On the Water, and Off, the Rogue River in Oregon Charms

Posted May 22, 2018 3:39 p.m. EDT

“They say the river has eyes, and it does,” said my guide, Howard Binney, a 59-year-old retired firefighter who started fishing Southern Oregon’s Rogue River “system,” as he calls it, with his grandfather when he was 12. “I’ve seen bear cross the river, mountain lions in the trees. I’ve seen eagles and osprey pull fish out of the water. It’s a beautiful, mysterious place.”

It was early April and the temperature would hit 74, but the water was still too cold to get in without a wet suit. So instead, we floated down a tranquil section of the Rogue in Binney’s flat-bottomed aluminum fishing boat. The Rogue, which runs for about 215 miles from the High Cascades to the Pacific, was one of the original eight waterways designated for federal protection under the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Binney, who wore waterproof black overalls and a tan cap with a sun-protective flap that hung over his neck like a fabric mullet, manned two wooden oars. The roe he used to bait his hooks came from salmon he had caught, and then cured at home.

In the several hours that we had been on the water, I’d seen Canada geese, flocks of resident (as opposed to migratory) ducks, a single osprey and wild horses grazing along the bank. The trout and salmon we had come seeking, though, seemed to be nowhere around.

Even the “bank fishermen” we passed wading waist-deep just offshore in rubber overalls (including a Marine from Florida with huge biceps and a backward baseball cap) weren’t getting any bites. “Slow day, huh?” said Binney, in commiseration.

Not too long ago, lack of fish was a real ecological cause for concern. But the reason I’d come to the Rogue is precisely because it’s thriving. Over the past 10 years, environmentalists have fought to remove nearly every dam on the river and its tributaries that had been blocking the paths of salmon and steelhead trying to migrate to their spawning grounds. Nature has regained control. It’s a remarkable thing to behold, a river flowing free.

The Joys of the Off-Season

Visiting in April meant I was missing the Rogue’s main summer draws: white water rafting, swimming and Hellgate Jetboat Excursions, which do screamingly fast trips through Hellgate Canyon and weren’t operating when I was there. It also meant that Binney and I got an incredibly peaceful float, just the mayflies and us.

The charming log cabin hotel, the Weasku Inn, where I stayed — in a room frequented by Clark Gable, a fishing enthusiast — turned out to be a terrific resource. (Other Weasku fans: Walt Disney, Bing Crosby and Herbert Hoover.) The hotel led me to my $200 half-day trip with Binney, who typically charges $400 for two people for eight hours, all equipment provided. We also had to pick up a one-day out-of-state fishing license for around $20 from U-Save Gas & Tackle, run by another experienced river guide, Troy Whitaker. Three-day whitewater adventures that hop from inn to inn are popular, too; they just wouldn’t have worked for this trip.

Word to the Wine

Most of my fellow guests at the Weasku were older couples from Northern California or Washington who had come to explore the excellent Applegate Wine Valley Trail. The Weasku offers a $25 self-guided Discover Oregon tour, which comes with two wine glasses that serve as your entry ticket to tastings at 13 wineries in Southern Oregon, any time that season. Since I was driving, I opted for a single stop, at Del Rio Vineyards & Winery, one of the largest in Southern Oregon — and the closest.

I’m like Thomas Haden Church’s cheerfully indifferent character in “Sideways” — most wine tastes pretty good to me. But halfway into the $10 tasting, I was certain Del Rio’s wines were more than good. All became clear once I met one of the winemakers, Aurélien Labrosse. He’s from Burgundy (the head winemaker is from the Loire Valley), came for what he thought would be a six-month stint, and then stayed for six years. Why? “Because it’s awesome,” he said. “Beautiful place, beautiful wine.” Je suis d’accord.

Timing Is Everything

Night owls, be warned; nearly every winery and store closed at 5 p.m. And restaurants in Grants Pass, the small city closest to the hotel, stopped serving at 10 p.m., and often earlier. I pretty much lived off the free happy hour appetizers at the Weasku.

When you do eat, though, make sure it involves blue cheese. Rogue Creamery has won awards for that moldy goodness, and a farm stand on its dairy in Grants Pass served a grilled cheese sandwich made of Oregon blue cheese, a type of mild Cheddar called TouVelle, and honey, on locally-made white bread basted with grape seed oil, that I’d commemorate in song if I could. Bonus: You can stop by the barn next door to thank the cows for their service. (Sandwiches are available at the dairy, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Its cheese shop in Medford has it seven days a week, as well as pre-assembled packages to make them at home.)

Even more indelible was Jasper’s Café in Medford, a roadside burger joint near the airport. The menu features bison, elk, kangaroo, camel, boar, New Zealand Axis deer and two types of beef. But with the help of a tall man in a cowboy hat — who turned out to be the owner, John Lenz — I had the greatest veggie burger of my life. It was a moist black bean patty topped with blue cheese, grilled onions and garlic aioli. I craved it every day I was in Oregon — and was nearly late to my flight getting another one on the way out. — Day Trip for the Intrepid

Here’s an existential travel question: If you were pressed for time, but one of the natural wonders of the United States was a five-hour round trip drive away, would you be able to resist?

Ever since I’d arrived in Oregon I’d heard the refrain, “You have to see Crater Lake.” It’s a national park housing the deepest lake in the country, and arguably the most pristine in the world, high in the collapsed caldera of an inactive volcano in the Cascades. More doable excursions were everywhere: a short hike up Upper Table Rock Trail; a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, 30 minutes away; a visit to the optical illusions of The Oregon Vortex. And still Crater Lake called out like a siren. Finally, on my last day, I went for it, despite video from a webcam that showed it was snowing.

Up the mountains I drove, to a lookout over Rogue Gorge, where the Upper Rogue River rages through narrow walls of lava. Cold, crystalline flakes pelted my face. But Google Maps told me Crater Lake was only 9.2 miles away.

Then my cell signal went out. I spent an hour inching my way up slippery roads, through snow only a few other cars appeared to have driven on, until I finally reached the Crater Lake entrance — which was closed. On my way back, I spotted a sign I’d missed at a junction near Rogue Gorge that said just that. Much farther down the mountain, I treated myself to a short, snow-free, moss-filled hike to see Mill Creek Falls off Highway 62. I’d happily take much of that drive again; it was gorgeous. But I would also believe the webcam.