Eagle Rock Lodge, owned by former Bend residents Randy and Debbie Dersham. I spent two nights here, in a handsomely appointed room with a view of the river across a broad lawn, and enjoyed two hearty breakfasts.

Randy, a registered guide with the McKenzie River Guides Association, was delighted to take me out on the river in his own McKenzie River drift boat. Because the main fishing season on this section of river — above the Leaburg Dam — closes at the end of October, we had to load the boat onto a trailer and drive downriver several miles to put in.

We floated slowly, covering only a few miles between the Greenwood and Deerhorn launch sites during our 4 1/2 hours on the river. The weather was pleasant for the season — broken clouds and temperatures in the 50s — and we enjoyed conversation about the McKenzie fisherman's life.

My companion recalled that years earlier, when he was growing up near Eugene, he had enjoyed the annual Whitewater Parade. The popular event began in 1938, but after three decades, it drew crowds so large and unruly that it had to be cancelled.

The next best thing, he said, is the McKenzie River Wooden Boat Festival, which was started in 2006. Held at the start of the fishing season in late April, the event takes place on the lawn of Dersham's Eagle Rock Lodge as a benefit for the McKenzie River Guides Association. Needless to say, perhaps, he's a big fan of the hand-crafted drift boats.

As a guide, Randy took it upon himself to row the boat as I cast my flies. He had four rods rigged for me — one with the Renegade dry fly; one with a larger nymph, representing a caddis larva; one with a double “hopper-dropper” of two different weights; and one designed for steelhead. We had the most success with the Renegade and the “hopper-dropper.”

“There are a lot of different regulations for fishing on this river,” Dersham said. “Below the Leaburg Dam as far as Hayden Bridge in Springfield, you can fish year-round. You limit out when you take five fish, and there's no minimum size. But there are so many special laws, you need to make sure you know the rules when you get your license.”