Below the surface of the most serene spots on the Deschutes River, logs can can shift, currents are swift and hundreds of lava tubes are sprinkled throughout the volcanic geography of the river.
”Every day in the summer people without the proper equipment and experience are narrowly escaping tragedy on the Deschutes River,” said Steve Liebig, general manager of Sun Country Tours in Bend. ”If you have the skills and the equipment, or guidance, all parts of the Deschutes are reasonable. If you lack either one of those things, all of the Deschutes River is hazardous.”
The drowning last weekend of 20-year-old Jay Rowan, a University of Oregon student from Redmond, was a tragic reminder of the river's danger.
Rowan, a swimming champion in high school, died Saturday when he tumbled over Awbrey Falls while tubing with a friend. Deschutes County Search and Rescue divers found his body about 30 feet inside a lava tube beneath the water. His male companion was uninjured.
Divers who recovered Rowan's body told Tom Wells, assistant search and rescue coordinator, that Rowan was the third drowning victim recovered from a lava tube in their 20 years on the job. At one time, lava pumped through the tubes, said Chris Sabo, a Deschutes National Forest wilderness and trails specialist.
Once the eruptions subsided, the tubes drained, leaving behind some spaces that a person can barely squeeze through, or not at all. The tubes, coupled with a strong undertow, can be a deadly trap.
”When you're dealing with a river, you're dealing with a moving current and unseen obstacles below,” Sabo said.
The Deschutes River meanders 87.4 miles from Little Lava Lake to Bend, with releases at Crane Prairie, Wickiup Reservoir and Crescent Lake dams regulating the flow, according to the Forest Service.
River flow has been regulated since 1922.
Still, the Deschutes is a river of contrasts, shifting from Class I to more challenging Class IV rapids within a few hundred yards. Placid stretches often precede yawning falls and big drops.
Wells said search and rescue primarily deals with the upper part of the river, from Bend to the Wickiup Dam.
On average, the search and rescue water team, made up of six volunteer divers, handles about four to five calls a year, he said.
”A lot of times there are others we don't hear about,” he said.
The Deschutes River has been plagued by tragedies over the years. One of the most dramatic occurred in 1993, when two adults drowned and three children were rescued after going over Dillon Falls near Bend.
The inexperienced rafters went over a falls that experts consider nearly impossible to navigate.
In July 2000, a 43-year-old Bend woman died after being thrown from her raft in a run of rapids just upstream from Bend, ending up lodged underwater against the Central Oregon Irrigation District Canal headgate.
Just two weeks ago, three teens from the Portland area who survived a plunge down Lava Island Falls were rescued from a small island in the middle of the rapids.
Problems most often happen when rafters or tubers unfamiliar with the path of the river plow ahead without heeding warning signs, experts say.
”Know what's downstream of you, that's very critical,” Sabo said. ”Scout down the river, know what you're getting into before you float a river. Any doubt, scout it out.”
There are warning signs posted along the river about a quarter mile upstream of most of the falls, said Kent Koeller, a Forest Service recreation technician. Secondary signs, which designate take-out areas for rafters and tubers, follow.
Awbrey Falls, which Rowan fell down, is a Class VI white water, which means only experts should attempt to navigate it, said Darrel Levine, a Bend Fire and Rescue Engineer.
”Stick to the more populated areas close to town,” he said. ”Always, always be with a partner or two. When we talk about rivers and river dynamics, there are a lot of currents you can't see. What you see on the surface of the water is not the whole story.”
So where are safe stretches on the river to plunge in?
”Safe is a relative term,” Sabo said. ”We don't have any designated swimming areas along the river that I'm aware of in the Deschutes National Forest.”
Some of the more popular spots in Bend on the Deschutes River are in McKay Park just downstream from the Colorado Street bridge, and in Drake Park, near the Galveston Avenue bridge. During the peak of summer, dozens of people float, fish and swim in these areas.
Downriver, Tumalo Falls State Park has a couple of inviting swimming spots, said Curtis Smith, assistant area manager of the state park.
Smith said there aren't any designated swim areas in the park, but there is a place called ”Swim Beach,” a slow, deep spot in the river. Downstream from there is a more a shallow area where many parents take their youngsters.
Further downriver is Cline Falls, a popular spot in Redmond, Smith said. The river runs through the state park, and there are a series of pools in a basalt basin just below the Highway 20 bridge.
To the south, La Pine State Park offers up the Deschutes River at its slow-flowing best.
Even well-populated swimming spots in the city limits can be dangerous though, said Andy Jordan, the Bend police chief. He recalled a near drowning in Mirror Pond, right near the Newport Avenue bridge, about a month ago.
A boat with two people who had been drinking alcohol capsized, Jordan said.
”Our river through town looks so nice and quiet, but it's a little bit deceiving for people who aren't familiar with it,” he said.
Caution and common sense can go a long way to prevent accidents on the river, experts say. Don't drink alcohol if you plan to be on or around the river; and know how far ahead major rapids are so you can pull out of the river in time.
And wear your life jacket, Wells said.
”If something happens, you're not going to think to grab it until it's too late,” he said. ”... Ninety percent of the time, if a life jacket were on, people would live.”
Lisa Rosetta can be reached at 541-617-7812 or email@example.com .